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During 2016, the Spotlight Series (usually) focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s surprise!-special-feature third poet is Jen Fitzgerald.

 

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?

Jen Fitzgerald: My creativity makes me feel as though I am functioning at my highest level of “human.” It comes, entirely from within me (I of course recognize inspiration and stimuli), it forms inside of me, and then I am the means by which it finds its form outside of me. It is something that I have denied others access to as a kind of self-preservation. Very little was mine throughout my childhood and adolescence. I vigilantly protected my thoughts, imagination, and drive to create. I kept my inner life sacred. Because of this, having my work in the world is alternately exciting and slightly unsettling.

Right now, I am interested in “full rooms.” I find these through a mixture of photography, poetry, prose poetry, and the lyric essay. A “room” could be completely full with only a few couplets, or it may take a series of photos and prose for readers/viewers to inhabit a space, wander around, and feel present. I do this by feeling—like reaching around in the dark until you recognize a form and grabbing hold.

What primarily propels me is that I am not supposed to be able to do this—I wasn’t supposed to be able to go to graduate school, I especially was not supposed to be able to go to graduate school for poetry, and I am not supposed to be able to define my life by my art. My family didn’t pay for my school. I worked three jobs at some points while going to school part time. It took me ten years to earn my bachelor’s degree.

Because I felt like I didn’t belong in these spaces of higher education, I was extremely anxious that it would be taken away from me, that my achievements would be credited to someone else, and that no amount of labor would ever be enough to prove that I had the intelligence, ability, and drive to be a successful writer and poet. I tolerated exploitation because I thought it was the only way a person like me would be granted access. Because of this, I worried a lot about “poebiz” at the beginning of my writing career—I no longer do.

 

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

JF: I find myself most influenced by framing the world around me. I do this primarily through photography—essay and poetry follow shortly after. By moving through whatever landscape I am in, looking for the perfect frame, I feel that I am “elevating the everyday.” There is so much art present in simple moments!

I understand how important it is for working-class, blue-collar people to see themselves in art. They think, as I have been told, that these experiences are not worthy of artistic rendition. From witness comes action—this stands true, further as: from viewing comes creating. Art moves us; it moves us especially to try our own hands at building, painting, sculpting, and making tangible representations of beauty. Those with power are all too quick to cut off the majority of our population, our laboring population. There is talent among the ranks of men, women, and non-binary laborers. There are artisans and creators, there are innovators and a resourcefulness that one would have to witness to believe. But they know about whom stories have been written and who appears in portraits. It can be discouraging. We artists can subvert that understanding with our own labor.

 

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?

JF: I like to think of myself as an “Ashcan Poet.” If you all are unfamiliar with the Ashcan School, definitely look them up. There were a group of artists, loosely affiliated, at the end of the industrial revolution in this country. They were disenchanted with academic realism and they rejected Impressionism. They sought, instead, a gritty realism. This was also during the time of Riis’ documentation of NYC slum conditions in, “How the Other Half Lives.” Their paintings were journalistic and sought to render truth.

Poetry, like painting, can become a sort of self-replicating algorithm, where we do what has worked best for centuries so that we can get in under the radar. I am interested in innovation, taking risks, and challenging myself to challenge the art form. I have seen a movement toward this ideal in contemporary, American poetry, especially among emerging poets. And I fucking love it.

What is cool/important?

Hybridity

Realism

Hyper-Realism

Narrative Drive

Grittiness

Honesty

The Body

 

I value impact—I know what I want to do and what I want my poetry to do in the world. I value connection. While I may not be “a poet’s poet,” I of course want my fellow poets to read and connect with the work as I have read and connected with theirs. Just as I wrote this for my peers, I wrote this collection for the members of UFCW Local 342, for my grandparents, for undocumented workers world-wide, and for anyone who works three damn jobs and still finds time for their art because it is the only way they feel at peace—the only time they know bliss.

 

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?

JF: Two, disparate and unlikely bedfellows come to mind as helping me form as a writer. These were, hearing Maurice Manning read for the first time and Super Storm Sandy.

What transpired on Staten Island during and after Super Storm Sandy has deeply affected me as an artist. I learned the difference between voyeurism/exploitation and framing to elevate. I began to understand that we have a responsibility to represent ourselves. If we don’t, we leave ourselves open to misrepresentation, historical revisions, and being made caricatures of through the skewed lens of the privileged.

 

Fact: History Gets Revised.

 

I am cursed with a long memory and a keen sense of injustice. My writing is memory interacting with artifice. I will drag a fragment of each of these facts through every sentence I write:

 

  • The borough president reported to the city and state that Staten Island was fine after the storm, some downed tree limbs at most. He hadn’t even left his neighborhood. The entire shoreline of our island was devastated.
  • It took six days for the Red Cross to show up. They started soliciting donations 24 hours after the storm. Proud people made on-air pleas to get some sort of help. The discomfort and pain of asking for help was apparent on their faces and in their body language.
  • The NYC marathon was due to start only two days after the storm. AIG set up heated tents with hot food and drinks at the starting line for the runners. The starting line was near marsh land where we were looking for the bodies of our missing.
  • After threats and protests by islanders asking for help and respect, the marathon was cancelled. AIG packed up their tents. The entire surrounding area was comprised of homes torn to shreds, overcrowded shelters, no electricity, no heat, and families riffling through rubble in their yards to salvage whatever they could of their lives. They watched the unused heaters carted off and the untouched coffee poured out on to the street.
  • Mayor Bloomberg flew a helicopter around a portion of the shoreline, landed for a few minutes to make a statement, and then left. He did not return again.
  • We set up our own relief networks. We solicited our own donations and distributed them to our neighbors.
  • Entire communities were uprooted, there was a mass exodus of poor folks, renters, and those who couldn’t afford to rebuild. Insurance companies did everything they could to not pay up. Portions of the island will never be the same again.

 

The first time I heard Maurice Manning read, I was in the auditorium of The College of Staten Island (years before Sandy). Much of my knowledge of poetry was the classics, and I was not wholly impressed. When I heard Manning read, when I heard the cadence of colloquial, I was struck. I didn’t know I could render, so honestly, the people in my everyday life. My people have a cadence too— it may not be as melodic as Manning’s, but it still sings. And they live ordinary lives that I too, could elevate to music. It made me feel powerful.

 

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.

