Poet Dominic Bury grew up in Bideford in Devon and now lives in London where he works as a copywriter & brand writer. In his spare time he manages front-of-house at Coffee-House Poetry nights at the famous Troubadour cellar-club in London’s Earls Court (www.coffeehousepoetry.org). Dom studied Creative Writing at Kingston University & his poems have been widely published in UK poetry journals including Poetry Wales, Ambit and Iota, and in Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt).
by Mona Arshi
Never marry an insomniac. You will have
________to mind yourself.
________________Have hem weights
________sewn into the lining of your garments,
cure your skin with almond oil until it’s bloated
________and the pores are brimming.
________________Purchase a large wooden-grained
________trunk and place it near your bed-it’s for
safekeepings. (Obscurely, somewhere deep inside you
________know all this).Very soon
________________you won’t be able to tell
________the days apart, you’ll develop a tic and it will
distill at the centre (within the hive of your other small
________________in mild wind and when you speak
________minute silver-fish consort in the pit of your throat.
Exquisite wife to the shade: the exact point you place
________your finger-tip on winter mornings,
________________a raindrop will later stop and fret.
________It’s a wonder if you survive at all.
It will all end in the mouth; you’ll blink-
________he’ll stir. You’ll practice lying very very still-
________(your talismans) will blink back in their jars.
…from Small Hands (Pavilion Press, 2014)
Mona Arshi has been a frequent audience-member & workshop-participant at London’s Troubadour poetry events (www.coffeehousepoetry.org). A prize winner in the 2013 Troubadour International Poetry Prize & joint winner of the Manchester Creative Writing poetry prize in 2014, her Forward-prize-winning debut collection Small Hands was published by Pavilion Poetry (Liverpool University Press). Mona lives in West London & worked as a human rights lawyer for a decade before studying Creative Writing at University of East Anglia. www.monaarshi.com
brings with it the scent of rain-soaked lilac, lemon lily. Bruised
skirts of thunderclouds drop their wet hems over this prairie. It rains
and the ditches brim, rains
and the water rises like ire amongst the willows.
What we say and do not say. The heart
incandescent, riverine with distance.
lilt like this: sound
of droplets from leaves
gift gift gift
(Shortlisted for the International Salt Prize for Best Individual Poem, 2012
Published in The Salt Book of New Writing 2013, UK.)
Jenna Butler is the author of three books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road (NeWest Press, 2013), Wells (University of Alberta Press, 2012), and Aphelion (NeWest Press, 2010), in addition to a book of ecocritical essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail. When she is not in the classroom as a professor of ecocriticism and creative writing at Red Deer College, she works as a beekeeper on her off-grid organic farm in northern Canada. Her new book of essays on women and beekeeping, Revery: A Year of Bees, is forthcoming.
The hand that draws the bowstring has faith
that the deer will die. The longbow bends,
the arrow points, the deer stands frozen
in the curious pose of prey before its doom.
But Zeno suggests that once the arrow flies,
it covers half the distance to the deer’s heart
first, then half the distance left and half again
and again and half again so the deer will live
and the arrow will never find its one true home.
A woman’s faith is different than a man’s.
She believes his strength is bowstring straight,
his heart like longbow yew, flexible but taut.
A man believes that he is not a beast–
until the string snaps, the tortured bow splinters
and his fist is arcing through the air
toward the faithful face of the woman who believes.
The hunter doesn’t love the prey.
He’s filed the razor edge of the arrowhead himself.
And even Zeno had to eat. Is there faith enough
to believe in a universe where that fist still hangs
in the half-space in between, and now, a moment later,
(originally published by www.ithacalit.com)
under drying skies, north,
the summer has been too wet
to turn brown,
i wait for God
to appear, for poems to rise
like mists, for some sort
that doesn’t sting.
croon to me like a wild road,
across a cracked windshield
across strange arms
across a morning we can all afford
to spend and live
Vital Desert Lesson Number One
Nothing can be more useful to a man than a determination not to be hurried. – Henry David Thoreau
Living on beans and bread
in an abandoned cabin no larger
than a tool shed, I’d be happy,
I once said. If I could just remain
immobile, silent. No place to go,
I’d read Dante’s Inferno and ponder
the nature of mass movements,
the building of Babel’s tower,
the steam locomotive.
Dawn and dusk I’d thank sun and moon
that I’d escaped the grinding bustle,
that nothing disturbed my dreams.
Oh, I know it all seems too idyllic,
but one vital lesson this desert’s teaching:
let nothing rush me—not the heat
I try to keep out of, not the man
behind me in the traffic jam
fidgeting with the folds of his gutra*
while he beeps and speeds past me
one nano second after the light changes.
Inshalla shall be my mantra,
the camel my choice over the Arabian horse—
let her carry me ever so slowly
over the course of the dunes as the wind
plays its favorite tunes on them.
