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The Poem as Archive:
A Conversation Between Carrie Olivia Adams & Kristina Marie Darling

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Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she is a book publicist for the University of Chicago Press, the poetry editor for Black Ocean, and a biscuit maker and whiskey drinker. She is the author of Forty-One Jane Doe’s (book and companion DVD, Ahsahta 2013) and Intervening Absence (Ahsahta 2009) as well as the chapbooks Overture in the Key of F (above/ground press 2013) and A Useless Window (Black Ocean 2006).

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of nearly twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, forthcoming). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.

Carrie Olivia Adams’ first book, Intervening Absence, played with ideas of form. Her second book, Forty-One Jane Doe’s, brought the ideas to praxis: she made films in the hopes of creating immersive companions to the cinematic language of the text.

Throughout, Adams’ work has drawn from the language of mathematics, architecture, medicine, and astrophysics in order to create a hybrid voice—one that troubles the line between observation, objective detail, and the intuition of inference. Her forthcoming book, Operating Theater, moves poems to the stage, creating a poem-cum-play in five acts. 

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Kristina Marie Darling:
I’ve always admired your work as a poet, particularly the ways your book projects engage archival material. Your most recent collection, Forty-One Jane Doe’s, draws from source material that ranges from the scientific to the sublime. As the book unfolds, treatises on mathematics, astronomical diagrams, and scientific discoveries inform the poems as much as the speakers’ emotional topographies. I’m fascinated by this tension between subjectivity and clinical language: rhetoric that strives for objectivity. Your work places seemingly impersonal discourses in conversation with emotion, affect, and sentiment. It’s often the archival material you’re working with that gives rise to this tension between registers, and between different types of language. With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about your process working with archival material. What role do non-poetic texts play in your creative process? What does this archival material, this presence of other voices and types of language, make possible within your work?

Carrie Olivia Adams:  I am one who has a whole list of things she would like to be other than a poet—detective, spy, physicist, astronomer, zoologist, forensic pathologist, diplomat. I have a whole list of things I wish I had studied: fewer books on books and more books on the making of the world around me. I am completely drawn to things I know very little about. Math feels almost exotic. And yet, equations, in their logic and language, are syntax, which is the most familiar. I love to diagram sentences. I’m also someone with a day job. I am not an academic or a professor, but working in university publishing allows me the chance to brush against ideas, to glean new knowledge in tiny pebbles that I stick in my pockets. Many years ago, when I was at the University of Chicago Press, my cubicle was near the offices of journals of astrophysics, and so when it was quiet I would read what I could, pocketing phrases and ideas.

And so began some of the earliest poems that attempted to incorporate disciplines that were not my own. I wanted very much to get out of my head, out of my very solipsistic skin. And I have often, for reasons both good and very bad, not frequently read a lot of contemporary poetry. Instead, I’ve sunk myself into the very opposite of what I do—indulging in thick, intricate novels and attempting to understand visual perspective through the diction of film angles. I have wanted to write poems that could have dialogues with ideas or modes of expression other than just other poems.

And I want to write poems to someone other than myself. I want poems to be a form of empathy. I don’t want my poems to recount my memories to myself in a dark room. I want them to be something other than me. Though they begin here, I want them to go out and inhabit other bodies and feel other lives. I want the reader to find them to be a companion. And like the best of friends, they listen. Incorporating archival material and found text allows me the best chance to listen—to not speak over, but to get inside and understand. This is perhaps part of the play between the subjective and the objective that you noticde in some of the poems, an intricacy that allows them to both report and question. I hope it’s a place where even things that sound like fact, still have a feeling.

One thing in particular, among many, that I think our work shares in common is an interest in the structures of how information is shared—how both an apprehension and a natural mistrust of the structures used to convey it. I’m thinking specifically of the deconstructive elements of Correspondence, which offer footnotes, appendices, an index, and a glossary as a substitute for a narrative. It opens, in fact, immediately with a subplot,without us ever knowing the plot. These trappings of formal structure like indexes and notes and glossaries are usually used with a voice of authority. But when used alone, that notion is completely undercut. I’m curious about what continues to draw you to these formal forms of organization and the ellipsis of text they imply.

Kristina Marie Darling: I’ve always been intrigued (and troubled) by the hierarchies that we tend to impose upon language. And I’ve always admired the way your work blurs not only textual boundaries, but also the barriers we create between artistic disciplines. I really enjoyed the companion DVD. of original films that accompanies Forty-One Jane Doe’s, and would love to hear more about how you envision the relationship between poetic language and the language of cinema. What does film make possible within your artistic practice?

Carrie Olivia Adams: I originally began to experiment with film during a time when I felt completely overwhelmed by language. I’ve never been an incredibly visual person; in fact, I often feel very spatially impaired. I’m tactile. I hardly ever drive a car because trying to move a body of matter outside myself through physical space is a challenge—how long am I, how wide am I, what space can I take up. In contrast, I love riding my bike because at any moment, I can always put my feet on the ground. Which is all to say that I cannot visualize anything or hold a picture in my mind. I think that I can only recall what specific places in my life look like when I am not in them, because of associations and stories I have made or told about the place. My visual memory is a narrative memory. For many years, I even dreamed mostly in words. Sometimes sentences would fall on me like thin sheets of cotton bunting (the dreams had a texture, if not an image). Last night, I was chasing around a name in my dream; I kept trying to solve it like a puzzle. In my sleep, I wasn’t inhabiting any particular place, but a word kept scratching at me like an intuitive question.

I turned to the camera as a substitute for my weak mind. Here was something that could be an extension of my eye and frame and hold a picture in a way my imagination never could. I started making films about a decade ago, before people were really talking about poem-films. An element was missing from my work, so I went on a quest for vision. Film aided me as a writer to return to and revisit a scene that I otherwise might have lost. New details, new angles, new shadows became apparent to me. My camera conjured what I could not alone.

At the same time, it created another layer of collaboration between me and the reader/viewer. I could offer a companion to the text—not a straightforward retelling or a parallel experience, but a dialogue with the poem. And through this my hope was that the poems would further open out and invite in the audience. I wanted to not only share a world, but to create something more it could envelop.

I think we both have an interest in the architecture of a project. Neither of us creates truly stand-alone poems that are single objects on a page, but we think more along the lines of the sequence and the series, the book as concept and as structure. I’d love to know how that interest in form developed for you, and how you approach and plan a given project. To what extent is the structure an organic outgrowth of the writing process or a formal, strategic foundation already set in place before most of the text has come together?

Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question. I think that the sequence, or the book-length poem, opens up a wide range of possibilities for the type of readerly engagement that you describe. When the reader is asked to forge connections between different elements of a book-length project (different literary forms perhaps, or even images and work in other mediums), the text becomes a collaboration between the poet and her audience, allowing them to participate in the process of creating meaning from the work.

For me, the book-length project represents not only a collaboration between the poet and a potential reader, but also, a dialogue between parts of the self or different parts of consciousness. What’s especially intriguing about poem-as-project is that it allows the writer to create juxtapositions (between different forms, voices, and mediums) that are often not possible within the space of a shorter, stand-alone piece. Each of these different modes of representing experience allows for a different way of thinking, a new way of perceiving and processing the world around me. The book-length project allows these various ways of thinking, and vastly different ways of being in the world, to illuminate and complicate one another.

Because the book-length project is a collaborative process, one that affords an opportunity for spontaneity and experimentation, I try not to plan the book beforehand. There are certainly poets who build their books around a given concept. But for me, this forecloses possibilities for dialogue to unfold, and to carry me places I wouldn’t expect it to. I try to allow myself to discover the structure of the project as I create it, to allow order and coherence to emerge from within the work itself.

I think that my investment in the poem-as-book-length-sequence is part of the reason I’m so drawn to your work. I appreciate the fact that your work juxtaposes artistic mediums, and also wildly different archival texts, allowing the extended sequence to become a space for dialogue. And the reader is invited into that conversation as well. The poet becomes, in many ways, a curator of voices and literary forms, the poem a conversation that crosses boundaries between forms, mediums, and individual pieces.

With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about how your role as an editor and curator informs your creative work. Black Ocean presents a unified catalogue of individual collections, but each voice, each text, adds something new to the existing conversation. To what extent is the process of editing a literary press, and building a concise, unified catalogue, similar to constructing a book-length project? How has your practice as an editor opened up new possibilities for your creative work?

Carrie Olivia Adams: That’s such an interesting question. I’ve never thought of Black Ocean’s list as being similar as a way of shaping a larger project, but I think you’ve hit upon something. It’s true that we have a very unified voice or aesthetic across the book list—all of the authors have distinct approaches, and yet there is something very recognizable that makes a book a “Black Ocean book.” And I’m really pleased we’ve been able to achieve that, especially given that the editorial process is extremely collaborative and democratic. Black Ocean publisher Janaka Stucky and I have always worked really closely together to choose books that thrive in the middle space where our fascinations and curiosities overlap. There are definitely poets that I would love to publish, whose work I greatly admire, that will probably never be a part of the Black Ocean catalog because their work falls too far on my side of the aesthetic spectrum. And the same, I’m sure, is true for Janaka. Together, we hope to find and publish poetry collections that excite us both and tap into our individual hopes for what poems can do. And it means that I often publish poets who are engaged in projects completely unlike my own, but that intrigue me because of their difference. The middle ground between us has become a very fertile place that has allowed us to cultivate the Black Ocean aesthetic while challenging our own.

Most of the books that we publish are very closely edited by me in dialogue with the author and Janaka. But I usually wade into the thick of it first, concerned as much with the minutiae as the overall structure. My hope is to get as close to the poems as possible—to understand what their underlying mode of narration, structure, communication, tone, form, etc. is and how to make that clear and consistent across the work. In many ways, the poems should subtly, intuitively guide the reader in how to read them. Each collection has an accent, a dialect, a syntax that is its own; and, my goal is to make this breadcrumb trail available to the reader.

This editorial sensibility is impossible to suppress when working on my poems—which is as helpful as it is detrimental at times. I am the worst at silencing myself. Which is why I often don’t write at all when I am in the midst of editing a work or reading our open submissions. I have to compartmentalize the lives if I am ever going to keep working on my poems, and the only way I’ve found to do that is with the distance of time. There are seasons of the year for writing and there are seasons for sitting quiet.

With Black Ocean, I just finished editing Feng Sun Chen’s second book, which is currently still in search of a final title. When I think of a work that’s a perfect example of something that’s so far away from my own, and that I find incredibly fascinating and invigorating as an author, it’s Feng’s. Her work is messy and visceral and loud and unashamed—as much as my own has the neat-as-a-pin precision of an old maid. But this is what makes her so interesting to edit—to let go and be absorbed into a little bit of chaos. Personally, I am working very slowly on a long project called Daughter of a Tree Farm, which began as an erasure of a memoir of Sofiya Tolstoy. Just like many of my previous sequences, the work blurs the lines between the borrowed text and my own words. It’s been on pause for a few months while I’ve been reading for Black Ocean, and I think that I cannot turn back to it entirely until I read the newly published The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, which translates (for the first time into English) Sofiya’s story that she wrote in response to the The Kreutzer Sonata. In it, she reverses the perspective and tells the story from the wife’s point of view. Exploring her mind and voice a little further seems like a necessary tool to the sympathy of the erasure.