JF: I think that every poet should read books about the natural world, clouds, storms, plants, flowers, fauna, etc. I think every non-fiction writer should read The Red Book by Jung or Joyce’s Ulysses to sit in completely disorientation with the furthest stretches of what the human mind can do to reality, and every fiction writer should read poetry to release their pen’s inner scalpel. And those who don’t write, have the luxury of reading absolutely everything for sheer enjoyment.

I also suggest finding three different mediums that deal with the same content.

Lastly, I suggest reading whatever the hell you want because we get enough syllabi, recommendations, and must-reads.

 

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

JF: I’d like to talk a little about what I’m working on right now—in particular, the new collection I’ve been focused on for the past year and a half. The poems, so far, have been written while traveling the country in a sort of frenzy or fear of staying still. I just moved from Staten Island, the place I grew up, the place my family has called home for nearly 200 years. It was part of my identity and moving from it deprived me of the insulation that ready-made identity affords. This distance was necessary to create emotional and geographic space from past and continuing trauma. This is coupled with the desire to understand what it means to be an “American,” and the geographical, historical, and moral boundaries that go along with this term.

This collection is about “hiraeth,” the Dutch word that means nostalgia or homesickness not only for a place, but for the feeling a place elicits. I moved from state to state hoping this longing and confusion could be assuaged, that a feeling of comfortability could be triggered and I might feel at ease, maybe even at home.

These States of our nation, These States of mind, These States of being all represent the varied people, terrain and beauty that we are surrounded by in our everyday lives. We don’t need to run frantically, though I do recommend it for the wanderers and explorers, to find a new version of ourselves. I discovered that a physical journey to find where one belongs is actually a journey into the self, regardless of how the landscape might change. I am still on this journey and wonder is this very journey is not simply a life well-lived.

 

Jen Fitzgerald is a poet, essayist, and native New Yorker whose work has been featured on PBS Newshour and Harriet, as well as in Tin House, Salon, PEN Anthology, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among other places, and is forthcoming at Colorado Review and Public Pool. She is the host of New Books in Poetry Podcast as part of the New Books Network, and a member of the New York Writers Workshop. Her first collection of poetry, The Art of Work, is forthcoming with Noemi Press in September 2016.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s second poet is Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.

 

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?

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: So, at the core, I believe myself to be a storyteller. I think of myself as someone who sits in the tradition of black storytelling, and I think poetry is the best way that I can get those stories outside of myself and into the world where they can (ideally) meet other people who see themselves in them, or live them in a different space. I think that is my motivation on both fronts. I’m not too into all of the pobiz stuff, if I’m being honest. I keep track of it, I’m a poet who writes and publishes, so I’m active in it. But it’s a space that I think holds the art back by holding up all of the wrong things and people so frequently. I see poets of color changing the landscape. Queer and trans* poets changing the landscape. The pobiz aspect of it is rarely interested in holding that up, and so I think I’ve weirdly created my own pobiz. It’s mostly just a biz where I push that work to the front and try to make it more visible.

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

HWA: I’m getting much more into pulling influences from non-poetry places. I still get my main influences from poetry, of course. All of my peers/friends/the legends who occupy the genre. But I really pull from a lot of other things. I love Josephine Baker. I watch and read a lot of Josephine Baker interviews, over and over. I really pull so much from the way she moved through the world as an artist who was deeply engaged in social movements. Same with Nina Simone. Those are my two bridges, right now.

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?

HWA: I like work that I can fit inside of, even if it is about an experience that is not my own lived experience. So I try to offer that to anyone who reads my work. I think the writing should be a living breathing space. As much as a museum, or a park, or your favorite room. What is most important to me is crafting that space and allowing people to walk inside of it. I don’t necessarily believe that the work should always teach. Sometimes it should be funny, relaxed, something to escape into . . . but an escape, nonetheless.

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?

HWA: Terrance Hayes’ poem “We Should Make a Documentary About Spades” was the first poem I read that made me feel like I could write the way I wanted to. A narrative that seems scattered, but is still tight, hitting all of the right notes, speaking to a very specific type of blackness that I understood. It was an entry point, to me. A thing that told me I could rejoice in and talk about culture and have it be understood. I was lost before reading that. I was trying too hard to bring people along for the ride. It opened up a world in which the ride is already full of your people, just waiting for you to join.

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.

HWA: A book I think that everyone should read is Alice Walker’s The Temple of my Familiar. It is the first book I fell in love with, and I just re-read it like last year. It has aged well. I think it’s the book that gets lost in her catalog, but it’s risky. It takes chances when dealing with narrative and voice, in ways that a lot of books don’t. It taught me how to write into story using my voice in as many different ways as possible.

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

HWA: I have a book coming out! My first full-length poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much comes out July 19th, from Button Poetry!

FFF: Congratulations! Tell us a little bit more about the book. What was it like writing it? What are its overall goals, as a project?

HWA: It was hard to write, specifically because in order to pull it off the way I wanted to, I had to revisit memories and places, and force myself to be honest about them. The pursuit of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake is, most often, dishonest. I approach nostalgia, most times, with a type of selective honesty, and I couldn’t do that here. It’s a book that offers a small window into the generational violences of gentrification. And so, I had to consider how these things sit in emotional and physical spaces for myself and people I love. That’s hard, especially when I’m talking about the dismantling of my actual home—Columbus, Ohio, a city I love. Pulling that grief out of myself and sorting it out on paper was hard. But it made me feel closer, more connected to the city that still remains.

 

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, a columnist at MTV News, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is being released in 2016 by Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. 

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?

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza: My drive to write mostly comes from my inability to understand and deal with my own emotions as a trans feminine/mentally ill/traumatized person in a world that kind of hates all of those things. With poetry I can attempt to subvert the language of the world that has been inscribed on and within me against my will. In navigating the poetry world I am motivated by the same thing that motivates me to navigate the world at large, and that is simply surviving as unscathed as possible.

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

JJE: Panic attacks, comments sections on articles about trans women, bad dreams, good dreams, bad memories, good memories, poems I’ve only half-read, windy days, people who I love and who inexplicably love me back, the possibility of the end of this world and the emergence of a better one.

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?

JJE: There’s a line in one of my poems that goes “the only aesthetic i have left is survival” and I guess that sums it up pretty well. I’m interested in art that does some kind of work in addition to simply existing as a beautiful object. I would love to be able to just create aesthetically pleasing work or whatever, but I don’t feel like I have that luxury. I’m more interested in disruption, not in the sense of being shocking for its own sake, but in the sense of challenging that which keeps me in the position of having to fight for survival.

