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During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Amber Flame. 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Amber Flame: It is necessary for me to create – I literally can’t help it, even if I gave up on putting it out in the world. I am compelled by everything; visual art, dance, music, as well as all kinds of writing, primarily for my own happiness. I always did write poetry, was drawn to writing creatively from an early age. I think now I am comfortable writing poetry because I can complete a piece in one sitting, which is harder to do with longer forms. So, I guess the biggest motivation for being a poet right now is being a single working mother who needs to write and having limited time to focus.

I am incredibly lucky in terms of the poebiz landscape! For the first time last year I made a commitment to submit my work for publication, and I am still reaping wonderful benefits. I haven’t actually worked on navigation with intent; my goal was simply to discover whether my poems could be successful on the page. The more I immerse myself in the literary world, the more motivated I am to better myself as a writer – always looking to up my level!

 

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

AF: My fortune is that I have somehow surrounded myself with creative people in all mediums. My friends and peers are artists and creators – giving me a motherlode of inspiration. Mixed in with that is the fact that I’m an avid reader and a trained musician, and the list of influences is too long. I am drawn to those who want connection most, drawn to the outsiders, to those who analyze the experiences they go through and make beautiful things from that analysis. That is what I am forever doing – I am a Black queer mother in the United States who was raised fundamentalist Christian by white people, and I’ve practiced Buddhism for over 15 years – there’s a lot to analyze!

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

AF: I love the things that make me gasp, make me think or wonder, make me jealous – where I wish I had written that, or had thought of that trick or perspective first. It is a very rare book of poems that can keep me all the way through, but the ones that do have just enough story and mystery to make me invest in the characters. Throughline is important. I want people to read my work and sigh, breathe “yes” or “damn” or to cry or feel a gut punch or laugh out loud. I want to break through their barriers or reserve and get under their skin. As for my aesthetic, I seek to be a wordsmith, a clever craftswoman. I want every word to be specifically chosen and elegantly placed. I value that in other art. Like when I find myself enjoying a Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift song because the hook is just so damn good, and it got me despite myself!

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

AF: I cannot avoid mentioning the loss I’ve experienced. I lost my mother earlier this year – she was too young and it was completely unexpected. I was with her when she collapsed and I still don’t know all the ways I am being shaped by the loss of her. She was one of my best friends, almost daily companion. The greatest grief of my life does influence every piece of art I make, of course. But I am too deep in the process right now to analyze it with any objectivity. Then, this fall, I lost my chosen mentor – the two most influential female figures in my life are gone, I am a mother without a mother. I keep saying I am not old enough to be my own elder. What I do know is that I am absolutely determined to be my best self, if only to honor them and my daughter. It is learning how to hold joy and pain at the same time, how to go on when there is no other side to get to – I will never get to “mom” again. The heartache quite literally knocks me down some days. I hear it won’t ever get better but it will get easier – I’m not holding my breath. Just deciding to get up and live well anyway. It is almost always someone’s creation that drags me out from under this shadow – be it a funny meme or video, an engrossing Netflix series, a song…

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

AF: I love so many books! Christopher Moore’s Lamb definitely blew my mind, though. I’ve read the Bible many a time and he does such an exquisite job – it’s easy to believe it is a part of the original story and makes so much sense filling it in. Also, we all know how the Jesus story ends and I still hoped… cried when the cruxifiction happened – that is some powerful writing. I also really love Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl series (this speaks to my less-than-discerning taste in fantasy, mystery and sci-fi fiction but is incredibly well written). As for poetry, Nayirrah Waheed’s Salt is more than anyone could ever ask for, makes me react in all the ways I seek to elicit from my readers as a poet myself.

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

AF: Being an artist and finding some kind of joy and/or release in the creative process is a great privilege. More than ever before, I am conscious and truly appreciative of that fact. Surrounding myself with artists who are working on a higher level than I am, or in a medium I never tried before constantly pushes me to grow. That, and a consistent daily practice shape the reality of my artist life.

 

 An award-winning writer and performer, Amber Flame is also a singer for multiple musical projects. Flame’s original work is published and recorded in many diverse arenas, including Def Jam Poetry, Winter Tangerine, The Dialogist, Split This Rock, Jack Straw, Black Heart Magazine, and forthcoming from Sundress Publications, Redivider and more. Her one-woman play, Hands Above the Covers: Hairy Palms & Other Nightmares of a Church Kid, was mounted under the auspices of a CityArtist grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. Since moving to the Bay Area, Flame works as a teaching artist and runs the Oakland Slam as slammaster. while performing daily feats of Black girl magic. She performs regularly on musical, literary, and cabaret stages, and works as an activist and organizer for a diverse number of queer and POC communities. Amber Flame is one magic trick away from growing her unicorn horn.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Sarah A. Chavez. 

 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Sarah Chavez: It’s funny, but I think a lot about what poetry does and how it has functioned in my life, but hardly ever why I ended up devoting myself to it. I did have other creative outlets: I played piano briefly and am fair at drawing; I even got within a class or two of an art minor with a focus in mixed media, and had a lovely professor encourage me to keep going with it, formally or not . . .

Sometimes I think what dictates the activities in my life – and to some extent, the people – is a sort of trial by fire or survival of the strongest, what’s left after the fall out. I love painting and drawing and collage, but those mediums are in some ways delicate, high maintenance. They require certain conditions, special spaces, a variety of instruments which can be costly: brushes, good pens and pencils, chalk, glues, epoxy, canvases. In comparison, poetry is like the working person’s art. All you need is something to write on and anything to write with. I used to write on the back of receipt paper while waiting to hear “order up” when I waited tables. I wrote in fifty cent notebooks between classes in college, and before that between chores when I lived at my mom’s. I’d take a pocket notebook out on ten minute cigarette breaks when I worked as an administrative assistant. Poetry (& writing in general) is portable and low tech, accessible. There’s a lot said about poetry being difficult and hard to understand, but ultimately, if someone gives a poem even cursory attention, whether or not they think they don’t “get it” overall, they will see an image, recognize a feeling, hear a pleasing set of sounds. Life, and our understanding of it, doesn’t happen in one linear comprehensive experience; it is snatches & moments. In that way I suppose poetry has always felt the most natural, it provides for me the best way to process and appreciate what I encounter in the world.

As for the poebiz landscape, I don’t know. It can be pretty rough, especially if you come from outside the literary/art/academic world. There’s so much insider knowledge no one tells you. I didn’t even try to publish a poem until I was getting ready to graduate with my MA, and I only did it then because I’d decided I might want to eventually apply to a terminal degree program and I found out you needed that sort of credential to be seriously considered. Once I started sending out my writing though, I realized it was a lot like other jobs: you just need to try, learn from experiences, & don’t stop; not if you think it’s what you want. Of course this is not to say sending out again and again after repeated rejections is easy, but when I look at the grossly low number of women, queer people, & people of color (this is true of other industries as well, such as academia), it becomes more than just personal desire for some perception of success. Navigating the poebiz and getting my work out into the world becomes about visibility and asserting the rights and talents of traditionally marginalized groups, about influencing the aesthetic of the literary landscape.

 

FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

SC: A few things in particular I am influenced by are music, visual art, & oddly enough sociological theory. Music especially has been huge, not a specific singer, band, or style of music, but the feelings elicited. I’ll become obsessed with a band or singer and will listen to them over & over again until the mood has fully seeped in. That mood usually attaches to social and/or personal associations, and it’s those together that the writing comes from, like I’m trying to recreate the mood or feeling of the music through my writing. Similarly, with the visual art, the influence is about having feelings awakened. The sociological theory though, that helps me intellectually understand and translate the feelings, especially as they relate to other humans. I want to understand the context from which both positive and negative behaviors and choices come from, especially as it relates to ethnicity/race issues and social constructions of gender and sexuality.

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?

SC: What I tend toward, both in what I write and want to read, is narrative and rooting in the physical. Language is about communication and communication, ultimately, is about connection. I want to use sensory details and the recognition and empowered engagement with our own bodies to aid in understanding. What makes art & literature meaningful to me is personal growth toward social harmony. I appreciate the skill & technique art for art’s sake takes, but at this stage in my life, I’d rather have visceral connection than marvel at solely intellectual endeavors. I want to see & touch things. I want to encounter something outside myself, but told to me in such a way that I feel it through my bones and blood. I think in many ways this is most challenging. It takes skilled craft and hard work to create that kind of situation, while maintaining the feeling of being organic. I want art & literature to work, to earn its keep, have a purpose outside itself.

 

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

SC: I can’t remember if I’ve told this story before, but when I was around 13, my friend’s mom stole a notebook filled with poems my friend and I had written together, set them on fire, and tried to have me arrested.

