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Pool: 5 Choruses
By Endi Bogue Hartigan
Omnidawn, 2014
ISBN 978-1890650926

It troubles me when readers and writers of poetry insist that “postmodernist” poetry doesn’t make any sense, inherits no concept of consequence, and ultimately leaves all sense of meaning uncertain and equivocated. The fact is that good postmodernist poetry simply succeeds at depicting certain ideas in a way that demands the reader to twist (as the phrases do) his or her own imagination so that they might only skirt the meaning enough to get a hint of the overarching intent. And no, the reader may never succeed in harnessing exactly what the poet meant. But good postmodernist poetry at least allows the reader more agency in determining the meaning. As Derrida insists, it allows the reader “free-play.”

Endi Bogue Hartigan’s latest collection “Pool: 5 Choruses” is not only what I would refer to as an opportunity for free-play, it also presents a complexity of motifs which weave together obscure yet compelling ideas. Her poetry does not demand a singular meaning that everyone can extrapolate and then calmly feel at peace with the incontrovertible ending. For some readers of poetry, this would be a source of discomfort. Some of my introductory students insist “I don’t get poetry.” This is likely because they are anticipating a text which requires less intellectual participation and simply presents an image or concept with very little debate or pliability. Hartigan’s collection succeeds in allowing its readers a commodious room to in which to play and explore, and moves through its five choruses as if like movements in a symphony. The subjects she employs (poppies, cherries, swans, windows, and certain anonymous characters) inherit actual lives of their own—which as Dickinson would say “dwell in possibility.”

The word which recurs throughout the choruses is “slippage”—which perhaps implies that nothing is for certain, and “slips” like the meaning that is aimed at, but never insists that the reader make any determination where it is going. Like Yeats said “the center cannot hold…things fall apart.” And the “slippage” of Hartigan’s text makes for a slow and beautiful dismantling, as if a flower that dies and slowly drops off its petals. It moves like a dance, where the immediate proposals for beauty are the only aspect that matters. Hartigan’s book is an actual story—but an obdurate reader may miss it because the narrative is fragmental, and drifts like movements which possess their own immediate merits. The symphonic quality is evident. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is not a piece which moves in a deft pattern, and neither is Hartigan’s collection.

A poem which clearly presents the idea of slippage is “Discontinued Chorus:” Do you remember Gumby?/Where did it come from?/Do you remember yourself?/Do you remember the chorus?…/who is erased? This passage suggests slippage even insofar as the human identity, such that no identity is for certain, such that the human mind and understanding of itself is not easily explained, such that we are “bendable” like the Gumby doll and vehicles which do not remain upright and easily determined. We are subjects of free-play. Even the self and its meaning are not closed off to numerous possibilities and interpretations.

“Experiment With Seven Hearts” also begins with invitation to play: Try your heaven in the attic/your taxidermic static cloud/Let in starlings, let in publics/see what they do…and in “Lola, America:” Lola imagines non-Lola by the lake/over herself, over herself/skipping reflection or/some kind of ant that doesn’t care/other ants or soil. Here, not only does she present the problem of Lola’s existential verisimilitude, but she also presents the problem of the ant’s existence.

Everything in Hartigan’s collection is weaving of questions which she insists that the reader ask him or herself, and she doesn’t necessarily insist that an answer be arrived at. In the first poem in the book, “Slippage and the Red Poppies” she asserts We have to begin at the slippage of alertness into fear. And in that sense she is suggesting that we must be a little bit afraid of determining or ascertaining an incontrovertible meaning. We must be made slightly uncomfortable by endless possibilities before we can begin to discover them and accept the invitation to play, among the poppies and the slippage, where meanings are found, erased, revised, disintegrated, and elucidated once again not in their layering, but rather between the layers. Hartigan’s collection is a must read, if not only for its portrayals of beauty, then for its success in satisfying the thirst of the intellect.

erik

love on the windswept Cartesian plane

 

— 1.

Forth from the intersecting origin

each number is newly born

and ages as it goes

 

this is the realm of the rich

and the shallow, an empty quadrant

where they think they exist

 

but to imagine you and all you love

can be positive pushes you out of

the plane, into imaginary numbers.

 

— 2 and 4.

If negative multiplies with positive

their creation is incomplete

a kind of un-being

 

negative numbers have empty hearts,

must reach out to others alike

else we are bound to fall

 

into shadow quadrants that measure

loss like childhood fears, doubts

trapped in closets

 

— 3.

While hopes lie hidden in the un-space

behind mirrors and old bookshelves

waiting for backwards and down

 

to see all the others are empty like them

then (and only) creation is positive

and all finally find balance.

 

___________________________________________________

???????????????????????????????

Erik Richardson lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his family and assorted pets. In addition to teaching, he attends grad school in psychology, coaches several award-winning robotics teams, and runs a small communications firm. He is a three-time winner of the Gahagan Prize at the world’s largest Irish festival, in Milwaukee, received honorable mention for the Hixson Award, and is a regular contributor to Centrifugal Eye. His work has appeared in Nerve Cowboy, Verse Wisconsin, and Chiron Review, among others.

 

 

 

 

the birthbone’s connected to the deathbone

I am setting a place for each person I love, so they will be comfortable when they set down and start to talk. The morning comes, the morning lates. The lake around which people gather claps its light applause.

The people who I love are growing infections. They florally reconstitute. I am wishing their stamens. I am unconscious. What lips these flowers will vaunt.

The content is set neutrally. We wonder how to marble each audible shift in tone. For instance, when addressing the child you were, I am a foreign stance; but when addressing the adult you were, I am dancing.

The lake stills. Going out to take pictures of these different versions of ourselves, we shade without corollary, we color and color without any line meaning less.

