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The Poem as Archive:
A Conversation Between Carrie Olivia Adams & Kristina Marie Darling

adamsdarling

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Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she is a book publicist for the University of Chicago Press, the poetry editor for Black Ocean, and a biscuit maker and whiskey drinker. She is the author of Forty-One Jane Doe’s (book and companion DVD, Ahsahta 2013) and Intervening Absence (Ahsahta 2009) as well as the chapbooks Overture in the Key of F (above/ground press 2013) and A Useless Window (Black Ocean 2006).

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of nearly twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, forthcoming). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.

Carrie Olivia Adams’ first book, Intervening Absence, played with ideas of form. Her second book, Forty-One Jane Doe’s, brought the ideas to praxis: she made films in the hopes of creating immersive companions to the cinematic language of the text.

Throughout, Adams’ work has drawn from the language of mathematics, architecture, medicine, and astrophysics in order to create a hybrid voice—one that troubles the line between observation, objective detail, and the intuition of inference. Her forthcoming book, Operating Theater, moves poems to the stage, creating a poem-cum-play in five acts. 

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Kristina Marie Darling:
I’ve always admired your work as a poet, particularly the ways your book projects engage archival material. Your most recent collection, Forty-One Jane Doe’s, draws from source material that ranges from the scientific to the sublime. As the book unfolds, treatises on mathematics, astronomical diagrams, and scientific discoveries inform the poems as much as the speakers’ emotional topographies. I’m fascinated by this tension between subjectivity and clinical language: rhetoric that strives for objectivity. Your work places seemingly impersonal discourses in conversation with emotion, affect, and sentiment. It’s often the archival material you’re working with that gives rise to this tension between registers, and between different types of language. With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about your process working with archival material. What role do non-poetic texts play in your creative process? What does this archival material, this presence of other voices and types of language, make possible within your work?

Carrie Olivia Adams:  I am one who has a whole list of things she would like to be other than a poet—detective, spy, physicist, astronomer, zoologist, forensic pathologist, diplomat. I have a whole list of things I wish I had studied: fewer books on books and more books on the making of the world around me. I am completely drawn to things I know very little about. Math feels almost exotic. And yet, equations, in their logic and language, are syntax, which is the most familiar. I love to diagram sentences. I’m also someone with a day job. I am not an academic or a professor, but working in university publishing allows me the chance to brush against ideas, to glean new knowledge in tiny pebbles that I stick in my pockets. Many years ago, when I was at the University of Chicago Press, my cubicle was near the offices of journals of astrophysics, and so when it was quiet I would read what I could, pocketing phrases and ideas.

And so began some of the earliest poems that attempted to incorporate disciplines that were not my own. I wanted very much to get out of my head, out of my very solipsistic skin. And I have often, for reasons both good and very bad, not frequently read a lot of contemporary poetry. Instead, I’ve sunk myself into the very opposite of what I do—indulging in thick, intricate novels and attempting to understand visual perspective through the diction of film angles. I have wanted to write poems that could have dialogues with ideas or modes of expression other than just other poems.

And I want to write poems to someone other than myself. I want poems to be a form of empathy. I don’t want my poems to recount my memories to myself in a dark room. I want them to be something other than me. Though they begin here, I want them to go out and inhabit other bodies and feel other lives. I want the reader to find them to be a companion. And like the best of friends, they listen. Incorporating archival material and found text allows me the best chance to listen—to not speak over, but to get inside and understand. This is perhaps part of the play between the subjective and the objective that you noticde in some of the poems, an intricacy that allows them to both report and question. I hope it’s a place where even things that sound like fact, still have a feeling.

One thing in particular, among many, that I think our work shares in common is an interest in the structures of how information is shared—how both an apprehension and a natural mistrust of the structures used to convey it. I’m thinking specifically of the deconstructive elements of Correspondence, which offer footnotes, appendices, an index, and a glossary as a substitute for a narrative. It opens, in fact, immediately with a subplot,without us ever knowing the plot. These trappings of formal structure like indexes and notes and glossaries are usually used with a voice of authority. But when used alone, that notion is completely undercut. I’m curious about what continues to draw you to these formal forms of organization and the ellipsis of text they imply.

Kristina Marie Darling: I’ve always been intrigued (and troubled) by the hierarchies that we tend to impose upon language. And I’ve always admired the way your work blurs not only textual boundaries, but also the barriers we create between artistic disciplines. I really enjoyed the companion DVD. of original films that accompanies Forty-One Jane Doe’s, and would love to hear more about how you envision the relationship between poetic language and the language of cinema. What does film make possible within your artistic practice?

Carrie Olivia Adams: I originally began to experiment with film during a time when I felt completely overwhelmed by language. I’ve never been an incredibly visual person; in fact, I often feel very spatially impaired. I’m tactile. I hardly ever drive a car because trying to move a body of matter outside myself through physical space is a challenge—how long am I, how wide am I, what space can I take up. In contrast, I love riding my bike because at any moment, I can always put my feet on the ground. Which is all to say that I cannot visualize anything or hold a picture in my mind. I think that I can only recall what specific places in my life look like when I am not in them, because of associations and stories I have made or told about the place. My visual memory is a narrative memory. For many years, I even dreamed mostly in words. Sometimes sentences would fall on me like thin sheets of cotton bunting (the dreams had a texture, if not an image). Last night, I was chasing around a name in my dream; I kept trying to solve it like a puzzle. In my sleep, I wasn’t inhabiting any particular place, but a word kept scratching at me like an intuitive question.

I turned to the camera as a substitute for my weak mind. Here was something that could be an extension of my eye and frame and hold a picture in a way my imagination never could. I started making films about a decade ago, before people were really talking about poem-films. An element was missing from my work, so I went on a quest for vision. Film aided me as a writer to return to and revisit a scene that I otherwise might have lost. New details, new angles, new shadows became apparent to me. My camera conjured what I could not alone.

At the same time, it created another layer of collaboration between me and the reader/viewer. I could offer a companion to the text—not a straightforward retelling or a parallel experience, but a dialogue with the poem. And through this my hope was that the poems would further open out and invite in the audience. I wanted to not only share a world, but to create something more it could envelop.

I think we both have an interest in the architecture of a project. Neither of us creates truly stand-alone poems that are single objects on a page, but we think more along the lines of the sequence and the series, the book as concept and as structure. I’d love to know how that interest in form developed for you, and how you approach and plan a given project. To what extent is the structure an organic outgrowth of the writing process or a formal, strategic foundation already set in place before most of the text has come together?

Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question. I think that the sequence, or the book-length poem, opens up a wide range of possibilities for the type of readerly engagement that you describe. When the reader is asked to forge connections between different elements of a book-length project (different literary forms perhaps, or even images and work in other mediums), the text becomes a collaboration between the poet and her audience, allowing them to participate in the process of creating meaning from the work.

For me, the book-length project represents not only a collaboration between the poet and a potential reader, but also, a dialogue between parts of the self or different parts of consciousness. What’s especially intriguing about poem-as-project is that it allows the writer to create juxtapositions (between different forms, voices, and mediums) that are often not possible within the space of a shorter, stand-alone piece. Each of these different modes of representing experience allows for a different way of thinking, a new way of perceiving and processing the world around me. The book-length project allows these various ways of thinking, and vastly different ways of being in the world, to illuminate and complicate one another.

Because the book-length project is a collaborative process, one that affords an opportunity for spontaneity and experimentation, I try not to plan the book beforehand. There are certainly poets who build their books around a given concept. But for me, this forecloses possibilities for dialogue to unfold, and to carry me places I wouldn’t expect it to. I try to allow myself to discover the structure of the project as I create it, to allow order and coherence to emerge from within the work itself.

I think that my investment in the poem-as-book-length-sequence is part of the reason I’m so drawn to your work. I appreciate the fact that your work juxtaposes artistic mediums, and also wildly different archival texts, allowing the extended sequence to become a space for dialogue. And the reader is invited into that conversation as well. The poet becomes, in many ways, a curator of voices and literary forms, the poem a conversation that crosses boundaries between forms, mediums, and individual pieces.

With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about how your role as an editor and curator informs your creative work. Black Ocean presents a unified catalogue of individual collections, but each voice, each text, adds something new to the existing conversation. To what extent is the process of editing a literary press, and building a concise, unified catalogue, similar to constructing a book-length project? How has your practice as an editor opened up new possibilities for your creative work?

Carrie Olivia Adams: That’s such an interesting question. I’ve never thought of Black Ocean’s list as being similar as a way of shaping a larger project, but I think you’ve hit upon something. It’s true that we have a very unified voice or aesthetic across the book list—all of the authors have distinct approaches, and yet there is something very recognizable that makes a book a “Black Ocean book.” And I’m really pleased we’ve been able to achieve that, especially given that the editorial process is extremely collaborative and democratic. Black Ocean publisher Janaka Stucky and I have always worked really closely together to choose books that thrive in the middle space where our fascinations and curiosities overlap. There are definitely poets that I would love to publish, whose work I greatly admire, that will probably never be a part of the Black Ocean catalog because their work falls too far on my side of the aesthetic spectrum. And the same, I’m sure, is true for Janaka. Together, we hope to find and publish poetry collections that excite us both and tap into our individual hopes for what poems can do. And it means that I often publish poets who are engaged in projects completely unlike my own, but that intrigue me because of their difference. The middle ground between us has become a very fertile place that has allowed us to cultivate the Black Ocean aesthetic while challenging our own.

Most of the books that we publish are very closely edited by me in dialogue with the author and Janaka. But I usually wade into the thick of it first, concerned as much with the minutiae as the overall structure. My hope is to get as close to the poems as possible—to understand what their underlying mode of narration, structure, communication, tone, form, etc. is and how to make that clear and consistent across the work. In many ways, the poems should subtly, intuitively guide the reader in how to read them. Each collection has an accent, a dialect, a syntax that is its own; and, my goal is to make this breadcrumb trail available to the reader.

This editorial sensibility is impossible to suppress when working on my poems—which is as helpful as it is detrimental at times. I am the worst at silencing myself. Which is why I often don’t write at all when I am in the midst of editing a work or reading our open submissions. I have to compartmentalize the lives if I am ever going to keep working on my poems, and the only way I’ve found to do that is with the distance of time. There are seasons of the year for writing and there are seasons for sitting quiet.