I won’t be rushed into talking too much
or too soon, and when I do speak,
my words will flow slowly and sparingly,
like the wind whispering
to the date palm and sidra tree.
*white head covering worn by many Gulf Arab men.
Diana Woodcock’s first full-length collection, Swaying on the Elephant’s Shoulders, won the 2010 Vernice Quebodeaux International Poetry Prize. Her second, Under the Spell of a Persian Nightingale, is forthcoming from WordTech Communications. Chapbooks include Beggar in the Everglades, Desert Ecology: Lessons and Visions, Tamed by the Desert, In the Shade of the Sidra Tree, Mandala, and Travels of a Gwai Lo. Widely published in literary journals (including Best New Poets 2008), her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Award. Prior to teaching in Qatar (since 2004), she worked for nearly eight years in Tibet, Macau and on the Thai/Cambodian border.
Men who’ve kissed with passion the full lips
of women they didn’t love, men
who’ve grown too reticent for the confessional,
who’ve cleaned public restrooms,
wiped menstrual blood from their walls, who’ve written—
then scrubbed off—vile graffiti from the rusting doors
of shithouse stalls. Men who’ve grown
enormous with disregard, rolls of it bellying over
their wide belts. Men who’ve been barbers
of the dead and were happy for the work,
men who’ve become what they’ve microwaved,
who overvalue the quality of their erections
and fawn over them like the town’s new Wal-Mart.
Men who look awful in suits, who’ve been there
and back yet grew impatient, men who go to wakes
to keep up appearances, who’ve made a deal
with God but can’t remember the terms, men who are old
pros when it comes to hospitals and cracking
jokes at the nurses’ expense, men who’ll be at
your funeral, who’ll kiss your widow with passion
and keep everyone’s lips flapping. Men who’ll move
in and disinfect your bathroom, who’ll trim nose hair
at your sink, conjure mythic hard-ons they’ll purchase
at Wal-Mart. Men who’ll kiss your wife
damned hard on the mouth, take off her dress,
and have your Sunday suit altered and pressed.
From Domestic Garden, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015
John Hoppenthaler’s books of poetry are Lives of Water (2003), Anticipate the Coming Reservoir (2008), and Domestic Garden (2015), all with Carnegie Mellon University Press. With Kazim Ali, he has co-edited a volume of essays and interviews on the poetry of Jean Valentine, This-World Company—Jean Valentine (U Michigan P, 2012). For the cultural journal Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, he edits “A Poetry Congeries. He is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at East Carolina University.
I met her on her wedding day
Walked up to her, and smiled,
No one ever talks to the bride
I thought it might be interesting to try something new,
Henna patterns wrapped around her wrists climbed up her arms
Spreading blossoms on tender flesh
Her lips were a wilted crimson
Tilted ever so slightly to the side,
A perfect almost smile
The first thing her mother taught her was to wipe the tears before the blood dries,
Shredded knees heal, but shame never fades away,
Don’t climb trees or ride bikes,
That’s how little girls lose their virginity
She sat on a porcelain throne beads and bows holding plastic flowers to the arm rests
“are you alright?” I asked
“I shouldn’t cry” she said, fingers catching tired tears
“it’s fine to cry, you’ll be happy later”
“I shouldn’t cry”
“how long have you known him”
She was 17 years old, just graduated high school
Her parents sent her to college because and educated girl can earn a bigger dowry
But this mister didn’t mind a country girl
He grew up with her father
Didn’t need an intellectual, just someone who could feed the kids while he raised them
She was a mail-order bride and her father licked the stamp
How many weddings have I been to?
She just got off the plane twelve hours ago,
Barely left the airport and they already started dressing her
No time to take measurements so they pinned satin to her skin,
Tucked her in to the time tested wire frame
Our ancestors welded
If you put a girl in a steel corset you’ll never have to hear her scream
And she was gorgeous
You could put anyone in her dress and it wouldn’t make a difference
We were guests of the groom and this was his wedding
No one knew her name
She only spoke Arabic
No one knew her name
She danced until the tears came
The middle aged used-to-be brides
Explained it away
“she remembered her mother” they said
“brides always cry when they remember their mothers”
She’d have her fifth child by thirty
My parents protected me, from all the broken men
And their flesh-eating fingers
Said one day I’d find someone who could cook as well as my dad
And who was almost as smart as my mom,
Who’d hold me so close that I could breathe in his memories
when my parents about the bride and all we could do was hold her hand
It killed me.
Tonight he’ll crush the henna blossoms on her wrists
With the same hands the man next door threw at his wife last Thursday
The same fists that taught a daughter to keep her mouth shut
He’ll flatten the ridges of her spine
And she’ll hold her tongue
Bite the screams as they come
Wipe the tears before the blood dries
No one ever talks to the bride
By Emily Vogel
Review by Brian Fanelli
Though the northeastern winters serve as a background for several of the poems in Emily Vogel’s collection First Words, there‘s a tenderness and intimacy beneath the book’s howling winds and snowfall, a celebration of love between the narrative’s speaker, her husband, and their firstborn daughter. First Words, however, is not simply a collection of love poems or meditations on motherhood. There are larger themes at stake, including language, the metaphysical, and a country increasingly prone to violence and hyper-consumerism.