 

 

The things that feed us

the justice of the megaphone

in a tube or glass-like cylinder

beneath the want of a young century

or centaur, maybe, yes, this centaur

gloating over her half horsed future

with one cone of noise and another

cone of ice cream, nice ice cream

nice fantasy melting into toddle-dum and tweedle

 

the brick of the backbone

the slope of the normally seated office-drones

once they rise and stretch their morning coffee

breath a fog of spreadsheets and search engine

optimization cubed into the menu, no salt or

sanguinary attachments, the able-bodied

mongering their courses, their copses, their

closing-time fertility and all the dashes that

have been forgotten within their names

run together strings of letters – constant press

of vowels on the order of the day.

 

the abstract of the plinth

in the court of modern pining

with a toothsome sweetness in your

abalone jesus – how we form attachment

with the things that feed us, with the hands,

intestines, and the instruments, the steel and flour,

the bed of the bet with the bed and with honor to lay

down heavy each setting, each pace stepped back

toward repetition among seasons – they change me

from pallid to downy, they change you from

languid to delicate and each of our descriptions

pin us here to our fronted and shameful bodies

the lead of the forehead of the mechanical shoe

stuck out and we are all tongues and soles. empty

mouths to be shit out and tied shut.


 

________________________________________________

Tony Mancus is the author of four chapbooks – most recently Bye Sea from Tree Light Books and Again(st) Membering, out this fall from Horse Less Press. In 2008, he co-founded Flying Guillotine Press with Sommer Browning. They make small chapbooks. He currently works as a technical writer and lives with his wife Shannon and two yappy cats in Arlington, VA.

 

 

 

 

 

Am Ha’aretz*

In the gardens of givat ram

We never saw

Solomon’s turtledoves

For seven years the winter

And the rain               she and I

Strangers in the midrahov   she and I

Cracked cobblestone

Once a market road

Deserted on a sabbath evening

All the jackals are gone

And every day in july

Tempting that last stretch of sky     she and I

The end so close                   we lied

Beyond reach                        somewhere the mountains in the mountains

Among lotus shrubs in the Galilee              she and I never saw

Wild goats rising up

In contest                   the grackles

Picking off their parasites

And what of those nights

In the snow in the snow

Sweeping the midrahov

Those nights when I was repossessed

By am ha’aretz

After I lost her

In ammei ha’aretz

These roads I do not know I do not know

her arms anymore her arms

those child’s songs

in arabic         when I was a summer day

falling

into the tongue of a woman             she and I

those lost gardens of the desert

that die each night

in ammei ha’aretz

 

* In the Hebrew canon, “the people of the land” (the singular am ha’aretz) refers to the Jews. The plural ammei ha’aretz refers to foreigners, or non-Jews living within Eretz Yisrael.

 

 Gods Our Ancestors Did Not Fear

after Joseph

You say we don’t name our children

after the living

and if I tattoo my body

I won’t be buried

in this house of eternity

 

As if I ever said let me in

I’m not the right one

I’m breaking night

in a palace where the roof the roof

I let that motherfucker burn

 

I’ve dreamt my way out of prison

and I’ve still got a bone to pick

with what went down in canaan

 

Blood is not blood

like it was before

I’m more than this body

you spared and sold

 

I saved a great house

while you a famine bore

 

As if I’d let my own grave grow cold

 

As if I couldn’t send you into the wilderness

 

for spilt blood on my coat

for twenty pieces of silver

for twisting my name

in our native tongue

 

beware the dreamers

you leave for dead in the cistern

we run our branches over the walls

 

we never stay in the ground long

 

and you will come when we call

 

only we come back wrong

 

only we come back

with the foreign gods hanging on

 

_______________________________________________________________________________

Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol,  and other publications. In Fall 2014, she will be a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org). Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org

 

AND SO IT IS BECAUSE OF THE LICHEN
Gathering the facts like so many
bones. They make a good tool
for telling you I am in love. With
the flint, I tear one open, climb in,
and speak: hold me close like a crucifix
above the river. I cannot cross it the way
I would my heart. In certain chambers,
the water pooled and stood. Day by day,
you recount your disillusions. You drink
from one spring & then the next. I have
remarked in women a curious ability
to embroider the facts. To get at the truth
I have been compelled to treat them as
pathological. What are her threats
but testimonies of love? That sincerity
she strewed about her as seed is
strewn and up grew a trampled flower.
Gathering the facts like so many flowers,
I just don’t like the water in the air
anymore. Stay on the ground. Let
your feet touch the bottom of the
spring, gaze longingly. These are
your instructions. It’s all you have
to do. He will love you too. You
will have a home. But I am scared
to descend. What if I hate it there?
So many birds in the air, pictures
in the rocks. It is vertiginous. Why
do they make it here, rather than
there? Because of the lichen, it is
impossible to see the footprints of
a child with the natural eye. His
life can be impenetrable because
of the footprints of his children
beneath the lichen. The sun is out &
water falls upon my head. My heart
takes leaps because of the lichen.
_______________________________________________________________________________
Stephanie Berger is the Executive Director of The Poetry Society of New York, co-founder of the New York City Poetry Festival, and Creator/Madame of The Poetry Brothel.  Stephanie’s poetry has appeared in Fence, Interim, La Fovea, H_NGM_N, and Coconut, among other publications, and she published a chapbook, In The Madame’s Hat Box, on Dancing Girl Press. Stephanie is also an editor for #wtfislongsdrugspress and sings in the all girl electrofolk band, The London Skül of Economics. 

From Crawlspace

Sonnet (3)

I look through the blind slats at work.
Everyone has a spiral ham fetish.
What is the difference between
A house and a mall really?
Then there’s the classic photo
Of the bride leaning down
To give her attention to
The young flower girl at her wedding,
And there’s the door my grandma
Would open and I would have
To hide my chillum pipe,
Lighting a stick of purple rain incense

You and your family can live here
Pay rent and/or mortgage

Sonnet (10)

I smell myself
In order to start over
Since everybody is so

Terribly clean these days.
At the baby shop
The cribs have names
Hampton, Worthington,
& the Shenandoah,
cooling in around 800 ducats.
Everything is loud all the time now.