 

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NOTE: Adele and I started this interview a while back and I never had the chance to post it. Some of the elements refer to her book What Matters as a recent publication.

MT: I first want to comment on what I see as the arc of this collection, What Matters. Memory, in this book, seems like a kind of sacrament: memorializing literally makes real by nature of the act. I’m thinking especially of the line “language…larger than / logic” (“The Sap Bush”). (I’ve chopped that line up, but it seemed so evocative to me that I couldn’t bypass it.) The first section fulfills and meditates on this traditional task of the poet. Then the second section puts that function into crisis—the poet dies (or rather confronts the possibility of her own death). The crisis is (I think), if the memorializer dies, how do those that the poet loves (including herself) continue to exist? This crisis gives birth to the third section, which affirms “We Don’t Forget,” but is admittedly much more subdued (chastened?) in its memorializing. Would you agree with this characterization?

AK: I love that poetry allows for different interpretations of meaning. Your “take” on What Matters is compelling (and I love where you’ve gone with it), but it’s rather different from my own. Memory as the “arc” (or perhaps “ark”) of it all wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Memory does play a role in the “story” (and, yes, the book does tell at least part of a story), but memory in the book’s context isn’t quite what “memorializing” suggests to me. I agree with you that remembering is one of the poet’s tasks. A contemporary poet (I think it was Gerald Stern) once said, “It’s the poet’s job to remember.” Getting back to “memorializing”—I’ve always thought that when we memorialize, we honor the dead (you, know, preserve their memory)—What Matters is a book about survival. Most importantly, it’s a book about the human spirit. It focuses on the fact that we’re all survivors of something: fear, grief, illness, the losses of loved ones. Individual details may be different, but we’re all survivors.

The poems in the first section look at the past and how, even if only peripherally, we are who we were. Those poems set up for section two, which deals with my own breast cancer experience—a confrontation with mortality during which I often “went” to the past, a safe place when nothing else in my life was safe, a place that reminded me what living was about and buttressed the contents of my survival toolbox. The poems in section two are about the conditions of survival—how we meet them and what they cost us. You’re spot on about the second section giving birth to the third, which looks at life as it is and the ways in which the human spirit remembers how to live. There was a definite before, during, and after sensibility when I arranged the poems. You mention  “We Don’t Forget,” did you notice that the last word in that poem (the last poem in the collection) is “rejoice?” That wasn’t by accident.

MT: It’s interesting that you use the word “survival” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking about memorializing—only I was thinking about it in terms of helping others into the world, helping them survive their own passing. For me, one of the pleasures of this collection was that it evoked what poetry does so clearly—poetry remembers and, building on the word ‘rejoice,’ celebrates—so it’s really enriching for me as a reader (and poet) to see your own survival and the role these poems played in it. I did notice “rejoice,” but I hadn’t thought about it in the context of the whole book—joy and rejoicing as, in the end, “What matters” or what “We don’t forget” how to do. I see pretty clearly how remembering related to your “survival toolbox,” but can you elaborate more “rejoicing” and its role in your own survival story?

AK: Thanks for your kind words, Micah. It’s so important for poetry to leave enough gaps and silences for readers to fill in the blanks. I hoped that What Matters would offer a message of encouragement and hope while giving readers room to map out their own places in the poems.

No form of survival is ever a “sudden epiphany.” Survival is a slow process, a measured progression that requires nearly impossible determination (read “understatement” here). It’s definitely a spiritual journey—sounds kind of trite, but this trip we call life is about spirit.

For me, and I suspect for many, gratitude is a necessary part of the process. Of course, it’s hard to be grateful when you stand on the edge of crash and burn. One day you’re simply living your life and the next you’re faced with something you didn’t anticipate and aren’t sure you can deal with. It happens to all of us sooner or later, in one way or another. Surviving becomes part of the trek, but it’s a lonely walk no matter how much support you have. Faced with fear, grief, loss, or illness, where do you go? You either give into the darkness of it all, or you look for a way out. Acceptance is part of the way back up—a grace that can lead to gratitude. (Stay with me, I’m working toward rejoicing.) There’s so much for which to be grateful (one more hour, one more day). Learning how to be grateful is another instrument in the survival toolbox. If you can manage gratefulness, you can begin to move away from the damages of what you work to survive. It’s kind of like when the feeling of the subject matter becomes the poem. You remember how to live, you remember what happiness is, and that projects itself backward and forward. Slowly, you begin to rejoice in whatever happiness and love you can find. What do we live for? From the poem:

 

Grace is acceptance—

 

all of it, whatever is—as

in we live for this: love

and gratitude enough.

MT: This concept of gratitude is important to poems, I think. Who for you are some “poets of gratitude,” poets who embody or maybe model gratitude as a almost poetic mode?

AK: The poet who rushes immediately to mind is Gerald Stern. The first poem of his that I ever read (many years ago) was “Lucky Life.” In that first read, Jerry impressed me as a “grateful” poet, and I don’t think this theme in his work has changed over time. Mary Oliver, who celebrates the natural world with inherent gratitude is one of any number of poets who seem “gratefully typical.” I suspect that the poets who express gratitude most effectively are those who have defined it in themselves and incorporate it into their work as a way of acknowledging and affirming what they’ve been given. Inherent in their poems are generosity, appreciation, and compassion. Another “gratitude poem” that stands out for me is “Thanks” by W. S. Merwin.

MT: Forgive me for bringing in my own poems, but this discussion of gratitude makes me think of a line I’ve been working with in one of my own poems: I call gratitude a kind of vertigo: in part because it feels so depthless. Once you open yourself to it, in a way everything must become gratitude. I’m curious if you had the same experience with it? That somehow learning to be grateful is a kind of release, a radical openness?

AK: I’m so glad you brought your own poems into this “discussion.” I’ve just been listening to you on YouTube, and I’ve read several of your poems online. In your work, which I see as a kind of semi-surrealist/New York School hybrid, there’s a definite sense of gratitude—even your “riff, riff, riff” in the Melville poem, your priests “out in Manhattan,” and those pesky birds in your beard suggest something of gratefulness and praise; and there’s the point I want to make: gratefulness and praise, for me, are part of the same sensibility. It’s about always being open, always being in process—totally depthless, as you note. There’s a profoundly spiritual component when it comes to radical openness and the release it can bring—gratitude follows naturally. That said, I have to believe that emblematic gratitude in any poet’s work is a reflection of the poet’s truest, most generous self. Not all poets go there, and if you don’t feel it, you can’t write it. For me (and I suspect for others as well), craft half-fills the glass, gratitude raises the elixir to the top.

MT: I use the word ‘depthless’ because that is the thing about gratitude (and praise, as you have pointed out): there’s never too much. No matter how many times poets have praised the beauty of the beloved—whatever that might be—it never gets old. Even if poets are doing similar ‘moves’ when they praise. I think this is one of the great lessons of reading poetry from the past: things have changed little and praise never gets old. There is something profound in that recognition, I think—something about the nature of being is revealed there. One artist who really captures this for me is Brian Wilson—from the Beach Boys. When I listen to his album SMILE, it feels like he’s tapped into this endless well of creativity, of joy almost. I also feel the same thing when I listen to Handel or read writers like Horace and Auden. They all seem to go back to that same ontological source. As you pointed out, once you have tapped into this, craft almost seems to become a side issue. Or maybe it would be better to say that craft is transformed? Elevated? As you said, though, there is a radical openness. This is terrifying, isn’t it? You’ve also taught writing for many years, I believe. Obviously this openness isn’t something ‘transferred’ to a student, but in your experience as a teacher, is it something that can be elicited somehow?

AK: The “depthless” quality of the kind you mention is precisely what makes certain poems timeless (Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” O’Hara’s “Autobiographica Literaria,” Kinnell’s “Crying”). There are legions of such poems (mega-known and not-so known). Just as the beauty of the beloved and the praise never get old, neither do the poems that celebrate such intense awarenesses; and, yes, I do believe that radical openness transforms and elevates craft. You mention music, and I agree that it’s hard to listen to some composers and not rise to the joy they’ve created (it’s impossible not to “smile” through Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations”). Gratitude and praise speak the language of joy, and I think if we read deeply enough, there’s either an inherent sense of gratitude/praise in most poems or a longing for it (which is one of the reasons I love reading about poets as much as I love their poems). BTW, did you know that the setting for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was a poem by Schiller?

Yes, I’ve taught for what seems like forever in schools and in private and agency-sponsored workshops, always with a nod to the “elevated mood” of what we call “great” poetry. I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously “lesson-planned” to elicit openness, and I’m not sure if it can be elicited when there isn’t a predisposition to it or a willingness to “go there.” Most importantly, the role of “teacher” is to inspire and encourage writers to try. What really resonates for me is your idea of poets working from the same ontological source. For me, this approaches the spiritual. In poetry’s great conversation with the spirit, there’s a profoundly “mystical” component (not to be mistaken for “religious”) that praises or gives thanks in one way or another. To not be open to that, to miss out on it—now, that would be truly terrifying.

MT: I remember the moment when I first felt like I tapped into that source: I spent much of high school trying to sound like TS Eliot. And I remember writing one night by myself in my room when suddenly I felt (felt!) a kind of hush fall around my room as I finished the lines of a poem. It was a kind of spark but also a satisfied emptiness—like I’d come to some kind of rest. That feeling alone was enough to keep me coming back to poetry for a good 4-5 years. These days I’ve realized that the more you chase it, the less you have its grace in that sense. Anyways, that was a key transition point for me as a writer—where I knew what I was doing had somehow transcended itself, my own (little) artistic Damascus. Did you have an experience like that? A moment when you unexpectedly “tapped in?”

AK: What a wonderful moment, and so interesting that you mention T. S. Eliot. My first experiences with poetry came early: when I was four, I was diagnosed with something called “polio fever” and spent most of that summer in bed. My mom, a great reader who appreciated all kinds of poetry, taught me to read and write using poems by Eugene Field and the Gospel of St. John. She wasn’t a trained teacher, so I have no idea how she managed it but, by the time I got to kindergarten, I was already writing little poems. It wasn’t until high school, however, that I discovered Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and fell in love with poetry that didn’t rhyme and used language in such amazing ways (what I thought of as “mature” poetry at that time). For me, the realization wasn’t that I’d tapped into the “source” but, rather, that I recognized it and wanted to be there. The “tapping in” is an ongoing part of the process. As you expressed it, the more you chase it, the more elusive it becomes. It is definitely both gift and grace when, in writing poetry, you find the “road called straight” and the scales fall from your eyes—that happens from time to time and makes the trek worth its price.

MT: It’s interesting to use the word ‘mature’ to describe writing. Now that you have quite a number of books under your belt, do you feel you can go back and see ways you have matured (or perhaps simply changed)? Were there things that you felt you had to write about that you no longer feel inclined to discuss? Sometimes now when I go back to certain poems of mine, I have a hard time remembering the person who wrote them. I don’t know whether to be sad about that or not.