This friend of mine and I started writing limericks after my maternal grandfather gave me an Ogden Nash book. As is a convention of the genre, though the book contained many limericks that were cute and harmless, there were also many that were crude and, let’s just say, “inappropriate;” of course our favorites were the bawdy ones. My friend and I both had difficult home lives, but hers was particularly bad and we disliked her mother quite a bit. So whenever her mom would commit some new sort of terrible (or just the same old terrible all over again), we’d write mean limericks about her. The poems were often making fun of her appearance, or how she smelled. They sometimes focused on how pathetic we thought she and this guy she was dating were. We wrote them all down in a standard college-ruled, red-covered, spiral notebook that I kept with me all the time. And it wasn’t just filled with our limericks, but also some of my deepest young teenager thoughts, feelings, and fears.

One day my friend and I decided to take the bus somewhere, or maybe we walked to 7-Eleven, I don’t remember which. Either way, we knew we’d wouldn’t be gone for too long, so I just left the notebook on the dining room table. When we returned, we didn’t expect anyone to be there, because her mom often left in the late morning and didn’t come back until after dark (if she came back at all). The mobile homes we lived in had stilted side porches that went half the length of the structure, so when we turned to go up the steps, at first all we saw was smoke and the back of her mom’s house dress. As we went up the stairs, she turned to look at us, revealing the notebook smoldering in the pit of their Webster grill. I don’t remember what she said, but it was definitely screaming and something about how could we and we were terrible people and I was a bad influence and she never wanted to look at our faces again. She commanded I leave her property, but I said I wouldn’t leave without the remains of the notebook. She said if I didn’t leave she would call the police and say I was trespassing, I said “good, call them.” I was going to charge her with destruction of property.

One of the things that has stuck with me all these years and helped shape my understanding and relationship with art was the realization that writing caused that out of control situation (and it did get more out of control). Part of my friend’s mom’s yelling and crying was quoting some of the lines from the limericks back to us so we could hear how cruel they were. It occurred to me later that even though those dumb limericks were just born out of the imagination of two teenagers messing around, those poems were powerful. They evoked rage and pain and humiliation. We certainly never intended for her to see them, but it was more a fear of half-hearted grounding than anything else. It never crossed our minds that what we said and wrote could truly, fundamentally affect someone else. Since then, I’ve never forgotten the potential power encased in a poem. Even though reading was always a source of comfort for me, it was that experience that made me think maybe I could not just consume the words, but write them too. If I could be so affected by what I read, and my friend’s mom could be so affected by reading what we wrote, there seemed to be limitless possibility (and power) in poetry.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

SC: Argh, this is such a difficult question! There are so so many . . . If I have to pick one or two, and I stick to poetry because this is a poetry blog, and I don’t feel comfortable picking something more contemporary because I have thought about them less, then in my current state of mind, taking into consideration multifaceted awesomeness, then the two that have come to me first are Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words Under the Words: Selected Poems and Philip Levine’s What Work Is, and Adrienne Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New. And I totally just cheated. Twice. It’s cheaty to pick selected works, and I totally gave three titles instead of two. Anyhow, one of the characteristics that make these books so mind-blowingly awesome is their shared ability to accessibly discuss difficult emotions and social concepts while tightly controlling craft. Levine and Nye have both been criticized for being too plain-spoken. This is silly though, because why exactly is the striped down word or image “plain?” Precision is a talent and if someone can be precise, clear, and emotionally resonant . . . shit. Sometimes the best way to communicate about the things that are most difficult is to strip them down to the physicality of the experience. And while Rich doesn’t often have that criticism leveled at her work, she is also able to create sensory worlds in her poems that can set the body on fire. It’s a good fire, the kind that makes you feel more alive, makes you want to be a better person. I guess ultimately, that’s what these books have in common and why everyone should read them: you walk away from the poems wanting to be a better human to other humans.

 

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

SC: Not that I can think of. I thought the provided questions were wonderful and I deeply appreciate the invitation to think more about these topics and to share my thoughts with you.

FFF: Thanks so much for participating in this series, Sarah!

 

 
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Bared: An Anthology on Bras and Breasts and Political Punch: The Politics of Identity, as well as the journals North Dakota Quarterly, The Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and The Boiler Journal, among others. Her debut full-length collection, Hands That Break & Scar, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. www.sarahachavez.com

 

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

Deskins_Prairie Fires
Deskins_Choose with Care
Deskins_Love
Deskins_Prairie Fires
Deskins_Flowerets
The above text and images are by Laura Madeline Wiseman and Sally Deskins, from their book Leave of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affections, a collaborative work whose lush look at the body and nature in this collection offers a rich pallet on the human form and these tall creatures that stand among us. Moving from fairy tale to children’s book, film representation to fact, Leaves tells the love story of two trees as they fall from a growing forest into the outstretched limbs of the other. Deskins’ body and tree prints and drawings weave a rich ecology of place to show us that even when we’re reaching away from what we know, our lives are actually becoming more entwined, binding us to what we love. 
 
Sally Deskins is an artist and writer who examines womanhood, motherhood, and the body in her work and others. She’s exhibited in galleries nationally and published her art and writing internationally. She is founding editor of Les Femmes Folles and illustrated Intimates and Fools (poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). sallydeskins.tumblr.com
 
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of the full-length poetry collections American Galactic (Martian Lit, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). She is also the author of two letterpress books, nine chapbooks, and the collaborative book  Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her newest book is the collaborative collection of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. lauramadelinewiseman.com
 
Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.
Deskins_WonderBra
 

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. We are excited to have an extra installment of our Spotlight Series during the month of February, featuring the collaborative poetry-visual art hybrid work of Sally Deskins and Laura Madeline Wiseman.

Fox Frazier-Foley: How did you two come to work together? I know you’ve collaborated on other books/projects in the past. How would you describe your collaborative dynamic? What’s it like working together?

Sally Deskins: We met a few years ago via a poetry/exhibition event I produced in Omaha and thereafter did several events together until our first formal collaboration Intimates and Fools.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: We’ve luckily been able to participate in a few gallery shows and readings. Sally is a fantastic curator of exhibits of artwork by women. Our collaborative working relationship takes place online or over the phone. Though we once lived in the same state, now one of us lives on the east coast and the other in the Midwest.

SD: I moved to West Virginia where I’m currently in graduate school in art history. We worked remotely via email and phone conversations on our second collaboration that is just out, Leaves of Absence, and another that is in process! Thus far we have worked with Madeline’s writing first, then my reading and creating various drawings and body prints. I usually like to get ideas and feedback from her while I’m making it, so I’ll send her sketches and ideas. Once I have enough images with which to work and the writing is finalized, we work to find a home for the book.

FFF: What are your influences, respectivelyand I mean “influences” in terms of creative influences such as art/literature that inspires you or that you find yourselves drawn into conversation withbut also influences you may have personally, and socially/politically that shape your art?

LMW: As a gift, I received National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. I’d always wanted to learn about trees. I wanted to be able to name them—those in my yard, neighborhood, and city. I gave myself a writing and research assignment. I decided to learn to identify trees by the book and write poems about them, using the historical information and tree identification cues to inform the poems I wrote. I wrote dozens and dozens and let the story that became Leaves of Absence emerge. One morning as I explored a nearby city park looking for a tree that I could identify and write about, I thought about Sally’s art. She had recently sent images of new work—a watercolor illustration of a forest line of trees with women’s bodies within the darkened hues of old growth trunks. Along the trail in the park, a line of cypress followed a set of newly constructed houses, each back porch like the back porch beside it, but the trees’ trunks had shape, curve, lush evocative bodies.

SD: Most directly with these projects are the luscious words by Madeline of course! I read them over and over, together, in bits and I’ll pull sections or words that grab me, and create an image from there. I never thought about integrating nature with my body work until reading Madeline’s words which made it seem so natural to do! Of course I’m also constantly inspired by feminist artists from past and present, and this varies from day to day. I love artists who also collaborate and work with text like Judy Chicago, who has included either her own journaling, or words by other writers she admired like Anais Nin. Such collaborations and artwork inspires me greatly.

FFF: How would you describe the aesthetic of your work? What do you valuewhat, to you, makes cool art/literature? (I realize this question is a broad one, but I like it that the answers can be limitless!)