Frequently, there‘s interesting juxtapositions of images at work. In the poem “First Snow,” for instance, the winter setting is referred to as “a strange euthanasia of gray.” Certainly, the image evokes the loss of life winter causes, but it’s contrasted with the love between the speaker and her partner, who is referred to as “the essence of song/in a warm room.” The husband is something constant and reliable, a foundation, and as the poem says, they will always return to each other.
In another poem, “White Christmas,” the speaker drives home and throws herself into her husband’s arms. Again, the husband—and the sleeping infant in the next room—serve as something stable. All but the closing stanzas contains Christmas images, but the carolers have faces that “reflect dimensions of apprehensions,” and the speaker imagines that that they are pondering “guns/bank accounts, the magic of a blinking digit.” These images cause tension and reflect the capitalistic aspects of the holiday, but by the end of the poem, family is the anchor, something pure and true.
Other poems address larger cultural issues and undertones of violence. “Sequestering,” for instance, references zombies, claims of God as a hoax, and fears of getting shot in the supermarket. It‘s as though these references are threats to the safe domestic space, where the newborn daughter “gasps delightedly,” the husband laughs at old movies, and the snow, too, acts as a protective barrier.
In “Events,” Vogel again employs some apocalyptic imagery to address society’s larger ills. One section of the prose poems reads, “The war proliferated like neighborhoods/like families, like vacations in exotic places. A fire burnt/down the city.” The poem is one of the most biting, in that it also tackles indifference and hyper-consumerism with the concluding lines, “And then everyone involved got into their/warm cars and drove around, with no particular destination/in mind and thought a lot about what happened for a while.”
The end of the book circles back to family, with a poem dedicated to the author’s daughter. “Dear Clare” is a mix of memories of the daughter’s infant years and mediations on her future, and it includes the line, “I wonder if one day you will know/that poetry can often be as basic as a bank receipt.” On the one hand, Vogel has a knack for writing about the ordinary, about images of snowfall and her daughter laughing at images on TV. On the other hand, this collection constantly pushes deeper. Despite the violence that may exist in the world, Vogel illustrates how relationships and love stand as a stark contrast to those ills.
Seaglass Picnic, by Frances Driscoll
Pleasure Boat Studio, November 2015
Reviewed by Cheryl R. Hopson
The late black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde told us decades ago that silence would not protect us. But what happens when we speak those silences – personal, cultural, generational, familial? If Frances Driscoll’s poetry collection Seaglass Picnic is any indication, poetry is what happens.
Driscoll subtitles her collection with a splash of Post Traumatic Stress, suggesting something of the book’s themes–rape, PTSD, suicide, addiction, love, and renewal. And indeed, Seaglass Picnic has the beauty, vibrancy and whimsy of sea glass, as well as the unpredictability and destabilizing force of rape and PTSD. Driscoll opens the collection with a tribute poem to a lost love, Andy—one of five individuals to whom the collection is dedicated. The poet writes,
Roma historian Sarah Carmona says in Romani
when you want to tell someone you love him
you might say,
I eat your heart
I have eaten your heart,
have eaten mine.
Thus begins the reader’s journey. The poet tells us that, try as we might, there are things that happen to us that can never be forgotten or erased – terrible, torturous, violent things like rape or a beloved’s suicide.
It’s not a rape thing.
I have always loved amnesia.
In the poem He takes off his shirt, the speaker jettisons the imposed/customary silence of rape victims and PTSD sufferers:
I’m a rape victim and
I’m having a small. Little. Well kind of bad
of post traumatic stress and …
There is no reason to be so afraid
when a man says on the telephone
I am taking off my shirt.
I’m as I said having this
little post traumatic stress thing going on
Though I was drawn to Seaglass Picnic, I found myself resisting reading the collection. I know firsthand the havoc and destruction rape and its fallout can bring. I am the sister of a survivor of rape, and I understand by way of my sister—and now, by way of the speakers of Driscoll’s poems—the tenacity and strength it takes to survive what ultimately amounts to the destruction of a person, body and soul. I found myself time and again returning to pieces such as to go properly into the past, a poem in which the poet writes,
Have yourself a little post
traumatic stress episode.
One that comes with flashbacks.
Lots of flashbacks.
And to poems like What Is/What If, part of a series that references the television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In What Is/What If, Driscoll revises Law & Order’s subtitle, removing the “Special” and replacing it with “Torture.” Victims are not “special,” as the poet tells us. Rather, they’ve been made fragile and left broken by the experience of rape–as well as by their rapist’s inability or refusal to recognize their humanity, and call them by their names.