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?

JJE: Before I finally admitted to myself that I was trans I had spent a long time getting sicker and sicker, physically and emotionally, from the stress of holding it all in. I hadn’t cried in years and every day was one long panic attack. Near the end of this I stopped eating and was totally dissociated from everything. I was sure I would soon either be in the hospital or dead—but finally something in me broke and I just started crying in the car one day. I remember vividly my head against the window, the sun warm against my face, staring off at some mountains in the distance and sobbing because it all felt so real for once. I started feeling everything again and within weeks I was like “Holy shit—I’m not a man and I never have been.” I think a lot of my work attempts to recreate those moments of breakage, of transcendence through pain and destruction, of the necessity of tearing something down in order to discover or create something better in its place.

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.

JJE: Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip completely destroyed everything I thought I understood about poetry, history, and the articulation of trauma. José Muñoz’s Disidentifications is essential for anyone interested in a non-whitewashed history of a queer and trans resistance that operated through the strategic appropriation and purposeful confusion of the cultural products and signs of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the gender binary.

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

JJE: Not that I can think of! Thanks!

 

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. Her work has been published in The OffingThe Feminist WirePEN America, and elsewhere. Her full-length poetry collection THERE SHOULD BE FLOWERS will be released this month (August) through Civil Coping Mechanisms. More of her work can be found at joshuajenniferespinoza.com and on Twitter @sadqueer4life.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s second poet is Cam Awkward-Rich. 

 

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?

Cameron Awkward-Rich: Well, I’ll answer in reverse: I don’t know if I do navigate the “poebiz landscape.” Obviously I must, but it feels pretty unintentional, almost exactly like standing in the corner of a party full of people who are unbearably too brilliant and too beautiful (or just unbearable), but this party is where all of your friends are so you’re there too, standing in the corner hoping no one will notice you though of course they will because you’re a) being weird, over there alone and b) wearing that one outfit that makes you feel pretty. I’d like to say that I’m motivated to put my work out there because I really do believe that art both marks and expands the boundaries of what is possible to know/think/imagine and when I was growing up it would have been nice to have evidence that someone like me existed, that I could be thought. Of course that’s true. But, also, poetry is where most of my dearest friends live, so I live there too.

I think the first part of this question boils down to why poetry? It’s probably not enough to say that I have terrible visual aesthetic sense, yeah? Terrible fashion, terrible hand-eye coordination, terrible. But I’ve always known how to work with language. In part, it’s because I’m terribly anxious, so almost anytime I speak coherently, you can be sure whatever I’m saying has already been composed, crafted. Even before I started “writing,” then, I’d had a lot of practice. Also, I’m learning that poetry is not necessarily my medium. Essays (lyric, standard academic, etc.) are really my jam. What a poem can do better than an essay, though, is appeal to different registers of sense, both as in sensory info and as in making sense. Poems let us communicate/understand things (feelings, ideas, experiences) that don’t make sense as if they did.[1] And, honestly, as someone who finds the world, my self, and others utterly bewildering, I need all the help I can get when it comes to making sense.

 

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

CAR: To avoid making a long, nonsense list, I’ll say that I’m sort of a sponge: I read too much and watch too much and am too easily pulled in the direction of whatever I am currently consuming. That said, the things that I am most inspired by and am trying (and failing) to align myself with (creatively, personally, and politically) tend to be by femme and/or queer poc whose work turns away from the imperative to “humanize” (i.e. make legibly human according to the logic we’ve inherited) poc/queer life and instead engages the awkwardness, violence, persistent strangeness produced by that very endeavor. There are, in particular, visual artists working in collage (Alexandria Smith, who generously provided the cover art for my book, and Wangechi Mutu are two of my favorites), poets (Francine J. Harris and Ronaldo V. Wilson are two contemporary touchstones), and speculative fiction writers (Larissa Lai, Octavia Butler, etc) whose work has helped me think about how I’d like my life/work/politics to align. That said, my poetry actually operates mostly in the confessional mode, which I think is also an important mode and has been personally necessary for me at this particular moment in my life.
(The abbreviated nonsense list goes, in addition: my friends/peers in this weird house party, soap operas, movies that take place in tightly bounded worlds (i.e. spaceships, underground colonies, single buildings), my sister, other trans writers, my cat, academics who manage to navigate the academy without becoming creatively/intellectually/politically diminished, old ladies who don’t give a fuck, theory that delights in witticisms, people who ride the same bus and/or train every day, devastating novels.)

 

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?

 CAR: Oh, all kinds of things. Anytime I come away from a book/poem knowing the world differently somehow. Anytime a phrase or an image gets stuck in my head like a song. Anytime an aesthetic object makes me react viscerally, moves me to laugh or (less frequently) cry or throw it across the room. As a reader, any of these marks an object’s success, so, as a writer, my work’s capacity to affect others in similar ways is how I measure my own success.

Also I suppose I should say that there is plenty of art that moves me in ways I’d rather not be moved: to feel, again, the persistence of white(cisheteromale) supremacy. There’s always the question of whether something can be “good” art despite being rooted in, reinforcing, and/or coming from someone whose actions perpetuate various oppressive ideologies. It’s a hard question, I think. Because one wants (I want) to say no, but then one inevitably cannot help but be moved by, even enjoy, problematic objects, as all objects inevitably reveal themselves to be. So while I want to say that the most important thing for me in my work and the work of others is this political dimension—does this object help me to imagine other worlds?/give me respite from this one?/expose or rework its harms rather than perpetuate them?—I also think that everything I write and most things other people write fail at this in one way or another. Still, in the attempt to not fail, new possibilities open. Which is the difference: art that moves me to feel white supremacy again might actually be incredibly “good,” or at least successful, art. But it lacks the surprise, the challenge, the freshness of work that actively tries to do something else. Cuz what’s less surprising than racism, ableism, misogyny, transphobia, etc?

 

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?
CAR: During my senior year of college, both of my mother’s parents died in pretty rapid succession. I feel weird saying that their deaths altered my writing style for the better, but retrospectively I think it’s true. I never felt very close to my grandparents for all of the usual reasons: being a petulant adolescent, differences in religion, being obviously queer and always wary about what that might mean they thought of me. Anyway. After they were gone, I discovered a glut of speech, things I’d never said but should have or wanted to, questions I’d never asked.
Throughout college, my writing—but especially the writing that I thought of as Poetry—wasn’t really aimed at communication. It was confessional, sometimes, but I didn’t really think about the reader. Often I’d think of a poem as a little puzzle, not a speech act. But I found myself wanting to talk to my grandparents, so I wrote my first poem that was intended to be performed. It was straightforward and sentimental and cheesy. But it moved people, people who’d never known my grandparents and people who loved them dearly. And that’s, initially, how I found my way into the world of slam and spoken word, how I started valuing a poem’s capacity to affect, and why I started writing poems in my own, ordinary voice.