They growl happily at rollerbladers
Wearing “Fight the Power” cotton tees

Somebody has a new idea
about 21st century slum clearance

________________________________________________
Nikki Wallschlaeger’s work has been featured in DecomP, Word Riot, Spork, Likewise Folio, Horse Less Review, Storyscape Journal, Coconut ,The Account, & others. She is also the author of the chapbook The Frogs at Night ( Shirt Pocket Press) and the chapbook I Would Be the Happiest Bird(Horseless Press). Her first full-length book of poems, HOUSES, is forthcoming from Horseless Press in 2015. She’s also an Assistant Poetry Editor at Coconut Poetry. She lives in Milwaukee, WI and you can reach her at www.nikkiwallschlaeger.com
Screenshot 2014-06-03 at 10.10.25 AM

INTRO: In what we hope will be a regular feature, THEthe Poetry will be showcasing presses–of all backgrounds, ambitions, and oeuvres. Each feature will include some questions about the press and a sampler of the published work. The first featured press is Called Back Books.

Screenshot 2014-06-03 at 10.10.25 AM

 

CALLED BACK BOOKS —a new press run out of Oakland, CA and crafted by the poets Sharon Zetter and Lucas M. Rivera—stresses the import of THE BOOK and will be focusing on small volumes from emerging writers, highlighting the discourse of POETRY and a range of mediums germane to the question of ART, METAPHYSICS, LANGUAGE, ETHICS, ETC. CALLED BACK BOOKS will also make exacting efforts to generate dialogue within a narrow sense of the poetry community and will not stray from polemical, argumentative, and outright adversarial discourses (while avoiding ad hominem, cliché, and juvenile antics). CALLED BACK BOOKS deemphasizes the temporary for the temporal and aligns itself with like minded people who are involved in dialogical endeavors. Axiomatically:

 

“THIS WORD CANNOT BE SHARED. ONLY SACRIFICED.”

-Edmond Jabès

 

What was the impetus for/genesis of your press?

Metaphysical perpetuity from a source of esthetic concern.

Where do you stand on print vs (or in harmony with) digital, and how do you think presses can help see to it that the former doesn’t continue to devolve?

“… we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it.”

What role do you think your press has played, or aspires to play, in taking on unknown or controversial work?

Neither for “the unknown” nor for the “controversial” but, rather, for Poetry.

If you still see your press as evolving, what kind of new mediums/projects do you hope to eventually incorporate into it?

Potentiality/possibility is all.

Comment a little on the poet/s featured in your sampler, and on their role in establishing and perpetuating the vision of the press.

They are poets & artists–we can ask for little more.
Click here to download the  Called Back Books – THEthesampler

 

 

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Usage

else makeup without pretty retweeted
without personal notes
retweeted without notes without
personnel retweeting personal doubt
is else bulling me typing retweeted.
I can’t speak for myself i can’t tweet.

I cannot speak of an illness
I cannot speak a chance dogging
the title unwoken else used i make
Bully negated retweeted.

 

He slows things down, catches the vulture

Circling above our clearing in the woods. He

Focuses on lichen, close up to mimic
Coral. His body dances on the rusting can.

I built a garden in the game
And spent my labor
In that garden, to make it
dissimilar.

_________________________________
cris cheek
is a transdisciplinary poet. He is currently Director of Creative Writing at Miami University in southwest Ohio, where he was the Altman Fellow in the Humanities Center 2011-12, co-initiating and co-organizing the Network Archaeology conference with Nicole Starosielski. cris  is an affiliate both of the Armstrong Interactive Media Studies and Comparative Media Studies programs at Miami. He has a herstory of collaborative and collective practice; as co-founder of Chisenhale Dance Space, in London’s east end,  he worked alongside Ghislaine Boddington, with whom he started Shinkansen and co-curated the Voice Over festival. For 17 years he worked in various text-sound combinations with Sianed Jones, including Slant (with sound artist Phillip Jeck). Following a field trip spent researching  forms of song poetry in southwest Magdagascar, he won a 1995 Sony Academy Gold Award for his radio program The Music of  Madagascar. He taught performance writing at Dartington College of Arts, during which time he made a substantive body of networked practice with Kirsten Lavers under the moniker TNWK (things not worth keeping, 1998-2007). He was research fellow in Interdisciplinary Text from 2000-02 there. Since then he has been making and showing works in spoken and projected text-sound, such as LimnImpluperfections, and the crowd-sourced piece b a c k l i t. His most recent books are the church, the school, the beer (Critical Documents, 2007), and part : short life housing (The Gig, 2009). 

butcher knife

KING JAMES SUTRA

A special transmission / from outside of scripture / pointed directly / up inside / the heart of man / I twist mine / the part most red / skyward / toward my lord / or whatever holy something / might want / even me / a teenage symphony / a pure system of spasms / wrecked with sex / I stretch what’s left / along the distance / as real as my skull / the skeleton sang / and so I pray / catch for us the foxes / I sing / catch for us / the little foxes / what fuck up the vines / my southern brain / my southern spine / gone black / but bright / laid straight / made new / next to a northern soul / she was a girl / cast as the girl / in my movie / my god / I touched her / to touch you / to allow the day / to save itself / to become a scene / in full flower / inside the city / of the dead / I escape / unlit / yet afloat / the ferry takes me / to where they wait / for me / the useless trees / of some distant shore

PINK FLAG SUTRA

Damage is not why / we come to damage / it’s the same as my stranger / is not always your stranger / an accident in nature / is an accident / in every automatic day / even here we are / an awesome silence / in the black out beauty hour / he’s a happy slaughter / the man made of anger / and light and / the angel’s slang / I am spitting on something / I love / an image / the way a ray of skin / attacks a girl / is how I am ready to go / a flesh toned surrender / the worst joke ever / is the real question / I am asking you / not to return

______________________________________

Ben Kopel is the author of VICTORY, released by H_NGM_N Books in 2012. He’s currently at work on a new collection of poems, possibly titled Sutras of Love & Hate.

