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
I smell myself
In order to start over
Since everybody is so
Terribly clean these days.
At the baby shop
The cribs have names
& 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
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.
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.”
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
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
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 Limn, Impluperfections, 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).
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.
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
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
Some random meat
The jizz dripping out
of my eye sockets
& burns down my cakeface
fright gown + sea urchin
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
is scaly + She has a grotty disease
of the gums Her junk
is prob rotten
Her hoofs r def fake
Let’s spank her
Let’s spank her &
all the way out of
our fossilized love
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
April loves a challenge, choosing to split
the slab of winter-hardened earth with the
silk tongue of a crocus. She casts the stiffened
brooks as her fandango dancers. At first
they crack and groan, call her the cruelest of
taskmasters but April persists, persuades:
the streams ripple, sequined and agile. For
April even forgotten roadsides can
ruffle out in a froth of forsythia,
waving brash wands of membranous stars
that glitter like eternity, then float to
the ground, a wasted galaxy melting
into the land while this uterine
muscle of a month bears down, rousting
the fetuses each from their dark havens,
thrusting them naked and mewling into
the hungry light. The least of April’s exploits
is lulling us: we are so eager to
ignore the hollow echo of the daffodils’
blare and the lithe red tulips’ throats of snow.
Bliss is included in Appetite for the Divine (2006) and first appeared in Natural Bridge.
Christine Gelineau is the author of Appetite for the Divine and Remorseless Loyalty, both from Ashland Poetry Press, and co-editor with Jack B. Bedell of the anthology French Connections: A Gathering of Franco-American Poets. Widely published in journals and anthologies, Gelineau is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize. She teaches at Binghamton University and in the low-residency MFA at Wilkes University. She’ll be spending this April anticipating a new foal from Anastasia, the mare she was photographed with here.
THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE
BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN
NYQ BOOKS, 2013
All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.
Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision. In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.
In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.
Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:
My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small
Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper
with orange vases, bright yellow flowers
and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,
especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.
The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop. Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place. Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.
The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.
Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:
Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing
at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her
that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice
it has no right to require.
This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”
Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’ The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:
How grateful I must
remember to be, to hold
so much in my hands.
so much in my hands.
Prayer for Topaz, 1942
Mom said you are busy and don’t have time to listen to a little 8-year-old Negro girl from North Carolina and her foolishness, like praying for a box of candy. That would be selfish. But if it’s really important she said, then I should take it to you in prayer like the preacher says on Sundays.
I’m not asking for anything for me. But I’ve been hearing the kids at school talking about some place out west called Topaz. At first I thought they were talking about a spot to get rings and flashy jewelry, but Margaret’s big brother, Ed, who’s in 5th grade, says it’s something like a jail where they put Japanese people. I didn’t believe him because he’s always trying to scare us girls. So I asked my dad, and he said it’s true. The government put them there so that the country would be safe. I know that some Japanese airplane men did some bad things in Hawaii back before Christmas, but the people they put away aren’t from over there. They’re Americans and some have been here since before I was born. Some of them are just tiny little girls like me.
I know, God, I’m young, but I really don’t understand how the government thinks that a little Japanese girl could hurt this big country. Anyway God, I’m praying for you to take care of those little Japanese girls and boys. I hope they have some toys to play with and maybe some candy. I hope they get to go home soon.
And God, while you are doing that, could you also watch over me and my family and all of us at school. I worry that we might be next.
Le Hinton is the author of five poetry collections including, most recently, The Language of Moisture and Light (Iris G. Press, 2014). His work can (or will) be found in journals such as Little Patuxent Review and the Baltimore Review, anthologies such as The Best American Poetry 2014 and outside Clipper Magazine Stadium, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Long-time resident of Miami poet Michael Hettich has been writing and publishing poetry for over three decades now. His friends and students here in South Florida have luckily benefitted from the closeness and dialy-ness of his presence and work, so too have many of his long-time readers here and abroad. As the three poems to be shared here will show, Hettich’s is a poetics of external and internal metamorphosis and regeneration, at once fed by and still feeding from elemental forces many times taken for granted because of their everyday groundedness in time and place. With a powerful impetus that has always seemed to me Ovidian, his poetry is always immediate, action-packed, vivid and engrossingly visceral, even when subjective fancies enter lyrically or narratively mid-stream. In an always trusting and refreshing manner, his poems invite all readers to dwell in them for a little. His are poems to be lived, explored, worn, dreamed or, many times, breathed as mantras.
To prove these highlighted observations I have taken three poems from Michael Hettich’s The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers Press, 2011), a fairly recent award-winning volume. Because he is readying to publish a new collection in April (tentatively titled Systems of Vanishing), I purposely took three arguably recent poems that deal specifically with a poet still trying to cope with the almost decade-long loss of his father. And the beauty will be apparent immediately—for they are not poems of morbidity, rigidity, melodrama or woe-is-me lamentation; instead, they are poems of remembrance that have transformed personal loss, change and impermanence into a newfound wakefulness, a here and now celebration and witnessing. In these poems there is no hint of regret, just a new “way of staying present.”
Measuring the Days
My father dives in and swims off across the bay,
tries to swim all the way to the other side,
swims past slag islands of mucky-drift and mangrove
crowded with birds that don’t notice him.
If he makes it to the other shore he will walk home, barefoot
and dripping. This is his weekend routine,
his way of staying present. But of course we miss him,
cutting the grass or walking through the neighborhood,
talking to acquaintances or glancing at the sky.
Even the minnows swim through him now
as he slowly dissolves into the current. And we remember him
like hair and teeth, like skin–if we remember him
at all. He swims as he always did, steady
and relaxed, reaching forward and pulling, kicking hard.
Concrete and Mortar
I dreamed I was running backward, through fields
and woods, feeling as though I was about to
crash into a rock, or a tree, or fall into
a river and be swept away. But still I ran on.
The windows in our bedroom this morning are dusted
with pollen that smells like damp mushrooms, or like
pipe tobacco in a rarely-opened drawer.
The wild coffee is blooming too, and full of buzzing bees.
Your father has died, two thousand miles away.
The mortar anchoring the bricks of the house
he built with his father, the house you grew up in,
has been crumbling away, falling back to sand.
The workshop he built himself in the back yard
will be pulled down; all his tools will be scattered.
We were married in that back yard. Even the mountains
are slowly coming down. I remember that basement,
the cool darkness where your brother slept the days away, for years.
I remember your mother making cards and gifts down there.
Everything is secret, or else it wouldn’t need to be.
Everything is waiting. Certain days we couldn’t see
the mountains from your parents’ street. Other days they loomed.
The Small Birds
They ask us to understand our grief
by simply leaping out, trusting the air
which is far more complex than sorrow, to follow
all we’ve ever done with a pure heart and change ourselves
completely, but never for long.
Someday, you say, you’ll be glass in a window
that looks across a landscape of wilderness and snow
which will melt when you go out there and walk, because
you’ve loved someone well. But whom do you love,
after all? For now, you open that window
and lean out. For now you just watch things: vivid rugs
on hardwood floors, closets full of clothes
that would never fit you, where another person’s smell
lingers for years. And then it vanishes.