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.

CAR: A book or two?! What do you think I am? That’s way too much pressure, so I’ll say that a book that I’ve been thinking with a lot lately is Eli Clare’s Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness, & Liberation, which was out of print for a sec, but Duke University Press just reissued. It’s a wonderful example of the hybrid criticism/memoir genre and also, sadly, still feels ahead of the times (even though it was first published in 1999) when it comes to thinking gender, sexuality, ability, class, and, to a lesser extent, race together. Clare asks hard questions that today we seem hesitant to ask, let alone approach the answers to. It also manages to be a great intro text for people not already thinking about disability justice, in particular. Also it’s beautifully written.

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

CAR: Not necessarily. Though last time I appealed for help in an interview it worked out pretty well for me, so I’m going to do it again. I’ve been feeling pretty stuck lately, in terms of writing, and have been looking for books that will unstick me. Not like self-help books, but like novels so devastating or critical theory so gorgeously absurd or movies so strange they’ll shake me out of it. Anyone have suggestions? Hm?

 

[1] Taken from Jonathan Culler Theory of the Lyric page 184: “In a wonderful book, Precious Nonsense, now largely neglected, Stephen Booth uses the example of nursery rhymes to illustrate poems’ ability to let us understand something that does not make sense as if it did make sense. We seem to take pleasure in accepting nonsense…”

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, their poems have appeared/are forthcoming in The Journal, The Offing, Vinyl, Nepantla, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Cam is currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University and has essays forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Cortney Lamar Charleston. 

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?

Cortney Lamar Charleston: I’ve got a lot of things to say about the world. I’ve always had a lot of things to say about the world, but haven’t always been confident enough to say them, smart enough to articulate them, artful enough to make them strike the chord I wanted them to, at least before poetry. People who have known me long and well may disagree with that, but it’s my own personal assessment, and in looking through my own eyes, I’m never quite as good as I want to be in regards to my intent of being in strong service of good: goodness. Poetry, however, has brought me closest to that (what I know to be) unreachable ideal. It relies on the mind and heart working in tandem, effectively communicating on two wavelengths at once. Anything I’m attempting to say, about myself or what I see around me, needs to be understood in both ways for there to be any hope of collective progress, in my estimation. We know the shortcoming of law is that one’s opinions, beliefs and feelings can’t be legislated, but does poetry, does art more generally speaking, have the same limitations? I don’t think so. I believe within a poem there is metamorphosis. A person is never the same after reading a poem, whether they realize it or not; it molds in a slow and unassuming way. Instead, the challenge is in getting more people to read poetry, to engage it with their mind and their soul. Access is everything, accessibility absolutely vital: again, this is my opinion. That is what has inspired me to get involved in “poebiz” as you call it. Whereas poetry is often seen as some ivory-tower pastime, something institutionalized and therefore not meant for wide consumption (by design), I’m attempting to bring forward language that resonates beyond the tower through the channels it has created for dissemination of verse. And to also do the same beyond those channels, because ultimately there are different audiences to be found across the landscape, from journal to journal, in print and online, and I’m not intending to restrict my words only to one set of people over another. Rather, I’m trying to speak to everyone because I believe my words are somehow relevant for everyone, regardless of their lived experience or mine; I want folks to experience their humanity just a little bit more and allow others to experience theirs. I’m pushing people in that regard.

 

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

CLC: When I need inspiration, a spark of creative energy, a push to the pen—I tend to go to music, usually hip-hop. For me hip-hop has always been there, and if I’m being honest, it is the reason I fell in love with words in the first place. For something that is often talked about so reductively outside of the fan base, people forget that it has a more expansive vocabulary than any other genre of music and it defies the conventions of language to make new modes of expression regularly. Every time I put on a record, I’m forced to bend my mind around the words and I follow by bending words around my mind. Hip-hop also provides something to analyze, to critique whether in terms of artistic execution or its underlying politics, which makes sense, as hip-hop was a militant child, so to speak. Now, other musical genres hold a lot of sway with me as well, but I always feel compelled to shout out hip-hop in a positive way when given a chance such as the one presented by your question. Beyond the music, I also find a lot of motivation to create from my peers, many of them accomplished artists and activists and scholars in their own right. They give me and give my words something larger to be part of and remind me daily that the work I want to do can’t be done in isolation. They remind me that in sharing my work isolation is what I’m running from, as well as the fear isolation produces. I know that fear. I’ve seen that fear. I’ve seen what that fear does. It’s destructive of self and community. In these tumultuous times, it’s undoubtedly time to run towards each other.

 

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?

CLC: I have the most difficult time talking aesthetics in poetry, but I’ll do my best! In my own work, there are three things I’m often trying to do at any given time: (1) provide a musical experience, paying close attention to sound and/or rhythm; (2) invoke an organizing concept and/or conceit to its maximum effect; (3) avoid the use of words that I don’t use in everyday speech. I tend to hold myself to these guiding points whether my poem leans narrative, leans lyric or falls between the two poles. Because this is what I attempt to do in my own writings, it also makes sense that I’m pulled to the work of others that do any of these things whether singularly or in some combination. It all goes back to what I said before about accessibility and access as well as what I said regarding a poem working on the mind and soul; I want people to be able to enter a poem and feel comfortable in it. I want it to talk in their language. I want it to sing to them and soothe. I want it to make them think, to make them be contemplative and quiet their confusions. When I read, I always want to be brought to that place and really start to make sense of myself, and make sense of life, to the greatest degree I can. I want to be forced to ask questions and challenged to answer them. I want to be dared to be still and see through the haze. Funny thing is, in noting the symmetries between what I strive to do in my work and what I long to receive from the work I encounter, I’m making a small admission that I’m trying to create the work I need for myself. I’m the hand penning a kind of personal scripture. That’s damn beautiful if I think about it.

 

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?