 

lara glenum

 

*

Slap my meat biscuit + toss off

The day is a perverse dictionary

& Nothing spells me

 

the way u do

Everywhere I look  there are clusters of balls

 

I’m in some obscene orchard

 

So much eating

This must be a diner

 

My body must be a diner

 

*

U r dripping in2

 

my femmebot

I am eating your face

 

Peel the bad days

 

away from my

one ensorcelled eye

 

This is a dumbwich

 

made of two slices

A creamy spread

 

of legs

Some random meat

 

between

 

*

The jizz dripping out

of my eye sockets

 

catches fire

& burns down my cakeface

 

Peek-a-boo

 

fright gown + sea urchin

stilettos

 

The way I rub yr brains

against my clit

 

My gluey matter

 

Yr one good claw

gets my bubbles all gummy

 

U spit them out like tacks

 

The freakbirds gnarl up

the crummy sky

*

In my season of wilding

they said O

 

Her snout

is scaly + She has a grotty disease

 

of the gums Her junk

 

is prob rotten

Her hoofs r def fake

 

Let’s spank her

Yes let’s

 

Let’s spank her &

ride her

 

all the way out of

our fossilized love

 

4 her

_______________________________________

Lara Glenum is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Pop Corpse (Action Books, 2013) and All Hopped Up On Fleshy Dum Dums (Spork Press, 2014). She teaches in the MFA program at LSU.

Jenny-Zhang

 

THE LAST FIVE CENTURIES WERE UNEVENTFUL

The last five centuries were uneventful

the stitches that melted

from my ripped open cunt

tasted like mint and changed color

when I peed

I peed with the door open

because this is bounty

the universe has a fat lip

we put every cock from China

inside it and splash

in the slippery oriental jizz

you feel like seppukuing because your butthole is unretractable

you feel like seppukuing because your butthole is too determined

you feel like seppukuing because one time a man was rejected by a woman

she said, You’re creepy

and he got a gun

and wrote a manifesto

against bikram yoga

against women with great bodies

against women who want to have babies with other men

against women who want to have babies with men who are not allowed to be part of their lives after they have the baby

against women who know they are good looking

against women who have died for knowing they are good looking

against women who loved women and mocked men for jerking off to the idea of a woman touching a woman

I have jerked off to the idea of a man

jerking off to the idea of a woman touching a woman

and that idea bought a samurai sword from ebay

and seppukued

I wanted to have a baby

I wanted to carry my baby to term

I wanted to have milk oozing from my tits

I wanted to have bigger tits than the tits I have now

I wanted to drink my own milk and breastfeed myself

I wanted to breastfeed my mother and tell her I love her

I wanted to miscarry a baby by falling down the stairs

I wanted to toast to my own miscarriage with breast milk from my tits

I wanted to have bigger tits without having a baby

I wanted you to tell me I’m the reason why the world is going to hell

I wanted to give you the hell you said I was capable of creating

no one really cares but you do and I do

we take the relics of entire countries

and trash them in the sea

when we dive for the past

we find unearthed thoughts

the fertility of what you think could one day be

is just the honest desire to be remembered after you’re dead

so much that you focus on how to be great

so much that you focus on how to be new

so much that you forget to love your father

so much that you forget to love your mother

so much that you forget to love your children

so much that you forget to love your pets

so much that you would forsake the barren godforsaken twice

farted sea which gave rise to the queen and her queenly farts

and her princely kingdom

where she once told you and I and our children to fear everything

and we did

and we lived like that

and we still live like that

and we still know nothing

hiding our big dreams in the invisible centers of roses

where we feel big and round and ready

and ready

and ready

and ready

and ready

and ready

and ready

I’m ready

I’m ready

I’m ready

I’m ready

I’m ready

I’m ready

I’m ready

______________________________________

JENNY ZHANG is the author of the poetry collection, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus Books, 2012) and Hags, a non-fiction chapbook forthcoming from Guillotine Press. She holds degrees from Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Fence, Rookie Yearbook One & Two, Third Rail, The American Reader, Bomblog, HTMLGIANT, Glimmertrain, The Iowa Review, Pen American, Jezebel, The Guardian, and Vice. She writes for teenage girls at Rookie magazine.

 

 

Amanda w. Book Yellowed

Swallowed Whole

Recently, on vacation, I saw a blue heron catch and eat a fish.
In its middle, the fish was a good deal larger than the heron’s
slender neck.

Looking out subway windows, sparks fly, light up
graffiti tags in this dark, rat-infested tunnel
I am hurtling through. Ideas leap to mind:
violence, poverty, being born with very little
real opportunity. I’ve been taught these ideas.

The heron brought the fish on land, pecked into it
repeatedly until it was good and dead,
then somehow managed to swallow it whole.

Can I have an original idea? It all feels collaborative,
this living of life. My original ideas are the smallest
of perceptions.

I’ve been taught, too, the importance of graffiti
as urban art, street culture expressed. I’ve rounded
many corners, blown back by a mural with teeth.

In a class I took, one theory-loving student asked
a particularly earnest student if he meant HOPE
ironically in his piece. My small perception was
astonishment that she really could not grasp
where he was coming from.

Can art create a better world? Not a prettier,
better decorated world, not even a more
thought-provoking one, but a world where
people suffer less?