AK: I make a point of not looking at the “old” books and chapbooks because every time I do I want to tweak and refine the poems in them. I’ve always focused on imagery and sound, but I’ve moved away from primarily narrative poems to, most recently, prose poems that look at the ways in which the spiritual self interacts with the outside world. Earlier on, there were stories that needed telling but, now, having been told, I don’t go back to them and consider them “turned corners” in my life.  As you noted, there are times when I barely remember the person who wrote those poems. Most of the time that’s a good thing.

MT: Which came first—the change in form (to prose) or the change in content (from narrative)? Or was it a kind of organic unity? I guess I’m trying to get at the sense of how an artist navigates a change in his or her art—how the artist senses it and knows to move with it.

AK: Making the leap from lined poems to prose poems was definitely organic, nothing I planned but had been leaning toward for some time. I didn’t consciously navigate a change in art direction, but after finishing What Matters, I went for a long time without writing anything. I’d begun to think that maybe I’d never write again when, finally, I wrote a prose poem. Completely unplanned. There wasn’t any sense of a shift, but I did move with the idea of something new.

When I started to write the prose poems, the process was the same as always. I don’t think about what I’m doing when I begin a poem and, most of the time, I have no idea where a poem might go (sometimes nowhere). Imagery and sound have always been in the same craft-arc for me, that hasn’t changed, but not having to think about line breaks was freeing. After years of writing narrative and lyrical poems, I welcomed something different that can be lyrical or narrative, both or neither. I’m especially drawn to the way prose poems contain complete sentences and intentional fragments, the way they speak the language of dreams, and how they give a nod to the surreal.

At this point, my poems (both lined and prose) have become deliberately shorter—I want them to be more focused and compressed, more seamless and sharper-edged. Now (and I don’t recall ever thinking about this in my earlier work), I want my poems to tell me something bout myself, something I haven’t learned yet, or something I’ve forgotten. I want them to startle and surprise me.

MT: The long poetic silence is terribly frightening for a writer, I think. I went through something similar after getting married and moving to Vancouver. Both my life and life environment changed radically. I also started teaching, which I found took up a lot of my creative energy. During that silence I tried to come to terms with the possibility of not writing again—a kind of dark night of the poetic soul, if you will. It was an almost spiritual confrontation—stripping away false conceptions of my poetic selfhood, what ‘kind’ of writer I was, what it means to love poetry and be ‘poetic.’ It changes your approach to writing. When the poetry did return, I found I was writing more consciously formal poems. I’m not sure why that was, but the structures gave me more confidence—especially since I felt ‘out of practice.’ I also felt, though, that there was a maturity I didn’t have before, that I had gone to a new depth. It’s interesting then that you describe your own shift after not writing as wanting poems that tell you something about yourself—they’re more searching, piercing, perhaps. Do you feel like you’ve stripped something away? Gotten to something more ‘essential?’

AK: “Spiritual confrontation” is a great term for the almost–panicky feeling of poetic silence and the challenge it presents. Like you, there was a time when I worked full-time and had concurrent part-time jobs, and all the commitments of daily life. There wasn’t a lot of time or energy for poetry. When I did have time, the muse was often absent, so I started to write nonfiction for journals related to teaching and for conservation and ecology magazines—something like you turning to formal poems except that what I wrote didn’t requite the intense concentration and need for long expanses of uninterrupted time that poetry requires (it’s easier for me to put a piece of nonfiction aside and come back to it later, than it is to “suspend” a poem). What I learned is that I can write poetry without needing prose, but I can’t write prose without needing poetry. There have been a few times when I seriously thought I’d just give it up, and did for brief periods, but I could never make it stick. Even when I’m not writing a poem (which is too often), I think about writing one.

As I’ve gotten older, my creative priorities have changed—the need for approval tossed out of the ring. I used to care tremendously about what people thought of my work. That’s changed. I’ve recognized writing poetry as the spiritual process it’s always been for me—what you call “poetic selfhood.” The need for approval has segued into a need for my poems to mean more than they say, for the poems to offer spaces and gaps for readers to fill in,  for whatever is personal in the language to speak and to be understood in more voices than my own. When I first started sending poems to journals, there was a lot of personal, narrative poetry in vogue, and I conformed to that. Now, it’s not about telling my story, it’s more about telling a story that will have meaning for others along with, and other than, me. Like all changes—essential, yes, fundamental and necessary.

MT: Sadly, I find myself dreaming about the time when I will really stop caring about what others think of my poetry. Can you tell me more about that freedom? Was there any way that you achieved it? Or did it just come with experience?

AK: Maybe a combination of age and experience? I’m not really sure. It was definitely sparked by many years of studying New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton in which Merton wrote “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” He went on to write, “If you write for God you will reach many men [and women] and bring them joy. If you write for men [and women]—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.”

MT: This reminds me of something Joe Weil once told me about medieval artists: when painting or decorating a cathedral, they saved their best (most holy?) work for corners nobody else would ever see. It also reminds me of the scholastic distinction between ‘making’ and ‘doing.’ Doing is the realm of “Prudence,” which, as Maritain says, “has for its matter the multitude of needs and circumstances and traffickings in which human anxiety flounders about.” This is the world of writing for others, a kind of constant reflexivity, this is Maria Gillan’s infamous “crow” that caws at poetic instinct. On the other hand, you have “making”—the true realm of art, concerned purely with the truth of the creation itself. Its mode is human, but, as Maritain again says “there is for Art but one law, the exigencies and the good of the work. Hence the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing; it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex—artist or artisan—in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing, ceases at the door of every workshop.” I think this is really why ancients spoke about art as a kind of possession (i.e., inspiration) because there is really a sense in which the artist is in the service of something other. Yet we still speak of an artistic identity. To what extent does an artist serve two masters?

AK: This all reminds me of the difference between process and product and how some artists live in service to the things they make. But … does the product serve as arbiter of the process quality? What is the ultimate good of the work? Which is the greater truth, the process of creating or the product created?

It’s the old dilemma of two masters. The scripture reference in your question is apt. Of course, St. Matthew is talking about serving God or money (mammon) in Matthew 6:24, but to take the quote further, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Nemo potest duobus dominis servire: aut enim unum odio habebit, et alterum diliget: aut unum sustinebit, et alterum contemnet.)The question is, “Which master does the individual artist serve, the creative process or the thing that he or she creates?” I suspect that some artists manage to do both, but there has to be a preference—spend time in the process of creation, or sit back and admire what you created (“the good of the work”)? I suppose it all comes down to individual responses to the creative experience, what the artist names as his or her priority and what he or she wants to possess more—the ability to create or the created thing. This all kind of begs the question of ego (and goodness knows we see enough of that in Poetryland). I can imagine the medieval artisans Joe told you about, how they created with the highest intention and made sure their work would only be seen by God—storing up their “treasures” for heaven.  I suspect that all artists are in the service of “something other,” how they define it (artistic identity) is entirely personal (unless, of course, it’s defined by the public, and that’s another (smelly) “kettle of fish”).

MT: I wonder if we might conclude our discussion by looking at two of your poems—one from an earlier era and one of your newer prose poems. Could you share one or  two poems and comment on how your evolving sense of poetics shaped the craft choices you made in those poems?

AK: Here are two poems, one written when I was 6 or 7 years old and the other from A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing At All (the prose poems collection, forthcoming in 2014 from Welcome Rain Publishers).

 

Today

 

Today I threw my poems away.

They didn’t say what poems should say.

Maybe someday I’ll write a book.

But Look! I reach my hand up to the sky

and touch the place where sparrows fly.

 

(1955)

 

_______________________

What Calls You

 

Back then I wasn’t sure what calling meant. I thought something mystical—God’s hand on my arm, a divine voice speaking my name. Instead, I discovered the colors of cyclamen, how even the meanest weeds burst into bloom.

 

It works like this—among the books and fires—grace comes disguised as the winter finch, its beak in the seed; the twilight opossum that feeds on scraps—her babies born beneath my neighbor’s shed. Every day, I learn what love is: the finches, the opossum, the child with Down Syndrome who asked, Can I hug you a hundred times?

 

Whatever idea I had of myself turns on this: what lives on breath is spirit. I discover the power of simple places—silence—the desire to become nothing.

 

(2013)

 

_____________________

 

Sheesh! Am I still writing the same poem? I wonder if, perhaps, a lot of us do that in one way or another?

 

Apart from recognizing a strong sense of the Divine and an incorporation of human nature into the natural world, I can’t say that I’ve ever consciously thought about an evolving sense of poetics or deliberate craft choices. Auden said that a poem should be more interesting than anything that might be said about it. I’ve never been big on analyzing anything. For me, poetry is best when it’s “discovered” rather than written. I admire certain poems for their technique, for their music, and for the brilliance of their language. But those qualities fall short if a poem doesn’t have a strong “spirit center.” By “spirit center” I mean what we discover about ourselves and about others when we read a poem. If a poem is cleverly constructed or contrived, if it does linguistic handsprings, and if its meaning becomes subordinate to form, it may attract attention (especially if that sort of thing happens to be trendy at the moment), but what a poem lets us see, what we find out about ourselves and others because of that poem, and the ways in which a poem tells us that we’re not alone—these are “what matters” to me.

 

Thanks so much for this interview, Micah, and my sincerest congrats on Whale of Desire—a must-read spiritual and artistic tour de force!

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and Scorched Altar: Selected Poems and Stories 2007-2014 (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.

 

 

SL: Reading The Sun and the Moon is a bit like dreaming to a beautiful and haunting soundtrack. The book makes use of incantation, repetition, iteration and reiteration to create a mysterious and ceremonial solemnity. And then there’s the celestial bodies which inhabit the narrative, not to mention the astronomical clocks looming over everything. Can you talk about the etymology of this book, and how it might relate to astronomy, dreams, music, or the supernatural?

 

 

KMD: That’s a great question. I’m very interested in relationships that are haunted: by the past, by landscapes, and by one’s own imagination. The Sun & the Moon is essentially a love story, one that’s haunted by celestial bodies. The book takes the astronomical clock as its central metaphor, depicting astral bodies that are forever orbiting one another, and forever distant from one another. Their union is haunted by a sky filled with debris and dead stars, the remnants of what once was a burst of light.

 
In its own strange way, the book is very autobiographical. I believe that poetry can be autobiographical, and deeply personal, yet still imaginative, unruly, and strange. For me, creating an imaginary world like the one found in The Sun & the Moon is almost more personal than writing down what actually “happened,” since the reader sees and experiences what (for me) was the emotional truth. After all, there is no objective truth to be had, not even for scientists.

 
SL: I very much agree – the notion of the “personal” is so much roomier than that of the “confessional.” I’m fascinated by the poems from The Other City, which I am pleased to be publishing in a future issue of Posit. They seem to address an ‘other’ version of what might be considered ‘ordinary’ reality: weddings, elementary school, daily civic life, etc. I also love the prose poems which you recently published in The Tupelo Quarterly, from The Arctic Circle. Can you tell us a bit about those collections, and when and where we might get the chance to read them?

 
KMD: Thank you for the kind words about my new poems! The Other City is still a work in progress. The poems are a bit different from my previous work, since they use sound to forge connections between ideas and images within the text, and essentially to create narrative continuity. I think of them as an engagement with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, as well as the work of more contemporary writers: Hanna Andrews, Thalia Field, and Inger Christensen. A couple of the poems are forthcoming in Laurel Review, and I’m thrilled to have several pieces in Posit. I hope to have the manuscript ready to send out by the end of the year.
And The Arctic Circle was just released by BlazeVOX Books. In this collection, you’ll find a newly minted wife, the ghost of another wife, and a man whose true love was found frozen inside his house. I hope you’ll check it out! It’s perfect for Halloween, after all.