CLC: This type of question for many, I think, often leads to discussion of a type of trauma. What I want to do, instead, is talk about a moment that offered me joy, perhaps more in retrospect than it did in the moment, but still. Back in college, as a freshman, I had a prospective student from Chicago who I knew visiting campus and wanted to show him a good time. Looking for something to do, I took him to a spoken word show that I’d heard classmates talking about, not really knowing much about it, but having heard positive buzz. In that show, I found folks about my age speaking to life and death, speaking to violence and tenderness, speaking to comedy and tragedy and doing so all in their own unique voices from their own unique perspectives. These people had something to say about themselves and about their place in the world. It was affirming for me. It was liberating for me. It showed me a path forward after searching for years for a comfortable and viable mode of expression. It was that moment that made me a poet and one committed to speaking generously through myself but not necessarily being overly concerned with myself exclusively, which is a delicate endeavor. But even still, poetry, time and time again, has helped steady me when I felt I was going under, whatever the trigger may have been and no matter how many times I tried to direct the focus of the work away from me.

 

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.

CLC: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz is an unflinching look at the mispronunciation of love. Partly because of Diaz’s wildly colorful language and partly because of when in my life I read the book, it continues to stick with me and requires me to interrogate how I carry myself within the bounds of commitment to a partner, especially in regards to selfishness and the ease with which I can claim and wield masculine privilege to her harm (or even my own). The stories that comprise the collection were real to me in a way that many books simply aren’t; they were insightful but primarily because they weren’t written from a retrospective clarity or wisdom. Instead, the stories invited the reader to live in and through the muck, where our behaviors and decisions, good and bad, are contextualized but not fully rationalized nor forgiven and certainly not forgotten.

Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall is simply one of the best collections of poems to hit the market in the past few years and certainly one that should be on everyone’s shelf. If I had to describe the book in one word it would simply be Chicago. The Chicago that Marshall so beautifully and fully renders in his verse is the one that captures negative national headline after negative national headline, but is given no real narrative in the process, nothing that speaks to the true character of the place and the many, many people who call it home. For all its rough edges—its willingness to push (re)imaginings of violence, vice, poverty and politics to the forefront of our consciousness—it is undeniably tender. It is full of love. It is authentic and invested with great purpose. It literally sings in praise, its musicality no doubt owing to the talents of its author as a rapper and student of the break beat. Sure, I may be biased in my assessment of this book both knowing Marshall personally and having the love for Chicago that I do, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who picks up this book and reads it walks away without being transformed for the better (and also made to have a bit more flava). I honestly just can’t fathom it.

 

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

CLC: The only thing I can think to say, at this point, is just how unbelievably grateful I am that anybody has read my work, taken interest in it, taken it to heart. What a blessing it is to be heard; thank you so much for listening.

 

Cortney Lamar Charleston is a Cave Canem fellow, finalist for the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize and semi-finalist for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry JournalGulf CoastHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe Iowa Review, The JournalNew England Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Spillway, TriQuarterly and elsewhere.

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

 

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?

Samantha Duncan: I’m still very new to being a poet and the po-biz world. The majority of my creative work and education was in fiction, until about four years ago when I more or less switched over to poetry, so I’m still learning a lot through my experiences being a poet and press and journal editor. There are specific challenges that motivate me to write poetry—there’s a succinctness to it that requires cleverness and intimacy with language, and that really exercises writing muscles I don’t always use in fiction writing. It’s that uniqueness of the form and construction of it that drives me to stick with poetry, despite it not being my primary writing field.

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

SD: I don’t consider myself a terribly artistic person, outside the writing spectrum. I became heavily interested in book arts and papermaking, several years ago, and a lot of those little details make their way into my writing. It’s such a tactile form of art that’s fun to write about. I also cite music as perhaps a second love, after writing, and it’s a vast landscape to draw inspiration from, whether it be someone else’s song lyrics or my own experience with playing instruments.

I have a Sociology degree and I’m a news junkie, so those issues are constant influences. No matter the direct topic, I’m always looking for the stories and voices I feel aren’t being heard enough. Some would argue that the prevailing point of view in most poetry is that of the straight, white, male, and so a greater representation of experiences is important to me, both when writing and when choosing work to publish as an editor.

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?

SD: I really value inventiveness in poetry. As writers, we’re examiners of language, and poets have the unique opportunity to create our own molds for that language, to affix a personality of our choosing to it. We’re allowed to subvert the act of straightforwardness, and that opens doors to a free-play word arena. I really admire poets who write with such a rhythm that seems natural yet doesn’t sound like anything you’d hear in regular conversation.

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?

SD: Not really an experience or art piece, but I’ve written a lot about Malala Yousafzai since her attempted assassination. Her life and her relationship with her father fascinate me and have awakened me to some new realizations about my own upbringing. Her story has also led me to read and write more about women’s oppression in less developed countries, which can be very different from the inequalities women face in America, but just as important to talk about.

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.

SD: There are so many poets I think everyone should read, for many different reasons. I’ll throw John Ashbery out there, because I think people should become more comfortable with the notion of enjoying work they don’t always fully understand. He’s not extremely accessible, but he’s re-readable, and you get a little more out of him each time you do.

Fiction-wise, I think everyone should read Margaret Atwood. I have a long-standing beef with the fact that 1984 and Brave New World are on school reading lists but The Handmaid’s Tale mostly isn’t. Also, Amelia Gray’s Gutshot, because I love women who write weird, grotesque little stories.

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

SD: Nope, I think you squeezed everything out of me. Loved this interview, thanks!

 

Samantha Duncan is the author of the chapbooks The Birth Creatures (Agape Editions, 2016), One Never Eats Four (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Moon Law (Wild Age Press, 2012), and her work has appeared in The Pinch, Meridian, Stirring, and Flapperhouse. She serves as Executive Editor for ELJ Publications and reads for Gigantic Sequins. She lives in Houston and can be found at planesflyinglowoverhead.blogspot.com and @SamSpitsHotFire.

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

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?

Chen Chen: Thank you for these questions—big and kind of impossible, but I’m glad to be living with them. Why poems? I actually started out as a fiction writer; I tried writing novels. These were imitations of whatever I happened to like, from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In college, I wrote both poems and stories. I also wrote scholarly essays that went on too long and basically argued that literature is super neat (I still do this, in my doctoral program). Then in my third year, I took my first poetry workshop and just fell in love with the weird difficult astonishing ways of saying and wrecking and loving that poems give us.