With Black Ocean, I just finished editing Feng Sun Chen’s second book, which is currently still in search of a final title. When I think of a work that’s a perfect example of something that’s so far away from my own, and that I find incredibly fascinating and invigorating as an author, it’s Feng’s. Her work is messy and visceral and loud and unashamed—as much as my own has the neat-as-a-pin precision of an old maid. But this is what makes her so interesting to edit—to let go and be absorbed into a little bit of chaos. Personally, I am working very slowly on a long project called Daughter of a Tree Farm, which began as an erasure of a memoir of Sofiya Tolstoy. Just like many of my previous sequences, the work blurs the lines between the borrowed text and my own words. It’s been on pause for a few months while I’ve been reading for Black Ocean, and I think that I cannot turn back to it entirely until I read the newly published The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, which translates (for the first time into English) Sofiya’s story that she wrote in response to the The Kreutzer Sonata. In it, she reverses the perspective and tells the story from the wife’s point of view. Exploring her mind and voice a little further seems like a necessary tool to the sympathy of the erasure.

 

Potts
Potts

From the recently published collection, Trickster (University of Iowa Press), Randall Potts offers some uncanny arithmetic.

Math

I put 0 and 0 together
And arrived at nothing.
Nothing was accomplished.
I had done it perfectly.
I made 0 disappear into 0.
I made sure nothing was left.
There was no doubt of it.Next, I made 2 into two.
It was easy: numbers are words.
I made sure nothing was left.
I made sure nothing was said.
I made sure nothing was written
It was getting complicated.My thumb was black with ink.
So, everything I touched became
itself plus me.
Every addition complicated it.
Every mark was a number.
Every number mocked.

I settled on the number one.
I refused all manner of addition.
I was careful to touch nothing.
That’s impossible,” someone said.
I knew someone was right.

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Randall Potts is the author of Trickster, published this fall by the University of Iowa Press, Kuhl House poetry series. His previous collection of poems, Collision Center was published by O Books in 1994. His chapbook, Recant: (A Revision) was published by Leave Books in 1994.

He attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has taught creative writing at the graduate and undergraduate levels at the University of San Francisco and California College of the Arts. He lives in Berkeley, California.

For more information on Trickster, visit: http://www.uiowapress.org/books/2014-fall/trickster.htm.

Dubrow

 Photo credit: Cedric Terrell

 

Casualty Notification

            The Only News I know / Is Bulletins all Day / From Immortality.

            – Emily Dickinson

 

Switch channels, stop

the breaking news,

press mute to hush

the anchorman’s reviews

of war, his litany

of each device

and bomb gone off today.

Silence the price

of bread or medicare

or gasoline.

Make the black pinpoint

on the TV screen.

Unplug the blackbox

from the mouth of the wall.

Uncradle the phone so

nobody can call.

Let the venetian blinds

blind everyone

to what’s outside—the dead,

indifferent sun,

the car pulled up along

the curb, the vexed

men in uniforms

looking for next

of kin. They bring a check

to pay the cost

of grieving. Their dark sedan

puffs out exhaust.

And now, the only sound

a daybird singing,

the only bulletin

a doorbell ringing.

 

Previously appeared in West Branch (issue 74, Spring 2014)

 

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Jehanne Dubrow is the author of four poetry collections, including Red Army Red and Stateside (Northwestern University Press, 2012 and 2010), and is the co-editor of The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume (Literary House Press, 2014). In 2015, University of New Mexico Press will publish her fifth book, The Arranged Marriage. Her work has appeared in Southern Review, The New England Review, and Prairie Schooner. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an Associate Professor of creative writing at Washington College, where she edits the national literary journal, Cherry Tree.

 

 

Kenny- Lightness-Back Flap-Photo

NOTE: Adele and I started this interview a while back and I never had the chance to post it. Some of the elements refer to her book What Matters as a recent publication.

MT: I first want to comment on what I see as the arc of this collection, What Matters. Memory, in this book, seems like a kind of sacrament: memorializing literally makes real by nature of the act. I’m thinking especially of the line “language…larger than / logic” (“The Sap Bush”). (I’ve chopped that line up, but it seemed so evocative to me that I couldn’t bypass it.) The first section fulfills and meditates on this traditional task of the poet. Then the second section puts that function into crisis—the poet dies (or rather confronts the possibility of her own death). The crisis is (I think), if the memorializer dies, how do those that the poet loves (including herself) continue to exist? This crisis gives birth to the third section, which affirms “We Don’t Forget,” but is admittedly much more subdued (chastened?) in its memorializing. Would you agree with this characterization?

AK: I love that poetry allows for different interpretations of meaning. Your “take” on What Matters is compelling (and I love where you’ve gone with it), but it’s rather different from my own. Memory as the “arc” (or perhaps “ark”) of it all wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Memory does play a role in the “story” (and, yes, the book does tell at least part of a story), but memory in the book’s context isn’t quite what “memorializing” suggests to me. I agree with you that remembering is one of the poet’s tasks. A contemporary poet (I think it was Gerald Stern) once said, “It’s the poet’s job to remember.” Getting back to “memorializing”—I’ve always thought that when we memorialize, we honor the dead (you, know, preserve their memory)—What Matters is a book about survival. Most importantly, it’s a book about the human spirit. It focuses on the fact that we’re all survivors of something: fear, grief, illness, the losses of loved ones. Individual details may be different, but we’re all survivors.

The poems in the first section look at the past and how, even if only peripherally, we are who we were. Those poems set up for section two, which deals with my own breast cancer experience—a confrontation with mortality during which I often “went” to the past, a safe place when nothing else in my life was safe, a place that reminded me what living was about and buttressed the contents of my survival toolbox. The poems in section two are about the conditions of survival—how we meet them and what they cost us. You’re spot on about the second section giving birth to the third, which looks at life as it is and the ways in which the human spirit remembers how to live. There was a definite before, during, and after sensibility when I arranged the poems. You mention  “We Don’t Forget,” did you notice that the last word in that poem (the last poem in the collection) is “rejoice?” That wasn’t by accident.

MT: It’s interesting that you use the word “survival” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking about memorializing—only I was thinking about it in terms of helping others into the world, helping them survive their own passing. For me, one of the pleasures of this collection was that it evoked what poetry does so clearly—poetry remembers and, building on the word ‘rejoice,’ celebrates—so it’s really enriching for me as a reader (and poet) to see your own survival and the role these poems played in it. I did notice “rejoice,” but I hadn’t thought about it in the context of the whole book—joy and rejoicing as, in the end, “What matters” or what “We don’t forget” how to do. I see pretty clearly how remembering related to your “survival toolbox,” but can you elaborate more “rejoicing” and its role in your own survival story?

AK: Thanks for your kind words, Micah. It’s so important for poetry to leave enough gaps and silences for readers to fill in the blanks. I hoped that What Matters would offer a message of encouragement and hope while giving readers room to map out their own places in the poems.

No form of survival is ever a “sudden epiphany.” Survival is a slow process, a measured progression that requires nearly impossible determination (read “understatement” here). It’s definitely a spiritual journey—sounds kind of trite, but this trip we call life is about spirit.

For me, and I suspect for many, gratitude is a necessary part of the process. Of course, it’s hard to be grateful when you stand on the edge of crash and burn. One day you’re simply living your life and the next you’re faced with something you didn’t anticipate and aren’t sure you can deal with. It happens to all of us sooner or later, in one way or another. Surviving becomes part of the trek, but it’s a lonely walk no matter how much support you have. Faced with fear, grief, loss, or illness, where do you go? You either give into the darkness of it all, or you look for a way out. Acceptance is part of the way back up—a grace that can lead to gratitude. (Stay with me, I’m working toward rejoicing.) There’s so much for which to be grateful (one more hour, one more day). Learning how to be grateful is another instrument in the survival toolbox. If you can manage gratefulness, you can begin to move away from the damages of what you work to survive. It’s kind of like when the feeling of the subject matter becomes the poem. You remember how to live, you remember what happiness is, and that projects itself backward and forward. Slowly, you begin to rejoice in whatever happiness and love you can find. What do we live for? From the poem:

 

Grace is acceptance—

 

all of it, whatever is—as

in we live for this: love

and gratitude enough.

MT: This concept of gratitude is important to poems, I think. Who for you are some “poets of gratitude,” poets who embody or maybe model gratitude as a almost poetic mode?

AK: The poet who rushes immediately to mind is Gerald Stern. The first poem of his that I ever read (many years ago) was “Lucky Life.” In that first read, Jerry impressed me as a “grateful” poet, and I don’t think this theme in his work has changed over time. Mary Oliver, who celebrates the natural world with inherent gratitude is one of any number of poets who seem “gratefully typical.” I suspect that the poets who express gratitude most effectively are those who have defined it in themselves and incorporate it into their work as a way of acknowledging and affirming what they’ve been given. Inherent in their poems are generosity, appreciation, and compassion. Another “gratitude poem” that stands out for me is “Thanks” by W. S. Merwin.

MT: Forgive me for bringing in my own poems, but this discussion of gratitude makes me think of a line I’ve been working with in one of my own poems: I call gratitude a kind of vertigo: in part because it feels so depthless. Once you open yourself to it, in a way everything must become gratitude. I’m curious if you had the same experience with it? That somehow learning to be grateful is a kind of release, a radical openness?

AK: I’m so glad you brought your own poems into this “discussion.” I’ve just been listening to you on YouTube, and I’ve read several of your poems online. In your work, which I see as a kind of semi-surrealist/New York School hybrid, there’s a definite sense of gratitude—even your “riff, riff, riff” in the Melville poem, your priests “out in Manhattan,” and those pesky birds in your beard suggest something of gratefulness and praise; and there’s the point I want to make: gratefulness and praise, for me, are part of the same sensibility. It’s about always being open, always being in process—totally depthless, as you note. There’s a profoundly spiritual component when it comes to radical openness and the release it can bring—gratitude follows naturally. That said, I have to believe that emblematic gratitude in any poet’s work is a reflection of the poet’s truest, most generous self. Not all poets go there, and if you don’t feel it, you can’t write it. For me (and I suspect for others as well), craft half-fills the glass, gratitude raises the elixir to the top.

MT: I use the word ‘depthless’ because that is the thing about gratitude (and praise, as you have pointed out): there’s never too much. No matter how many times poets have praised the beauty of the beloved—whatever that might be—it never gets old. Even if poets are doing similar ‘moves’ when they praise. I think this is one of the great lessons of reading poetry from the past: things have changed little and praise never gets old. There is something profound in that recognition, I think—something about the nature of being is revealed there. One artist who really captures this for me is Brian Wilson—from the Beach Boys. When I listen to his album SMILE, it feels like he’s tapped into this endless well of creativity, of joy almost. I also feel the same thing when I listen to Handel or read writers like Horace and Auden. They all seem to go back to that same ontological source. As you pointed out, once you have tapped into this, craft almost seems to become a side issue. Or maybe it would be better to say that craft is transformed? Elevated? As you said, though, there is a radical openness. This is terrifying, isn’t it? You’ve also taught writing for many years, I believe. Obviously this openness isn’t something ‘transferred’ to a student, but in your experience as a teacher, is it something that can be elicited somehow?