LMW: My aesthetic is eclectic. I am deeply honored to work with an artist as talented as Sally. She is the editor, publisher, and curator of Les Femmes Folles, that has published over 500 interviews with local and national writers and artists. It has released four anthologies, one for each year of LFF’s running. They each anthologize artwork, writing, and interview excerpts published during the year. I was lucky enough to have my work featured in the first anthology. I distinctly remember receiving the anthology, one I took with me as I was traveling to a Minnesota gallery exhibition of my collaborative work with another artist. As I read the anthology, I was astounded to see so many women presented with such care, thoughtfulness, and inclusion. It made me feel part of a powerful movement. Having the opportunity to create books with a woman who is doing such good work is a gift in and of itself.

SD: My personal artist aesthetic is feminist in intent, stylistically raw, bright and fun, and hopefully a bit unnerving. Madeline’s writing is feminist and often really subtle and surreal which I love. LFF’s aesthetic is broad, open, expressivesome with intentional feminism, some not.

LFF is inclusive and seeks to feature women featured and the anthologies who are passionate about their work, whether they are at a major point in their career, or just getting back into art, writing, acting, etc. I’m in my second year of graduate school for art history where I’m finalizing my thesis on the curative work of Judy Chicago and such study has helped crystalize the work that I find most provocative and necessary. For me,I like work with a feminist intent that has a broad reach makes the best literature and art.

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about somethingan experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

LMW: I loved one tree in college. Fall semester senior year in ecofeminism, we were asked to keep a tree journal—pick a tree and journal about it weekly. My tree stood outside my window, the only tree on a block of homes remade into student-apartments. It hid the alley and parking lot. It made a canopy of dinner-plate sized, like yellow-green hands. I once hoped to kiss another under that tree, but I never did. One day I heard chainsaws. When I turned the corner I saw them talking, cutting it down. My memory fails me here—did I gape, dash unseeing through the curling bark and brittle twigs or did I speak to them or did I stand with others to watch? Later, after they were gone, I foraged outside and grabbed a limb within my arms and took it inside. I propped it beside my desk. When I told my teachers, they said, “Pick another tree,” but I couldn’t, not for years, not until Sally and I began collaborating on Leaves.

SD: It’s hard to pick one. Many moments through books and art have inspired me—discovering Dada in high school, Valerie Solanas in college, The Yellow Wallpaper as a new parent, Wanda Ewing’s fearless figurative artwork, Judy Chicago’s autobiographies as a grad student and visiting Chicago’s The Dinner Party. I found common ground with all of these—and a sobering irony of women’s situation, women’s representation in art, and the high/low gendered value placed on art–that some things are still the same. But hopefully in making my art and doing LFF, raising my kids/having family along the way (not one or the other), I can make a difference.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read and/or some visual art that everyone should experience, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

LMW: I’ve mentioned National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Learning about trees, learning to name them, learning about their uses and history, I found fascinating and richly entertaining. It changed the way I approached exploring my city.

SD: Besides Intimates and Fools and Leaves of Absence and all of Madeline’s other books and LFF anthologies :), everything I mentioned in the last answer—SCUM Manifesto (Valerie Solanas); The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman), Judy Chicago’s Through the Flower (1972), definitely an exhibition of Wanda Ewing’s artwork (pin up girls, video grrrlzzz, her dresses, any and all of it). And of course, visiting The Dinner Party will change your life—experiencing a history of Western women is mind-blowing, after a life of being the same old HIStory. And of course it’s gorgeous.

____________________________

Sally Deskins is an artist and writer who examines womanhood, motherhood, and the body in her work and others. She’s exhibited in galleries nationally and published her art and writing internationally. She is founding editor of Les Femmes Folles and illustrated Intimates and Fools (poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). sallydeskins.tumblr.com

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of the full-length poetry collections American Galactic (Martian Lit, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), and Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012). Her dime novel is The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard, 2014). She is also the author of two letterpress books, nine chapbooks, and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her newest book is the collaborative collection of short stories The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2015) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. lauramadelinewiseman.com

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: Contemporary Poetry on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Nicole Rollender. 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Nicole Rollender: Probably like many writers, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t tell stories or write stories. When I was a teenager, I really zeroed in on writing poetry, after buying an 1880s volume of Tennyson’s poetry in a used bookstore. I carried the tome (it had a green cover with flowers on it, and was ragged at the seams) around with me, and practically memorized “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Two Voices”—I’d recite the stanzas to myself over and over. The poetic form always felt the most familiar to me—so is being a poet predetermined by our genetics or something else?

After I finished my MFA program and went out into the wider world, it was a different landscape than it is now. Barely anything was online. If you wanted to submit to a journal, you went to your local library, hoping they had a copy of the journal for you to read. Then, everything was also snail mail submissions. I know that’s dating me a bit, but around 2012, when I really came back to the idea of submitting (I had pretty much just been writing alone, not really interacting with the community at large), everything was different. Meaning that most print journals had websites and a presence on social media, there were many, many more online journals so you could actually read other poets’ work from your smartphone, and most importantly, you could connect with so many other poets via social media.

For someone like me, a by-night poet with a full-time day magazine editor job, two small children and an extremely limited ability to travel, I was able to start cultivating a life in the poetry community—reading others’ work, submitting my own work, volunteering my time to presses and journals, and workshopping with other writers. Like most poets/artists, I create work that I want to share with readers, so because there’s now a cyber-element to the poetry world, I’ve been able to put chapbooks and my first full-length collection out there. I want to keep writing, interacting, reading and sharing my work. I don’t ever see an end to it.

I read this excellent quote from Claudia Rankine on Facebook the other day: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” That’s where my poetry is rooted—in my body, in my body’s past, in my mother’s body, my grandmother’s, my children’s bodies. I write from my body, and perhaps that gives my poems a neo-confessional feel because they come from so highly personal a starting point even as they spin out into other people’s lives, and other events and topics. There’s also a very otherworldly/mystical element to my poems because I come from two grandmothers who saw spirits, and passed the ability to see down to me: I’m very aware of my body’s mortality and of the thin line between this life/ afterlife. The idea of the female body being a conduit for the living (babies) and also the dead (who go and in out of me at will) figures heavily in my poems for this reason.

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

NR:

1.  Religious iconography, medieval statuary, tomb effigies, saints’ relics and reliquaries

  1. Poetry by mothers, especially Adrienne Rich, Julianna Baggott, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Traci Brimhall, Cynthia Marie Hoffman, Audre Lorde, Rachel Zucker, Louise Glück, Jennifer Givhan and Jessica Goodfellow
  2. The acts of becoming pregnant twice, and birthing two children—watching my body unfold as creatrix, releasing new bodies into the world
  3. Poets of light: Lucille Clifton, Anne Carson and Louise Glück (again on my inspiration list)
    3. Men’s poetry in the vein of Timothy Liu, Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty, Ocean Vuong, Peter LaBerge, and of course, Rilke, Vallejo and Neruda
  4. Paintings by Frida Kahlo and Vincent Van Gogh; photography by Ansel Adams
    5. Music by Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Keith Whitley, Amanda Perez and Mary J. Blige. Gregorian chants.
  5. What Audre Lorde said of the poems in her 1986 collection The Dead Behind Us: “Here are the words of some of the women I have been, am being still, will come to be.”

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

NR: I’m an image-based poet who writes loose narratives by leaping images, scenes, vignettes. I gather the detritus around me, the grotesque and the gorgeous. I want my work (and I suppose also the work I read) to:

  • scream. It’s probably like the overly passionate lover singing below your window. It’s intense. Like Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and … all forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences.” My poetry is a love potion (poison).
  • be beautiful and arresting. I want it to make a reader feel discombobulated and coming apart, and then coming back together again.
  • stain. I want the images to stay with my readers for hours, days, weeks, maybe years, if I’m lucky. If I can ever come close to making people feel like the roof of the room they’re in when reading one of my poems just flew off, then I’ll have succeeded.
  • haunt. The dead appear pretty frequently in my poems as they do in my personal life. I’m haunted and so are my poems.
  • hurt. I don’t think I’ve ever written a funny poem. My poems come out of places that hurt or have caused scarring: What have I lost? But also, what has replaced what I’ve lost? There’s a story here in the poem—to get to some kind of resolution, there has to be conflict.
  • reflect what it’s like to be a mother-writer. Because once another body forms in your uterus, everything becomes different, alien, unmoored. Your body is not just your body anymore—between writing lines of poetry—endless diapers and bottles, all those baby milestones, first words, first days of school, projectile vomiting and falls off the swing set. But also, the type of love that cracks you open and never lets you heal, the small hands in yours. How when you watch them as they run across the yard and you think, “They came forth from my body in a river and now they can live forever.”

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

NR: This is how it was: I never really thought about being a mother—or looked forward to it, or dreamed of it, or even longed for it. My husband and I were married for five years when we decided to see if we could have a child—and the next month I missed my period. The truth is, I was terrified out of my mind. I thought I had done everything wrong up until I peed on the stick—ate rare steak, went tanning, had a glass of wine. I was totally unprepared.