Too, in a collection that takes on so many serious, gut-wrenching topics, there is levity – and there were moments when I laughed out loud. Consider the poem The Object #2, in which the poet writes of “a very bright pink very large” penis that “once…followed alongside the car/flying with me / all the way home from school.”
I talk with Donald about it.
This is normal he says.
Jung had visions.
I don’t tell Donald,
do you really think anyone thinks
Jung was normal.
Though at times dark, despairing, and damn painful, Seaglass Picnic showcases the power of poetry to revive, relive, relieve, and break—once and for all—the silences that imprison us and prevent healing. I end my review of Seaglass Picnic as the poet began her collection: Frances Driscoll, poet, teacher, and beloved aunt to Ocean, I eat your heart.
Cheryl R. Hopson, PhD, is an assistant professor of African American Literature at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Georgia. She has published essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, as well as on U.S. black feminist sisterhood. Her chapbook Black Notes was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.
gutter, but doubted my garbage bin would
The bin filled in five minutes and we bought three more
no fancy DIY spout nozzles, just hacked gutters, trash bins
and screen for the worms/leaves/debris
I’ve watched the fog, but it’s more than fog —
I’ve watched the ocean’s selfie, haha, an imprint of itself: imagine the Pacific
CRASHING against rock, the spray, the sonic boom of it all, now imagine that spray
collecting – grabbing on to each other and pulling the marine layer from just above our
heads and running, like bodies screaming for justice on the highway, for the mountains.
I’ve watched the fog crash over the Gabilan range, flooding the crevices of the chaparral,
giving the wiry blue oak a breather from the bleaching sun It looks like a tsunami he
said after he gasped at the sight from the west.
taste that smokey, cigar, leather jacket she said as she poured the Pinotyeah, that’s from last year’s fire.
Rachelle Linda Escamilla is from San Benito County, California which is one mountain range in from the Monterey Bay. Her first book of poems, Imaginary Animal won the 2014 Willow Books Literature Prize in Poetry and has been nominated for a PEN Open Book Award. She is the co-founder of Mainland China’s first creative writing program, the founder of the Poets and Writers Coalition at San Jose State University, and the curator for the Epazote Reading Series. Contact Rachelle through her website: www.poetita.com.
We are all the year’s worries
tossed into the dark dustbin of the sea.
Swirling plastic returned, reared on its haunches.
Let’s live slow and die when we do.
Below the mess, kids are walking home from school.
Gash the screen door to let the bugs in––
let them pinch my skin.
I’ll coo investment tips in your ears.
Anchor me to the all of our lives
nestled in the hollow of this lake.
Unbuckle my seatbelt. Unfasten my tongue.
Devi K. Lockwood is a poet / touring cyclist / storyteller currently traveling the world by bicycle and by boat to collect 1001 stories from people she meets about water and/or climate change. You can keep up to date with her travels at www.onebikeoneyear.wordpress.com.
And if you are a boy, you might imagine the hairline that crawls backward without resistance.
The barber was a good barber. Give him a blade
and his grandfather emerges from the palm, like
a slave that was a good slave, raking the weeds
back until all you see is a shaven field of grass,
ready for eyes to bear witness to this marvelous
thing. The barber might’ve talked to Emmett
about his grandfather, the hands that grooms the
America black folk always attempt to believe in.
I’m sure Emmett would’ve cracked a joke, light-
ened the mood for the body to settle in and humor
toughens the skin, I am told. I know he could not
have bled even if the razor wished to carve more
than the patches of wool, resting on the head like a
dark field of grass after dusk.
And if you are a girl, the eyelash might attract your gaze; the beauty in its submissive tilt.
He was a beautiful boy, a lark in the jungle, calling
for a brother or two to share a flight with but wings
don’t work in these southern woods. Flight, like a
myth, are debated for the body. The sky don’t hold
what is too heavy for it and he ate much. Thick and
sturdy as a stump in the plains. The earth here be
coated in wood chippings. The Axe’s swing at what
grows and he stay tall and some forest-like beauty
brews within him like he’d live forever in his vanity.
And if you are a man, you may notice only the blood that lacquers the wounded skin.
We fight like lions, teeth misplaced in the knuckle.
Famished for the meat that crowns the plates. I heard
that Emmett’s snarl slips between the trees. The finger’s
claw clings to skin and he’s Bear-like. Plump and
swollen, gliding through the space with a bag of fish
in his mouth like a king on this side of America. Here,
the bullet flails and fails to miss what it wishes to split.
Boys eat well. Mothers feed wise. Ripe and ready, the
boy makes a good feast for what can swallow him.
And if you are a woman, you’d recall the nail collecting earth, like a shovel would for its grave.
And if you are a grave, you’d know how much you hunger for what does not know how it ends.