I am part of so many different communities, histories, sparks, losses, trees, whispers. Poetry is a place where I can ask my Many and if I’m lucky, my All, to come in and converse. I can ask a frozen lake in Upstate New York to talk to an artificial pond in Lubbock, Texas. I can ask Pablo Neruda to talk to the stray cat that greets my partner and me when we pull into our driveway. I can ask your silences to dance with my silences; a form of talking, maybe. So: responding to what I read and love, attempting to create spaces for conversation and stray cats. And lately: what is real learning and how does that intersect with but also sometimes depart from institutions of education? And always: how can I, anyone, keep the heart, a heart, keep our places and selves living?

As for the poebiz, I think it’s crucial not to confuse prestigious publications and awards with what our actual work is. Of course, these shiny things have practical outcomes that are important—I have been supported throughout my graduate school life with scholarships and fellowships. And getting paid here and there for a poem does make a difference. (POETS SHOULD BE PAID BETTER.) Yes. That said… when I was a lonely kid in high school, going to the local library and discovering poets like Li-Young Lee, Louise Glück, and Robert Hass for the first time, I had no idea that blurbs were written by friends or former teachers of the writer and bios were quite often written by the writer. I had no idea that FSG was a “good” press and that it was more prestigious to publish in New England Review versus somewhere else. Now I know these things and I know why they are or can be important. However, aiming to publish in New England Review is not the same thing as attempting to write an exciting, moving poem. (A poem that can give and give.) You can have both “goals,” of course, but the former is achievable in a much more concrete way. The latter is big and impossible and infuriating and wonderful. On a similar note, I think it’s crucial not to confuse a style of poetry with making poems. Finding a style or a voice can be delightful; it can also be deadly. I would like poets to have questions and dreams rather than styles.

 

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

CC: I love the films of Wong Kar-Wai. I love the music of Perfume Genius. I love ridiculous huge purple snow pants on anyone, anywhere. I love my mother figuring out how to send me texts in Chinese and then how to send me emojis. I love the paintings of Paul Klee and Agnes Martin. I love Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Martín Espada’s introduction to Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, and this recent book edited by Timothy Yu (Nests and Strangers) examining the work of Nellie Wong, Myung Mi Kim, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil. I love a painting by Anselm Kiefer entitled “Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven.” I love Kundiman, an organization dedicated to Asian American writers. I love the pug dog calendar that hangs in the living room I share with my love. I love the March pug dog.

 

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?

CC: I value a poet’s idiosyncratic obsessions and a poet’s depth or scope of compassion. I like seeing a range of emotional and intellectual concerns. In my MFA, I started out trying to be a Serious Poet for some bizarre reason. I like humor, though it’s more important to me that someone real is writing the poem. Being a Funny Poet can be just as tiresome as being a Serious Poet. I like musics and formal dexterities, though the thing needs to move, not just impress. I like disliking a poem and then liking it. I dislike poems because of my tastes, which often need expanding. I loathe poems that harm or erase people. I like erasure poems, ones that demonstrate an understanding of the power dynamics of erasure and erase texts, not people. I like having my mind blown. I love not knowing what a poem is doing to me. I love poems that do what the cherry trees do, to rip off Neruda.

 

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?

CC: One of my best friends from high school liked to practice her photography with me as a model. She would take all these pictures and then we would look at them together on her computer. I remember saying, more than once, “Ugh, I look so Asian in this photo.” And my friend would say, “Um, you are Asian.” At the time, I would just say “I know” and make it seem like I was joking—but about what? It has taken a long time for me to really think about the internalized racism and messed up beauty standards I’d accepted and tried (try?) to live up to.

Earlier today I saw a posting about a new scholarship for Asian American actors and performers based in New York City. New York City—a place with a big and super diverse Asian American population. And we need a scholarship. So that Asian American actors have a (better) chance. Part of me is so glad that the organization behind this scholarship is taking action. Another part of me is so angry that the situation (in film and TV, in literature…) seems to improve for a select few and then the idea is that somehow we’re “diverse enough” now.

I grew up in the 90s, started college in 2007—and I still felt like being Chinese, Asian, Asian American, like these were ugly things and the more I could look and behave like a white person, the better, the more beautiful, the more person I could be. I don’t feel that way now, but I do wonder who I would be if I hadn’t spent so much time wishing I was someone else, hadn’t pushed away certain interests deemed stereotypically Asian (piano—I should’ve given piano more of a chance!), hadn’t thought I could never reconcile being both Chinese and gay. The thought of “well, the awfulness shaped me and I’ve turned it into art” doesn’t seem right. I don’t want to fetishize suffering, ever. I think it’s a pretty basic expectation, that people of color should be able to see dignified, complicated, beautiful representations of themselves on a daily basis.

 

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.

CC: Two books that have come out in recent years:

Hello, the Roses by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. This book is so expansive and attentive—to landscape, to notions of culture and self, to illness, to the opening of flowers and affinities. Berssenbrugge stands out to me as a writer for how she insists on a spectrum of feeling, perception, and vocabulary. Blending the mythic, the quantum mechanic, the phenomenological, and the medicinal, she makes poems (always now in sequences of longish sentences) that seem densely packed at first glance, but are really some of the most welcoming spaces I’ve encountered on the page. Berssenbrugge writes, “I tell you, your own thoughts and words can appear to inhabitants of other systems like stars and planets to us” and I believe her.

Life of the Garment by Deborah Gorlin. This book is so lilies-&-urine full of life, is living, every time I pick it up—it twitches and shivers and pinches me like a magnificent crab in my hands. A poet of world-bending physicality and a sort of gritty spirituality, Gorlin teaches me to inhabit space the way space inhabits me. Wildly. Graciously. Completely. Gorlin writes, “Cars sorrow too, their glittering/surfaces, metal wigs on wheels” and I believe her.

 

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

CC: Aren’t beavers AMAZING? Aren’t queer poets of color doing the BEST work? I’m going to make more time for walks. And soups. And supporting the poets, poetries I love.

 

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His latest chapbook, Kissing the Sphinx, is available from Two of Cups Press. His poems have recently appeared in Raleigh Review, The Poetry Review (UK), and the PBS Newshour weekly poem series. Chen is a Kundiman Fellow and a PhD candidate at Texas Tech University. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Photo by Marco Munoz.

I always liked making things up, improvising, using my “imagination.” I do not remember my dreams because I spend the greater part of my day restructuring the past and fitting it into schemas of relationship and disrelationships, and not to any discernible end. In short, I am always in a dream. Perhaps it is the ends of art I hate–the way it is “valued” rather than integrated into the dynamic of being alive. You have to be careful saying art is for everyone because this is a sales pitch from the creativity experts and another way to make money.