But then, I was more unprepared for the way the pregnancy unfolded: at 35 weeks, one of the ob/gyns in the practice I visited told me my stomach was measuring too small, and told me to go to the hospital immediately. While getting the ultrasound, the room was silent. A doctor came in and ran the wand over my stomach again, telling me that my baby was only 3 lbs., because I had an abrupted (half of it was decayed) placenta, and that the child hadn’t been getting the right levels of nutrition and oxygen—and that she would be very small (severe intrauterine growth restriction), might have brain damage and would definitely be spending time in the NICU. Despite hearing this—this baby had kicked me in the ribs so strongly for weeks—that in my gut I suspected that she’d be OK, but I wasn’t prepared for how traumatized I would be by the time she got home.

Because I had a placental aberration the doctors tested my daughter (and me) for all kinds of things, including a CMV virus (that if contracted during my pregnancy could render her deaf at around nine months) test that I didn’t get the results on for three weeks. After almost four weeks, my tiny daughter came home, and we learned that the doctors could find no reason for the abrupted placenta—including CMV. (And as it turned out I would have a history of defective placentas, and two children who had no side effects from their complicated births.)

During that time, it was painful to do so many things, including write. I finally wrote a poem called “Necessary Work” (you can read the poem here) that went through many drafts. I carried a sense that my body was broken, that it could not do the necessary things that would get a child here safely. The poem was rejected from several literary magazines, and then after another rewrite, I submitted it to Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize – and as if in some bizarre twist of fate to me at the time, I won.

The judge, poet Li-Young Lee, chose my poem as the winner and wrote in part about it: “… Among the many virtues that recommend it are the vivid images, as well as a complicated music arising out of a deep unconscious word-counting and word-weighing. One can sense the poet sorting the music of thinking and feeling from the chaos of an outsized undifferentiated passion. But above all, it is the passion that I love about this poem, and how that passion is canalized by discipline to create a work of profound beauty.” And so, winning this contest galvanized me in a way that I hadn’t felt previously to believe that my work had value—that it could speak to others, that it could make them feel some deep emotion. This poem, in a way, saved me—and it’s still awe-striking to me when I read it and someone tears up, or someone I don’t know writes a blog that she taught the poem to her poetry class.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

NR: Hands down, Audre Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us. Like the poet, these spare poems are woman-warrior fierce and unapologetic. Lorde’s work focuses on difference – between groups of women but also of conflicts within the self: as Marilyn Hacker has written, “ … none of Lorde’s selves has ever silenced the others; the counterpoint among them is often the material of her strongest poems.” Lorde’s work speaks to me especially because recently, I described the poems in my full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Publications, 2015), this way: The narrator in these poems is many: women who talk to the dead, women who mourn dead mothers and grandmothers, women suicides, women who’ve been raped/escaped rape, women who cradle premature babies, women who suffer depression, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between their children’s bodily needs and saints’ incorruptible bodies. Lorde is many women within herself—her poems celebrate and confront those differences.

Also: Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s ridiculously amazing poetry book, Paper Doll Fetus (Perseus) is a collection of haunting poems about pregnancy and motherhood, and the history of obstetrics, from medieval midwives to early doctors who were pioneering the field. There’s an unusual cast of characters who speak in this collection, like a deformed ovarian cyst apologizing to the woman in which it grows, or a phantom pregnancy speaking to a nun who wanted a child. Since so much of my work does center on pregnancy and motherhood, themes that also figure in this manuscript, and the role this act of creation within the body plays for women in different time periods, I was happy to encounter this book now. I have a review posted on LiteraryMama.com, if you want to learn more.

 

 

 

Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly ReviewBest New PoetsThe Journal, THRUSH Poetry JournalWest Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, was published by ELJ Publications in 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX JournalRuminate Magazine and Princemere Journal.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Jasmine An. 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Jasmine An: I think that poetry fits my creative process because I am a slow thinker and not necessarily a visual one. Often times, I write poems to learn and to sift through my own thoughts. I won’t know the entirety of what I was attempting to say with a poem until I reach the often times surprising conclusion. There are other slow mediums in the world: oil paint, granite, gardening, but I trust my mind’s eye, and the readers minds’ eyes to interpret the sound of words into visual image if that is what is needed. I think I enjoy something of that ambiguity, the slowing of an extra layer of translation from language to ear or eye to imagination that poetry and other forms of writing necessitate.

As for the poebiz landscape: When I send poems out into the world, I hope that someone else can learn or feel something from the reading, just as I did from the writing. In order to write, and write urgently, I need to convince myself that I have something important to say. I think broadcasting and sharing is a crucial part of writing for me because believing my own thoughts are important enough to shape into a poem and send out is punching directly against the little self doubting thoughts, the haters, the sundry systematic and institutional forces that try to tell me my life and experiences aren’t worth voicing.

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

JA: Recently, my influences, or you could say inspirations, are history and inheritance, haunting and ancestral ghosts. In particular, my first ever chapbook Naming the No-Name Woman, which is coming out this February, is a collection of poems that I wrote around the figure of Anna May Wong. Wong was the first Chinese-American Hollywood star. She began acting as a child in 1919 and continued to act in both the States and Europe until her death in 1961. She is fascinating to me. Her career was dogged by racism and anti-miscengenation laws that prevented her from receiving leading roles because it wouldn’t do for her to kiss a white male lead. The roles she was typecast into often represented the most basic stereotypes of Asian femininity (the erotic Dragon Lady, or the submissive Lotus Blossom). Yet, there she was, in Hollywood during the mid 1900s, acting in major films like no Chinese-American woman had done before.

In writing the poems of the chapbook, I focused on Wong as both a historical and a mythical figure. Her presence in Hollywood grew beyond her as an individual and, for good or ill, became the archetype of Asian American femininity in the national imagination. To write, I watched her films and was shaken by both the beauty and pain I saw in them. I read biographies and interviews, academic texts on racial formation and literary psychoanalysis, and researched symbolically loaded facts from the natural world (butterfly migration patterns, care tips for Chinese water dragons), and then brought all of these disparate facts together to triangulate my own voice and experiences.

My recent project of writing about/around Anna May Wong centers around the idea of inheritance, or the haunting way the past reaches out and touches the present. In a way, I consider myself haunted by Anna May Wong, and/or her legacy. I must wrestle with what I have inherited from her and I do so through my poems.

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

JA: I’m a poet who started out as a tween writing novels for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and then wrote short stories through high school and didn’t write a poem until college. I believe in the weird and the surreal and the seemingly arbitrary image that suddenly reveals itself as the perfect metaphor. I believe in the small things that become large, or the quiet that implodes into such an absence of sound your ears must stand up and take notice. But perhaps because of my beginnings in prose, I believe in narrative most of all. Whether I am reading or working on my own writing, I always look for narrative. It is the hook that keeps me with a poem while I read, or anchors me to a poem that I’m working on. The presence of narrative reminds me of why I’m writing, what I hope to learn, and how I will draw the reader along with me.

In my own writing, I also I strive to follow Stanley Kunitz’s advice to young poets when he says that they must  “polarize their contradictions.” In my poems, I embrace both the individual and the archetype, the “exotic” Chineseness and the 3rd generation Midwesternness that are both integral parts of myself and my work. These are my contradictions. Adhering to a strong sense of narrative allows me greater freedom to play with the paradoxical and the bizarre. Five legged frogs, my childhood memories on 9/11 and a horse with a broken hip can all exist in the same poem if there is a strong enough narrative backbone to hold them together.

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

JA: I think really the only possible thing I can talk about here is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. I’m born in the year of the Monkey and ever since I was little both of my grandmas were telling me the story of the Monkey King. Sun Wukong is actually a character in a T’ang dynasty epic Journey To The West written by Wu Cheng-en. Journey To The West is a long and moralistic tale about a band of misfits seeking redemption by guiding a priest to retrieve the holy scriptures of Buddhism. However, when my grandmas told me the story, the storyline never really focused on Monkey’s journey to the west, but rather on his youthful exploits before that killjoy priest showed up. In my childhood, Monkey was less a priest’s companion than a trickster, a monkey god with fantastical magical powers who ate the peaches of immortality and overthrew heaven before losing a bet with the Buddha and being imprisoned underneath a mountain for five hundred years.