Nkosi Nkululeko, poet and musician, hailing from Harlem, NY, has performed his written works in venues such as Apollo Theater, Nuyorican Poets Café, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Oxford University and others. He has performed for National Writers Union, Lincoln Center and Urban Word NYC. He was on the 2014 Urban Word NYC Slam Team for BNV(Brave New Voices) and the 2015 Urbana-NYC Slam Team for NPS(National Poetry Slam). Nkosi is a 2015 nominee for the American Voices Award, a Callaloo Fellow and has been published in Junior Scholars’ Schomburg Review and forthcoming in No Token, The New Sound and is anthologized in great weather for MEDIA’s, “Before Passing,” their 2015 Anthology.
In the Event of Full Disclosure
By Cynthia Atkins
CW Books, 2013
REVIEWED BY CHERYL R. HOPSON
Cynthia Atkins opens her second collection of poetry, In the Event of Full Disclosure, with a meditation on family love by early twentieth century poet, T.S. Eliot, who writes of such unions as “love that’s lived in, but not looked at, love within the light of which all else is seen, the love within which all other love finds speech.” “This love,” continues Eliot “is silent.”
Enter Atkins, the poet/family woman (sibling, daughter, mother, wife), to break said silence and offer something of the same love, by which she herself sees and writes.
In “Family Therapy (I)” the first of five poems demarcating the book’s themes of family, mental illness, love, shame, and centering, Atkins writes,
I hold the secrets. I am the writer.
I am the sister of a schizo-
phrenic. My elder split—
I’m learning how to be a member
of my family, of my society.
I’m wanting a text book
on the matter.
With this framing poem, Atkins shines a light on what it means for her/us to be a part of a particular biologic (and national) family, but she also reveals what is referred to in the collection as the insistence of chromosomes – e.g., doom.
And yet, there is a willingness to construct an alternative experience for herself and the family/love she creates and shelters,
I’m looking for a cure, because anguish
is harmful to live with. And yes,
I am a little pregnant. Set another
Place? Erase another place?
I am my child’s child, doomed
Atkins’s poetry has the urgency and righteousness of June Jordan’s, but it is unlike anything I’ve read before. The collection is dedicated to the poet’s siblings, two sisters and a brother; and the sisterly/fraternal connection is felt. In the poem “Picture This” Atkins writes of
Three sisters just from swimming,
bathing caps, fresh cut bangs –
sitting at the pool’s edge. This safe notch
in time hailed like a taxicab in the rain,
and memory makes it sedate
as a lawn chair, quelled
and awash in Technicolor
The poet’s revelation that the three sisters’ girlhood was not easy is underscored, as the poem continues:
At home, two muddy shoes
depressed or manic at the back door?
Life offers possibilities—a kiss with
a fist or a salesman’s pitch? Now tinctured,
with time, bereft of manners
Atkins writes in “Family Therapy (III)” that “the mind’s pain / is the last inconsolable extra gene,” and in “Family Therapy (IV)” that “Our shame is seasoned / and matter-of-fact.” But it is also in the context of family love and its inheritance (e.g. ,mental illness), that the speaker has come to understand the necessity of shelter for herself, her loved ones, and her art. In “Nest,” Atkins writes of home as a “kind of grace / nestled in, to protect us from / the elements and the answers.” Home, in the context of In the Event of Full Disclosure, sits astride a river in Southwest Virginia – it is a place where the poet/speaker can be and not be, a quiet calm where she can “…spend the rest of my days / telling [my] story” in verse.
Atkins is a seasoned and gifted poet, and In the Event of Full Disclosure is a must-read.The collection showcases what nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson might refer to as the white heat (e.g., intense and affecting, often painful, energy) of family and family love: the changeling sibling (or parent); the mother’s/sisters’ speaking and silence; the father’s death; and the mental illness presenting itself time and again in the family as, “Brick and mortar, a nervous disorder / marriage, divorce, work to lay-offs” and “…the one window / light that calls us home.”
Cheryl R. Hopson, PhD, is an assistant professor of African American Literature at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Georgia. She has published essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, as well as on U.S. Black feminist sisterhood. Her chapbook Black Notes was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.
Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013. BJ Ward.
North Atlantic Books, 2014. 272 pages, ISBN: 978-1-58394-677-0
Jackleg Opera is the fourth collection by BJ Ward and is a collected poems gathering together over twenty years of amazing work. It was published at the end of 2013 by North Atlantic Books and should be on everyone’s bookshelf. Ward’s poetry is an incredible blend of wit, intelligence, playfulness and insight. He is a poet that not only loves language and craft but loves humanity, the adept phrasing that reflects the hidden emotional realities, charting what Emily Dickinson called the “internal difference where the meanings are.” His own words describe the accomplishment of his poetry, for his poems are
a net to capture the moment
but release the energy
This is appropriate for a poet who often writes about poetry, its power and purpose. That’s not to mistake his work for merely academic word wizardry. For his primary concern is with how we connect with other people, and language is one of the essential tools for that connection. So in a clever poem about the purpose of poetry called “Portrait of the Artist as Egg Salad,” the speaker is eating an egg salad sandwich which, of course, the reader can’t taste and in this context, he’s
. . . reminded of the thickest-
headed student I ever had—Debra—
who, when I told her her poem conveyed
nothing, said, “But I really feel this.”