The heron killed the fuck out of that fish, and yet
the idea leaping to mind was how impressive, how
possible that heron had made what seemed impossible.

I am 40. I am starting to question this writing of poems business.

______________________________________________________

Amanda J. Bradley released two books of poems from NYQ Books: Oz at Night in 2011 and Hints and Allegations in 2009. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals such as Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine, Gargoyle, Rattle, Pirene’s Fountain, and Toronto Quarterly. Amanda earned a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MFA in Poetry Writing from The New School in Manhattan.

 

 

IMG_02591-e1397835434956

On This Side

In the dream father was finished with me.
He was dressed for work or moving on.
Whichever it was he would soon be gone–
his silence a warning, in his gaze regret:
whatever it was he had wished for me
hadn’t happened yet and by now probably
never would.
The window framed his measured stride
and I understood, when he did not turn
to wave, he had given all he could
on this side of the glass and the grave.

_________________________________________________________

Jeff Rath is the author of three collections of poetry: The Waiting Room at the End of the World (2007), In the Shooting Gallery of the Heart (2009) and Film Noir (2011), all published by Iris G. Press. His works have been published in a number of journals including Everyday Genius and Fledgling Rag. He is the 2007 R.E. Foundation Award winner and a Pushcart Prize nominee.

 

Maria Gillan Color 5x7 new

Watching the Pelican Die

On TV, I watch the pelican with its mouth wide open,
its wings and body coated with oil. Is it screaming? I do not hear
the sound and since this is a photograph, I don’t know if it was caught
in that mouth-stretched howl when it died or if it’s howling
in recognition that it cannot survive the thick coat
of oil that bears it down.

The ladies who take care of you when I’m gone tell me you
are having trouble. “His hands,” they say, “his hands.” When I
come home, I see that your hands have turned black
at the tips and I see that the ends of your fingers
have been eaten away. I watch the dead bird in the Gulf
floating on top of the water, its legs stiff and straight in the air,
its body drained of all motion, all light.

The next day I take you to the doctor; he tells us he will have
to operate to remove the gangrenous flesh.

The announcer on CNN says BP didn’t want the photographer
to take pictures of the dying birds covered as they are
with the black slick of oil. “They were hoping,” he says,
that the birds would sink and the evidence
would be swallowed by the ocean.”

In the late afternoon, I hear my daughter cry out. I rush to see
what has happened, and you are stretched out on the bed,
your body so thin you look like a boy. You do not move.
I call 911 and the ambulance takes you to the hospital.

BP is trying to put a cap on the spewing oil rig; the CEO
keeps saying, it’s no problem. Clumps of oil wash ashore
and float on the surface of the water. The beach is littered
with dead fish and birds.

At the hospital, they want to know whether we want
extraordinary measures. “No,” I say. “He has a living will.”
We hover around while they admit you. You have forgotten
how to speak. Mostly you lie in bed, staring into a space
above our heads.

In my mind I see that screaming bird, its mouth wide open,
a picture of torment and despair.

I reach out to hold your hand, stroke your forehead. “Dennis,”
I call out, “Dennis.” You do not hear me. The doctor comes in
to see you. “Well,” he says, “he should have been dead five years
ago. What did you expect? You shouldn’t have taken such
good care of him.”

We did everything we could,” the BP president says, looking
directly at the camera. “It’s not such a calamity,” says
the governor of Louisiana. “We don’t need to stop
deep water drilling. Our economy will collapse if we do.”
We stand around your hospital bed. My brother comes in
and says he’ll try a stronger antibiotic. “It’s bad,” he says,
but he waits until we are in the hall to tell me.

The social worker says, “You should put him in a nursing
home.” My brother says, “You kept him home all this time.
If he gets a little stronger, I’ll let him go home and he’ll be
around the things he knows.”

The doctor comes in and says, “He’s not going to make it.”
The social worker admonishes us with her bag
of common sense. She does not love you. We take you home.
I sit next to you and hold your hand.

The MSNBC reporter stands on the beach in a hurricane
and picks up a huge glob of oil with a stick. “Look,” she says,
look,” and drips the oil on the white sand. She is shaking
with fury at such destruction. Dead birds float behind her.

I’m in so much pain,” you say, though you have not complained
before. Althea feeds you a jar of baby applesauce. You open
your mouth and accept the food. When I see the pelican
on TV with its mouth wide open in horror, I remember you
as you lay dying. On the Gulf, the earth and the sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.

Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed, and you, who fought
against this illness with such courage, even you
cannot survive, the blackened tips of your fingers, the oil
heavy on the birds feathers, the birds dead and floating on
the surface that gradually sink and disappear.

______________________________________________________

Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from AWP, the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for her book, All That Lies Between Us(Guernica Editions). She is the founder /executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She is also director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of English at Binghamton University-SUNY.  She has published 18 books. The most recent are: Ancestors’ Song (Bordighera Press, 2013); The Silence in an Empty House (NYQ Books, 2013); Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand, Guernica, 2013); The Place I Call Home (NYQ Books, 2012); and What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009(Guernica Editions, 2010).With her daughter Jennifer, she is co-editor of four anthologies. Visit her website at www.mariagillan.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maria, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by discussing your book Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, particularly the idea of “personal poetry.” Could you start by explaining what your vision of that is?