 
SL: I will, absolutely! Speaking of ghosts, a distinctive feature of your poetry is the integration of sentimental iconography with intimations of destruction. Darkness and light seem interdependent, and bridal imagery, fire, and ice appear repeatedly. Can you talk about what informs your poetic vision, and the thematic and/or formal continuity between your works?

 
KMD: I’ve always been intrigued by representations of romantic love, particularly the ways they often blur into cliché. Because certain types of images (bouquets, lockets, love notes) appear so frequently in very bad poetry, we stop seeing just how odd, how disconcerting they are. I love taking those same images, that same iconography, and making the reader see how strange it all is. For me, poetry is also an archival practice, an effort to excavate strange, disconcerting, or otherwise otherworldly material culture from a buried past.

 
SL: All of the works we’ve discussed are written in different configurations of prose. What draws you to prose poetics? Does it present you with any limitations, and do you ever write lineated verse?

 
KMD: I love prose poetry because if the reader sees a paragraph, they immediately have ideas about what the text will be like. These readerly expectations are material, which I can use to surprise them. For me, there’s nothing better than working against the reader’s expectations of what’s possible within a text, and making them question their ideas about poetry, prose, and everything in between. So much of the time, we impose limitations on a text based on its appearance, its form, before we’ve even started reading. I think of prose poetry as an opportunity to foster more open minded reading practices, to show the reader that anything is possible within a literary text.

 
SL: Can you tell us a bit about your astounding productivity?

 
KMD: When I start writing a book, it literally takes over my life. I can’t rest until the project is completed. I think this is mostly because I work in longer projects, with each book orbiting around a different idea or stylistic preoccupation. This makes it easier to fall into a particular project, since there’s almost always a little white thread I can follow through the dark corridors and endless staircases. If I worked on the level of the individual poem, though, I’d probably be halfway through writing my first book. The idea of starting over with each poem frightens me, maybe even more than the unruly sky in my newest collection.

 
SL: That is very interesting. It’s hard to imagine any creative process frightening you! In addition to your daunting creative output, I understand that you are working on your PhD. Can you tell us about your scholarship?

 
KMD: I’m so glad you asked about my scholarship! I’m working on a dissertation that examines representations of philosophical discourses in modernist women’s writing. I’m particularly interested in the ways that these female writers use form and technique to comment on, question, and revise arguments presented by male philosophers. It’s fascinating to see these women reclaiming agency over a predominantly male discourse. This scholarly work has really come to influence my teaching, as I frequently tell my students that the smallest decisions within a poem (a line break, a bit of alliteration, etc.) can make an ambitious philosophical claim. What’s more, this can be done without presenting the argument in the content of the work itself. The project engages the work of Marianne Moore, Nancy Cunard, H.D., Lorine Niedecker, Gertrude Stein, and Mina Loy, as well as philosophical writings by Freud, William James, Karl Marx, and Henri Bergson.

 
SL: That sounds exciting, and obviously relevant to your own literary creations. How much does your scholarship affect your poetry? How disparate are the mindsets you access to write in the two modes?

 
KMD: For me, poetry is a scholarly form of writing. I think every poem as an act of deconstruction, a response to literary works that came before one’s own. Marianne Moore coined the term “conversity” to describe poetry as a conversation — with tradition, with other poets, and with other ways of being in the world. I think there’s definitely something right about her worldview. Poetry offers the opportunity to not only comment on literary tradition, but to simultaneously inhabit and revise it.

 
SL: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and process!
_______________________________
Susan Lewis lives in New York City and edits Posit (www.positjournal.com). Her most recent books are This Visit (BlazeVOX [books], 2015), How to Be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), and State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014). Her work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in such places as The Awl, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Dusie, EOAGH, Gargoyle, Otoliths, Ping Pong, Propeller, Raritan, Seneca Review, and Verse. More at www.susanlewis.net.

tara shea burke

tara shea burke

 

“When you hear nothing about the body…you stop listening to it, and feeling it; you stop experiencing it as a worthy, integrated entity..So [hunger] persists…channeled into some internal circuitry of longing, routed this way and that, emerging in a thousand different forms…Hunger may be insatiable by nature, it may be fathomless, but our will to fill it, our often blind tenacity in the face of it, can be extraordinary.” ― Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want

When I read the passage above in Caroline Knapp’s posthumous memoir, Appetites: Why Women Want (Counterpoint), I was living in Boston, busy with community and bolstered by solidarity in which it was impossibly easy to think about – and openly discuss! – the lives and real needs of women before they are proscribed by politicians and confined under the guise of decorum. Over the next few years, I recommended the book to others, and loaned out my copy with its pages dog-eared and underlined for their compelling message and radiant language.

Two months ago, as I read Tara Shea Burke’s Let the Body Beg for the first time, some of Knapp’s passages returned to me with keen clarity.

The 16 poems in Burke’s first collection look into desire: how we deny or misinterpret its call from fear, apathy, and misunderstanding, and what allows us to heed its various pleas. The collection achieves its political perspective with personal poems about the body, family, love, and sex.

Though Let the Body Beg does not shy from its feminist and queer sensibilities, it viscerally portrays what Knapp called the “circuitry of longing,” and its arc from struggle to recognition, is universal.

Let the body beg, Burke says, but attend to it – aptly or amid tangles that can accompany attempts to cipher complexities of the soul – with acceptance.

Burke lives in Chesapeake, Virginia, where she lives with her partner and teaches writing and yoga.
______
Q: When did you start writing and what was the impetus?

A: I love this question mostly because I used to hate this question. I’ve always been in love with memory. I’m also very aware of how constructed and picky it can be. And, I’ve always been a liar. Or, let’s say that now that I’ve come out of my compulsive, impulsive, ungrounded twenties, that I’ve always been a storyteller. That sounds better.

If the stories I’ve told others and myself are true, I began writing stories when I was very young. I’ll never forget the first story that was published in our elementary school’s tiny little lit journal when I was in first grade. It was about a girl who went wandering through the woods and found another world through a hole at the base of a tree. She fell down the hole – or jumped, happily escaping real life, like I’ve always wanted to do – and landed on a bed of mattresses and pillows. I can’t remember what she did in that other world, but I think it was a kind of mixture of my own life growing up in the woods with my imagination, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the cartoon movie adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Probably some of The Neverending Story in there, too. I’m quick to admit that I’ve always had an intense imagination, and have always wished for a life wilder than the everyday; but I’ve always been a copycat, too. My creativity didn’t go very far before I reached for my closest influences to fill in the gaps.

Regarding poems, I don’t remember writing my very first poem, but I do, perhaps, remember the first series of poems that came out of me. It was when I was in the seventh and eighth grades. And it was about the boy mentioned in First Crush, a poem that appears in my chapbook. So they were about love. Love-ish. The kind that hits you like a sack of puppies, right in the face: surprising, soft, and a little wrong. I think many kids write their first, and last, poems about the body as it’s awakening for the first time. We’re either tortured by our feelings or lucky and over the moon. Or, we’re utterly alone. And then we’re embarrassed and we feel that there is no place in the real world for these feelings, so they get put away, swallowed, and shit out.

My teacher read one of those poems aloud  in class, after I’d half-seriously turned them in for an assignment. I’ll never forget how proud and embarrassed I was. I used to blab about everything, so even though the boy wasn’t mentioned in the poem, everyone knew who he was and what it was about. At the roller skating rink a few weeks before, I think he took pity on my inability to hide my crush on him, and asked me to skate during a song. I turned that moment into a repetitive poem that made it seem like we had been in love and he had left me to my sorrow. Just writing about it brings it back so clearly! What a mess.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that we all are just so drenched in our yearnings. We just want love…to be seen, to be understood, to connect. When I think back to my first poems, that’s what they were all about. Like most kids, I had these big giant balls of conflicted emotions circling around in my gut, unattended to and unseen. I had to understand them and get them out in a way that made sense. Though I didn’t know it at the time, poetry was this vessel for the human condition…for our emotions and desires and conflicts…for all time. I was simply stepping into a tradition. It was very natural to me. Poetry has just always made sense.

Q: What were you aiming to express in Let the Body Beg?

A: Inclusion. Deep feeling. Bodily attention and messy, sloppy yearning. An awareness, acceptance, and pride in our desires and how we express them. So much of our problems, I think, come from denying our ability to express and feel, and how we carry guilt and fear. There is so much me in that book, but I hope the poems are a kind of call to action, or a call to pay attention to how we live in bodies that are wise and willful; and that it’s all, really, okay. All of it. We have to be true to ourselves first, or we only do harm to ourselves, which therefore hurts us all. I feel like we can be so burdened by information and expectation, which creates a feeling of helplessness. We turn our backs to everyone because we haven’t learned how to turn toward ourselves. Those poems are a bit of my own journey through hunger and into fullness. They’re like my little first step into a kind of bigness I hope to keep moving toward.

Q: What is your daily writing schedule like?

A: Dear Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Great Mother, Atom, and Brain, please give me a daily writing schedule. Please. I’m half joking, but I want one so badly. Thankfully, I have a therapist to help remind me to accept what I can give right now without guilt. It’s a process.

I’ve been thinking about this a so much—what it takes to be a writer. I know that it has to be work. To write poems is to step into the ultimate, intimate, eternal conversation with The Muse, which is spiritual to me. But, to write and embody this spiritual act is also work. I think I have to put the spiritual aside – within sight – to truly get the work done. I have to make it no big deal and see it as just work, and not as this thing wrapped so closely to my identity. It is still personal and spiritual, but I get more done when I see writing like making eggs or drinking coffee.

I currently do not have a daily discipline of writing, or a daily discipline of anything, for that matter. I’m not sure that it’s necessary to have one, either. This isn’t to deny the purpose of daily writing for those for whom it works, but I think many writers in 2014 need a bit more flexibility, too. And we need to not feel terrible if we don’t wake up at dawn and write for 10 hours each day. We need to know that we can still do it, and do it well. Daily writing is a luxury many of us don’t have, both physically and psychologically. I mean psychologically because routine is something that doesn’t come easy for some of us. I have to force myself into a routine, and it really is a fight I lose and cry about often.

I think I can make it happen soon, though. I’m currently carving out space—but sometimes, you just have to be okay with what you can do. I read that Cheryl Strayed binge-writes because there is simply no other time … in her daily life. She would wait tables ferociously to pay the bills and save enough for weekend retreats and hotel rooms, then just shut the door and unplug the appliances for three days until she was spent. I like that idea. I’ve done something similar. If anyone has tips on forcing the attention or tricking the very wild mind into routine, I’ll take them.

Q: Congrats on placing 2nd in “Split This Rock,”  a contest judged by Mark Doty with Fall, the poem that finishes the collection. How do you decide which publications and contests you’re going to submit to?