So here we are,
Debra invoked yet long gone,
just writer and reader liaising
in the rectangular dining room of the page,
me still eating my egg salad sandwich,
you beginning to cross your arms and get upset
because I haven’t offered you anything yet
and you’re still hungry and it’s all my fault.
So poetry offers us or is supposed to offer us something that feeds us and nourishes us. In it, we often find the courage to face—or simple the ability to admit—the darker or wilder side of our own nature. It gives us a palatable way to assimilate the unavoidable darkness that is a part of our condition. These are what another poem calls “the molded hollows / in us worn from containing / and releasing, holding and letting be” (A Note to Karen). But those molded hollows are more than simply allowed to exist in the end; they are what make us who we are. Avoiding them is what a life of repression is built on and Blake’s specters are born of. But Ward is a wise poet and tries to guide us aright, for he tells us straight, as a Jersey poet would, “The more rocks we hit, / the louder we sing” (For Those Who Grew Up on a River). This embracing of the forces that wound us or are untamed within us, takes on many shapes in the poems. So in “The Noise I Make,” Ward declares, “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Or in “New Jersey,” it’s “the short, imperfect loveliness of groundhogs.” Or in “Spring Begins in Hinckley, Ohio,” it’s “a wrenching into tenderness.” That last phrase might contain the beautiful power of his poetry, for it is in understanding the deep wounds in us that we come to embrace the full extent of our humanity.
The poem “Compassion,” brings these elements together: that of the difficulty of intimacy in a modern metropolis and the compassion born of the deep wounding that defines a person. The poem opens
Out in this profane city,
seem the only cement that connects us
As the poem focuses in on a central figure living in this “profane city,” he is in his apartment “checking your scars / which spell your real name.” Later in the poem, the figure gives a dollar to a homeless man, and confronts the various voices that would condemn this compassion since the homeless man will simply “spend it on booze,” and “spend it on his / own death.” But in the end, though the central figure is a dollar poorer and isolated by his compassion from the callous voices that would deny the act,
. . . your inner
walls feel emblazoned by a song
rising from the fathomless depths,
a rosined bow rubbing
its awfully taut body
to make music.
Here is one of the rocks that makes us sing from the inner depths. This is the point of it all, the sine qua non of poetry, music—art in general, that, as Stevens put it, makes it a “dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough.” But, of course, at the other extreme, Ward also explores what separates us and, not surprisingly, it is often technology or symbolized by technology. Don’t presume he’s a Luddite for he does have a website. But, for instance, in the poem “No Job, No Money, No Girlfriend,” a person with an answering machine blinking to let them know he has a call, recites a litany of the various ways this means the world is reaching out to connect to him. But that expectation is destroyed when he presses the button and
a single electronic static train,
its boxcars full of emptiness,
departs from the speaker,
routes through my chest,
and out the front door—
. . . . . . . click
. . . giving me another hang-up.)
A wonderful double-entendre in which the language of our technology multiplies the emotional turmoil of the speaker. And technology has only accommodated this distancing with irony in something like Facebook, something Ward taps into with his poem “Upon Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on a Smart Phone,” which ends,
My friends are so thirsty with water in their eyes
so back to the well we’ll crawl:
Tell Plato to rise and rephilosophize—
Facebook is the new cave wall—
Our most popular social media for connecting with people is merely a shadow play of reality. Our connections are only phantoms of the truth as in Plato’s famous allegory. It’s also notable that here we find the relation of this disconnection to a thirst, that is, something primal in us that needs to be nourished since “my friends are so thirsty.” What poetry provides is lost in this network of virtual connections. Poetry, by using language in striking ways, reveals the hidden realities within us and provides a real, emotional connection to others across great distances and sometimes across impossible time. Most forms of social media, tethered and defined by the speed and rush of technology, often have a leveling influence on our language and interactions, and create connections that are as often fleeting and superficial as a single electrical spark. It is a problem Ward states with a kind of epigrammatic precision in “After Googling Myself, I Pour Myself Some Scotch and Step Out onto My Front Porch.” In it he says, “What a sum freedom plus apathy have equaled.”
But countering that apathy, that disconnection, is this collection of twenty-three years of great poetry and something to be deeply grateful for. It is among the best antidotes out there and should be marked by that peculiar phrase in his poem “Cross-Pollination,” which attaches to
. . . one of those rare moments in life
one would never get rid of.