My vision of poetry is that it should be based on some essential truth about what it means to be human and I think narrative poetry gets at those truths more directly and effectively than many other types of poetry. I want to give people permission to tell their own stories and to look at the world unflinchingly through the their own eyes rather than worrying about what critics or literary theorists say about writing. Like Faulkner, I believe literature is about the truths of the human heart and not about intellectual analysis. I trust the old lady who lives in my belly more than I trust intellect when writing a poem, and I encourage my students to go to that deep place inside themselves that I call the cave. I want them to get rid of the crow who sits on their shoulders and tells them everything that is wrong with them because that’s the critic that will keep them from writing. I believe in poetry that tells a story. I want poetry to make me cry or laugh; I want it to make the hair on my arms stand up. I want to remember it. I want to carry it with me for years after I’ve read it or heard it. For me, writing narrative poetry was very liberating. I started by imitating the work of other poets, but I realized, finally, that I was not an English Romantic poet, but rather that I could look around me and be a poet of the things I know. I know my father; I know 17th street in Paterson, NJ; I know Public School No. 18; I know what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a child of immigrants who did not speak English until she went to school. I know about grief and loss, the grief over the loss of  individual people in my family but also grief for war, grief for what we’re doing to the environment. If you can’t get rid of the crow who sits on your shoulders, you’re not going to write anything that will touch another person. One of the things I see in Allen Ginsberg’s work is his willingness to fight his own demons—his mother’s madness, his own fears, accusations against him for this poem Howl. He talks about that in the film Howl. He said he had to learn about everything. He ends up saying that everything is holy. If you are willing to go to all the places that maybe you’re ashamed of, and really look at them, you can make them blessed, you can raise them up, you can give courage to others just as Allen did. Literature provides window in someone else’s life and give us the connection between the writer and the reader. It forms a bridge between reader and writer. In writing narrative poetry, I think we learn about our own humanity. The writers I admire are ones who are afraid but go ahead anyway—Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Joe Weil, Jan Beatty, to name just a few of the great writers creating memorable work today.

Maria, what you say reminds me of something I heard the Canadian actor RH Thompson say once. He said that all theater training is essentially designed to get actors to return to their natural baby voice. Pointing out that babies can scream for days but never go hoarse, Thompson explained that humans have a natural knowledge of how to use their voice, how to speak loudly and clearly; at some point, though, he said someone turns to us and says “shut up” and we begin to feel our voice is a kind of vulnerability: we tighten our jaws and begin to speak from ‘the wrong place,’ to use our “inside voices” as we were so often instructed to as children. Actors must go backwards, Thompson said, and recover a place where their voice was actually them and not simply their voice. Would you say that this example is analogous to what you’re saying?

Yes, very much so. I think it is unfortunate that so much of our education trains us to subdue all that is wild and primitive and honest inside ourselves and in our writing. I think that we have to be willing to let go, to ignore our intellect and allow instinct to take over. In revision, we can use our intellects, but in writing the poem we need to believe that this instinctive voice knows what we need to write and as soon as we look that very middle-class,suburban inside voice, we lose the energy and vitality in our work. Even in revision, we have to be careful, to prune the work with delicate hands. We have to believe that our voices and stories are important and need to be heard. Did Whitman play it safe? Ginsberg? Anne Sexton? Adrienne Rich? No, they didn’t and that’s why people remember their work. Playing it safe is for accountants and not poets. Poetry needs the energy that only specificity and truth can provide.

While reading the book, I was struck by your focus on encouraging everyone to write. It’s a very democratic vision in that sense. That’s what I meant by radical because, as you’ve observed, many regard poetry as something for the academically minded. The book was very much like a portable version of the classic Maria Gillan workshop. I’m sad to say that I never had a chance to take a full class with you, but I did sit in on some of your weekend workshops, which were unlike most I’ve been involved in. I always felt that writing in that environment almost involved an act of faith. I have always been moved by how much faith you put in the very process of writing. In fact, you explicitly state that your book is about ‘process’ and not ‘craft.’

I think I did not make myself clear. Maybe an example will help. I was raised in a lower-class immigrant household where there were a lot of voices raised in argument and laughter. No one spoke of an inside voice. It would have seemed strange and unnatural to us. But when I was raising my children in a middle-class suburban environment, my own children pointed out that I often did not use my “inside” voice, indicating that I was too loud and boisterous and embarrassing. When I was growing up, I used to think that I would be truly happy if I could live in a middle-class community and raise my children there. My life was safer, more comfortable, but I felt that I lost some of the energy that was in my childhood home and that I had not been able to give my children the feeling of what that was like. I don’t want to play it safe anymore. I don’t want people to be lulled or put to sleep by my poems or any poems. I don’t expect contemporary poets to be bards, but in a way, I think they have to be able to communicate to people, not just to academics or other poets, and they should be able to read a poem so their reading helps to put the poem across. there are many writers and academics who will disagree with me and who will be angry with me. I don’t call my poetry confessional because it isn’t and because I think it’s a way that the academy has found of putting narrative poets, particularly women poets, down for not writing poetry that is so obscure that only an academic poet would understand it. That/s not a radical idea or a new one. I edit a journal, and have done so for 33 years. I am the only editor and I choose poems and stories and memoir based on my ideas about writing. I’ve organized a reading series for 33 years also, and again I choose the poets who are capable of reaching people of all types and classes. I am not interested in work that uses language as a screen and I don’t feature that kind of poet. I think my audience likes my poetic taste and they return month after month, year after year, to celebrate poetry that is rooted to the ground, poetry that celebrates ordinary life. I think that there is resurgence of narrative poetry because in this mechanistic world , people need and want meaning. I think of Shakespeare whose plays have survived because he wrote for both the elite and the people in the pit. I think that’s why we are still drawn to his plays even today so many years since they were written and performed.

This was another thing that struck me about your book: you insist that poetry is the work of the inner life, and your focus on everyone’s ability to engage in the process of poetry (or other art) as a result of the inner life. You affirm that everyone’s inner life matters and that it is their right–perhaps even their duty!–to cultivate their inner life. I respond to that because I did not come to poetry as an elite art that I aspired to in a class sense, but as something that broke through to my inner being in spite of these distractions. I guess I’m really interested, biographically speaking, in hearing about what led to this breakthrough. You spoke about wanting–for a time–to raise your kids in that  middle class safety, and later rejecting that safety in order to speak in a “clear and direct and specific” way. What was happening in your life that led to this?