In undergrad, Monkey King returned to my life with a vengeance. As I was trying to figure out a single topic I could write about for ten weeks straight during an Advanced Poetry workshop, Monkey suddenly struck me as the epitome of the “bad Asian.” Monkey is not quiet, he is not polite, he does not sit still, he is nobody’s model minority. He is brash and loud and arrogant and demands to be recognized. What if, I thought, I wrote poems that placed Monkey in the Midwest? What if I was Monkey? What if I wasn’t Monkey? What if Monkey was here? That chapbook length series of poems, christened Monkey Was Here, after the scene where Monkey pees on Buddha’s hand and writes his name on the base of one of Buddha’s fingers, marks a turning point, I think, in my own writing. Writing to and through Monkey lit something in my poetry, a brashness of my own, and a desire to craft my own mythology of Midwestern Chinese-Americanness and then scrawl it across the bones of this place where I was born.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

JA: Right now I am absolutely in love with the chapbook Here I Go, Torching by Carlina Duan. The chapbook is the 2015 winner of the Edna Meudt Memorial Award from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies and centers around “documenting ‘American girlhood’ and ultimately redefining it… What, and who, is an ‘American girl’?” Carlina is a dear, dear friend of mine dating back to our high school days and has continually been an inspiration to me as both a human and a writer. The poems in this collection are utterly fierce and snappy. They rely on short lines and popping language that is absolutely at odds with my own writing style but all the more inspiring to me because of that difference. I am so in awe of the enormity of feeling boiling from these poems. Stylistically, this work reminds me of a cross between Aracelis Girmay and Lucille Clifton. Thematically, all of these poems make me weep for the truth in them.

Perhaps the most surprising and delightful book I’ve stumbled across in the past year is The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. It is a children’s chapter book told from the viewpoint of a gorilla living in a roadside mall exhibit. This unexpected book contains more depth of feeling and more truth bombs than many books of poetry. Ivan is a generous and heartfelt narrator. The prose is simple, yet all the more compelling for that simplicity. Secretly, this book is a better illustration of the transformation from apathy to social justice warrior than any soapbox essay or video clip. But at its heart, this is a story about a gorilla who comes to love a baby elephant and is determined to make her world better. I listened to the majority of this book on CD while driving across the Midwest as long as it was playing I wished I could drive forever.

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

JA: I don’t think so! These were great questions, Fox, and I learned a lot about my own process while answering them! Thank you for that!

FFF: Thanks for participating in our series, Jasmine!

 

Jasmine An is a queer, third generation Chinese-American who comes from the Midwest. A recent graduate of Kalamazoo College, she has also lived in New York City and Chiang Mai, Thailand, studying poetry, urban development, and blacksmithing. Her chapbook, Naming the No-Name Woman, was selected as the winner of the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming in February 2016. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in HEArt Online, Stirring, Heavy Feather Review, and Southern Humanities Review. As of 2016, she can be found in Chiang Mai continuing her study of the Thai language.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s second poet is Bonafide Rojas. 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the Poe-biz landscape?

Bonafide Rojas: I push myself harder than anyone else can to get better, especially when i don’t feel “creative” i push to write. I challenge myself by writing with forms that have constraints. I’ll write fifty haikus, twenty villanelles, or ten sestinas for me, no one really ever sees those poems. They’re for me to look at, to have, being consistent is key, longevity is a gift. Those are also
 my main points of motivation. Understanding longevity has allowed me to really approach things patiently, approach it from a point of view of “Will this be beneficial?” I still approach poetry from an organic way of wanting to be published, to publish & create products that not everyone is creating, but also understanding these are not for immediate releases, everyday is a new way to approach old practices, its one of the reasons i started Grand Concourse Press.

 

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/ other art), personally, and socially/politically?
BR: Graffiti has always been an influences on me, even before poetry was an outlet, so when poetry came my main outlet, i really enjoyed infusing them both, putting poems on stickers, writing poems in random places but wheat pasting poems has been on my radar for some time now. The Nuyorican School Of Poetry, The Black Arts Movement, The Beats, The Dadaist, The Surrealists, all those movements have had an influence on me. The colonial status of Puerto Rico has always influenced my politics. When you are from an island that has been colonized from 117 years there are some very difficult discussions to have with yourself, with your community, with your fellow artists & sometimes the poets have to share that story because that might be the only way younger generations will listen, liberation isn’t an always an older persons action, it relies heavily on the continuum of the next. Lastly, rock & roll, so much rock & roll in my life, it always comes through in my work.

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?
BR: I haven’t been asked about my aesthetic in a long time but I value the poem, the craft, & the process. I give the reader a different perspective of myself & of the story i am telling, a perspective they may never see in a conversation, or observation. I’m more focused, compressed & intense when describing poetry, reading a poem or when someone is reading my poetry. I think Art/Literature has always been cool but have we always treated it that way? I think we need to always share how important art & literature is to us, i always share how important poetry & art is to me & to my development as a person even if it sounds cliche. Let everyone feel the urgency in your voice, the passion, it is necessary because if an artist is nonchalant about their work & their process, then the onlookers who may have an interest in art will see it as “Ok, then it’s not that important.” Do you know how many times I’ve watched Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz & Sandra Cisneros talk about their craft & i don’t write fiction but i love hearing them talk about it. What’s important to me could be different things like in books its concept, theme, in poems it’s the same but i also look at structure, arc of the narrative, even the way the book physically, the layout. I love books, the smell of paper, the way the poem looks on the page, the line breaks, the words the poet chooses, the simple, the abstract, everything.

 

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

BR: There are so many moments: the first one that comes to memory is listening to Jimi Hendrix & The Beatles the first time, it really transformed my perspective in many ways like experimentation, boundary pushing, being vulnerable enough to show emotion in art. To this day i still listen to their catalog in wonder & amazement. In literature, getting a new book is always an experience, it changes me overtime, new words, new phrases, new & old emotions, a poem that inspires another, always writing to continue the tradition, to add to this foundation i created, fiction, non- fiction, graphic novels, & poetry all add to the landscape i create in my head. The birth of my son changed me, made me think of legacy, made me comfortable enough to think of the future, what will i leave behind twenty, thirty, forty years of work, this art i’ve cultivated has never been for instant gratification.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome. Also, feel free to add in anything else you might want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

BR: I taught a few workshops this summer & i start the workshop off by asking what are peoples favorite books & no one mentioned this one. I think everyone should One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez & i know it sounds funny that a Nobel Prize-winning author & book should get publicity from me but i’m always in awe when people tell me they haven’t read that. I was going to say Residence On Earth by Pablo Neruda, my favorite Neruda book, but i’ll mention ten writers people should read: Jason Reynolds, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Dennis Kim, Glendaliz Camacho, Roya Marsh, Rich Villar, Randall Horton, Nkosi Nkululeko & my two brothers: Willie Perdomo & Tony Medina.
I’ll take this moment to speak of my press Grand Concourse Press, it’s not an easy task to start a press, even though i do see people doing it which is good. We have allowed corporate big business to control what we read for a very long time & it doesn’t speak to the independence of the work that is out there. I started Grand Concourse Press to control my output, to control my work & not have someone tell me, you need to wait, we don’t like this cover. Why do we think we need a suit & tie to tell us well this will work, especially if they know nothing about the massive landscape of poetry today. I know some people say “If you’re a real Poet, you should have a real press to publish you” & you know what i used to think the same way until i realized my validation as a writer comes from me writing my poems & sharing it with an audience, a community, my peers & my mentors. I am still literally in a beginning stage with the press but the support has been amazing, I just released Dear Continuum: Letters to A Poet Crafting Liberation by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie & the response has been wonderful & I’m happy that she is getting that response because the book is amazing. I’m working on a new release for a poet who i will not name, only because they’re reclusive & would probably try to tell me to stop publicizing, but i’m excited about that release also, i’ll keep you all posted. Thank you for asking such great questions, Fox Frazier-Foley, thank you for including me in this spotlight.

FFF: Thanks for being part of it, Bonafide Rojas!

 

 

Bonafide Rojas is the author of three collections of poetry: Pelo Bueno, When The City Sleeps, & Renovatio. He’s been published in Chorus, Manteca, Bum Rush The Page, Role Call, Learn Then Burn, Mi No Habla Con Acento & Becoming Julia & numerous other journals. He is the founder of Grand Concourse Press, the band The Mona Passage & currently lives in The Bronx, NY. He loves pizza.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Kenzie Allen. 

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?

Kenzie Allen: One of the things I love about poetry is that ideally it becomes a fractal. The smallest parts of it, sentence, line, word, can each be a poem. Like a good sketch, there’s space and negative space in the poem, what is depicted and what is inferred, and the drawing’s refinement upon initial impressions through revision. Poetry draws upon music, the visual, performance, and ultimately is a celebration of language. It’s also the creation of an archive, to me, a history of thought to draw upon and enter conversation with, a measurement of the time and environs, and a space of persuasion, as well, a declaration of existence and as such, also a political act.