These poems will strike you with their humor, their honesty, their emotional depth and their music. Like me, you may find yourself turning to someone and saying, “You have to hear this.”
Michael T. Young: Thank you, BJ, for agreeing to an interview.
Your newest collection, Jackleg Opera, is your fourth, and is a new and collected poems. Could you comment on putting it together: how and if you worked on the new poems to connect thematically in any way to the whole or just worked on the newer poems independently of any overall cohesion?
BJ Ward: I worked on the new poems as they came to me, not concerning myself with how or where they connected to the other work. Once I had about sixty poems that were publishable or had already been published somewhere, I chose and arranged the thirty-three new poems that make up the first part of the book. The thirty-fourth new poem I placed after my 2002 book, Gravedigger’s Birthday, as it serves as a coda for that manuscript. One of the best aspects of releasing a collected poems is the opportunity to revise some of the earlier work, an assiduity I have admired in poets such as Justice and WCW.
Michael T. Young: I love the title of this collection. Of course, “jackleg” means “unskilled or incompetent,” and yet your work is so wonderfully skillful. Also, much of the collection seems to be about embracing our imperfections. For instance, “The Noises I Make” declares “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Could you talk about that a bit: if you see this kind of embracing as important, or what its significance is in your poetry, or, perhaps even for one’s sanity?
BJ Ward: Although that line asserts that I rejoice in my imperfections, I actually have spent the better part of my life wrestling with them. I suppose I’ve come to live with them. Why did I write that line? I think of two things: Frost’s maxim that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion, and that final line in James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “I have wasted my life.” It’s reported that when Wright was later asked about that line, he said it was just how he felt in the moment of the poem. Supposedly he joked that after he had a sandwich he felt better.
Yet I hope there is also some kind of truth in my line, as your question seems to imply. I’ve always loved these James Joyce lines from Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
Michael T. Young: The poem “Filling in the New Address Book” ends saying, “why threaten any miraculous history,/any great testament, with knowledge/of how empty our current book of stories is?” The poem “And All the Peasants Cheered for the King. The End” which is a fatherly effort to preserve a child’s imagination against the harsher elements of reality and concludes, “The astronauts are still fastened in their flotation /The soldiers still guard the fairytales.” How important do you think it is for people (children and adults) to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life? In what way is it important?
BJ Ward: I don’t think we have to work too hard to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life. It’s always there. What we might have to do is learn to be comfortable with it. I question, even as I embrace technology, what we have lost in this age of information. I suppose my embrace is guarded. And somehow forced through my employment. Sure, the ready access of information is useful for many reasons, particularly in terms of a greater accountability of authority and the resultant effects on issues of social justice. But there is this thing in me that feels our urge to be connected through our devices might lead to an unquestioned, or at least implicitly sanctioned, “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I know I am not alone in this. And because of this, I am very protective of the silences with which I’ve tried to surround myself. In a different age of industry, Whitman had it right: he loafed in order to “invite (his) soul.”
Michael T. Young: The poems “Bandages” and “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not A Single Poem In It about Her” portray instances of breaking rules for a greater purpose, a kind of reaching out to others when it breaks with laws or social norms. This comes up in your other poems in different ways. I wondered if you might comment on this: do you see this as important in the greater context of our society and world? Why?
BJ Ward: So many heroes of mine were criminals in the eyes of those who were in power. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela. When you live in an unjust system, it may be morally imperative of you to break the rules by using the artillery of resolute compassion.
Michael T. Young: In “After Googling Myself. . . “ you write, “I toast all the engines/I never controlled.” And “Development,” ends with “But the houses/were just fields then./And we were wild.” A number of other places in the collection seem to quietly suggest an embracing of a wildness in ourselves, the uncontrolled. Do you feel this is significant and if so, why?
BJ Ward: I love Donald Justice’s penchant: he wanted the maximum amount of wildness a poem could bear. An artist should be aware of this wildness. I don’t mean to speak for others’ creative processes, but perhaps someone reading this can relate to it: in the act of composition, I’m riding the wildest form of the poem, almost as if seeing where it takes me. A term for this is “transport.” In revision, I’m taming it. If I do it right, what I’ve produced still has wildness. If I do it wrong, it either remains all wilderness or becomes too civilized, too “broken” (in horse-trainers’ lingo). I aim to have just a little more body in the poem than brain—a little more beast than math.
Michael T. Young: The poem “Delaware Water Gap, NJ Side, Election Year, Rush Hour, Hungry Again,” opens with “The sun slips like a tongue/down the sky’s neck/and the flowers within me//open to it all.” This recalls to my mind a moment in Rilke—I can’t remember where—a flower opens so wide to the sky it’s unable to close at night. I wonder if you see opening or exposing our heart to the world, to the greater reality around us, as necessary and if so why. What is gained?