Micah, I hope the book is like carrying Maria in your pocket. I truly believe in the writing process and I believe that people become better writers if they believe in themselves and the value of their own lives and stories. For me, poetry is a way of saving myself and others, so I guess I’m like a preacher, only I’m preaching poetry and not religion. (Of course, religion and poetry are not mutually exclusive, but poetry has been so important to me and I love it so much that I can’t imagine living without it, and so I want to share it the way a preacher wants to share loving God. I also am very opposed to the idea that poetry is an elite art written by upper class people for other upper class people. I want my poetry to be clear and direct and specific; I want to be able to reach anyone who reads or hears it. I remember once reading an article in the NY Times Magazine many years ago, and in it, the person who was then the President of the Academy of American Poets was quoted as saying something like “Poetry has always been an elite art; it will never have a large audience and it shouldn’t.” I went apoplectic when I read that statement (I’ve paraphrased it, but that was the gist of it, I think I want to be like the wandering minstrels who went from town to town reciting their poems and stories). I try to encourage my students to believe in themselves and to think of the audience for their poems, to think of that audience as much larger than the audience of 5 white guys from Harvard.

You have defined “personal poetry” over and against “confessional” poetry, which you feel has been used dismissively by critics, so I think it’s interesting that you bring class into this discussion. Generally, we think of the poetry community as a very progressive community, but you seem to want a more radical vision: creating a nation of writers, of bards. Was this always your vision or did you come to it over time?

I started publishing poems when I was thirteen, but it wasn’t until I was 40 that my first book of poems was published. I had gone to graduate school when my children were in high school, and one of my graduate school professors said to me, It”s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell. He gave me courage, made me feel that someone might be interested in reading poems by a working-class woman who did not speak English when she went to school, poems by a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, an Italian American so my poems became more rooted in place,memory, and narrative. This was 1980; my first book publication coincided with my starting the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ in 1980. I also was and still am the editor of the Paterson Literary Review. As my own work began to gain critical attention, my own self-confidence grew and I was willing to take bigger and bigger risks in my writing. There’s something about shutting the crow up that is very freeing. At this point, I believe that what I’m doing in my work is what I need to be doing; and I want my students to believe in themselves and their work in the same way. Prior to my 40th birthday, I was teaching as adjunct in various colleges and trying to be supermom. The more I went out into the world, the more I read my poetry in public, the more students I taught, a big change came over me. Somewhere along the way I stopped being that introverted, bookish, shy little girl I had always been, and I discovered that I could make things happen both in my work and in creating programs. Everything we do ends up feeding our courage.

Speaking of risks, allow me to risk a characterization of your new book of poems The Place I Call Home. I have read a number of your books, and yet this book seemed different to my sense. While still being rooted in your life, these poems seemed more expansive in their scope, their claims. Would you agree?

Yes, I do agree. My grief over my husband’s long illness and subsequent death, led me to a wider examination of grief to include my grief for the way we have managed to destroy so much of the natural world and even the world of human connection. My book The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ books) deals with these issues even more specifically. I have another book called Ancestor’s Song (Bordighera, CUNY) which ties together many of the themes of my earlier books with the new direction that my work is taking. What I advise my students to do is to let go. I do believe that a force wiser than we are guides our writing. It’s fun to be exploring new territory even after all these years, and I’m happy to find that my production of work has not slowed down; if anything, I feel more prolific than ever.

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Snowing again here. Harshest winter since I moved North. In retrospect, I’ll like it except this should have happened when I was 20 or so. Come to think of it, the winter of 78 had two huge snow storms in Jersey within a month of each other. I remember shoveling Mrs. Boyle’s and Mrs Chris’ walks and then doing my own, because it had been a tradition with my father to shovel them before ourselves (they were both old) . Mrs. Boyle gave us brandy. Mrs Chris gave us a sort of royal smile, which I liked almost as much as the brany. She had a daughter named Dot, and a “ne’er-do-well” son in law named Kenny. You knew men in the neighborhood were not quite reputable if there was a Y connected to their names. It meant they had been good looking and beloved early in life but had failed to grow up.

I liked Kenny because he had played semi-pro football and could toss the ball better than any of our fathers, but he always tossed it too hard, and we’d fall down on the street trying to catch it, or it would hurt our chests or our hands, and he’d say: “when you can catch my ball, you can catch a pro.” He made the mistake of doing this to Oochie, a rough kid who later made it all county as a wide receiver. Oochie never wore anything but a shirt in mid winter. His dad was a Russian immigrant straight out of Dostoevsky who drank. When my mom asked Oochie where his coat was, he laughed, and said: “my dad drank it.” My mom went and got him a coat. Oochie wouldn’t wear it because he knew his father would beat him if he took charity. But he liked my mom after that.

So Kenny throws the ball at Oochie, and Oochie catches it. He’s skinny and only 11 at the time (1966. I’m flashing back). Kenny throws it even harder, claiming the first one was a mercy throw. Oochie catches it. The next one is aimed at Oochie’s head, and Oochie hits the macadam. He gets up with his elbow bleeding. Kenny says his usual: “When you can catch my ball, you can catch a pro.” And Oochie walks up to him and says: “Hey, Kenny… catch this!” And he grabs Kenny’s balls and squeezes them so hard Kenny goes to the ground. Oochie spits on him. He says: “I ever see you throwing a ball in the street again, I’m going to kill you.” Then he walks home.

So Kenny wasn’t all that bad and neither was Oochie. Kenny was just a little sadistic, like many mediocre men who haven’t grown up, and Oochie was the victim of sadists all his life and it had made him hard. But I got off the point of this story.