I’m also driven by that expressiveness in terms of my culture, my tribe and larger Native community. I’m looking up to people like Roberta Hill, Ernestine Hayes, Mark Turcotte—people who have guided my steps and given me things to strive toward in language and spirit. And my other mentors along the way, Kerri Webster, Laura Kasischke, Khaled Mattawa, generous people who are also great literary citizens. I want to be around in that same fashion, and connect to my fellow generation of artists and the next. And I love being part of the publishing side, reading submissions and curating content, and connecting to new authors in the process.

 

FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?

KA: I’m pretty obsessed with people. Human drive and desire, cultures and power shifts, the things we come up hard against or which propel us forward. When I draw, I draw portraits. When I shoot photographs, I center on people, or on the tiny details which reveal human presence, or on my own human gaze. I sing not simply out of a love of music but out of a love of expression—I want to feel things and I want to connect to others through that expressiveness. I think poetry can also represent a space of healing or processing as well.

I started out in anthropology, and the ethnographic mode is still something I gravitate toward in many aspects of my work. But it’s also a source of conflict (the history of Anthropology, indeed, most academia, is also a history of colonialist movement). But through that influence and lens I’m dealing with cultural conflict, colonialism and stereotype, experiences in forensic anthropology, and the estrangement of relocation.

And bars. I do write a number of poems about/in/all over bars.

 

FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?

KA: Words fail us. They fail to adequately impart the nature of grief, the pinnacle of joy—we’re all trying to communicate all the time but so, so often, words fail. So it’s a process of trying to get it right, or closer, all the time.

I love landscapes. But mine don’t turn out in the same way as a landscape painting would, with the saltbrush bushes leaping off the page and setting the reader in their own starkly particular corner of a town or meadow they know by heart. So maybe mine are human landscapes, cultural geographies, or memory-pinpoints. What’s important to me is story. Voice. Insider and outsider language; the peculiarities of association and what the body can and cannot tell us about where it has been and what has haunted it.

What’s cool? That shiver of perfect imagery. What I crave—for my chest to cave in and my ribs to ache, and yes, to cry. To feel things. To flinch. Dorianne Laux once said writers are sometimes described by the bystander as “unflinching,” but that in reality it is the writer’s job to flinch, to be moved by the world one witnesses, to have an emotional response and write from that space, with that sense of urgency and vulnerability. I can’t think of anything better to aspire to.

 

FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?

KA: I moved to my tribe’s reservation later in my life, and integration is a slow process. When I was 15 or so, I was given an Oneida name by the woman who developed a verbal dictionary for our language, Maria Hinton (whose name was Yake yale, meaning, “She remembers”). I refer to her sometimes as “Namegiver” in my work, for that is what she was to me.

She was one of the first people outside of my family who really embraced me, who cemented my identity, who wasn’t concerned about my quantum or my having grown up elsewhere. She knew who my family was, and she had given my mother her name (at the time, my mother’s name meant “She who travels”) and confirmed that we were Turtle Clan. I sat with her and we talked and talked, and I spent time with her each time I came to Oneida, even carrying an umbrella for her during one of our Pow Wows to shield her from the sun. I was still dying my hair red, I was still learning how to undo the pressures and confusion of my upbringing away from our community, but she put me in that place of honor beside her as we walked the long circle of Grand Entry.

I told her about my life, played flute and sang for her, and then she is to dream for three days, and the spirits will bring her the name in dreams. She had all the names and their associated clans written out on little index cards by hand in her shaking script, and they’re all different, because the names don’t go back to the spirits until they are no longer being used. One day while I was visiting the box of index cards fell over and I spent the afternoon alphabetizing them. She wrote out my name in this same fashion, Yakotl’ʌ:notati, which means, “There is music as she goes along.” It felt like coming home.

I’ve gone along quite far now, from Texas to Oregon to Michigan to Norway, and I carry that music with me. My grandmother was an opera singer, and my mother was She who travels. So I carry them with me, too. And of the three clans, the Wolf clan are the path finders, or law makers, or those who guide us in living our lives as the Creator intended. The Bear clan are the keepers of the medicine. And the Turtle clan are the keepers of knowledge, the earth protectors and the storytellers. So this has become a part of my legacy, to do what I do, to create and learn and teach.

 

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.

KA: I was only allowed to bring one book with me given everything else I had to pack on this latest trip to Norway. I brought Stephen Dunn’s newest, Lines of Defense. He’s just one of those poets I go back to when I need to feel some comfort.

 

FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?

KA:  :D Ahhhh!!

 

 

Kenzie Allen is a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, and she is a of Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sonora Review, The Iowa Review, Boston Review, Indiana Review, SOFTBLOW, and elsewhere, and she is the managing editor of the Anthropoid collective. Kenzie was born in West Texas and currently lives in Norway.

Fox Frazier-Foley is author of two prize-winning poetry collections, Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014) and The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), and editor of two anthologies, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: An Anthology of Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She is founding EIC of Agape Editions.

Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013. BJ Ward.
North Atlantic Books, 2014. 272 pages, ISBN: 978-1-58394-677-0

Click image to order on Amazon

Click image to order on Amazon

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
–Suzuki Dance

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,
sometimes sidewalks
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
against catgut

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.”

bj-ward

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/.

 

 

A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.

 

 

Natasha close up Two Sylvias

 

above us clouds wet as ink p.1

above us clouds wet as ink p.2

 

a much anticipated night

 

 

 

Natasha close up Two Sylvias

Photo credit: Ronda Broatch

Bio: Natasha Kochicheril Moni is a writer and a naturopathic medical student. Her poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in journals including VerseFourteen Hills, Indiana Review, and DIAGRAM. Natasha’s first poetry collection,The Cardiologist’s Daughter, was released by Two Sylvias Press in late 2014. More of her work and musings may be found at www.natashamoni.com

Elizabeth Bishop

When I first read Bishop as a young poet, I was dazzled by her perfect syntax and rhythmic modulation, the nearly flawless detail of images. Rereading her as, I would like to think, a mature poet, I am struck by the power of her social conscience. Pity is the underlying feeling she conveys, compassion and a deep feeling for the injustice of privilege. Few of her poems overtly express outrage, but it is very much at the surface with a poem like Pink Dog. It is so clearly about how society at large treats its poor and homeless, wanting them to just dress up and play a part so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable by their presence. But in light of it, I reflected on other, earlier, Bishop poems and realize they do the same thing, such as House Guest. Here is a figure who is forced to live a life not of her own choosing. In that context, the poem concludes,

Can it be that we nourish
one of the Fates in our bosoms?
Clotho, sewing our lives
with a bony little foot
on a borrowed sewing machine,
and our fates will be like hers
and our hems crooked forever?

It recalls Kennedy’s assertion that “freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” It aligns with what happens in the poem “In the Waiting Room.” The speaker, about to turn seven, realizes her singular self, “you are an Elizabeth,” and this is coeval with realizing she belongs to humanity, “you are one of them.” But this gives rise to countless questions of identity—what does it mean? So the speaker asks,

What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?

The poem returns, in the end, to its historical (and social) context: World War I.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

Again the poem is located in social issues, constructs. Where do our allegiances lie and why, the poem seems to ask. Or, more importantly, why decide to kill for country or cause when to be you or anyone, well, “nothing stranger/had ever happened, that nothing/stranger could ever happen.” All those running about killing and obsessing over borders and politics and power and land are like Bishop’s sandpiper, lost in the details of a world that is

minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!

Her poetry seems to say, take pity on us, on yourself. We are alone, even in the most crowded city. And for those with privilege, even more so, take pity. As the speaker in Manuelzinho says at the end, speaking to his land worker, whom he had looked down on,

You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or do I?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.
Again I promise to try.

Her poetry or its speakers do not even presume to know themselves fully. They have the humility of realizing that absolute self-knowledge is limited and to presume it is to fall into the same evil as those who presume to any kind of absolute knowledge. Every flawed one of us must humbly struggle to be a better person in whatever station we find ourselves.

sea change Jorie graham

 

This is the final part of Joan’s essay.

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

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

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

ever before in the recording

of such. Un-

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

down, can

feel it, yes, don’t know

where. Also submerging us,

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

unnegotiable

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

itself. Also sustained, as in a hatred of

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

nowhere & makes

one feel the mischief in faithfulness to an

idea.” (3)

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

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

“Like the right to

privacy—how strange a feeling, here, the right

consider your affliction says the

wind do not plead ignorance, & farther and farther

away leaks the

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

have now fastened again, the huge mis-

understanding round me now so

still in

the center of this room, listening—oh,

these are not split decisions, everything

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

play by rules, & if I say to you now

let’s go

somewhere the thought won’t outlast

the minute, here it is now, carrying its North

Atlantic windfall, hissing Consider

the body of the ocean rises every instant into

me & its

ancient e-

vaporation, & how it delivers itself

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

into us,” (4)

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

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

“The desire to imagine

the future.