A: Well, that one was a no-brainer for me. At the time, I was writing pretty wildly physical and political poems about the body and lesbian sex, my trip to South Africa, race, class, gender, love. Split This Rock had been on my brain for a while, and they were looking for poems of provocation and witness. Provocation and witness is what I strive for; to provoke and to witness is, to me, poetry’s true radical. I try, now, to look at things in a similar way. I want to find themes that speak to my own themes in my poetry, and I want to know what kind of work a journal or press publishes and is looking for. But I’m going to need to be honest here, and I think many will relate: the places I think are perfect fits for my work almost never pick it up. When I look for general submissions and just start scouring through random listing on New Pages or CRWOPPS, I have better luck. At this point, I’m working on completing a huge bucket of finished work, and then I’m going to send it out to as many places as possible. I’m a gut thinker, though. I send to places that speak to me on a visceral level.

Q: What is your revision process like?

A: This is my magical time. I’ve begun to feel like revision is the true mystical poet-animal, or at least an animal from a separate continent than the one that initially creates. Revision is my favorite, and honestly, that’s mostly been my writing process over the course of these past two years or so. When I open a blank page to try and vomit out new lines of poetry, and nothing happens, I can always look at unfinished poems and play. I reopen the document, read the poem out loud, cut the fat, try new verbs and images, cut the reality out or the last line and see what makes the poem open up. Sometimes I’ll retype a poem from memory to see what stays and what goes. Sometimes I’ll just listen and play with cutting out whole stanzas to see how meaning changes, or where sound takes me. It’s a process I used to resist, and now I love so much. It truly feels like I am of service to language when revision works, and not the other way around.

Q: Does your yoga practice inform your poetry?

A: I used to think these were very separate identities for me, but since I’ve started teaching yoga and changing the way I understand what the practice truly is, the answer to that question has been yes: yoga informs my poetry immensely. Yoga is not about the body at all, really. One tiny part of the yoga practice says to move your body in such a way to clear it out and calm it down, so you can sit with a calm mind and heart and observe the world, both within and without. It is about clarity of attention and deep calm. Poetry is also about this, even when it is radical, angry and wild. There are many misconceptions about what it means to be a yogi or practice asana. People think that to be calm is to not feel, be angry, or react; but true yoga actually asks us to feel as deeply and as truly as possible. It asks us to see both sides of a debate, but also to act in the face of oppression and in the name of humanity. If we are angry, we need to communicate it in a healthy way, not stifle it or pretend it is not real. The more I realize this, the more my poetry begins to slow down and look more closely at things as they are. Yoga asks me to be radically honest and radically okay with the present moment so I can live truthfully and give myself to humanity with a big open body and heart. When I sit down to write poems now, I try to remember this and simply describe what is, whether the subject is the boy shot in the streets, Ebola, my own body, or the way I wash my dishes each day. It all matters. Every moment. Every breath. Every body.

Q: Does your teaching impact your writing process?

A: Yes. On a very literal level. Teaching (whether it’s yoga classes or general education classes about literature and writing) is so hard and so beautiful. I’ve tried to resist this profession I’ve found myself in over an over again, but I come back every time. When I’m in it, deeply, I don’t write, but when I’m away from it, just waiting tables or trying on other jobs I can do with my strange background, I miss it terribly. Teaching feels honorable to me. It matters as much as writing poems do, I think. But the attention it asks of me keeps me from the page. Here’s some truth: I haven’t quite figured out if I should be teaching right now, mostly at the university level. I know I will later in life, but I don’t know why I keep coming back to it when it causes so much anxiety for me. The students break my heart and refill it over and over again, and are so wonderful – at the end of the semester. I think I feel like I have to, like I owe it to my degree or my identity or something to do this important, worthy thing. But I’m not quite sure if it’s right for me as I work on my first full manuscript. Space is important. Routine, as I said above, is necessary. When I teach I don’t feel like I have space or a routine. I’m all over the place. And it makes me emotional in weird ways. I want so badly for my classes to have a huge impact, and I have to check that shit at the door, lest I think of myself as a failure when that impact doesn’t happen.

I will say, though, that teaching humbles me. Feeling the reciprocation of impact in the classroom through sharing stories is powerful. It keeps me on my toes and makes me want to write more.

Q: Who are some writers who have been influential in some way on your writing?

A: My beloved teachers, Tim Seibles and Luisa Igloria. They are and always will be in my head. Always. Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Nikky Finney, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kristen Naca, Mark Doty, Naomi Shihab Nye, Stacey Waite, and Julie Enszer. The list of poets goes on and on, mostly contemporary. Ani Difranco, though. That little radical folk singer that could, she is probably my reason. For everything. All my feeling, all my love and understanding. All my fight. I’m also highly influenced by memoirists like Cheryl Strayed, Jeanette Walls, Joy Ladin, and fiction writers like Jeanette Winterson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sheri Reynolds, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, and Margaret Atwood.

 

(Editor’s note: this poem first appeared courtesy of Split Rock)

Fall

By Tara Shea Burke

When we met we fell for each other like leaves.

Behind black curtains your bedroom was always dark

except for unexpected soft-yellow walls. Your dogs

would lie behind the closed door, waiting quietly

to be let in between us. Later, we became

four sloppy beings intertwined: fur, legs, breasts, sheets

skin, slobber, scents—all sleepy and sweet together, snoozing

until the bedroom’s next dark noon. We slipped pink steaks

between our wine-stained cuspids one night, chewing

and chatting by autumn city fire pit, enjoying the slow

getting-to-know-yous necessary to make something more

than just sex. Why would you want to fight in Iraq? I asked

between bloody bites, knowing the wrong answer might set

me off, make me primal, an animal wanting nothing more

than a few more nights: tipsy urge-easing evenings. Nothing more.

Your answers always surprised me. You taught me

more than I’d bargained for, the old me ready to run with one

wrong answer about war. You made me listen, and your body

suspended my judgment long enough to fall quickly. I worried

every night that I’d become a dry winter earth, cracked and cold

from holding in all the protest, just to experience, just once

what it was like to fall in love. That night, we took the fire

to the bedroom again. I expected the slow honey we’d made

to cool off, change shape. But I ate the thick sugar and finally

let go. I dreamt of you behind steel Navy-Walls at sea, not

active but present, taking down American-made enemies,

awoke in the dark and touched your skin, understood

your choices

like most things that live in the raw honey between extremes.

We were two women finding beauty in clichés, in differences,

in overlaps, the sweet burn of sun on our skin as we fell

to the ground.

apocryphal

Apocryphal By Lisa Marie Basile

Noctuary Press, 2012

ISBN 978-0988805132

Reviewed by Karl Wolff

 apocryphal

 

I put two bare feet up on the dash and spread myself

            but he is a boulder,

            smells of salt, has a chest that could possess

            me, or other nightmares

 

Lisa Marie Basile’s Apocryphal exists in that Nabokovian twilight between childhood and adulthood.  Between these realms one confronts monsters and the monolithic oppression of tradition.  This is Alice in Wonderland re-imagined as a harrowing nightmare journey, a poodle-skirted damsel thrown into the jaws of a slavering beast, who may be the speaker’s father.  What remains are fragments, memories, and fantasies strewn about or reconfigured.

When reading the book’s sticky sensual passages, the slow realization occurs that these prurient shards point to something more sinister than adolescent sex and appeasing those base cravings.

 

            I notice: the other children do not live this way

                        but then again they do not enjoy

                        getting fucked either,

                        & this, I do.

 

            I would learn to devour everything,

                                    mollusk & man,

            become obsessively pregnant with you,

            I mean:           become those women staring,

 

            & I would abort you.

 

Apocryphal is divided into three parts: “genesis,” “apocryphal,” and “paradise.”  It is equal parts visionary and horrific.  Childhood nostalgia turns into body horror.  Everything curdles into corruption and family secrets.

Then the speaker meets Javi:

 

when I meet Javi again he is the worm in my mezcal. once a constellation, once a man who bore a flag of kings, a crown of thorns & power suit, oh my god the forearms

 

While Apocryphal is a critique of traditional male masculinity, it is not beyond denying the urges – those primordial needs – and a celebration of those urges.  It is a contradiction—a friction—that creates heat and light.  Slowly, slowly, more details emerge: a Cold War childhood in a Mexican-American community (?), references to mantillas, and to Javi as “the worm in my mezcal.”  But things aren’t exactly clear, like stitching together a narrative from found footage and random newspaper clippings.  The book is simultaneously dream and pastiche: half-remembered events and the glaucous haze of nostalgia.  Everything about the speaker is fabricated.

 

I could take off my wig and rub off my

  sheen, become real, the bodytrophy underneath all this

 victimized shimmer. 

but I don’t own my own sexuality:

  it is borrowed from somewhere bad, a beach side-show of

 bouffant & glitter, two breasts propped up behind a taupe changing curtain

 

But things are more complicated than that.  Basile thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments.  “& thank you to my family, who I sincerely ask to not read this book. Please. I have borrowed and sculpted lives in order to write this, & I feel bad about it. You are beautiful, mom.”  Despite its avant-garde exterior, Apocryphal enacts the ancient tradition of poets adopting masks, personae.  At first blush, I felt betrayed by its confessions.  But not every book requires a finely wrought personal exorcism of childhood trauma and sexual abuse.  So long as the word “memoir” isn’t in the title, a poet or novelist is free to warp and deform their own personal experiences into something fictional.  Basile might have had a traumatic childhood, since that is more common than one would expect or be conned into believing.  (The patriarchal mythologizing of Leave It to Beaver down to The Partridge Family would make one think that growing up white and in the suburbs involved only trivial problems and a canned laugh track.  But only the fanatically credulous believe these TV shows bear any resemblance to actual lives or historical evidence.)

“everyone I love is recast as father, as murderer, a reconstruction, a deconstruction, an abuse-of, a haunting, a polaroid.”  Apocryphal is all these things.  Basile’s narrator attempts to exorcise memories, but she remains tainted, both in mind and body.  In “paradise” she says “it hurts to speak but it must be done.”  “I don’t respect these monsters but I weep anyway,” she thinks, “with bubblegum/popping through my black veil.”

Sea images return, only this return is more monstrous, a demonic reincarnation, the lasting legacy of abuse:

 

            tiding in,

            the lure of the long stem

            tiding in,

 

            the victim

            is never the victim,

 

            the victim

            is a new monster,

            tiding in.

 

Apocryphal is a haunting meditation on the violence perpetrated against women by those who should know better.  Not simply fathers, but the father-worship of our many institutions: government, organized religion, corporations.  Basile’s speaker gives us a privileged look inside a damaged and wounded soul: someone who wants revenge, the sweet satisfaction of parricide, but also cannot eradicate the cloying sticky shame that clings to her every surface.  Those beach side trysts yielded illicit pleasures, but they also contributed to creating a monster, tiding in and preparing to strike.

mordarling

 

mordarling

EXCESS AND ASCESIS: TWO FEMINIST VISIONARY POETS

VOW, BY KRISTINA MARIE DARLING

THE BLUE RENTAL, BY BARBARA MOR

____________________________________________________________

-“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

 Timothy 11 -12, The Bible, King James Version

-“Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque revenit.”