AK: The “depthless” quality of the kind you mention is precisely what makes certain poems timeless (Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” O’Hara’s “Autobiographica Literaria,” Kinnell’s “Crying”). There are legions of such poems (mega-known and not-so known). Just as the beauty of the beloved and the praise never get old, neither do the poems that celebrate such intense awarenesses; and, yes, I do believe that radical openness transforms and elevates craft. You mention music, and I agree that it’s hard to listen to some composers and not rise to the joy they’ve created (it’s impossible not to “smile” through Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations”). Gratitude and praise speak the language of joy, and I think if we read deeply enough, there’s either an inherent sense of gratitude/praise in most poems or a longing for it (which is one of the reasons I love reading about poets as much as I love their poems). BTW, did you know that the setting for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was a poem by Schiller?

Yes, I’ve taught for what seems like forever in schools and in private and agency-sponsored workshops, always with a nod to the “elevated mood” of what we call “great” poetry. I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously “lesson-planned” to elicit openness, and I’m not sure if it can be elicited when there isn’t a predisposition to it or a willingness to “go there.” Most importantly, the role of “teacher” is to inspire and encourage writers to try. What really resonates for me is your idea of poets working from the same ontological source. For me, this approaches the spiritual. In poetry’s great conversation with the spirit, there’s a profoundly “mystical” component (not to be mistaken for “religious”) that praises or gives thanks in one way or another. To not be open to that, to miss out on it—now, that would be truly terrifying.

MT: I remember the moment when I first felt like I tapped into that source: I spent much of high school trying to sound like TS Eliot. And I remember writing one night by myself in my room when suddenly I felt (felt!) a kind of hush fall around my room as I finished the lines of a poem. It was a kind of spark but also a satisfied emptiness—like I’d come to some kind of rest. That feeling alone was enough to keep me coming back to poetry for a good 4-5 years. These days I’ve realized that the more you chase it, the less you have its grace in that sense. Anyways, that was a key transition point for me as a writer—where I knew what I was doing had somehow transcended itself, my own (little) artistic Damascus. Did you have an experience like that? A moment when you unexpectedly “tapped in?”

AK: What a wonderful moment, and so interesting that you mention T. S. Eliot. My first experiences with poetry came early: when I was four, I was diagnosed with something called “polio fever” and spent most of that summer in bed. My mom, a great reader who appreciated all kinds of poetry, taught me to read and write using poems by Eugene Field and the Gospel of St. John. She wasn’t a trained teacher, so I have no idea how she managed it but, by the time I got to kindergarten, I was already writing little poems. It wasn’t until high school, however, that I discovered Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and fell in love with poetry that didn’t rhyme and used language in such amazing ways (what I thought of as “mature” poetry at that time). For me, the realization wasn’t that I’d tapped into the “source” but, rather, that I recognized it and wanted to be there. The “tapping in” is an ongoing part of the process. As you expressed it, the more you chase it, the more elusive it becomes. It is definitely both gift and grace when, in writing poetry, you find the “road called straight” and the scales fall from your eyes—that happens from time to time and makes the trek worth its price.

MT: It’s interesting to use the word ‘mature’ to describe writing. Now that you have quite a number of books under your belt, do you feel you can go back and see ways you have matured (or perhaps simply changed)? Were there things that you felt you had to write about that you no longer feel inclined to discuss? Sometimes now when I go back to certain poems of mine, I have a hard time remembering the person who wrote them. I don’t know whether to be sad about that or not.

AK: I make a point of not looking at the “old” books and chapbooks because every time I do I want to tweak and refine the poems in them. I’ve always focused on imagery and sound, but I’ve moved away from primarily narrative poems to, most recently, prose poems that look at the ways in which the spiritual self interacts with the outside world. Earlier on, there were stories that needed telling but, now, having been told, I don’t go back to them and consider them “turned corners” in my life.  As you noted, there are times when I barely remember the person who wrote those poems. Most of the time that’s a good thing.

MT: Which came first—the change in form (to prose) or the change in content (from narrative)? Or was it a kind of organic unity? I guess I’m trying to get at the sense of how an artist navigates a change in his or her art—how the artist senses it and knows to move with it.

AK: Making the leap from lined poems to prose poems was definitely organic, nothing I planned but had been leaning toward for some time. I didn’t consciously navigate a change in art direction, but after finishing What Matters, I went for a long time without writing anything. I’d begun to think that maybe I’d never write again when, finally, I wrote a prose poem. Completely unplanned. There wasn’t any sense of a shift, but I did move with the idea of something new.

When I started to write the prose poems, the process was the same as always. I don’t think about what I’m doing when I begin a poem and, most of the time, I have no idea where a poem might go (sometimes nowhere). Imagery and sound have always been in the same craft-arc for me, that hasn’t changed, but not having to think about line breaks was freeing. After years of writing narrative and lyrical poems, I welcomed something different that can be lyrical or narrative, both or neither. I’m especially drawn to the way prose poems contain complete sentences and intentional fragments, the way they speak the language of dreams, and how they give a nod to the surreal.

At this point, my poems (both lined and prose) have become deliberately shorter—I want them to be more focused and compressed, more seamless and sharper-edged. Now (and I don’t recall ever thinking about this in my earlier work), I want my poems to tell me something bout myself, something I haven’t learned yet, or something I’ve forgotten. I want them to startle and surprise me.

MT: The long poetic silence is terribly frightening for a writer, I think. I went through something similar after getting married and moving to Vancouver. Both my life and life environment changed radically. I also started teaching, which I found took up a lot of my creative energy. During that silence I tried to come to terms with the possibility of not writing again—a kind of dark night of the poetic soul, if you will. It was an almost spiritual confrontation—stripping away false conceptions of my poetic selfhood, what ‘kind’ of writer I was, what it means to love poetry and be ‘poetic.’ It changes your approach to writing. When the poetry did return, I found I was writing more consciously formal poems. I’m not sure why that was, but the structures gave me more confidence—especially since I felt ‘out of practice.’ I also felt, though, that there was a maturity I didn’t have before, that I had gone to a new depth. It’s interesting then that you describe your own shift after not writing as wanting poems that tell you something about yourself—they’re more searching, piercing, perhaps. Do you feel like you’ve stripped something away? Gotten to something more ‘essential?’

AK: “Spiritual confrontation” is a great term for the almost–panicky feeling of poetic silence and the challenge it presents. Like you, there was a time when I worked full-time and had concurrent part-time jobs, and all the commitments of daily life. There wasn’t a lot of time or energy for poetry. When I did have time, the muse was often absent, so I started to write nonfiction for journals related to teaching and for conservation and ecology magazines—something like you turning to formal poems except that what I wrote didn’t requite the intense concentration and need for long expanses of uninterrupted time that poetry requires (it’s easier for me to put a piece of nonfiction aside and come back to it later, than it is to “suspend” a poem). What I learned is that I can write poetry without needing prose, but I can’t write prose without needing poetry. There have been a few times when I seriously thought I’d just give it up, and did for brief periods, but I could never make it stick. Even when I’m not writing a poem (which is too often), I think about writing one.

As I’ve gotten older, my creative priorities have changed—the need for approval tossed out of the ring. I used to care tremendously about what people thought of my work. That’s changed. I’ve recognized writing poetry as the spiritual process it’s always been for me—what you call “poetic selfhood.” The need for approval has segued into a need for my poems to mean more than they say, for the poems to offer spaces and gaps for readers to fill in,  for whatever is personal in the language to speak and to be understood in more voices than my own. When I first started sending poems to journals, there was a lot of personal, narrative poetry in vogue, and I conformed to that. Now, it’s not about telling my story, it’s more about telling a story that will have meaning for others along with, and other than, me. Like all changes—essential, yes, fundamental and necessary.

MT: Sadly, I find myself dreaming about the time when I will really stop caring about what others think of my poetry. Can you tell me more about that freedom? Was there any way that you achieved it? Or did it just come with experience?

AK: Maybe a combination of age and experience? I’m not really sure. It was definitely sparked by many years of studying New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton in which Merton wrote “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” He went on to write, “If you write for God you will reach many men [and women] and bring them joy. If you write for men [and women]—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.”

MT: This reminds me of something Joe Weil once told me about medieval artists: when painting or decorating a cathedral, they saved their best (most holy?) work for corners nobody else would ever see. It also reminds me of the scholastic distinction between ‘making’ and ‘doing.’ Doing is the realm of “Prudence,” which, as Maritain says, “has for its matter the multitude of needs and circumstances and traffickings in which human anxiety flounders about.” This is the world of writing for others, a kind of constant reflexivity, this is Maria Gillan’s infamous “crow” that caws at poetic instinct. On the other hand, you have “making”—the true realm of art, concerned purely with the truth of the creation itself. Its mode is human, but, as Maritain again says “there is for Art but one law, the exigencies and the good of the work. Hence the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing; it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex—artist or artisan—in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing, ceases at the door of every workshop.” I think this is really why ancients spoke about art as a kind of possession (i.e., inspiration) because there is really a sense in which the artist is in the service of something other. Yet we still speak of an artistic identity. To what extent does an artist serve two masters?

AK: This all reminds me of the difference between process and product and how some artists live in service to the things they make. But … does the product serve as arbiter of the process quality? What is the ultimate good of the work? Which is the greater truth, the process of creating or the product created?

It’s the old dilemma of two masters. The scripture reference in your question is apt. Of course, St. Matthew is talking about serving God or money (mammon) in Matthew 6:24, but to take the quote further, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Nemo potest duobus dominis servire: aut enim unum odio habebit, et alterum diliget: aut unum sustinebit, et alterum contemnet.)The question is, “Which master does the individual artist serve, the creative process or the thing that he or she creates?” I suspect that some artists manage to do both, but there has to be a preference—spend time in the process of creation, or sit back and admire what you created (“the good of the work”)? I suppose it all comes down to individual responses to the creative experience, what the artist names as his or her priority and what he or she wants to possess more—the ability to create or the created thing. This all kind of begs the question of ego (and goodness knows we see enough of that in Poetryland). I can imagine the medieval artisans Joe told you about, how they created with the highest intention and made sure their work would only be seen by God—storing up their “treasures” for heaven.  I suspect that all artists are in the service of “something other,” how they define it (artistic identity) is entirely personal (unless, of course, it’s defined by the public, and that’s another (smelly) “kettle of fish”).

MT: I wonder if we might conclude our discussion by looking at two of your poems—one from an earlier era and one of your newer prose poems. Could you share one or  two poems and comment on how your evolving sense of poetics shaped the craft choices you made in those poems?