Walking in the dark through a house you know by

Heart. Calm. Knowing no one will be

out there.

Amazing

how you move among

the underworld’s

furniture—

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

blink—“ (48)

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

“Here a

knotting of yet greater dark suggests

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

up and down a differential—so slight—of

temperature

and shift of provenance of

void—the side of your face

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

although this is only an

analogy for different

silences—oh—

the mind knows our place so

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

beautifully

down this spiral staircase

made of words, made of

nothing but words—“ (50)

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

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

linda hull collected poems

linda hull collected poemsThe Selected Levis

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Fever, down-right dirty sweat

of a heat-wave in May turning everyone

pure body. Back of knee, cleavage, each hidden

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

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

“a shock

of lavender clouds among shattered brick

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

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

“This morning’s iris frill

damp as fabulous gowns after dancing,

those rummage sale evening gowns church ladies

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

“the endless rooftop season

and sizzle, the torched divided cities…

Camphorous, awash a rusty satin rosettes,

In organdy, chiffon, we’d practice

Girl group radio-hits…

JoAnn vamping

Diana, me and Valerie doing Flo and Mary’s

Background moans…”(152)

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

“a landscape flagged with laundry, tangled

aerials and billboards, the blackened

railway bridges and factories ruinous

in their fumes.” (152)

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

and then later:

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

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

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

“Bend

to these iris, their piercing ambrosial

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

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

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

“The train

slashes its path through the neighborhood, whirr

and pulse. The heart and fuse of distance filling

the room, hurtling through countless frames,

the scene—now that curtainless room of young men

preening shirtless before their mirrors, now

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

By the screen, the white cat swivels her ears

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

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

I am the stranger coiled on the landing, singing

this is the bridge of the flying hands,

the mansion of the body. I am the one

who scratched at your door, the one who begged

rough coinage. This is the blessing

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

greedy alluvial choir, a cascading train

whirring the tracks; called back,

called back from the river.” (173)

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

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

a smooth oiled chord, as if there might be a

singing on the other side of the tracks.

Some Jordan. That otherness, those secret times

the bridges beneath the surface of life.

Pull on the rough coat and salt-wet shoes.

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

Could that have been me? Those figures crossing

The bridge, setting out, always setting out.

Voices I must keep listening for in these sharpening

Leaves, among stacks and flames,

The smoking pillars. Someone feed them.

Someone get them out of town.” (174).

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

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

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

In “Winter Stars” Levis opens with:

“My father once broke a man’s hand

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

Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father

With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

Two fingers, so it could slash

Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

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

And, for a moment, the light held still

On those vines. When it was over,

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

Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.

He never mentioned it.

I never understood how anyone could risk his life,

Then listen to Vivaldi.” (87)

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

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

And stare through the wet branches of an oak

In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars

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

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

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

Visited, a whole city placed behind

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

As when the lights go off, one by one,

In a hotel at night, until at last

All of the travelers will be asleep,” or until

Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind

Of sleep;” (88)

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

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

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

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

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

Like laughter that has found a finale, silent shape

On a black sky. It means everything

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

Cold enough to reconcile

Even a father, even a son.” (88)

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

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

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

Motionless leaves that overhung the streets looked the same

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

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

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

“Some people spent their lives then, having visions.

But in my case, the morning after I dropped mescaline

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

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

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

With a mixture of malathion & diesel fuel,

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

Dominus vobiscum, &, sometimes, mea culpa, until

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

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

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

Lifting heaven, locating itself somewhere just above my slumped

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

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

And tractors, helping swamp fruit out of one orchard

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

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

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

In a generation that would not stop falling, a generation

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

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

In the Summer of Love, in 1967,

When riot police waited beyond the doors of perception,

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

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

skirts and slack di piero

skirts and slack di piero

tretheway domestic work-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This essay will be posted in three sections. Part 2 will post on Thursday, October 16th and part 3 on Thursday October 23.

     Place plays a substantial role in establishing environment. Place can be used as a metaphor to define abstractions, as a backdrop that can help set tone or even as a character which can enhance movement and increase tension. Utilizing a sense of place can be an important factor in building depth in a poem and can be a significant tool for the development of characters.

     In the collection Skirts and Slacks, W.S. Di Piero uses place as a character as opposed to a backdrop to hang his characters upon. The characters do not merely exist where they live, place is used to give the reader additional bits of information that play out like vignettes around them. And although at times Di Piero’s characters seem to exist in spite of where they live, many times there is a subtle redefining of the habits of these characters through place.

     For instance, in the opening poem “Cheap Gold Flats” the title alone gives the reader some sense of style for this neighborhood. And even though the poem begins in a neighborhood bar, the image of those “cheap gold flats” seems to hang in the air waiting for recognition. This is a two-part poem, “Part 1.” Philly Babylon” opens with the bartender and whether or not the reader has ever been in one of these neighborhood bars doesn’t matter, Di Piero very effectively sets tone and place by appealing to the senses:

“The bartender tossing cans, carton to cooler,
hand to hand, with silky, mortal ease,
while the 4 p.m. beer and shot standees
study the voiceless TV above our heads.
The worst and longest storm on record.
Iceworks canal the pavements, power lines down,
Cars pillowed helpless in the snow.
Bus fumes vulcanize the twilight’s
911 sirens” (3)

     The reader can almost hear the clink of aluminum as the bartender tosses the cans, see them gliding as if he or she has watched the bartender perform this trick many times. The standees at the bar watch the voiceless TV as if this is a sacred place, which sets up the bar as if it were a sanctuary. We learn there is a storm. The wording here is particular “longest storm on record” not the worst, or the most snowfall, not even the greatest amount of damage, just simply the “longest.” Power lines are down, cars are “pillowed” which brings the drifts of snowed-in cars into a soft focus of airy snowdrifts with powdery white snow piled upon cars, angelic if form. The terms used to describe the storm and the setting does a lot to increase the feeling of seclusion in this opening section even though there is a group here there is little interaction among the characters.

“enter HAZEL, touching my elbow at the bar.

My Staticky Daily News breaks into the draft.

‘What’s my horoscope say today, honey?’

Dear Hazel, dear Pisces, don’t be hurt

Leave me alone a while, my mother’s dying,

I’ve been beside her bed for several days” (3)

     This intimate moment in which Hazel speaks to him and touches his elbow creates an interesting transition by breaking the silence with speech and continues with an unexpected insertion of the horoscope. This is such a great sarcastic break not only of the silence in the bar but lets the reader into the state of mind of the narrator. The reader finds out that his mother is dying without leaning on sentimentality. This line also reveals something more about the narrator himself. Di Piero pulls from the anger and hopelessness someone would feel about the eminent death of a mother: the seeking of isolation, the anger, the want to crawl into some sort of escape. The storm, the icy pavement and power outages now become a metaphor for not only the death of his mother, but the narrators state of mind as well. The chill he is feeling and the silence of the people standing in the bar watching the voiceless TV seem more significant now that we know he is in the midst of this crisis. This setting of the bar becomes a silent refuge for him until the solitude is broken by this sympathetic “touching” of his elbow. He no longer can escape the emotions that he is holding in and they begin to come out on the page.

“and when she looks above her head, she groans

to see whatever it is she sees, so here,

take my paper, go home, forgive me.”

     This passage does a few things. The mother looking up at some voiceless, soundless image harkens back to the men standing at the bar staring at the TV set. The “go home, forgive me” holds a double meaning. On one hand he could be talking to Hazel, on the other he could also be talking to his mother. The progression of place (the bar), the setting, (silent people standing around, frozen from the storm) and the actual emotional event the narrator is experiencing (his mother dying) all interconnect and foreshadow. Place becomes a character as important as the narrator, the other occupants of the bar, Hazel and his dying mother.

     In “Oregon Avenue on a Good Day” Di Piero also uses the senses to set place but in this poem he relies on taste and smell to set up this memory in which place becomes a concrete character.

“Some nights I dream the taste

of pitch and bus fumes and leaf meal

from my old exacting street.

This time home, I’m walking to find

I don’t know what. Something always

offers itself while I’m not watching.”

And then onto:

“enameled aluminum siding, brick,

spangled stonework, fake fieldstone

and clapboard, leftover santa lights,

casements trimmed in yellow fiberglass

our common dream of the all

and the only this, that’s exactly

what I can’t find.”