Art is not for everyone. Many people are happy never to have a moment with art if they can possibly avoid it. Hell, I am happy to never have a moment with art if I can possibly avoid it. If you define art as a judgement of aesthetic value, then this is the least interesting part of the experience of making things up, improvising, and using your imagination.This is the morning after when you look at the thing you made and say: “What the hell was I thinking?” Almost everything I have ever made–songs, poems, stories, has elicited this response from its creator. I am disappointed in all but perhaps 4 poems, one story, and a couple of music compositions. I have never liked the poem of mine that is most anthologized: “Ode to Elizabeth.” I know it is the perfect “representative poem”–not my best poem, and, honestly, all it truly represents is a moment in 1980 when the chemical fires in Elizabeth, New Jersey were inspiring Time Magazine to refer to my home city as “grimy Elizabeth.” In the poem I never talk about the chemical fires, and I never argue against Elizabeth being grimy. The whole poem is an answer to one question: given that something is grimy, can it still have value–and not the value of feeling sorry for it, or wanting it to be other than it is–but the value of what no one but a consciousness that has been formed by that place can see? The poem praises Elizabeth New Jersey by saying: yes, it is grimy, and unartisitc, and full of people who have lousy taste in furniture, but I saw Amarcord there, and with a bunch of friends who had no idea about the snobby distinctions between movies and cinema, and we had a true experience of the film. We responded to it: “if art moved us at all, it was with real amazement/ we had no frame of reference.”

Art then that does not delight, move, amaze, or engage one’s most active intelligence is what I call aesthetic bureaucracy–the means that have forgotten their original ends and serve only their own process as “value.” Such art needs experts and gatekeepers, and protectors and advocates. It needs prestigious presses, and “award winning authors.” It makes me ill–not because I have been excluded from it (I have been allowed through the back door of this world, and can flash certain badges such as a New York Times articles on my poetry, featured with Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Dunn, etc) but because I never thought I was insignificant to begin with. I consider my mind, flawed as it is, to be in communion with a living God, and know that I never wrote a single poem or song, or story for “publication.”

Everything I did was out of Lordly, Godly, arrogant impulse to waste time–to spend my time making things up, and using my imagination, and scribbling on my tomb so to speak. Death is coming. it will be our only permanent accomplishment. Everything then, beyond this, is a scribbling on the tomb, a sort of ferocious, and desperate, and, yes, holy/sacramental graffiti. Everything, including how your friends remember you, is a version of “Kilroy was here.”

This personal essay then is inspired by something that happened to me recently. One of my best friends, and former students, Adam Fitzgerald, wrote “call me!” on my Facebook. So, being me, I thought something happened to him, and, being an insomniac who had just enjoyed the only two hours of sleep I was going to get, I called him. He was en route. People in Manhattan are always en route. He was with Bianca Stone and going somewhere, but he wanted me to know that Bomb magazine had said something wonderful about the chapbook we published through Monk Books by Mark Strand called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka. Great! I tried to be enthusiastic, but all I really wanted to do was Google “Long Branch, New Jersey” and remember which president died there (James Garfield). I was a little ill, and a little weary, and the book is beautiful, and the fun part was instigating it, and funding it, and watching Bianca and Adam do all the real work, and seeing the result. Affirmation of Mark Strand seemed beside the point. The guy has had his share of affirmation. I was thinking, “what about Bernadette Meyer’s chapbook, or even more importantly, Ben Pease’s chapbook, which contains one of the best and most adventurous long narrative poems I have read in years?” I was being a party pooper, a role I find myself playing with increasing frequency. On paper I should be thrilled: I am the “publisher” of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the book I helped bring into being is being lauded by Bomb–a well known literary zine. But whatever this is, it didn’t register as deeply with me as my then urgent desire to remember that Long Branch was once the summer resort of presidents and that James Garfield went there to recover from a gun shot wound and, well, he didn’t recuperate. I attempted to imagine Long Branch then–late 19th century swimming, the anciently sudden and suddenly ancient smell of salt marsh and wave spume. It was a rude way to behave towards a friend. As Shakespeare said: “you treat comfort like cold porridge.” I behaved like my Irish relatives who, when informed that you won the Noble Peace Prize, would remind you that your cousin Pete was a state champion spoon player, and much better looking besides.

Wet blanket? Far beyond that. I realized that achievement to one who has lived all his life in loss and failure, and who has experienced more or less constant rejection, is, itself anti-climatic. The joy exists in the possibility of things–in their perhaps. Years ago, I read at an event called the Paterson Poetry Marathon. I did well, and Philip Levine, the headliner, came over to me and shook my hand and said: “I want to thank you both for your humor and your outrage.” I should have been thrilled. Instead I went into the bathroom and cried because my parents were dead and my grandmother was dead, and everyone who could have been happy for me and who I wanted to be happy for me (the people who stand and wave at you while you are going around and around on the kiddie ride) are dead. I felt desolate, destroyed. So-called success seemed to have all the flavor of cardboard. If no one had come up to me, it would have been worse, of course, but I realized the losses and years of being a tool grinder on the night shift had rendered me incapable of being achievement-oriented. I am possibility-oriented, doing-the-deed-oriented. While I am reading or writing, or playing a piano, all is possible. After that, it’s hard to take anything seriously. If I had to think of truly meaningful moments in my life as a so called artist, they’d be some of the following.

The last time Joe Salerno came over my apartment in Elizabeth with a mixed cassette tape of music he had been recently excited by: it was truly mixed–Hadyn, Mozart, and Charles Ives. We drank saki and talked about music for hours. Joe liked trees the way I did, and I took him drunk and a little unsteady up the block to show him a full grown American Elm (rare after the dutch elms disease of the 40s). I didn’t know it, but the city had cut the tree down that morning. There was only the stump. We held our glasses full of saki. We reflected like two grown men standing over a blown engine. “Well,” I said, “there’s the stump!” We laughed. Joe reminded me of the great Chinese poem in which the poets get drunk and go into the garden to admire the flowers and the flowers lament that they have gone to all that trouble of blooming to be admired by a bunch of drunks. He quoted the poem. We laughed some more. Joe was dying of lung cancer, but he had not yet been diagnosed. Six months later he was dead, and I played that mixed tape for years until it felt apart. The possibility of talking music and poetry late into the night with a friend and neither of you are talking about the art business… that has meaning. It is the not graffiti on the grave. It is the eternity hidden in transience–what Keats best expressed.