BJ Ward: We create in a time when new houses are more likely to have back decks than front porches. A time of intentional obfuscation, with language that is deliberately imprecise. (In Oxford, NJ, close to where I live, the garbage incinerator and landfill is called a “Resource Recovery Center.”) Greed no longer seems immoral to us, but something that makes one admirable. How revolutionary an act writing a poem in America seems. By doing something so earnest and so outside the expectations of Western culture’s sense of “industry,” you are deliberately engaging in a deeper economy. The first gesture toward engaging in it is what you point out: opening ourselves to the outside world, like Rilke’s flower. The second is to protect that heart you mention, for the world is acidic, and it is drawn toward your compassion and your imagination. It wants to extirpate them. And the third part is to commit to a deep happiness, much deeper than the exchange of money.
Michael T. Young: “Aubade” says, “I want to be as precise with my joy today/as all those poets are with their suffering.” Even in your poems that deal with suffering or difficulties (I think of many of your poems about your father), there seems an effort to find joy and beauty, to be precise about it more than the suffering. It is also evident in the linguistic playfulness of so many of your poems. I wondered if you feel seeking out joy in spite of suffering is important, looking for the beauty rather than the ugliness that is surely always there.
BJ Ward: Langston Hughes viewed his role as a poet as having three important aspects: celebrant, performer, and seer. Although Hughes approached them differently than I do, I aspire to these three myself. (The third one is by far the hardest.) I don’t have to look hard for misery. It’s always waiting for me when I open that door. The writing of a poem is what helps me step past it. I’m lucky in this way; I know a lot of people who get stopped by the misery, and they have my sympathy. I’ve come to look at joy as an act of creation. Experienced fighters know that, when your opponent has a terrific defense, a tight guard that is hard to slip past, you have to “make your own hole,” usually with a combination technique. I find myself almost every day making my own hole in the ugliness that’s out there.
Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera and why is it significant for you?
BJ Ward: I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t have a consistently favorite poem from the book. Right now I suppose it’s “Wolverine The X-Man Kisses” because I just received a generous email from someone saying how much it meant to her. How it helped her understand her marriage. It was generous of her to thank me like that, and it was a powerful moment for me to receive her message.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?
BJ Ward: My first inclination is to say, “Too many to name,” but I’m always disappointed when other authors say that to this kind of question. It seems like a cop-out. So I’ll just name the first ten works that come to my mind. I’ll limit the list to prose by writers who are no longer alive.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Hamlet when I was younger and King Lear now; the great plays of Tennessee Williams. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. The letters of both Emily Dickinson and John Keats. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. All of Hawthorne. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel. The Bible. And the short stories of Raymond Carver. I am sure there are dozens of others I could have listed, but these came to me first, and even now I couldn’t limit the list to ten.
Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?
BJ Ward: I love baseball—watching it and playing it. Also, I’ve trained at a traditional karate dojo for 36 years now. But, given your question, I should say that the men and women I train with have absolutely influenced my poetry, although they wouldn’t know that unless they read this. Right now I train with a mechanic, two cops, a pharmaceutical executive, former junkies, a Shop-Rite cashier, a postal worker, two engineers, a church cantor, and a lumberyard worker, as well as hundreds of others over the last 36 years. The lessons I’ve learned from them have influenced not only my writing process but also many individual poems.
Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, BJ. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera.
BJ Ward: Thank you for the interesting questions, Michael. Here is the poem I mentioned earlier. A note about it: as far as I know, the Marvel superhero Wolverine only has one real superpower–the ability to heal instantly. That’s what allowed surgeons to line his skeleton with metal and place those retractable claws in the backs of his hands. The title notwithstanding, this poem is as much about loving someone who has (almost) stopped being vulnerable.
Wolverine the X-Man Kisses
His bones, lined with adamantium, are unbreakable,
. . . . . . . so his lover is just licorice and moth wings
in his careful palms.
And tucked within each open hand
. . . . . . . lie three knives, retracted,
but one thrust and snickt
(x, x, x)
whatever he holds could die.
. . . . . . . What delicacy is in his hug,
but is this a fair relationship?
Before you answer, know this:
. . . . . . . he is a mutant, able to heal
from the deepest of cuts,
and so to hurt him
. . . . . . . she must kiss him.
Look at his trembling lips
as he leans in to hers–see the nervous animal
. . . . . . . in his eyes, how it paces back and forth (x, x, x)
knowing there is no way out of love
but to suffer. He’s a mutant, but is he so different
. . . . . . . from you? Have you ever folded yourself
into someone’s arms, unsure of yourself,
knowing what you have learned in your life
. . . . . . . contradicted such tenderness, leaning in anyway,
lips separating, closing in,
the potential of blades
. . . . . . . running along your bones
just in case?
(from Jackleg Opera, Collected Poems 1990-2013 [North Atlantic Books])
You can learn more about BJ Ward and his poetry at his website: http://www.bj-ward.com/.