AK: Here are two poems, one written when I was 6 or 7 years old and the other from A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All (the prose poems collection, forthcoming in 2014 from Welcome Rain Publishers).

 

Today

 

Today I threw my poems away.

They didn’t say what poems should say.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book.

But Look! I reach my hand up to the sky

and touch the place where sparrows fly.

 

(1955)

 

_______________________

What Calls You

 

Back then I wasn’t sure what calling meant. I thought something mystical—God’s hand on my arm, a divine voice speaking my name. Instead, I discovered the colors of cyclamen, how even the meanest weeds burst into bloom.

 

It works like this—among the books and fires—grace comes disguised as the winter finch, its beak in the seed; the twilight opossum that feeds on scraps—her babies born beneath my neighbor’s shed. Every day, I learn what love is: the finches, the opossum, the child with Down Syndrome who asked, Can I hug you a hundred times?

 

Whatever idea I had of myself turns on this: what lives on breath is spirit. I discover the power of simple places—silence—the desire to become nothing.

 

(2013)

 

_____________________

 

Sheesh! Am I still writing the same poem? I wonder if, perhaps, a lot of us do that in one way or another?

 

Apart from recognizing a strong sense of the Divine and an incorporation of human nature into the natural world, I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously thought about an evolving sense of poetics or deliberate craft choices. Auden said that a poem should be more interesting than anything that might be said about it. I’ve never been big on analyzing anything. For me, poetry is best when it’s “discovered” rather than written. I admire certain poems for their technique, for their music, and for the brilliance of their language. But those qualities fall short if a poem doesn’t have a strong “spirit center.” By “spirit center” I mean what we discover about ourselves and about others when we read a poem. If a poem is cleverly constructed or contrived, if it does linguistic handsprings, and if its meaning becomes subordinate to form, it may attract attention (especially if that sort of thing happens to be trendy at the moment), but what a poem lets us see, what we find out about ourselves and others because of that poem, and the ways in which a poem tells us that we’re not alone—these are “what matters” to me.

 

Thanks so much for this interview, Micah, and my sincerest congrats on Whale of Desire—a must-read spiritual and artistic tour de force!

 

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Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.

 

 

SL: Reading The Sun and the Moon is a bit like dreaming to a beautiful and haunting soundtrack. The book makes use of incantation, repetition, iteration and reiteration to create a mysterious and ceremonial solemnity. And then there’s the celestial bodies which inhabit the narrative, not to mention the astronomical clocks looming over everything. Can you talk about the etymology of this book, and how it might relate to astronomy, dreams, music, or the supernatural?

 

 

KMD: That’s a great question. I’m very interested in relationships that are haunted: by the past, by landscapes, and by one’s own imagination. The Sun & the Moon is essentially a love story, one that’s haunted by celestial bodies. The book takes the astronomical clock as its central metaphor, depicting astral bodies that are forever orbiting one another, and forever distant from one another. Their union is haunted by a sky filled with debris and dead stars, the remnants of what once was a burst of light.

 
In its own strange way, the book is very autobiographical. I believe that poetry can be autobiographical, and deeply personal, yet still imaginative, unruly, and strange. For me, creating an imaginary world like the one found in The Sun & the Moon is almost more personal than writing down what actually “happened,” since the reader sees and experiences what (for me) was the emotional truth. After all, there is no objective truth to be had, not even for scientists.

 
SL: I very much agree – the notion of the “personal” is so much roomier than that of the “confessional.” I’m fascinated by the poems from The Other City, which I am pleased to be publishing in a future issue of Posit. They seem to address an ‘other’ version of what might be considered ‘ordinary’ reality: weddings, elementary school, daily civic life, etc. I also love the prose poems which you recently published in The Tupelo Quarterly, from The Arctic Circle. Can you tell us a bit about those collections, and when and where we might get the chance to read them?

 
KMD: Thank you for the kind words about my new poems! The Other City is still a work in progress. The poems are a bit different from my previous work, since they use sound to forge connections between ideas and images within the text, and essentially to create narrative continuity. I think of them as an engagement with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, as well as the work of more contemporary writers: Hanna Andrews, Thalia Field, and Inger Christensen. A couple of the poems are forthcoming in Laurel Review, and I’m thrilled to have several pieces in Posit. I hope to have the manuscript ready to send out by the end of the year.
And The Arctic Circle was just released by BlazeVOX Books. In this collection, you’ll find a newly minted wife, the ghost of another wife, and a man whose true love was found frozen inside his house. I hope you’ll check it out! It’s perfect for Halloween, after all.

 
SL: I will, absolutely! Speaking of ghosts, a distinctive feature of your poetry is the integration of sentimental iconography with intimations of destruction. Darkness and light seem interdependent, and bridal imagery, fire, and ice appear repeatedly. Can you talk about what informs your poetic vision, and the thematic and/or formal continuity between your works?

 
KMD: I’ve always been intrigued by representations of romantic love, particularly the ways they often blur into cliché. Because certain types of images (bouquets, lockets, love notes) appear so frequently in very bad poetry, we stop seeing just how odd, how disconcerting they are. I love taking those same images, that same iconography, and making the reader see how strange it all is. For me, poetry is also an archival practice, an effort to excavate strange, disconcerting, or otherwise otherworldly material culture from a buried past.

 
SL: All of the works we’ve discussed are written in different configurations of prose. What draws you to prose poetics? Does it present you with any limitations, and do you ever write lineated verse?

 
KMD: I love prose poetry because if the reader sees a paragraph, they immediately have ideas about what the text will be like. These readerly expectations are material, which I can use to surprise them. For me, there’s nothing better than working against the reader’s expectations of what’s possible within a text, and making them question their ideas about poetry, prose, and everything in between. So much of the time, we impose limitations on a text based on its appearance, its form, before we’ve even started reading. I think of prose poetry as an opportunity to foster more open minded reading practices, to show the reader that anything is possible within a literary text.

 
SL: Can you tell us a bit about your astounding productivity?

 
KMD: When I start writing a book, it literally takes over my life. I can’t rest until the project is completed. I think this is mostly because I work in longer projects, with each book orbiting around a different idea or stylistic preoccupation. This makes it easier to fall into a particular project, since there’s almost always a little white thread I can follow through the dark corridors and endless staircases. If I worked on the level of the individual poem, though, I’d probably be halfway through writing my first book. The idea of starting over with each poem frightens me, maybe even more than the unruly sky in my newest collection.

 
SL: That is very interesting. It’s hard to imagine any creative process frightening you! In addition to your daunting creative output, I understand that you are working on your PhD. Can you tell us about your scholarship?

 
KMD: I’m so glad you asked about my scholarship! I’m working on a dissertation that examines representations of philosophical discourses in modernist women’s writing. I’m particularly interested in the ways that these female writers use form and technique to comment on, question, and revise arguments presented by male philosophers. It’s fascinating to see these women reclaiming agency over a predominantly male discourse. This scholarly work has really come to influence my teaching, as I frequently tell my students that the smallest decisions within a poem (a line break, a bit of alliteration, etc.) can make an ambitious philosophical claim. What’s more, this can be done without presenting the argument in the content of the work itself. The project engages the work of Marianne Moore, Nancy Cunard, H.D., Lorine Niedecker, Gertrude Stein, and Mina Loy, as well as philosophical writings by Freud, William James, Karl Marx, and Henri Bergson.

 
SL: That sounds exciting, and obviously relevant to your own literary creations. How much does your scholarship affect your poetry? How disparate are the mindsets you access to write in the two modes?

 
KMD: For me, poetry is a scholarly form of writing. I think every poem as an act of deconstruction, a response to literary works that came before one’s own. Marianne Moore coined the term “conversity” to describe poetry as a conversation — with tradition, with other poets, and with other ways of being in the world. I think there’s definitely something right about her worldview. Poetry offers the opportunity to not only comment on literary tradition, but to simultaneously inhabit and revise it.

 
SL: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and process!
_______________________________
Susan Lewis lives in New York City and edits Posit (www.positjournal.com). Her most recent books are This Visit (BlazeVOX [books], 2015), How to Be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), and State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014). Her work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in such places as The Awl, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Dusie, EOAGH, Gargoyle, Otoliths, Ping Pong, Propeller, Raritan, Seneca Review, and Verse. More at www.susanlewis.net.

Kathryn Rhett

Photo credit: Cade Leebron

As autumn deepens, poet and essayist Kathryn Rhett meditates on the magnetic forces of inner weather.

In Bed

I can’t stop talking about the weather.
You say not to, and I can’t stop.
Did they say it would rain?
The white light pours down—I don’t
think it will rain, but did they say?
I don’t know. It’s eight o’clock
in the morning—
one child has a fever
and another is in a play about death
and nobody’s slept.
He’s performing all the parts about death,
death itself and the one who doesn’t want to die.
The rain and the one who waits
for what they say—
they didn’t call for snow sometimes they’re wrong
it’s no wonder with all this
change in weather he has a fever.
You say not to, and I can’t
stop the white light that filters in
through fabric blinds.
If only you would with your hand
cover my mouth, lay down some violence
like what we watch with satisfaction on TV—
lay down some violence against me
while we wait for
death and what they say we’ll get.

The poem alludes to the play “Death Knocks” by Woody Allen, originally published in The New Yorker, July 27, 1968.

___________________________________________________________________

Kathryn Rhett’s essay collection, Souvenir, has just been published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is the author of Near Breathing, a memoir, and her poems and essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, River Teeth and elsewhere. An associate professor at Gettysburg College, she also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and in the Pan-European MFA at Cedar Crest College.

For more info about Souvenir, visit: http://www.upne.com/0887485893.html.

image

image

Cthulhu Lies. Oil and pigment on canvas. 36″x36″

 

MANDEM is the art name shared by Maize Arendsee (an art instructor and Studio Art MFA student at Florida State University) and her life-partner, Moco Steinman-Arendsee. Drawing on an academic background in classical mythology, gender studies, and critical theory, MANDEM works across media and materials (painting, assemblage/collage, film, sculpture, and book-making), intentionally destabilizing genre in terms of content and media. MANDEM has received numerous art awards, including Juror’s Merit at the LaGrange National XXVII (2014) and First Place at the FSU Museum of Fine Art Summer Annual Exhibition (2014). While being widely published and nationally exhibited, MANDEM remains actively involved in the Tallahassee art scene. (www.MythpunkArt.com)

 
Artist Statement:

We are a transdigital artist. Our art is an exercise in categorical violations, simulation, and narrative (translation: we are makers, rule-breakers, tricksters, and storytellers). We work across media and materials: painting, assemblage/collage, film, sculpture, and book-making, and purposefully refuse to discriminate between physical and digital tools. (This is an integration we refer to as “transdigital”).