(“You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will nevertheless come back”)”

 -Horace (65-8 BC), Epistles I.X.24

Kristina Marie Darling created a domestic drama that unfolds in white space, an emptiness surrounded by a commentary in the footnotes.  It is a text without text, a Beckett-ian “texts for nothing” literalized.  Barbara Mor created a panorama, a historico-politico-paleontological rant against collective and individual injustices.  It is written with chthonic excess, with Whitman-esque long poetic lines set amidst the painted landscapes of the American Southwest.  Both Mor and Darling represent visionary feminist poetics; one spare and skeletal; the other a surrealist logorrhea.

Vow is about a marriage.  Rendered in short lines and esoteric marginalia, the bride faces the slow reduction and negation of her identity.  Unlike Mor’s work, The Blue Rental, Kristina Marie Darling’s work isn’t a frontal assault on violent male idiocy and its institutional tentacles (the state, the military, the corporation, etc.).  Darling works through small meditations on relics and debris.  At the bottom of the page she writes,

“Our house burns with light.  He is a shattered window overlooking a desert.  I am smoldering in a field of dead poppies.”

The images are distinct but unrelated, images of light and “a shattered window” (fragmentation), followed by an image of fire and desensitization (“dead poppies” – even the poppies, the flower that yields opium and heroin, body-deadening intoxicants, are dead).

Another recurring image is a “scorched altar.”  Reading through the book, one has to piece together the narrative from the fragments and clues.  Could arson be a cause?  Who set it?  Is the fire a cleansing act like a forest fire?  Or was it set alight to cover-up criminal activities?  The white space creates narrative silence.  It refuses self-incrimination, but also self-expression.  In The Blue Rental, Mor reduces the entire patriarchal enterprise of marriage and reproduction to a dismissive biological assessment:

Sin at the Origin of Earthly Life my desire that

shapes Evolution becomes His Curse,& when did

they respect sex breeding females like cattle who

thinks his little 20 second squirt of sperm gives him

the right to own Humanity

(from Hypatia)

Mor catalogs crimes against women with brutal and explicit descriptions.  The repetition of rape and murder made commonplace.  In her poem Hypatia, she traces this back to the atrocities committed by Saint Cyril and his Parabolans, hired thugs reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s black-clad enforcers of religious morality.

Luckily The Blue Rental isn’t all horror and solemn rage.  Tiny flashes of humor leaven the otherwise dour proceedings.  In one poem she traces the history of a mining town in the Southwest.  The denizens desperately cling to a vision of middle-class propriety while a deep pit spews out various and sundry minerals, machines, and liquids.  While Mor’s intent is to give a David Lynch-ian nightmare patina to ecocidal damage, the poem reads like an episode of the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale (itself owing much to David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, and Area 51).  If Thomas Pynchon has taught us anything, it’s that paranoia can be funny.  In another poem, three Mesoamerican goddesses end up working at Wal-Mart.  The unintentional humor make them no less profound or beautiful as poetic works.

“Once the bride enters, there’s no way out.” (Vow, “Appendix C: Misc. Fragments”).  Where Darling offers the reader bon mots and koans, verbal fragments suspended on the page surrounded by white space, Mor buries the reader in an avalanche of text, a chthonic mudslide of information, images, history, politics, broken bodies, and crime.  She gives us the American Southwest that negates the dominant patriarchal mythos of John Wayne, John Ford, and Western tropes.  This is the Southwest as overbearing capitalist force, seen by the female workers in the maquiladoras, the unending litany of murder victims that Roberto Bolaño writes about in 2666 (The Part about the Crimes).  Mor folds these crimes into a larger history of violence, rewinding the clock beyond the Conquistadors to the Hobbesian all-against-all of dinosaurs and trilobites.  While violence and consumption is an eternal verity, it is something all organisms do all the time, we humans have, in our short-sided attempt to rectify the ecocidal rape of the planet, erected artificial ideologies like vegetarianism and veganism.  While these puritanical dietary regimes offer the individual some modicum of moral superiority, it was John Maynard Keynes who said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”  The sad truth is that veganism is nothing but a prop to hold up one’s self worth.  And vegans being offended by the term “meatspace” comes across like an act of heroic self-delusion, akin to Christian Identity adherents who deny the Jewishness of Jeshua bin Miriam.

“I dream another me exists in the burning house, reading aloud from what I have written.  Broken glass.  A sad film.  The awkward silence.” (from Vow)

When they brought the horses i knew them   a crack in the

universe a fissure in mind look up the Milky Way divides the

sky into 2 hemispheres a brain 100,000,000,000 stars in

this brain a mythos in the sky  with a brain as mirrors  slow

transit of codes in the particulars of their eyes  they will say

they are not entertained by such discourse a memory where

they do not live or think they live  but the horse burst from rock

crevice in a sidewalk  all from Time returned little eohippus

dawn horse Dawn of mammals 53 million years Eocene in the

West   as their hands on cave walls opened mineral flesh and

it was there(30,000bce Aurignacian)evolutions later  and

all the beasts emergent from a stony hole or cavernous mind

dark and shining like night (from The Blue Rental)

Vow and The Blue Rental both act as visionary texts, railing against the nothingness that surrounds us and will eventually consume us.  Darling’s fragmentary meditation on marriage and domesticity literalizes St. Paul’s palaver for women to be silent and obedient.  Like a complementary text, Mor elucidates what St. Paul’s injunction has wrought upon women, civilization, and the planet.  Women treated like property or livestock or simply violated by men acting like predatory beasts.  Civilization turned into a free market capitalist frenzy to consume more and more, but with a belligerent ignorance at what constant growth and increased consumption mean in terms of limited resources and environmental damage.  And crunchy granola hippies chastising us to be simplistic and go off the grid (usually with unintentionally ironic Facebook updates) equally ignorant that a Noble Savage co-existing happily with Nature is just another myth White Patriarchy has erected.  While it may seem futile, at least Mor has the cojones to explicitly inventory the wrongs done by man against man, woman, and planet.  But it would be equally ignorant to chide Mor for not giving us solutions to the problems she points out.  The Blue Rental is a visionary collection of poetry, not a policy white paper.  Vow is visionary in its compactness and fragmentary distillation of marriage and domesticity, not an amicus brief on behalf of marriage equality.

These visionary poets need to be read, since their poetry needs to be experienced.  Both illustrate how words on a page can be a transformative experience.

whale of desire

 

 

WHALE OF DESIRE
BY MICAH TOWERY
REDUX CONSORTIUM, 2013
ISBN 978-0991152315

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I’ve worked and corresponded with Micah Towery as a contributor to thethepoetry.com. It’s a cozy website that’s been kind enough to publish my rambling reviews, though I’ve only spoken with Micah through email or gchat. This wasn’t enough to preempt my reading of his debut collection Whale of Desire, and, since I am a poor follower of journals, I hadn’t come across any of his poetic work before this.

That said, I tore through this book, finishing it within a couple of hours despite the many re-readings and moments of reflection. Debuts are often meticulously crafted over a long time, but Towery’s is more than the best of a life lived until publication. It’s elegant, sharp, and balanced, a slim volume with no fear and no agenda. And in many ways the title, Whale of Desire, automatically encapsulates this, though it requires perusal beyond first blush.

This is a book of many desires and loves, affinities so vast that perhaps it can seem unwieldy. This title and the tribute to Melville are no accident: desire is a leviathan and easily obsessed over. Around desire so many other emotions eddy, but Towery doesn’t offer merely a swirling glut of emotion. His lines dance and crackle, his subjects both revered held accountable to magnification, his tone surreal but never disingenuous:

You leviathan—

laughing at the children who are laughing at you.

You’re taking out my brain and smoking it again

                like the cheap, cherry-flavored cigar it is.

My hairs are splitting you—

 (from Tribute to Herman Melville)

Surrealism and Christianity are siblings in their appreciation for symbology, though Towery never overloads. He investigates and we follow along, from Christian theology to the theology of jazz, through the canon and those unfamiliar with such things. The balance lies in Towery’s openness to life and its poles, not interested in lessons so much as associations. God above, the union below, “while Miles and John / play together upstairs.”

Philip Levine lurks around On the Closing of the Coca-Cola Plant…, though for a book full of God there is a distinct lack of blind subordination. Instead Towery transmits, journals, and observes with an open heart the decay of a type of certainty.

Praise you, laid off workers, part timers,

injured and summer laborers like me

who got out.

 

Goddamn the rest of you—

 

I know you had no place to go…

 

(from On the Closing…, I. Invocation)

Not quite ballads, maybe epigraphs of a sort. The narrator is only a “kid” at the bottom of the corporate flowchart, so we get a fly’s eye on the crumbling beauty of American industry.

The hottest mornings of summer

we get here early. It’s

still. Summer dark

fogs the windshields

 

and these men, left behind—

only a matter of time

until Binghamton plant closes

and we all become Crowley

 

Milk men, who have the same

but better union, who taunt me

in the backs of supermarkets:

You Coke guys eat more shit

 

than my dog.

 

I put product on the shelf

and declare, I am only

here for summer.

Though of course what new hire doesn’t believe that they are exempt, excluded from the politics of a life on the line. The curse of youth in general, flittered away without appreciation. The same could be said for belief, but Towery neither proselytizes nor anguishes. Binghamton deserves its songs, and the poet shifts his lines and injects enough jazz to keep the tune shifting and engaging. Where Levine was always an old man a grumbler, Towery blows a mean horn.

Not that there isn’t space for softness, but it never cloys. Love poems are a dangerous proposition in much current poetry. Even in verse many couch and armor themselves, or dial up the sweetness towards tooth decay. With the same deftness that he sings of labor and faith, T0wery approaches his love poems with the right combination of open-heart surgery and honest deprecation.

So instead, I’ve become accustomed

to false visions and vibrations,

the struggle of every little thing

and come to believe this might be a sort of love song,

a careless moment

of truth, an aloofness in which

I hear a train whistle—

I hear a church bell.

 

I am so impulsive for you—

I write this in the cold for you.

 

(from Love Song in the Light of Gas Stations)

Gas stations are rarely the regularly associated stage setting for love (maybe lust?) but beyond an unexpected association Towery delivers genuine love in a genuine world. The almost tidal nature of impulse, push/pull of desire and even moment it yanks around within us:

Almost—as I view you

              from the kitchen—I almost

come behind to hold you. and later,

              after dinner, I am full of sadness that

I didn’t. and I’m sad the roast

              I labored over lies half-eaten,

leaking on the cutting board.

 (from Third Love Poem for Jill)

These poems are walks, sights, and musings. There isn’t an indulgent indentation to be found, nor poetic seriousness or elaborate fretting. Towery delivers a taught, thoughtful collection to be savored, simmering with thought and experience. The Whale of Desire is large enough for all loves, from belief to fidelity, and each poem rings out as a hymn.

peace

 

 

PEACE
BY GILLIAN CONOLEY
OMNIDAWN, 2014
978-1890650957

Gillian Conoley’s new book of poetry (Omnidawn, 2014) is appropriately entitled Peace because it seems to aim at a kind of reconciliation: with the self, with family, with lovers, with the digital world, and with larger abstractions such as death and the occasional “God” or Christ which she infrequently refers to—but which seems to harbor in the vast undercurrents of the text. Her book is contingent upon a very austere subjectivism, but not without a very oblique, if not unintentional sense of humor. The subjectivism threads through the trajectory of the book in a very meaningful way, and yet the manner in which the subject relates herself to the situations she narrates seems as if through an opaque lens. And the opacity that prevails in its surrealistic bent could make the reader feel like he or she is sleepwalking through a very interesting and memorable dream. It is this which binds the momentum of the book and allows ample room for the reader to imagine, and to perhaps free-associate the given text with numerous other stories, most especially if he or she is of a writerly audience.