So in 78 there were two snow storms. Kenny couldn’t shovel because he had a bad back. He got me my first good paying job as a summer worker for Liberty movers back in 76, so I tolerated his bullshit, and maybe it was true. Maybe his back was shot. It was. 120 degrees sometimes in the hull of the truck, riding with the furniture, but 10 bucks an hour under the table–a king’s ransom in 78. I worked 30 hours and then they didn’t need the extra help because they’d moved the office furniture at AT @ T in Sommerville (or Sommerset). I forget. I got laid off, but I had 300 bucks swimming like a sleek shark in my pocket, and I spent it immediately on a cheap amp, a mike, and a Kelly green electric guitar with tan trim. I called it my “gator.” It didn’t matter that I knew not what to do with a guitar. I played piano. I played by ear. I figured I’d just write a song on the guitar, and then no one could tell me it was wrong because it was mine. I figured out some chords, got my blisters, and when my small hands porved troublesome (small hands on a guitar are far worse than small hands on a piano) I took off the high e string and found out this allowed me to play chords I couldn’t play with six. This has troubled decent and law abiding guitarists ever since, but I could now switch chords quickly enough to play basic songs. So how could I hate Kenny, no matter how many times he knocked me down with a football, or claimed his back was out when it snowed? He and Dot were not married, which meant they were common law. This made them different than all other people in my universe, and I liked that. Dot had a niece from Illinois who sometimes came to visit and stood in their backyard staring at me as I stood in my backyard staring at her–in mid winter, the grass all yellow and cropped, her coat a fake leopard skin. I was maybe six then and she was around my age, We never spoke. We just stared and because of all the clouds, and the grass, and the bare trees–everything that surrounded our stare, I kind of fell in love with her, though I never thought of asking her to play and after two winters of this she disappeared into the world of her far off state never to be seen again. I often thought I would go to Illinois and find her, but people in my neighborhood thought it was a trip if you walked ten blocks to the next parish.

Anyway, so I was thinking of all this while I shoveled, and I am thinking about it now. That winter, they took Kenny in an ambulance for bleeding ulcers. My mother was dead. We were slowly losing the house I grew up in and, in 1981, it would be sold off for less than we paid for it in 1961, and I’d have all my belongings placed in the bed of friend’s pick up including the piano my mother had taken a job to buy for me.. The neighbors would stare. They always came out for ambulances, fires, and disgrace. We fell down in low esteem after my mom’s death, my dad’s illness (neither me nor my brother and sister, nor my father knew how to grieve except to get angry, and stop mowing the lawn) . Someone called my sister a slut (she was 13) and the mothers told their daughters (who were not as virginal as the mothers thought) not to play with her, so one night I got drunk and tore off every gutter and drain pipe on the block. I tore down a fort fence. My sister needed some mother to take my mom’s place and instead she got the word slut. Anyway, we weren’t going to be missed after that, so I just looked at them all as they watch me pull away, and played the piano. I played ragtime. I figured it was appropriate.

But in 1978, I was still considered a good kid, someone who had just lost his saintly mother,and was a college student at Rutgers (a big thing in my neighborhood) and I shoveled snow for Mrs Boyle and for mrs Chris. Then I just kept shoveling. It was the first day I felt joy or allowed myself to feel joy since my mom’s death the year before. I remember watching the smoke of my breath and laughing as some kid threw a snow ball at my head. I remember thinking my mother would want me to be laughing, and that I could still close my eyes and see her exactly as she had been–perfect, poised with her double jointed and lanky arm at the kitchen stove, the stove speckled with Ragu, a cigarette in one hand, and a spatula in the other singing to Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” When I couldn’t see her so clearly ten years later as I closed my eyes, she died a second time. And after all the moves, when I lost all my pictures of her, but found one in an old box, I was terrified because the woman in the picture did not match the mother in my mind, and she died a third time. If you ever lose someone you really love, you will find out they keep dying and each death is different, but it is grief anyway, and soon, if the grief dies, you will pick the scab again just to bleed a little for them so that they never think, so they never think you don’t love them anymore.

I shoveled every walk on my side of the street. I shoveled out cars. I shoveled until the whole sky took on the rainbow glory of my being snowblind. Every other house someone gave me a shot or two shots, and I had ice in my long hair from drivers gunning it to get out of a spot even when you told them not to gun it, and we stuck broom sticks, and orange crates, and folding chairs in the dugout street spots to make sure no one took anyone’s spot. I was a little drunk by the time I got done and returned to the warmth of the house we lost three years later. The radiators spit. The old furnace rumbled and chanted and did its version of Boris Godunov. I got on the piano and played Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, and Springsteen’s Meeting Across the River, and then some Bach -like piece I’d made up. And the drunkenness went away. I slept on the living room couch, woke up. It was night: disorienting. Outside, the stars inside the snow were glittering, and you could hear snow and ice melt all around you if you listened. That was a rough winter. Every winter is rough.

Now, at an age when most people are having their first grandchildren, I have two little babies. I want to tell them what their grandmother and grandfather were like. I want them to know their father had a whole life before them and it was all a prep for loving them. I also want them to know I am scared almost all the time, and its alright, because I know how amazing things are and how easily they can be taken away from you.. I want them to like their own version of the Kenny, and Oochie they will meet at sometime in their lives and to understand if not like them. My mother did not call him Oochie. She gave him the full majesty of his own name, Mathew. And my mother called Kenny, Ken. She gave me my full name too, Joseph. She understood that names were a power to do good or to do permanent unrelenting damage. She would never use the word slut to describe anyone. I remember that Oochie showed up at my mom’s wake in a jacket. That was his way of saying he respected her. I think he went to jail. Ken and Dot and Mrs Chris and Mrs Boyle are long dead, but not here. Here, it is snowing, and I have some shoveling to do.