The final products are a union of digital and physical medium such that the two become indistinguishable, and this ambiguity of medium is utterly intentional. This is a both-neither art — a cyborg art — half digital and half organic.

Our work intentionally destabilizes genre, both in terms of content and media, an intention born out of personal identity as a queer feminists. We are interested in subtle ways to defy comfortable expectations. Our subject matter is also liminal, often featuring characters of uncertain biological identity (blurring the lines between genders and between humans, animals, and machines), or objects caught between two states of being. We create work that is simultaneously repulsive and beautiful, and I use this uncomfortable dichotomy to pull my audience in to the polyphonic narratives embedded in my work.

The work is deeply informed by our academic background in antiquities, mythography, intellectual history, and literary theory — our paintings, assemblages, and films transform the foundational myths and metaphors of Western culture to hint at a new post-postmodern (and quite often post-apocalyptic and post-human) mythos.

 

 

Dan Brady

The Lost Ark

Between their wings, space only
for God. The air, charged. Within,
only dust. What shall we put in the ark?

Nothing, but the tablets. The gold
flaked away, baring acacia. The poles
broken. We cannot carry it any further.

What shall we put in the ark? Nothing,
but the testimony. The sand, cemented.
The faces, muted with time. Silent. Eyes closed.

What shall we put in the ark? Only that
which has been commanded. Only that
we may listen. Our attention. Our obedience.

Our vigilance. What shall we put
in the ark? Our ears, our hearts. Nothing,
but the testimony. How He speaks

and moves. The sound of his laughter.
The sound of our cries. His provision.
His victory. The walls, fallen. The necks,

broken. The hands, struck down.
The ark, untouched. Buried, unseen.
What shall we put in the ark? It is over,

destroyed, yet not undone. Nothing,
but what is there. Two tablets. Dust.
The power. The sound. Nothing. The dust.

But what?

 

___________________________________________________________

Dan Brady is is the author of two chapbooks, Cabin Fever / Fossil Record (Flying Guillotine Press, 2014) and Leroy Sequences (Horse Less Press, 2014). He is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and son.

tara shea burke

tara shea burke

 

“When you hear nothing about the body…you stop listening to it, and feeling it; you stop experiencing it as a worthy, integrated entity..So [hunger] persists…channeled into some internal circuitry of longing, routed this way and that, emerging in a thousand different forms…Hunger may be insatiable by nature, it may be fathomless, but our will to fill it, our often blind tenacity in the face of it, can be extraordinary.” ― Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want

When I read the passage above in Caroline Knapp’s posthumous memoir, Appetites: Why Women Want (Counterpoint), I was living in Boston, busy with community and bolstered by solidarity in which it was impossibly easy to think about – and openly discuss! – the lives and real needs of women before they are proscribed by politicians and confined under the guise of decorum. Over the next few years, I recommended the book to others, and loaned out my copy with its pages dog-eared and underlined for their compelling message and radiant language.

Two months ago, as I read Tara Shea Burke’s Let the Body Beg for the first time, some of Knapp’s passages returned to me with keen clarity.

The 16 poems in Burke’s first collection look into desire: how we deny or misinterpret its call from fear, apathy, and misunderstanding, and what allows us to heed its various pleas. The collection achieves its political perspective with personal poems about the body, family, love, and sex.

Though Let the Body Beg does not shy from its feminist and queer sensibilities, it viscerally portrays what Knapp called the “circuitry of longing,” and its arc from struggle to recognition, is universal.

Let the body beg, Burke says, but attend to it – aptly or amid tangles that can accompany attempts to cipher complexities of the soul – with acceptance.

Burke lives in Chesapeake, Virginia, where she lives with her partner and teaches writing and yoga.
______
Q: When did you start writing and what was the impetus?

A: I love this question mostly because I used to hate this question. I’ve always been in love with memory. I’m also very aware of how constructed and picky it can be. And, I’ve always been a liar. Or, let’s say that now that I’ve come out of my compulsive, impulsive, ungrounded twenties, that I’ve always been a storyteller. That sounds better.

If the stories I’ve told others and myself are true, I began writing stories when I was very young. I’ll never forget the first story that was published in our elementary school’s tiny little lit journal when I was in first grade. It was about a girl who went wandering through the woods and found another world through a hole at the base of a tree. She fell down the hole – or jumped, happily escaping real life, like I’ve always wanted to do – and landed on a bed of mattresses and pillows. I can’t remember what she did in that other world, but I think it was a kind of mixture of my own life growing up in the woods with my imagination, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the cartoon movie adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Probably some of The Neverending Story in there, too. I’m quick to admit that I’ve always had an intense imagination, and have always wished for a life wilder than the everyday; but I’ve always been a copycat, too. My creativity didn’t go very far before I reached for my closest influences to fill in the gaps.

Regarding poems, I don’t remember writing my very first poem, but I do, perhaps, remember the first series of poems that came out of me. It was when I was in the seventh and eighth grades. And it was about the boy mentioned in First Crush, a poem that appears in my chapbook. So they were about love. Love-ish. The kind that hits you like a sack of puppies, right in the face: surprising, soft, and a little wrong. I think many kids write their first, and last, poems about the body as it’s awakening for the first time. We’re either tortured by our feelings or lucky and over the moon. Or, we’re utterly alone. And then we’re embarrassed and we feel that there is no place in the real world for these feelings, so they get put away, swallowed, and shit out.

My teacher read one of those poems aloud  in class, after I’d half-seriously turned them in for an assignment. I’ll never forget how proud and embarrassed I was. I used to blab about everything, so even though the boy wasn’t mentioned in the poem, everyone knew who he was and what it was about. At the roller skating rink a few weeks before, I think he took pity on my inability to hide my crush on him, and asked me to skate during a song. I turned that moment into a repetitive poem that made it seem like we had been in love and he had left me to my sorrow. Just writing about it brings it back so clearly! What a mess.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that we all are just so drenched in our yearnings. We just want love…to be seen, to be understood, to connect. When I think back to my first poems, that’s what they were all about. Like most kids, I had these big giant balls of conflicted emotions circling around in my gut, unattended to and unseen. I had to understand them and get them out in a way that made sense. Though I didn’t know it at the time, poetry was this vessel for the human condition…for our emotions and desires and conflicts…for all time. I was simply stepping into a tradition. It was very natural to me. Poetry has just always made sense.

Q: What were you aiming to express in Let the Body Beg?

A: Inclusion. Deep feeling. Bodily attention and messy, sloppy yearning. An awareness, acceptance, and pride in our desires and how we express them. So much of our problems, I think, come from denying our ability to express and feel, and how we carry guilt and fear. There is so much me in that book, but I hope the poems are a kind of call to action, or a call to pay attention to how we live in bodies that are wise and willful; and that it’s all, really, okay. All of it. We have to be true to ourselves first, or we only do harm to ourselves, which therefore hurts us all. I feel like we can be so burdened by information and expectation, which creates a feeling of helplessness. We turn our backs to everyone because we haven’t learned how to turn toward ourselves. Those poems are a bit of my own journey through hunger and into fullness. They’re like my little first step into a kind of bigness I hope to keep moving toward.

Q: What is your daily writing schedule like?

A: Dear Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Great Mother, Atom, and Brain, please give me a daily writing schedule. Please. I’m half joking, but I want one so badly. Thankfully, I have a therapist to help remind me to accept what I can give right now without guilt. It’s a process.

I’ve been thinking about this a so much—what it takes to be a writer. I know that it has to be work. To write poems is to step into the ultimate, intimate, eternal conversation with The Muse, which is spiritual to me. But, to write and embody this spiritual act is also work. I think I have to put the spiritual aside – within sight – to truly get the work done. I have to make it no big deal and see it as just work, and not as this thing wrapped so closely to my identity. It is still personal and spiritual, but I get more done when I see writing like making eggs or drinking coffee.

I currently do not have a daily discipline of writing, or a daily discipline of anything, for that matter. I’m not sure that it’s necessary to have one, either. This isn’t to deny the purpose of daily writing for those for whom it works, but I think many writers in 2014 need a bit more flexibility, too. And we need to not feel terrible if we don’t wake up at dawn and write for 10 hours each day. We need to know that we can still do it, and do it well. Daily writing is a luxury many of us don’t have, both physically and psychologically. I mean psychologically because routine is something that doesn’t come easy for some of us. I have to force myself into a routine, and it really is a fight I lose and cry about often.

I think I can make it happen soon, though. I’m currently carving out space—but sometimes, you just have to be okay with what you can do. I read that Cheryl Strayed binge-writes because there is simply no other time … in her daily life. She would wait tables ferociously to pay the bills and save enough for weekend retreats and hotel rooms, then just shut the door and unplug the appliances for three days until she was spent. I like that idea. I’ve done something similar. If anyone has tips on forcing the attention or tricking the very wild mind into routine, I’ll take them.

Q: Congrats on placing 2nd in “Split This Rock,”  a contest judged by Mark Doty with Fall, the poem that finishes the collection. How do you decide which publications and contests you’re going to submit to?

A: Well, that one was a no-brainer for me. At the time, I was writing pretty wildly physical and political poems about the body and lesbian sex, my trip to South Africa, race, class, gender, love. Split This Rock had been on my brain for a while, and they were looking for poems of provocation and witness. Provocation and witness is what I strive for; to provoke and to witness is, to me, poetry’s true radical. I try, now, to look at things in a similar way. I want to find themes that speak to my own themes in my poetry, and I want to know what kind of work a journal or press publishes and is looking for. But I’m going to need to be honest here, and I think many will relate: the places I think are perfect fits for my work almost never pick it up. When I look for general submissions and just start scouring through random listing on New Pages or CRWOPPS, I have better luck. At this point, I’m working on completing a huge bucket of finished work, and then I’m going to send it out to as many places as possible. I’m a gut thinker, though. I send to places that speak to me on a visceral level.

Q: What is your revision process like?

A: This is my magical time. I’ve begun to feel like revision is the true mystical poet-animal, or at least an animal from a separate continent than the one that initially creates. Revision is my favorite, and honestly, that’s mostly been my writing process over the course of these past two years or so. When I open a blank page to try and vomit out new lines of poetry, and nothing happens, I can always look at unfinished poems and play. I reopen the document, read the poem out loud, cut the fat, try new verbs and images, cut the reality out or the last line and see what makes the poem open up. Sometimes I’ll retype a poem from memory to see what stays and what goes. Sometimes I’ll just listen and play with cutting out whole stanzas to see how meaning changes, or where sound takes me. It’s a process I used to resist, and now I love so much. It truly feels like I am of service to language when revision works, and not the other way around.