Back in 1988: Dave Roskos and I are in Manhattan placing our new magazines Big Hammer and Black Swan in a book store. It may have been St. Mark’s books. Anyway, Gregory Corso is in there talking with the manager, and he’s pretending not to be Gregory Corso, and we’re pretending not to know he’s Gregory Corso, and he leafs through our magazines and says: “I don’t know these guys… Wait, I heard of Keith Sheppard.” He reads the poem by Sheppard. “Not bad,” he says. We place the magazines on consignment and split into the hot summer’s afternoon and we are laughing because Keith Sheppard is one of my aliases, and I am new to the poetry scene and have filled one quarter of my first issue with poems I wrote under aliases (including a nun who is an expert on Hopkins and George Herbert). We have good Mexican food, and meet up with my painter friend Elieen Doster who has hair the color of new pennies. Great day–again, nothing to do with achievement, but with possibility.

1985: I’m with my friend Marco Munoz in a long defunct art gallery called Oroe Electric in Hoboken. The clarinetist Perry Robinson is playing with his father, Earl Robinson, winner of an academy award, and a man who played with Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and whose songs were performed by Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra. Earl is an old radical and union man and calls me brother when he finds out I’m a tool grinder on the night shift. The party after the event hosted by Susan Shafton, includes a lot of wonderful musicians, including Gary Schneider, conductor of the Hoboken Symphony Orchestra. I am young and arrogant and happy and drunk enough to play piano among them, and sing my songs, and Perry joins in, and Gary likes the way I play piano, and Earl shakes my hand and beams. No hierarchy, none of that stupid, God forsaken, spiritually bankrupt pecking order we call “The arts.” We play for hours–folk music, atonal music, hard bop, weird mongrel versions of all of the above. I am dressed in a cool suit and so is Marco who scats happily along. Joy, art. Not “the arts.” I hate “the arts.” It takes all the fun out of things.

1977: The year my mom died. My friend Huey is over my house, and I am playing a song I wrote. I hear blubbering, and I look over and Huey is crying–this big, good looking jock. he says: “that’s beautiful.” I never had a friend say that to me before. where I come from, it takes great courage and a good heart to say such things openly. 34 years later, it means more to me than getting nominated for Pushcarts. You can put Pushcarts on a curriculum vitae, but its not what makes you create. If it is, then you’re pretty fucking pathetic. Nothing is more pathetic than someone who achieves and is not alive except for their achievements. Such a person is a slave to the wrong master. It is terrible when no one appreciates your art or wants to hear or see or recognize it. It is more horrible when that’s all that matters.

1999: my first year as an instructor at arts high. The students don’t want the class to end and I teach a summer program (for free) in a wonderful place called Rutgers gardens. There are kids playing guitars, and writing poems, and hiking through cedar and bamboo forests, and I am not making a dime, and they are not getting a grade, and everyone shows up every Thursday for no other reason than we are making shit up as we go along, and enjoying the energy of making shit up as we go along. The next year, I have forty kids in the woods–Adam Fitzgerald being one of them. My former friend’s son, Danny Salerno comes by to visit and recites Beowulf in the Anglo Saxon and the girls (and probably some of the boys) all swoon because he is good looking. Later, at the pizza joint we repair to after working on being artists, Danny and Adam get into a huge fight over whether Falstaff or Hamlet is the greater character, and they almost come to blows. I am not there since I have to go to my 4 to 12 shift job in the factory, but I hear about it from the other students, and I am delighted. What teacher would not want 17 year old students almost coming to blows over Falstaff and Hamlet?

I am not knocking people who are achievement oriented. I wish I could feel proud of anything I achieve. I can’t. Even if I won awards, and became a “living legend,” I’d still be short and balding, and full of the griefs I experienced, and I’d still be most excited by a chord progression I accidentally stumbled upon. I’d still miss the people who died and who I loved–which is almost everyone I ever loved. The best thing about being famous would be the money. I’d blow most of it on instruments and art projects, and taking my wife out to eat. I’d give money to artists I thought were unrecognized, and I’d be able to shit on the heads of all the so called big shots who snubbed me over the years. Being “snubbed” is part of “the arts.” I hate the fucking arts. I love the possibility of 40 young people in a field fucking around with paints and guitars. Maybe only one of them becomes well known, but it took all forty to create that one well known artist. Desire is never isolated.

Three years after I started teaching the summer program, the school made it official and put it in doors, with air conditioning, and ruined the integration of painting and poetry and music, and put each in its proper hole. They had the best intentions. I hate intentions. I had only one–to waste time. I was teaching my students how to hang out. Who the fuck died and left the experts to decide what is significant or worthwhile? If no one invites you to the party, throw your own and fuck them! This is what I was teaching. I was trying to teach my students the necessary arrogance of art, and its humility. The humility is this: nothing will ever feel as good as actually doing it–not awards, not achievements, not anything that results from doing it–nothing, and if the other things begin to take precedence, you are in danger. I hate “the arts.” Right now, I wish I knew a good cello player, and one who could wing it, and they’d come over and play with me for a couple hours. Sometimes, while I’m playing the piano, I can hear the cellist beside me playing other riffs. I get excited and I start to dream of the possibility. if a real cellist came over they would want to work towards a goal. A truly accomplished cellist would probably snub me, so a half-assed cellist would do just as well. As my grandmother said: If the picture is crooked, and you can’t adjust it, adjust your head.” My standards are low. A 17 year old student so passionate about Shakespeare that he takes on a 22 year old guy who can speak Anglo-Saxon is as exciting to me as Bomb magazine praising a book I was involved with. Whenever that isn’t true, I begin to feel spiritually sick inside. So my apologies to Adam. What really thrills me is that I knew Adam when he chewed key chains incessantly and played Visions of Johanna 20 times a day. I am happy to see him flourish. It’s like being a parent and watching your kid go around and around on a ride and, suddenly, you realize he isn’t a kid, and he’s calling you up when you’re ill and tired and lonely for a world that was not all fucking achievements and kudos and you ought to wave–even if you’re half dead. I feel more than half dead. Possibility is hard to come by, especially when everything is to a purpose. I believe in wasting time. I am trapped in a goal-oriented, sick America of insane positive thinking and achievement psychosis… someone get me a half-assed cellist. Quick! Someone get me a park and 40 young artists wasting time. I love making stuff, writing, composing, fucking around with my garden. I hate “the arts.”

So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.