And finally:

“husband and wife inside, plus kids, suppertime,

pine paneling where scratchy exterior light

rises sweetly above a TV voice.”

     Place is as much a memory as a search for something the narrator cannot find or cannot regain. I find it interesting that in this poem the TV has a voice. The scene of the family having dinner has sound and a connection, unlike ‘Cheap Gold Flats” where the TV is voiceless. I like the idea of “a scratchy exterior light” The use of “scratchy” to describe the light shifts the feeling of this section into a completely different texture. This ‘scratchy” light from the exterior seems to be an intrusion into a memory diluted by time that threatens to “shed light” on this illusive thing he believes he has lost; the thing he longs for that may only exist in memory and not in the true reality.

     The poem “Hermes: Port Authority: His Song.” begins with the use of specific regional speech. The opening line is a type of hustler street-speak. Using a regionalism like this to open a poem is another way to set up place. The reader understands that this is happening in a city bus terminal and the character takes on a distinctiveness based on the idea of setting him in a city environment.

“Hey, mister, find a bus for you?

I burn my tracks, I stink.

I lay down in the dust.

And then:

“A dollar’s good. A quarter, too.

Any bus will do.

Wee got them all. There’s Teaneck,

The Oranges and Hackensack.

Atlantic City too.”

“”I’ll sell you pussy, nookie,

what you will. I’ll soap

your goodies in the men’s room sink.

O play me how you will.

Sleep tight. God speed your bus.

A dollar, quarter, dime will do.”

     This modern day Hermes is a very different messenger of the gods. This is the voice of no place. This is the voice of invisible existence and of things unseen. People ignore these unwanted, grittier people within all cities. This may be why the cities are named instead of described; this creates a namelessness that is created by treating places as well as people in this way. As if this new voice of Hermes is a universal telling of how all things have become: nameless, faceless, and disregarded. This is the voice of the hopeless and lost.

     Di Piero’s use of place as a character in Skirts and Slacks acts as another dimension for the characters and narrators to inhabit. Place not only begins to embody the character’s development but helps the reader to identify with even the most complex characters by giving the reader a solid anchor. But foremost in creating this place are the language choices that Di Piero embodies in these poems. This sense of collision that surrounds his characters is not limited to place alone.

     In “Pocketbooks and Sauerkraut” an essay from City Dog, Di Piero states that: “What my culture did give me was a sense…of language as the embodiment of contingency … but language … was swampy, crazily shadowed, and veined with unintelligible matter.” (43). Di Piero has created place in these poems from this “swampy, crazily shadowed and veined” language, and as a result, place becomes not only a naturally occurring extension of character but a solidly formed presence which acts as a character in itself to enhance and support the actions of the narrator and other characters in his poems.

     Natasha Tretheway’s domestic work, on the other hand, uses place in a very different way. Place in Tretheway’s poems is internalized by her characters. It is a sense that is carried within their movements. By using place as an internalized characteristic, she is able to create a persona that is expressed through the characters sense of their place in the world. In the opening poem of the collection, “Gesture of a Woman-in-Process” even the things around these women are part of them:

“Around them, their dailiness:

clotheslines sagged with linens,

a patch of greens and yams,

buckets of peas for shelling.”

“Even now, her hands circling,

the white blur of her apron

still in motion.” (3)

     The women are consumed as a part of the things that make up this place. “Their dailiness”; “the white blur of her apron”; the “buckets of peas for shelling.” All of these things speak to their work. There is little shared that is personal about these women. The chores they perform, the place that they perform it in and how they go about their day is interwoven into who they are. This truly epitomizes the idea of “I am what I do.”

     In “Domestic Work, 1937” The woman in the poem varies her movements and her temperament depending on place. Although she is doing the same work, her demeanor changes according to where she is:

“All week she’s cleaned

someone else’s house,

stared down her own face

in the shine of copper-

bottomed pots, polished

wood, toilets she’d pull

the lid to.”

But when she is at home doing the same work:

“a record spinning

on the console, the whole house

dancing. She raises the shades,

washes the room in light.”

“She beats time on the rugs,

blows dust from the broom

like dandelion spores, each one

a wish for something better.” (13)

     It becomes very clear that place is internalized into her actions. Her demeanor, her lightness is apparent in her own home, so different from her demeanor in the house of her employer. There is a joy apparent in the duties performed at home that are not present when she performs these things in the house of her employer.

In “Three Photographs” Thretheway uses place as a subjective part of her characters.

In “1. Daybook April 1901” she uses the narrative voice of the photographer who begins:

‘What luck to find them here!”

     This line turns them into objects within the photograph. Who they are does not matter. They are used merely as reference points to complete the photograph:

“two negro men, clothes like church,

collecting flowers in a wood.”

‘a blessing though their faces

hold little emotion. And yet,

they make such good subjects.

Always easy to pose.”

Even when she speaks of framing, it is still focused on the men in the photograph:

“how well this arbor frames

my shot—an intimate setting,

the bough nestling us

like brothers, How fortunate still

to have found them here

instead of farther along

by that old cemetery,” (6)

     They are not positioned within the things in the photograph; the things in the photograph are positioned around them. It’s as if as objects they hold more significance for the photographer. Flowers in a field would be incidental in a shot of an elaborate vista point so it seems that the men in this photograph are only necessary in order to capture the true nature of the “bough” or the “old cemetery.”

In “2. Cabbage Vendor” the focus is once again how this narrator does his/her work:

“When I’m in my garden

tearing these cabbages

from earth, hearing them scream

at the break, my fingers

brown as dirt—that’s natural.”

The narrator labels this work as being natural. Later, when the narrator speaks of the photograph it becomes the unnatural thing:

“But he will keep my picture,

unnatural like hoodoo love.

I could work a root of my own,

Turn that thing around

And make him see himself

Like he be seeing me—

Distant and small—forever.” (7)

     The idea that working the ground, pulling the vegetables is more the natural thing than her reflection in a picture is interesting in this passage. It brings again to mind the adage “I am what I do” which carries into the third and final portion of the poem: “3. Wash Women.” The narrator in this poem is looking at the picture. There is a different sense here as if the narrator’s connection stems from something other than familiarity. There is a communal sense of history and an understanding of that history that shifts between the narrator and the subjects in the photograph.

“The eyes of eight women

I don’t know

Stare out from this photograph

Saying remember.”

    The description of the work is supposed. This is a much more somber poem than previous poems in this collection. This poem gives the reader a more intensely disconnected feel. The women simply stare. The narrator supposes the lightness and joy in the chores but the faces of the women seem to tell another story.

“I picture wash day:”

“I hear laughter,

three sisters speaking

of penny drinks, streetcars,

the movie house. A woman

like my grandmother rubs linens

against the washboard ribs,

hymns grow in her throat.” (8)

     The narrator is giving us an imagined idea of these women working. It repeats the image of joyful work that we have seen in other poems in the collection until the poem comes to the final stanza:

“But in this photograph,

women do not smile,

their lips a steady line

connecting each quiet face.’ (9)

     This is the first hint that this is not happy work. This is the first time the sense of these women is different from the outer expression they portray. They are “a steady line connecting each quiet face” which tells the reader that this internalized place is dark, prison-like and inescapable.

     I find it significant that Thretheway uses place in this way. Many of the portraits in this collection are displaced persons. Slaves that do not belong to the homes they inhabit or the jobs they are perform. They seem to carry a sense of belonging only to themselves because of this displacement. They have been forced to fade into the background to survive and so in a sense they have become part of the place they inhabit. This is more of a social commentary than it first appears. In some ways, this idea of belonging to self and contented abiding within seems a very zen-like thing. But when the reality of slavery is considered this becomes a much different perspective. The fact that the people in the pictures are regarded as owned objects is significant. When viewed this way, the expressions on the faces in this picture become a reminder not merely of displacement, but of ownership. Slaves were often listed on manifests along with other “owned” objects: houses, furniture, china, bales of hay, acres of land and heads of cattle. Family members “willed” slaves to other family members at death and often used slaves to settle debts and disputes among landowners, trading them as if they were mere objects. So in effect, the only place for these women to have any power or strength is to revert to something internal that cannot be taken away from them.

     The differences in the way Di Piero and Tretheway use place enhances the characters and the settings in each of their collections. Di Piero’s poems are city poems. They have a beat and a strut, which narrates a type of separation from place so that it becomes something that enhances the poems as a separate character. Tretheway‘s characters don’t belong to the places they inhabit, so they carry these places inside themselves whereas Di Piero’s characters, imprisoned by their own actions, emotions and choices, pull out of the scenery around them like a 3-D image.