Q: Does your yoga practice inform your poetry?

A: I used to think these were very separate identities for me, but since I’ve started teaching yoga and changing the way I understand what the practice truly is, the answer to that question has been yes: yoga informs my poetry immensely. Yoga is not about the body at all, really. One tiny part of the yoga practice says to move your body in such a way to clear it out and calm it down, so you can sit with a calm mind and heart and observe the world, both within and without. It is about clarity of attention and deep calm. Poetry is also about this, even when it is radical, angry and wild. There are many misconceptions about what it means to be a yogi or practice asana. People think that to be calm is to not feel, be angry, or react; but true yoga actually asks us to feel as deeply and as truly as possible. It asks us to see both sides of a debate, but also to act in the face of oppression and in the name of humanity. If we are angry, we need to communicate it in a healthy way, not stifle it or pretend it is not real. The more I realize this, the more my poetry begins to slow down and look more closely at things as they are. Yoga asks me to be radically honest and radically okay with the present moment so I can live truthfully and give myself to humanity with a big open body and heart. When I sit down to write poems now, I try to remember this and simply describe what is, whether the subject is the boy shot in the streets, Ebola, my own body, or the way I wash my dishes each day. It all matters. Every moment. Every breath. Every body.

Q: Does your teaching impact your writing process?

A: Yes. On a very literal level. Teaching (whether it’s yoga classes or general education classes about literature and writing) is so hard and so beautiful. I’ve tried to resist this profession I’ve found myself in over an over again, but I come back every time. When I’m in it, deeply, I don’t write, but when I’m away from it, just waiting tables or trying on other jobs I can do with my strange background, I miss it terribly. Teaching feels honorable to me. It matters as much as writing poems do, I think. But the attention it asks of me keeps me from the page. Here’s some truth: I haven’t quite figured out if I should be teaching right now, mostly at the university level. I know I will later in life, but I don’t know why I keep coming back to it when it causes so much anxiety for me. The students break my heart and refill it over and over again, and are so wonderful – at the end of the semester. I think I feel like I have to, like I owe it to my degree or my identity or something to do this important, worthy thing. But I’m not quite sure if it’s right for me as I work on my first full manuscript. Space is important. Routine, as I said above, is necessary. When I teach I don’t feel like I have space or a routine. I’m all over the place. And it makes me emotional in weird ways. I want so badly for my classes to have a huge impact, and I have to check that shit at the door, lest I think of myself as a failure when that impact doesn’t happen.

I will say, though, that teaching humbles me. Feeling the reciprocation of impact in the classroom through sharing stories is powerful. It keeps me on my toes and makes me want to write more.

Q: Who are some writers who have been influential in some way on your writing?

A: My beloved teachers, Tim Seibles and Luisa Igloria. They are and always will be in my head. Always. Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Nikky Finney, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kristen Naca, Mark Doty, Naomi Shihab Nye, Stacey Waite, and Julie Enszer. The list of poets goes on and on, mostly contemporary. Ani Difranco, though. That little radical folk singer that could, she is probably my reason. For everything. All my feeling, all my love and understanding. All my fight. I’m also highly influenced by memoirists like Cheryl Strayed, Jeanette Walls, Joy Ladin, and fiction writers like Jeanette Winterson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sheri Reynolds, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, and Margaret Atwood.

 

(Editor’s note: this poem first appeared courtesy of Split Rock)

Fall

By Tara Shea Burke

When we met we fell for each other like leaves.

Behind black curtains your bedroom was always dark

except for unexpected soft-yellow walls. Your dogs

would lie behind the closed door, waiting quietly

to be let in between us. Later, we became

four sloppy beings intertwined: fur, legs, breasts, sheets

skin, slobber, scents—all sleepy and sweet together, snoozing

until the bedroom’s next dark noon. We slipped pink steaks

between our wine-stained cuspids one night, chewing

and chatting by autumn city fire pit, enjoying the slow

getting-to-know-yous necessary to make something more

than just sex. Why would you want to fight in Iraq? I asked

between bloody bites, knowing the wrong answer might set

me off, make me primal, an animal wanting nothing more

than a few more nights: tipsy urge-easing evenings. Nothing more.

Your answers always surprised me. You taught me

more than I’d bargained for, the old me ready to run with one

wrong answer about war. You made me listen, and your body

suspended my judgment long enough to fall quickly. I worried

every night that I’d become a dry winter earth, cracked and cold

from holding in all the protest, just to experience, just once

what it was like to fall in love. That night, we took the fire

to the bedroom again. I expected the slow honey we’d made

to cool off, change shape. But I ate the thick sugar and finally

let go. I dreamt of you behind steel Navy-Walls at sea, not

active but present, taking down American-made enemies,

awoke in the dark and touched your skin, understood

your choices

like most things that live in the raw honey between extremes.

We were two women finding beauty in clichés, in differences,

in overlaps, the sweet burn of sun on our skin as we fell

to the ground.

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Originally from Kentucky and upstate New York, Trista Dymond moved to Detroit in 2004, where she has steadily evolved her practice, immersed in the ebb and flow of the Motor City. Aesthetically and personally, she is currently invested in observing the art of stillness — which she often finds in the most unlikely environments, including The Heidelberg Project, where she works as site manager and resident artist.

 

sea change Jorie graham

 

This is the final part of Joan’s essay.

     When viewing the poems of Jorie Graham in the Sea Change collection, it’s a little harder to pinpoint place. Graham’s poems have narrators that inhabit more of an internalized physiological place. This is a much different approach than Tretheway’s internalization of place. Graham does not rely on characters influenced, defined or trapped by place. There are few external settings in Graham’s poems. There is also not the hierarchal feeling we get from Hull’s poems or the definite characterization in the sense of place we see with Di Piero.

     Graham, instead, has a feeling of total embodiment in her poems as if it is both a foundation and a place of diffusion and dispersal. The narrators inhabit the world around them as they inhabit their own psyche. In the title poem of the collection “Sea Change” Graham begins her poem from this viewpoint that everything from wind, to news, to how the body feels is all interconnected:

“One day: stronger wind than anyone expected. Stronger than

ever before in the recording

of such. Un-

natural says the news. Also the body says it. Which part of the body—I look

down, can

feel it, yes, don’t know

where. Also submerging us,

making of the fields, the trees, a cast of characters in an

unnegotiable

drama, ordained, iron-gloom of low light, everything at once undoing

itself. Also sustained, as in a hatred of

a thought, or a vanity that comes upon one out of

nowhere & makes

one feel the mischief in faithfulness to an

idea.” (3)

     There are several key phrases that strike the reader aside from the flow from the distance of wind, the detachment of the news and the ultimate feeling within the body of this impending change or doom: Submerging us, unnegotiable drama, sustained, as in a hatred of a thought, mischief in the faithfulness to an idea. The reader feels as though this “wind” this “feeling within the body” and this “everything at once undoing itself” reaches the physical, psychological, and emotional. But in relation to place, the body is the foundation of meditation. Sensations and feeling become immediate responses and are used here to exact a sense of truth. As if from the grounding of the body comes the wisdom for experiencing sensations that speaks to the body of instantaneous truth. Even though the emotional and physical body appears to be on the same level in this hierarchy, the body and the emotions that speak to truth are all illusive. Place in fact, has no more bearing than a feeling within the body. Everything is interconnected with the same importance.

     Graham speaks of the body in the same terms used to describe an eco-system. By doing this, she reminds the reader how powerfully we are connected to nature. She also reminds us how tenuous this connection can be if not nurtured and how, in destruction, the body will feel “everything at once undoing / itself.”

“Like the right to

privacy—how strange a feeling, here, the right

consider your affliction says the

wind do not plead ignorance, & farther and farther

away leaks the

past, much farther than it used to go, beating against the shutters I

have now fastened again, the huge mis-

understanding round me now so

still in

the center of this room, listening—oh,

these are not split decisions, everything

is in agreement, we set out willingly, & also knew to

play by rules, & if I say to you now

let’s go

somewhere the thought won’t outlast

the minute, here it is now, carrying its North

Atlantic windfall, hissing Consider

the body of the ocean rises every instant into

me & its

ancient e-

vaporation, & how it delivers itself

to me, how the world is our law, this indrifting of us

into us,” (4)

     Graham has given us this place, a room with shutters fastened, and as with the other elements of this poem, the reader is not sure if this is an actual room or a metaphorical room; or for that matter, a metaphorical wind, feeling, impression or dilemma. This intermingling of senses allows the reader to experience this poem in a way that reaches them on an emotional level. Every reader can understand this idea of uncertainty and movement of change: how reverberation and regret in the form of past decisions can feel like a wind that encompasses everything. Graham takes this one step further though, reminding us that “the body of the ocean rises every instant” and that “the world is our law” which takes the reader outside of the narrator and into a state of mind where we must consider the larger, more intricate things around us. Our thoughts are carried out in concussive reverberations, which extend beyond the seemingly simple constraints of rooms and shutters and singular feelings.

In “Root End” Graham has the narrator moving through a well known house:

“The desire to imagine

the future.

Walking in the dark through a house you know by

Heart. Calm. Knowing no one will be

out there.

Amazing

how you move among

the underworld’s

furniture—

the walls glide by, the desks, here a mirror sends back an almost unseeable

blink—“ (48)

     The movement of the narrator through this familiar house in which things “glide by” nearly unnoticed by the narrator suggests that this is only a placeholder and that, once again, it is the internalization of the familiar, the knowing “how you can move among / the underworld’s / furniture,” that is the more important sense of security for this narrator. The things in this place are only meaningful because the narrator takes comfort in the “knowing that no one will be / out there.” There is a sanctuary that the reader senses here, a feeling of complete control.

“Here a

knotting of yet greater dark suggests

a door—a hallow feeling is a stair—the difference between

up and down a differential—so slight—of

temperature

and shift of provenance of

void—the side of your face

reads it—as if one could almost overhear laughter “down” there, birdcall “up” there—

although this is only an

analogy for different

silences—oh—

the mind knows our place so

deeply well—you could run through it—without fear—even in this total dark—“ (48)

     This idea of the skin, the brain and the body understanding where you are is so interesting. This place exists as an extension of the mind so intrinsically that the brain and body can sense what is there, what is not there, and what will be there in one thought. This is not a place that: controls, traps, or defines the character or narrator. This is a place defined and controlled by the narrator in a very definite way.