I don’t know if Conoley is influenced by Gertrude Stein, but there are certainly echoes of Stein in her work. For instance, in her poem A Healing for Little Walter she succeeds in telling the story with brief, syntactically awkward and obscure sentences: “A blue peal bent so far back it’s red./ Little Walter, beasts looking solemn at you/from the other side./Tina still rising./Turn and run./Gold fill,/Gold leaf fill./Fishbone thereby shall we see the light.” Stein, of course inherited a subjectivism which was obscured and hidden beneath the trail of her glottal-stop disordering of sentences, and yet the reader must conjecture who the speaker is and what she might be aiming at. Later in Conoley’s poem: “Gold leaf, gold leaf fill./Crying and wailing with our toy harmonicas/in a space gone unbolt into/a blueness sucking in the sun…” Throughout the poem she repeats the line: “Gold leaf, gold leaf fill…” which if the reader meant to construe this she or he might consider the gold leaf and its fullness in autumn, both in relation to the world and the consciousness of the self.

One of the most beautiful poems in the book is Experiments in Patience II. It reads almost like a haiku: “Family more/than genetics/and laundry/sweep the earth/in your/cemetery slippers/one foot slipping out…” In other words, and if I were to translate this literally and fill in the blank space:

My family is more than simply the genetics I inherit.

Defined by more than the loads of laundry I do each Sunday,

The routine of it like the years I’ve spent growing up

And spinning stories for the sundry experiences.

Family, like laundry, is also the routine of death,

Softly walking upon the graves of relatives,

And never quite letting go…

The incomparable phrase, “sweep the earth in your cemetery slippers” is what allows the poem a very celestial, if not other-worldly sensibility. It is also as I said the essence of the book’s slow and euphoric sleep-walk. Of course, there is a sentiment here, as there is throughout the book, which is not tear-jerking, but rather skin-tingling and evocative of a yearning for a higher spiritual plane.

And Conoley’s book is certainly not without its spiritual element, if not defiantly Christian. For instance, in her poem I Am Writing an Article (Johnny Cash) she asserts “Christ newly staked and writhing/in the heart/in the door-wide chest/in the overall black tower of you…” Here, Christ is a conflicted image of torture, altruistic love, and within his own antithesis.

Conoley’s speaker travels through spiritual planes which exist and yet clash with the digital world she inhabits, such as in the poem “an oh a sky a fabric an undertow:” “The GPS navigational finding device/enhance search/the overly/Google mapped,/severe lack of frontier in the world…” And here, “in mass human’s estranging light” (The Patient) it is evident that the world she sees does not quite reconcile with the world she must envision. Technology has led a mass of humans to begin “exploring the sewers,/recording/sounds of manhole covers as cars…” (an oh a sky a fabric an undertow), perhaps attempting to excavate the inevitable deaths that come with the human condition. It is without doubt that the speaker in Conoley’s poems sees herself as wholly a part of the human condition, and yet the book attempts to reconcile the conflicts which are attached to this.

I would highly recommend reading Gillian Conoley’s book, especially if you’re concerned with the irreconcilable elements of the status quo, with the larger more universal concerns about family and the self, and with the instabilities with which we are faced in the world as it stands. Conoley’s book has the transcendent qualities that future generations will be reading and considering, even after this generation has “[swept] the earth in [its] cemetery slippers.” A must read, for this world, and beyond.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria-Pic-1-color-681x1024

 

THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE

BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN

 NYQ BOOKS, 2013

ISBN 978-1935520-89-4

silence-in-empty-house-

All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.

Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision.  In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.

In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.

Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:

My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small

Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper

with orange vases, bright yellow flowers

and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,

especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.

The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop.  Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place.  Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.

The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.

Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a  more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:

 Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing

at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her

that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice

it has no right to require.

This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”

Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’  The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:

 How grateful I must

remember to be, to hold

so much in my hands.

so much in my hands.

grapes-of-wrath

 

ALL THAT REMAINS

BY BRIAN FANELLI

ISBN: 978-1936373468

OCTOBER 2013

UNBOUND CONTENT

all-that-remains-front-cover

Here’s a challenge for all of you poets out there. Get a copy of Brian Fanelli’s All That Remains and try to write like him. At first blush it does not seem an insurmountable challenge. Fanelli’s work is approachable. He does not brandish his technical prowess with intimidating sestinas. There is no pandering to theory, nor does he flaunt his erudition by quoting obscure thinkers or having his characters speak in Latin. (Though there are some well-placed references to Bob Dylan and horror movies.) What we do find are rusting towns and their hard-working denizens, whose horizons are limited through no fault of their own. We also catch moments of tenderness and regret and glimpses of youth with chances seized or lost.

While All that Remains is best consumed end to end, I am going to focus first on a poem that appears in the middle, After Working Hours. The people inhabiting this poem are not poets or artists or academics or urban professionals. The woman works in a grocery store. The man works construction, and the images and sounds of their work day follow them home and further still into their dreams, but they wake to love and consideration as he pours coffee and she touches his hand, “feeling warmth between his calluses and cracked skin.” These are not people with careers. For the couple in this poem, a job has little reward beyond the monetary. The drudgery exacts both a physical and psychological toll, but the simple affection between a man and a woman makes it something that can be borne.

Perhaps the most refreshing attribute of Fanelli’s work, in my opinion, is that he has overcome the temptation to write about oneself. There is always an “I” in his poems, and the “I” is usually the poet (though not always, as in Speaking from a Sick Bed),  but the poet exists not to tell about himself and what he has been through, but to tell the story of the people around him.  Summer at the Press Plant is more about the alcoholic, good-natured horror movie buff Frank, barely holding on, than the poet who is looking back to when he was “19 and home from college.”  How I Remember Her ponders the fate of a female activist who surrenders the barricades because of motherhood and marriage to a man “she loves sometimes, when he’s nice.” While we may be curious about the poet’s true feelings for this woman, who is clearly a friend or more than a friend, the poem is not about unrequited love, but about the forces of life and time that make someone, once passionate and vigorous, quit the battle and surrender. The poet may not approve of his friend’s choice of a mate, but, if there is any judgment, it can barely be discerned.

In fact, there are few judgments rendered in All That Remains. Fanelli opts not to expose the violence, resentment, and ignorance that are often fellow travelers with hopelessness. He is not an ironic writer, not looking to poke fun at or criticize his subjects. His hard-working blue-collar characters are not racists or homophobes, not bullies or reactionaries. In fact, save for a passing reference to “decisions of law makers and kings,”  “some senators and congressmen”  actual villains are hard to come by in All That Remains.  The people in these poems toil in dignity seemingly without residual bitterness, the cause of their fates unmentioned or distant.

I decided to set myself a challenge and write a poem like Brian Fanelli. I tried my best to transcend myself, to write about marriage and fatherhood from the perspective of someone who has a job, but no career (or no job at all), who works with his hands instead of tapping keyboards, who is too exhausted and concerned about how he will pay the heating bill to concern himself with questions metaphysical or mundane. I found it is not easy to capture with wit and humanity lives that are near your own geographically, but further in terms of class or race or gender. Fanelli writes about fates that he himself has escaped, but he is unwilling to turn his back, to say: “I’m out of here. You’re on your own.”

diamond years

 

FOR LACK OF DIAMOND YEARS

BY CAROLINE BEASLEY-BAKER

ISBN 978-1938349096

NOVEMBER 2013

PELEKINESIS 

diamond years

As a literary person who became an art critic, the nexus of visual art and poetry has always been of interest to me. I have known Caroline Beasley-Baker as a painter; now I know her also as a poet. 

In Beasley-Baker’s visual art—in all of its diverse forms—I always saw a perceptually acute link between the visual and myth. In his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer describes how visual feints and impressions, physiognomies (seeing faces in things), fears, animation of the inanimate, and conceptual reversals begin; how nervous ticks comprise the human fight-flight physiology.  He describes how epiphanies were experienced and then clarified over time  as the presence of a god (or “temporary gods”) emerged, places subsequently becoming sacred as shrines.

In secular life, such huhs? are often the result of mishearing something, of making a sudden new connection between two odd things, or having a little insightful eureka. Recent neuroscience has found support for Cassirer’s linking of  sight and myth to the study of how humans figure out the world; to how–from purkinjee trees inside the eye to how we see during reverie to how early dysmetropsic misunderstanding of the world is processed through the eyes of a child–forms the basis of all later perception of the world.

In one statement about her poetry, Beasley-Baker said that in her youth she saw the world as a whole laid out below her, that when when she blinked she thought the world changed. These are classic ur-dysmetropsic events, which, if held onto and cultivated, lead to a distinctly personal culture and mythology which seeks to give voice to that seen reality. A poet like Pound, so responsive to Japanese calligraphy, to the haiku, and to other short forms of poetry, sought out poetry to put a visual sensation into something other than conventional words. He sought to give voice to the passing visual sensation of the world in the form of a kind of nervous gestalt beneath or before words. This line of poetry is grounded in sensation. As a result, it paradoxically, harbors an alexithymic suspicion that once you put a label on something you have gone too far and crushed the moment in its delicate passing (as so much lyrical and more confessional poetry, in my view, does). Indeed, much of such poetry has been written precisely in response to visual moments or visual art with the express purpose of not using denotative or even connotative words…but some other kind of word. 

Beasley-Baker was the only artist I knew who dealt with both the macro and micro dimensions of mythic perception (or, as Cassirer called it, “mythic thought”). Later, the titles of her works of art developed into little poems, and she began to put captions or titles into her meanders of lines too, right there in the painting. Her current poetry digs even deeper; it strikes me as what art historians are now calling sfogo (Italian for “steam”)… the little musings to oneself that accompany the making of a work of art; a kind of nonstop texting-below-texting that the mind in metacognitive itch continues on with as it will. Not the lecturey talkback run-on that keeps one from getting to sleep, but the dream-phrasings that incant over walks in the cold or in the dark—or being in the flow of making art. Beasley-Baker seeks to capture these odd, errant “what-made-me-think-of-that?” thoughts at a very micro level. I have called this voice of nature “nomos”, and find that it often takes form in visual art in words that rise out of the very surfaces of the facture of painting or as broken fragments of words: fractured, surgically transposing adjective, adverb, verb, noun moments into other figures of speech; making use of punctuation as if in a musical score, thus leaving behind a finely etched and lean transcript of a visual-mental response, given overvoice or underbreathvoice by the mind. A mental world of phenomenological ghosts (Husserl’s term) and a world made of metaphor, this is not a nexus that positivist categorical American art and American poetry have had much time for. But in John Donne, in Emily Dickinson, in folk song, and in the late work of the Beatles, even, the hesitant, immediately retracting, spelling it out, taking it all back (it all adding up, after such an emotional outburst, to precisely nothing) has sometimes taken shape.