“look hard for where they rise and act, look hard to see

what action was—fine strength—it turns one inside out—

what is this growing inside of me, using me—such that the

wind can no longer blow through me—such that the dream in me grows cellular, then

muscular, my eyes red, my birth a thing I convey

beautifully

down this spiral staircase

made of words, made of

nothing but words—“ (50)

     Graham takes the ending of this poem down to the minuscule structures of cellular and muscular growth of this “fine strength–it turns one inside out.” And then returning to the wind, but this time, “the wind can no longer blow through me” until finally we come to the last line of the poem “made of words, made of / nothing but words.” Graham has taken us through the house, the wind, the body, the mind, until finally we are left with “nothing but words.” This metaphysical interaction of the things around her: the wind, the body, the reverberating aftermath of decisions, and then finally only the words, brings this idea of not only internalized place, but a place controlled that ultimately becomes a lesser influence when pitted against the body, the brain and the physical interaction between these things and the vast world beyond it.

     Place is an intricate tool used by all of the poets discussed here. Whether used to refine, delineate by extension, or by enhancing intimate characteristics, place plays an important role in the development of the narrator and other characters within the poem. Place can help chisel out intricacies and emotional relationships the narrator has to other characters. It can also help to broaden their viewpoint and bring them to reconciliation with the world around them. Place can pit the character against his or her past, themselves, entrap him or her within circumstance, or give the poet a springboard to jettison a character up and out of their surroundings and into a transcendent state of mind. Place not only helps guide the reader through the movement of the poem it also weaves in additional threads so the reader can see characters and images through the intimate lens of each poet. When used creatively, place can open up infinite possibilities to aid in the expansion and development of characters in poetry with this sense of concussive reverberations that expand, extend and continue to define how the narrators and characters move within their worlds.

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Lorien was born in Southern California, where she currently resides. She spent twenty years living in New Orleans in between, and plans to return soon. Her work includes small assemblages made from found objects, Haitian art-inspired sequined bottles and flags, and recently, vessels covered in beads. Her love for detail, texture, and Spirit shines forth from each piece, and offers the beholder a glimpse into another world.

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Jill McKenna Reed

Jill McKenna Reed

To-Do During Riots 1

To-Do During Riots 2

To-Do During Riots 3

To-Do During Riots 4

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Jill McKenna Reed is a poet, writing instructor, and beekeeper living in Portland, Oregon. She is co-editor of “Winged: New Writing on Bees,” an anthology of modern literary writing, forthcoming in October of 2014. Jill earned her MFA in Creative Writing Poetry at Portland State University. She is a native of the Chicago area.

linda hull collected poems

linda hull collected poemsThe Selected Levis

 

This is part two of Joan’s essay. Part three  will be posted on Thursday, October 23rd.

     When we look at the poetry of Lynda Hull, her poems seem to combine the backdrop of Di Piero and the internalization of Tretheway in her Collected Poems. And while the early poems are heavily textured, it’s easy to see, not only a change of perspective, but also a depth that developed in the poems written just before her death.

     In the introduction to Collected Poems, Komunyakaa stated: “Hull’s poetry creates tension through what the reader believes he or she knows; it juxtaposes moments that allude to public history alongside private knowledge. Thus, each poem challenges and coaxes the reader into an act of participation … Measured experience informs these poems.”

     This “challenge” and “measured experience” is what I believe culls the sense of place from within Hull’s poetry and allows the reader to dive in with all five senses. Hull is not only describing a place, but her experiences in that place. Hull is equally meticulous in describing the sounds of the trains and the longing they produce in her characters as she is the bead of sweat that trickles down the back. Hull tells the reader not only what is happening, but also where it is happening and why that is important to her, the characters and the reader as well. As Hull builds these physical layers around her characters, the reader is pulled into the same sense of claustrophobia and can almost hear the sound of the trains passing or the wind through clothes hanging on a clothesline.

     The poems in The Only World, published posthumously, elevate the ordinary, everyday things surrounding her characters and push them onto a more personal level. In “Chiffon” Hull’s use of phrasing and word choice creates a tactile sense of heat:

“Fever, down-right dirty sweat

of a heat-wave in May turning everyone

pure body. Back of knee, cleavage, each hidden

crease, nape of neck turning steam.” (151)

     Hull has rooted her poetry in experience and relates these experiences through an intense emotional response like a sense-memory she has already shared with her readers. These descriptions begin to feel like a sort of communally informed memory, which allows the reader to remember the feel of a trickle of sweat creep from the neck down their back. Hull then places unexpected images next to one another that enhance and expand the sense of place in a way that opens up the poem like a multi-layered image.

“a shock

of lavender clouds among shattered brick

like cumulous that sail the tops of high-rises” (151)

     This idea of a surprising “shock” of flowers among shattered and crumbling brick gives the reader the sense of a dilapidated part of the city, where these flowers persist to grow and rise colorful against the backdrop of the city. Hull’s deliberate use of interspersed short lines grabs the reader’s attention and tells them “pay attention, this is important.” The contrast of shattered brick and bright iris gives the reader a contradictory but solid sense of place. This contradiction in juxtaposed opening images alerts the reader to the fact that there are many layers and facets that make up this place and Hull intends to attempt to give as many to the reader as possible. Hull takes this even further when she transitions from sweat, brick and a shock of wildflowers to this somewhat hopeful flashback interaction with a group of young girls, labeling her “the cousin on the bright side” in this still innocent game of dress up:

“This morning’s iris frill

damp as fabulous gowns after dancing,

those rummage sale evening gowns church ladies

gave us another hot spring I, 1967.” (151)

“the endless rooftop season

and sizzle, the torched divided cities…

Camphorous, awash a rusty satin rosettes,

In organdy, chiffon, we’d practice

Girl group radio-hits…

JoAnn vamping

Diana, me and Valerie doing Flo and Mary’s

Background moans…”(152)

     These images set against the backdrop of “torched divided cities” and the significance of 1967, just before the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, shows these young girls, so far from the changes to come, as they mimic the girl-groups in gowns. But, Hull interrupts this setting of innocence on this rooftop with not only the suggestive omens in the actual streets, but the realities in the upcoming lives of the girls as well:

“a landscape flagged with laundry, tangled

aerials and billboards, the blackened

railway bridges and factories ruinous

in their fumes.” (152)

“JoAnn who’d leave school, 14, pregnant.” (151)

and then later:

She was gang-raped later that year. The rest,

As they say, is history. History.” (152-153)

     But Hull doesn’t leave us in this setting of the clash between innocent role-playing and the reality of this place with these young girls. She ends the poem recalling the “cousin on the bright side” image and traces this reflection back to the iris, which seems to be a hopeful image:

“Bend

to these iris, their piercing ambrosial

essence, the heart surprised, dark bitter.” (153)

     Hull has transported the reader from the present to this conflicted past and then returns us back to this image of the iris all the while suspending these characters, and her readers, within a scene of shattered buildings, rooftops and the contradiction of the bright flowers as metaphor for the young girls.

     In “River Bridge” Hull uses this sense of place in a much different way. We are given a series of venues that seem more like the vistas a nature writer would describe, but these are city scenes, that are all at once mysterious and alluring, but always vividly tactile. The reader becomes as encased as the characters within the motif of clotheslines, trains, trolleys, streets and bridges that seem at once to tower over and ultimately trap everything within:

“The train

slashes its path through the neighborhood, whirr

and pulse. The heart and fuse of distance filling

the room, hurtling through countless frames,

the scene—now that curtainless room of young men

preening shirtless before their mirrors, now

the ward of iron hospital beds. I’ve seen them.

By the screen, the white cat swivels her ears

to follow the train until it’s lost in glass.” (168)

     Hull gives the reader increasing levels of place. There is what they inhabit but also all the things that are beyond their reach; the places they cannot touch; the things they will never see. The dual voice in this poem interjecting with “No not that one,” “I’ve seen them,” “Why That One?” in the beginning of the poem gives the reader a sense of an inner collective voice which becomes a deeper more questioning voice later in the poem: “so this is what its like to die” “now, now this sweet wrenched only” until this voice gives the reader a kind of soliloquy in part V:

I am the stranger coiled on the landing, singing

this is the bridge of the flying hands,

the mansion of the body. I am the one

who scratched at your door, the one who begged

rough coinage. This is the blessing

&this is a hymnal of wings. Hear the heart’s

greedy alluvial choir, a cascading train

whirring the tracks; called back,

called back from the river.” (173)

     This is the human reaction to this cacophony of images that have trapped them in … this is what has become of these voices in these places. The ending of the poem brings all of the elements in the sections together and the final line leaves the reader with the resonating “Someone feed them. Someone said get out of town” reflecting back to the “get-out-of-town-fast-story” from section II.

“The cat leaps again, a train, striking this time

a smooth oiled chord, as if there might be a

singing on the other side of the tracks.

Some Jordan. That otherness, those secret times

the bridges beneath the surface of life.

Pull on the rough coat and salt-wet shoes.

Let the liquor burn your throat. Did I do that?

Could that have been me? Those figures crossing

The bridge, setting out, always setting out.

Voices I must keep listening for in these sharpening

Leaves, among stacks and flames,

The smoking pillars. Someone feed them.

Someone get them out of town.” (174).

     With these closing lines we have the convergence of all: the bridge, the trains, tracks, and people trapped within wishing for what is beyond this place, searching for a “Jordan” and finally the unresolved and resonating “Someone feed them. / Someone get them out of town.

     While Hull paints vast overshadowing places in which her characters are imbedded, Larry Levis gently places his characters in the places they work, live and dream. Place in Levis’ poems doesn’t so much overshadow or become another character vying for attention as complement them as if they are grounded in their surroundings; as if the place they reside is a natural setting like a tree in a forest or beach near an ocean.

     In the Afterward, David St. John said: “Often, Levis’ championing of those at the margin of society—migrant workers, the disposed, a variety of spiritual transients—is set against a landscape of encroaching morality.” (228). How better to set these, then in a place that defines as much who they are as what they do? Which is exactly what Levis does.

In “Winter Stars” Levis opens with:

“My father once broke a man’s hand

Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,

Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father

With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

Two fingers, so it could slash

Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,

And, for a moment, the light held still

On those vines. When it was over,

My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,

Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.

He never mentioned it.

I never understood how anyone could risk his life,

Then listen to Vivaldi.” (87)

      In this opening stanza, Levis has deftly interwoven place around his characters. It appears seamless. By telling his reader that this happens “over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor” and by naming the man (Rubén Vásquez) Levis shows that this is a migrant worker and that his father is the boss, or owner of the farm. Levis also tells his reader that this is a commonplace occurrence and not something out of the ordinary: “When it was over / My father simply went in & ate lunch.” Levis then goes one step further in setting up the levels at play here by telling the reader his father is listening to Vivaldi. And while all of the characters are in the same place, the distinction in the hierarchy is clear; the father is the boss, the man with the knife is the employee. The narrator, the owner’s son, is outside of this altercation, and in seeing this interaction from a distance, sets up the voice for the rest of the poem. While he is in this place, he isn’t a part of it, physically or mentally, but only as an observer.

“sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,

And stare through the wet branches of an oak

In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars

Again. A thin haze of them, shining and persisting.” (85)

     This sense that the narrator has of being lifted up, out of this yard and into the stars further defines his sense of detachment from this place in his sense of longing to be elsewhere. The setting up of this distance in the beginning lays the groundwork for the way he views the depths of his father’s illness. But even in the analogy he uses to describe his father’s illness, he still stands outside what is happening:

“If you can think of the mind as a place continually

Visited, a whole city placed behind

The eyes & shining, I can imagine now, its end—

As when the lights go off, one by one,

In a hotel at night, until at last

All of the travelers will be asleep,” or until

Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind

Of sleep;” (88)

     Once again, Levis contrasts the father as being indoors, even his illness takes on the characteristics of a large hotel, with strangers dimming lights as they drift to sleep. But when the focus returns to the narrator, he is still outside:

“I stand out on the street, & do not go in.

That was our agreement, at my birth.” (88)

     This metaphor for the relationship with his father is not only an emotionally distancing one, but also physically displacing. As Levis ends the poem, we are once again with the narrator gazing at the stars:

“”The pale haze of stars goes on & on,

Like laughter that has found a finale, silent shape

On a black sky. It means everything

It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.

Cold enough to reconcile

Even a father, even a son.” (88)

     We are brought from the expanse of stars to this “final, silent shape / on a black sky.” The father now resides in this otherwise star filled sky as a dark shape that has replaced “everything / it cannot say.” And although this may seem at first to perpetuate the distance, even in death, between the father and the son, the very act of placing the father as a permanent fixture in this star filled sky, that has been the son’s refuge, places the father in a position of meditative significance. As if in the very act of carving out this space for the father, Levis seems to reach a kind of transcendent understanding. The symbolic continuation of the established relationship in this way shows an acceptance and understanding in which the father becomes a permanent and unchangeable presence. Could this acceptance, finally, be a symbol of that longed for reconciliation?

     In “1967” Levis combines farm work with the clash of the narrator’s need to expand psychologically from the place the narrator lives:

“Some called it the Summer of Love; & although the clustered,

Motionless leaves that overhung the streets looked the same

As ever, the same they did every summer, in 1967,

Anybody with three dollars could have a vision” (180)

     Levis is taking the reader completely out of physical place in this poem and venturing into the idea of altering reality without changing the place. But doing this, he alters the set physical properties and can take the narrator so far outside of the physical by adding the dimension of the mind in a definitive way:

“Some people spent their lives then, having visions.

But in my case, the morning after I dropped mescaline

I had to spray Johnson grass in a vineyard of Thompson Seedless

My father owned—& so, still feeling the holiness of all things

Living, holding the spray gun in one hand & driving with the other…

With a mixture of malathion & diesel fuel,

And said to each tall weed, as I coated it with a lethal mist,

Dominus vobiscum, &, sometimes, mea culpa, until

It seemed boring to apologize to weeds and insincere as well,” (180)

     This somewhat comical stanza begins to point to the “generation gap” in the late ‘60s. This shift shows how he, the new generation, views even the weeds in a new way. The idea that he needed to apologize to the plants he is spraying is in direct contrast to the way his father or the migrant workers would approach this task. And while this does not specifically create a change in the place itself, it does create a difference in how the narrator views this place. Whereas in previous poems Levis has this narrator as separate from this farm, from these chores, here, through the psychological change, he is more in tune with it than previously seen.

“The bird’s flight in my body when I thought about it, the wing ache,

Lifting heaven, locating itself somewhere just above my slumped

Shoulders, & part of me taking wing. I’d feel it at odd moments

After that on those days I spent shoveling vines, driving trucks

And tractors, helping swamp fruit out of one orchard

Or another, but as summer went on I felt it less & less.”(180-181)

     This internalization of the things around him becomes a separate consciousness and even though he absorbs these things, it is not the work, or a connection to the people, but the internalization of the place itself with which the narrator becomes singular. This is short lived “as summer went on, I felt it less & less.” And, once more we are pulled back into this distance that has plagued the narrator:

“As the summer went on, some were drafted, some enlisted

In a generation that would not stop falling, a generation

Of leaves sticking to body bags, & when they turned them

Over, they floated back to us on television, even then,

In the Summer of Love, in 1967,

When riot police waited beyond the doors of perception,

And the best thing one could do was get arrested.” (181)

     As Levis closes the poem, the narrator is looking even further than the farm around him. He is viewing the world as though he were in the center of a whirlpool from which he is once again distanced. The momentary oneness he felt to the things around him has slipped away with the drug leaving his system and the reality of the world has seeped back into his conscious state. This recalls the ending of “Winter Stars” which finds the narrator outwardly in the same physical place but now with a more meditative understanding of the things around him.

Jess Burnquist

 

Jess Burnquist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Difficult Drama of Nature

How cool the air above the horizon—the sky lights up
As you take your leave. And this leaving feels severe
It feels the way trees look as they clutch rough edges of land
All the while being shaped by a persistent wind.

I can be traced by satellite. Here is my house on a virtual map
But what of your soul? What of this next-phase?

I might be the tree clawing to stay. Also, you might be the wind.
The moon pulls these thoughts across a barren sea named Desert.
You dwelled here for a time with your lens—finding the synesthesia
In the mindlessness of the mesquite. What did I forget
To tell you before you splintered from your body
So fraught and pale—so tired of the process of breath?

You should know that your intended stillness
Gave way to the most difficult shifts of voice.
Your lithograph—the tea stained print
Of hallway and woman in three point perspective
Would form a constellation. And, dear friend,
We spoke once about the dead light of stars—the endless travelling
To briefly illuminate. I ask of contrast, why life/death? Why black/white?

There are no areas unmarked by this gasp
Of collective color. I gaze through darkness
Upwards to notice the moon. How it forms
A shy smile—a knowing wisp of light._________________________________________________________________

Jess Burnquist was raised in Tempe, Arizona. She received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Persona, Clackamas Literary Review, Natural Bridge and various online journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU. Jess currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Combs High School in San Tan Valley, and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award and grant for teaching. She resides in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area with her husband, son, and daughter.

 

apocryphal

Apocryphal By Lisa Marie Basile

Noctuary Press, 2012

ISBN 978-0988805132

Reviewed by Karl Wolff

 apocryphal

 

I put two bare feet up on the dash and spread myself

            but he is a boulder,

            smells of salt, has a chest that could possess

            me, or other nightmares

 

Lisa Marie Basile’s Apocryphal exists in that Nabokovian twilight between childhood and adulthood.  Between these realms one confronts monsters and the monolithic oppression of tradition.  This is Alice in Wonderland re-imagined as a harrowing nightmare journey, a poodle-skirted damsel thrown into the jaws of a slavering beast, who may be the speaker’s father.  What remains are fragments, memories, and fantasies strewn about or reconfigured.

When reading the book’s sticky sensual passages, the slow realization occurs that these prurient shards point to something more sinister than adolescent sex and appeasing those base cravings.

 

            I notice: the other children do not live this way

                        but then again they do not enjoy

                        getting fucked either,

                        & this, I do.

 

            I would learn to devour everything,

                                    mollusk & man,

            become obsessively pregnant with you,

            I mean:           become those women staring,

 

            & I would abort you.

 

Apocryphal is divided into three parts: “genesis,” “apocryphal,” and “paradise.”  It is equal parts visionary and horrific.  Childhood nostalgia turns into body horror.  Everything curdles into corruption and family secrets.

Then the speaker meets Javi:

 

when I meet Javi again he is the worm in my mezcal. once a constellation, once a man who bore a flag of kings, a crown of thorns & power suit, oh my god the forearms

 

While Apocryphal is a critique of traditional male masculinity, it is not beyond denying the urges – those primordial needs – and a celebration of those urges.  It is a contradiction—a friction—that creates heat and light.  Slowly, slowly, more details emerge: a Cold War childhood in a Mexican-American community (?), references to mantillas, and to Javi as “the worm in my mezcal.”  But things aren’t exactly clear, like stitching together a narrative from found footage and random newspaper clippings.  The book is simultaneously dream and pastiche: half-remembered events and the glaucous haze of nostalgia.  Everything about the speaker is fabricated.

 

I could take off my wig and rub off my

  sheen, become real, the bodytrophy underneath all this

 victimized shimmer. 

but I don’t own my own sexuality:

  it is borrowed from somewhere bad, a beach side-show of

 bouffant & glitter, two breasts propped up behind a taupe changing curtain

 

But things are more complicated than that.  Basile thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments.  “& thank you to my family, who I sincerely ask to not read this book. Please. I have borrowed and sculpted lives in order to write this, & I feel bad about it. You are beautiful, mom.”  Despite its avant-garde exterior, Apocryphal enacts the ancient tradition of poets adopting masks, personae.  At first blush, I felt betrayed by its confessions.  But not every book requires a finely wrought personal exorcism of childhood trauma and sexual abuse.  So long as the word “memoir” isn’t in the title, a poet or novelist is free to warp and deform their own personal experiences into something fictional.  Basile might have had a traumatic childhood, since that is more common than one would expect or be conned into believing.  (The patriarchal mythologizing of Leave It to Beaver down to The Partridge Family would make one think that growing up white and in the suburbs involved only trivial problems and a canned laugh track.  But only the fanatically credulous believe these TV shows bear any resemblance to actual lives or historical evidence.)

“everyone I love is recast as father, as murderer, a reconstruction, a deconstruction, an abuse-of, a haunting, a polaroid.”  Apocryphal is all these things.  Basile’s narrator attempts to exorcise memories, but she remains tainted, both in mind and body.  In “paradise” she says “it hurts to speak but it must be done.”  “I don’t respect these monsters but I weep anyway,” she thinks, “with bubblegum/popping through my black veil.”

Sea images return, only this return is more monstrous, a demonic reincarnation, the lasting legacy of abuse:

 

            tiding in,

            the lure of the long stem

            tiding in,

 

            the victim

            is never the victim,

 

            the victim

            is a new monster,

            tiding in.

 

Apocryphal is a haunting meditation on the violence perpetrated against women by those who should know better.  Not simply fathers, but the father-worship of our many institutions: government, organized religion, corporations.  Basile’s speaker gives us a privileged look inside a damaged and wounded soul: someone who wants revenge, the sweet satisfaction of parricide, but also cannot eradicate the cloying sticky shame that clings to her every surface.  Those beach side trysts yielded illicit pleasures, but they also contributed to creating a monster, tiding in and preparing to strike.