You can see this worked out perfectly in Beasley-Baker’s For Lack of Diamond Years poems. When she puts a slash in, she is pulling up short, telling herself, maybe, to stop; when she hyphens words into supercompounds, that’s an emotional compression, a sudden transposition, a freezing, a making noun of verb, adjectives into an entity. Then an image will come and immediately bump up against another, then something else will block it, or counter it: all of this mental byplay between talking to oneself and telling oneself to stop doing that, to be silent, is there. Beasley-Baker, as a painter, knows that the best moments are the most fleeting and mythic; in her poetry, she seeks to enlist words against themselves to capture moments prior to words, so fleeting as to almost be an enunciated form of silence. Consider her description of a clock stopping after her father dies: “I found meaning and comfort in that ceasing moment, in that…..what? the breath between living and my imagining”.  There it is, right there. The title of her poems refers to “diamond” years, a reference to age, but also to precision, facets, carats, if you will. Her visual art has always had, in addition to larger scale meanders, and an overall almost maximalist quality, countless dispersals of micro moments too, many of them faceted by gems or things that shine or sparkle. It’s really very rare  for a visual artist to so completely translate or, more precisely, transcribe her visual sense into words. For this reason, for me, Beasley-Baker’s poems are a significant achievement.

 

BEND TO IT
BY KEVIN SIMMONDS
SALMON POETRY
2014
ISBN 978-1908836793

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When the young Miyamoto Usagi (from the pages of the Stan Sakai comic Usagi Yojimbo) won his first tournament, his reward was a pair of swords. The katana was named “Yagi no Eda” (or ‘Willow Branch’); and the short sword was name Aoyagi, or Young Willow. His future lord and master Mifune explained that the willow bends so as not to break, and that strength isn’t just power but, perhaps more importantly, adaptation.

This comic book was essentially my main role, from days at Alta Vista elementary to my present as a semi-professional thirty-something. Pliability over strength and sacrifice are things I learned from Usagi, and thought about way too much as a teenager. I still ponder them almost daily, and clearly so does Kevin Simmonds, as evidenced by his new book Bend to It.

The cover depicts a tree under the kind of weight one might encounter in a hurricane, which Simmonds’s New Orleans is all too familiar with. But he’s no stranger to Japan either, as he splits his time between there and America. This collection of poems is sectioned off by kanji numbers, and often references Simmonds’s faraway home. Between Louisiana and Nippon, the author is drawing from a wide swatch of culture and voice, including but not limited to music and growing up gay.

Not that such things are totally disparate, but between the various subjects, epigrams, shifting title conventions and poetic structures, and sections, this book does begin to bend under a certain weight. Throughout it though, Simmonds balances it all with grace.

Off the bat he gives us wild, there:

wreckage is the lasting thing

||:  so mean its music:|| 

 

whatever vows you’ve made

cello them

 

sink your vowel

into them

An undulating sense of music is well-wrought through the lines in this opening piece, which Simmonds continues to use to great effect throughout the book. His strength lies in communicating the effects of music without getting bogged down in the particulars of it, in utility in the right symbols and references without overuse.

Immediately after this he moves on with longer, more narratively rooted poems, and throughout shuffles through these modes regularly. One doesn’t get the chance to become bored with any style, but neither are they afforded a longer meditation. The poems are for themselves, and as soon as you settle into a section it’s over.

Later we find Exegesis:

There was nothing trivial about the

Thai masseuse who slid his vertical

along my vertical, the power

outage, or those extra minutes

without charge. I cannot say he

wasn’t God. What I felt then, what

I feel with a man’s body on mine, is

holy, holy the way I imagine it is

right & without damage, worth

thanks & remembrance &

justification for.

A more personal, sensual poem, still jetsetting and musical. In the book things are forced into a justified column, giving rigid rules to a subject matter better interpreted loosely and interpersonally.  The alignment of verticals references the narrator’s desire to align with the world at large: spiritual synchronization. But at the same time it’s a self-justification. It is what it is, knowing right but excusing that correct feeling as well. Though all contact is a form of damage, anything else is a wistful request.

The negotiation between contact and damage, yearning for what you love but in so yearning causing harm, threads throughout the book. Maybe it’s more a matter of time than interaction. Bend to It, a little wildly at points, swings to and fro as if buffeted by a hurricane. But Simmonds certainly does not break, and gives us a book of perseverance; and in that survival, between moments of confusion or abuse or damage, an exploration of the joy found in small moments of peace.

 

DEATH CENTOS
BY DIANA ARTERIAN
UGLY DUCKLING PRESSE
2014

death centos

Diana Arterian’s chapbook Death Centos is currently available in a limited edition set ($125) that includes two additional works of art. The first of these is a broadside, designed as a version of the Goose Game, with an inward-spiraling design that depicts a life cycle. The second is a game piece, accoutrement for the board: a small sculpture made of white brass, replica of a 2-franc piece (no longer in circulation), evocative of funerary customs in which the deceased are given money to help aid them in their respective journeys to the afterlife. The center of the letter-pressed broadside holds a statement from Arterian regarding her aesthetic intentions for Death Centos, in which she writes, “I have placed [my subjects, whose words comprise [these centos] on even ground . . . I have bastardized history in order to provide a poetic space in which they are marshaled together, allowing them company in the terror of the unknown.”

Indeed, the form of a cento – a quilt of human thought and experience, couched in the language(s) and perspectives of many – seems ideal for Arterian’s task of simultaneously memorializing and combining the last words of historical figures. These centos seamlessly combine the last words of geniuses such as Emily Dickinson, who described the onset of death with immutable innovation and elegance: “I must go in, for the fog is rising”; venerated historical figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reinforced the importance of beauty, art, and faith: “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord’ tonight – play it real pretty”; religious leaders, such as Jesus of Nazareth, who invoked the value of family, love, and unity among human beings: “Woman, behold your son; behold your mother”; and common criminals, guilty of unspeakable acts of violence, sadism, and evil, e.g., Lavinia Tucker, who revealed a chilling lack of either delusion or remorse to the last: “If any of you got a message for the devil, give it.” These quotes, like all employed in the text, are credited; those who spoke them are listed on the innermost edge of each page, alongside the binding. However, the speakers cited are not listed in an order that corresponds to the placement of their words in each poem. By scrambling the identities of the speakers, these poems successfully render death a truly egalitarian process: not only must we simultaneously confront criminals, admired personalities, and venerated leaders, but we are deliberately deprived of the opportunity distinguish among them. Thus is the reader compelled to acknowledge their common humanity – and, in this way, Arterian’s project seems to become less about providing these souls company among one another in the terror of the unknown, and more about giving them equal real estate in the psychic space of the reader.

For this reason, terror seems neither the most defining nor the most compelling quality with which death is portrayed in this collection that interrogates what it means to die, and how we use those final moments before death – both our own and those of others. In fact, death is associated more immediately with happiness than with fear or suffering: Arterian opens the collection by quoting, via epigraph, the last words of her grandfather: “I’m so happy.” In addition to its direct declaration of joy, the context provided by this epigraph encourages the reader to understand death as a unifier – familial – an occasion that facilitates communication between the individual about to depart and the rest of the living world. Four times in the text, death is referred to as “going home,” and once as “taking refuge,” suggesting that human finitude, rather than merely stimulating fear, may serve as an intensifier for our natural propensities for forging connections, exchanging knowledge, and learning from the experiences of others. This text specifically differentiates, via section titles, between the dying and the condemned; to succumb to our physical finitude, then, is not to be sentenced. We may have to die, but we are not punished by death – a view that suggests a paradoxical sense of agency; readers are encouraged to regard the moments immediately preceding death as an occasion that provides the about-to-die with a reasonable expectation of being not only heard, but remembered – a secular brand of immortality.

And, ultimately, these centos suggest that our participation in the immortalization of others – the post-mortem maintenance of their identities – is a communal project, one that is also egalitarian in that it renders the individual will less important than the collective memory that keeps it alive. “Only you have ever understood me/ and you got it wrong,” Hegel tells his favorite student, and then takes his leave. Even as death erases his identity and sends his ego spiraling through the ether of the unknown, his faithful student transcribes and remembers his final speech. And so our collective attention to another human being’s last conscious moments allows us to help preserve the self that is being effaced, as we choose to integrate their departing wisdom into their own lives via language and memory. However, Hegel’s words – and Arterian’s lovely, haunting centos – also highlight the true terror of death: in being immortalized by the memories of others, how much of your true self, as you’ve defined it, will live on? How much of you is in your own words?

 

 

THE BROTHERS PERDENDO AND PERDENDOSI
BY BRIAN TRIMBOLI
RELEASED BY NO, DEAR MAGAZINE AND SMALL ANCHOR PRESS

Brothers1-copy

This is how terrible of a reader I can be: didn’t even think to look up “perdendo” or “perdendosi” until after I’d read this chapbook at least four times, the first two in quick succession immediately after it arrived. Not that it’s necessary to define every little thing in a book or poem, or so I feel; but the title is that much more fitting knowing that these brothers are named after, if not actually, a manifestation of loss, or at least the musical term for a fade out. The Brothers of Loss, things fading away.

This might have been more accurately titled The Brothers Perdendo and Perdendosi and their Father, as far as the literal ongoings within as the dichotomous distinction between the two halves set them up next to the father as if they were a single entity. We read their experience, and a few soliloquies from the father, and loss operates in tandem, theirs the royal “we” though this automatically connotes their individuality. Their names are so similar, and roots of the same gerund, to fade out in the face of their father. In Rilievo, the musical command is to become louder, to “stand out over the ensemble”.

Really I should have seen it all, though it is late in the chapbook that Trimboli basically spells out his thesis:

 Two different time signatures,

my father in the center talking loudly

 

to himself. Lights all around him.

He is dressed like a seven-year old boy.

He will not take his costume off,

even after he has gone home.

Families are baked in with the potential for discordance, a mess in the making. What are boys to learn from a father who never grew up? They raise themselves, and their father, in the process. Though there are limits.

Ultimately it’s a stressful cacophony to live under. As Trimboli indicates, “Our father was coal at the bottom / of the ocean. We named him In Rilievo, / / his voice a brash horn.” The father didn’t exist until found, and then named as the equivalent of an orchestral drama queen. But they did the naming, knowing coal’s potential for escalation.

The Brothers Perdendo and Perdendosi deals directly loss in the wake of an irreconcilable father. It’s further appropriate when we consider how the poems themselves fade out, as the musical definition of “perdendosi” commands. Which isn’t to say they aren’t gratifying or unfinished, but rather they weave throughout each other with such open expression. These verses thrive in quick structures, usually fewer than ten lines and alternating between two conjoined books stitched together with no other directive in reading. Page by page as if mirroring each other, one after the other, right to left or vice versa, this chapbook is built to be remixed through reading.

It’s the kind of setup that could drag itself into tedium if not done carefully, concisely, and in the frame of this chapbook, necessitated by the disintegrating emotions expressed therein. Multiple readings are subtly encouraged but no one experience gains ground over another. And really each line sings with such vulnerable vigor, title-less, divvied up by page as the only indication of where one fades out and another fades in.

That’s the surface poetics at work, wrapping up these short pieces as sublimely poetic, musical, and layered. But it’s more than an exercise in cross-genre ekphrasis. Trimboli’s well-wrought lines sway, graceful with their weight, are best self-described: “an orchestra of small insanities held together with catgut.”