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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

FFF: Thanks for participating in our series, Jasmine!

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

KA:  :D Ahhhh!!

 

 

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

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

because i did not die

Because I Did Not Die

By Nicole Santalucia

ISBN: 978-1599540948

October 2015

Bordighera Press

Reviewed by Brian Fanelli

The Cannoli Machine at the Brooklyn Detention Center, the opening poem in Nicole Santalucia’s Because I Did Not Die, sets the themes—family, Italian American heritage, and addiction—that are a thread throughout the book. Santalucia’s latest work is bold in its subject matter, and shows a willingness to go into the cave and tackle past demons. The poems are unflinching in their handling of the personal, something fewer and fewer contemporary poets are doing in the decades following the height of the confessional movement that saw the ascension of Plath, Sexton, and Lowell.

Several of Santalucia’s poems deal with parents realizing that their children are addicts. The opening poem, for instance, finds the speaker’s dad in the Brooklyn Detention Center, trying to come to terms with the fact that his son is jailed. “This is the first time I saw my father afraid,” the speaker confesses. And yet, the only comfort he finds is the chance to stand in line at the cannoli machine with all of the other fathers. The Italian dessert, at least, is something familiar and comforting.

Throughout much of the book, the brother is a ghost, floating in and out of the family’s life, recalled through memories that the speaker has seen through glimpses. In the poem Golfing, for instance, the sport is used as a metaphor to refer to the brother. The speaker recounts running into the woods and imagining her brother’s ghost teeing off: “I never thought he’d be strong enough/to swing back at life.” The poem is also interesting because it shows the speaker adopting some masculine characteristics, perhaps learned from her brother and dad. The opening lines feature her swinging, grunting, and throwing the nine iron into the sand pit, traits usually associated with men. The slight gender-bending, which occurs in other poems, too, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book.

The book also addresses a second or third generation Italian American’s attempts to better understand her heritage. Someday I Will Learn Italian recounts watching a grandparent learning over the stove, preparing pasta. There is a distancing between the grandparent and the children, and not only because of language barriers. Throughout the memory recounted in the first stanza, the children always face the grandparent’s back. After the poem digs into the speaker’s past, which includes stealing wine bottles at the grandparent’s funeral, the poem concludes by connecting the past with the present. The speaker sees aspects of the older generation in herself, including some typical Italian traits, such as talking with her hands.

Other poems shift between New York City and Binghamton, or Johnson City in upstate New York. The poems about those scrappy, often forgotten New York locations could be a snapshot of a lot of American rust belt towns, in that they capture the poverty and the sheer struggle to survive. The conclusion of the book’s final poem, Johnson City, reads:

There are blank toe tags and broken chairs

for sale on front lawns in this town.

This is Johnson City.

Old ladies sweep their porches

then the sidewalks

The K Mart has bedbugs

the people don’t know why they have syphilis

They wait for five o’clock in this town

they stand in traffic and wait for a miracle

Yet, this book has plenty of optimism, including stories of the speaker and her family surviving. Other poems celebrate gay marriage and the speaker’s relationship to her wife. Indeed, there are plenty of miracles in Because I Did Not Die, and Santalucia’s willingness to spill her guts should be commended.

__________________________________________________________________

fanelli

Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man (Big Table Publishing) and the full-length collection All That Remains (Unbound Content). His third book of poems, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, is forthcoming from NYQ Books. His poetry, essays, and book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Main Street Rag, Blue Collar Review, and other publications. He has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. He teaches at Lackawanna College.

emily vogel

 

First Words

By Emily Vogel

ISBN 978-1630450168

June 2015

NYQ Books

Review by Brian Fanelli

emily vogel

Though the northeastern winters serve as a background for several of the poems in Emily Vogel’s collection First Words, there‘s a tenderness and intimacy beneath the book’s howling winds and snowfall, a celebration of love between the narrative’s speaker, her husband, and their firstborn daughter. First Words, however, is not simply a collection of love poems or meditations on motherhood. There are larger themes at stake, including language, the metaphysical, and a country increasingly prone to violence and hyper-consumerism.

Frequently, there‘s interesting juxtapositions of images at work. In the poem “First Snow,” for instance, the winter setting is referred to as “a strange euthanasia of gray.” Certainly, the image evokes the loss of life winter causes, but it’s contrasted with the love between the speaker and her partner, who is referred to as “the essence of song/in a warm room.” The husband is something constant and reliable, a foundation, and as the poem says, they will always return to each other.

In another poem, “White Christmas,” the speaker drives home and throws herself into her husband’s arms. Again, the husband—and the sleeping infant in the next room—serve as something stable. All but the closing stanzas contains Christmas images, but the carolers have faces that “reflect dimensions of apprehensions,” and the speaker imagines that that they are pondering “guns/bank accounts, the magic of a blinking digit.” These images cause tension and reflect the capitalistic aspects of the holiday, but by the end of the poem, family is the anchor, something pure and true.

Other poems address larger cultural issues and undertones of violence. “Sequestering,” for instance, references zombies, claims of God as a hoax, and fears of getting shot in the supermarket. It‘s as though these references are threats to the safe domestic space, where the newborn daughter “gasps delightedly,” the husband laughs at old movies, and the snow, too, acts as a protective barrier.

In “Events,” Vogel again employs some apocalyptic imagery to address society’s larger ills. One section of the prose poems reads, “The war proliferated like neighborhoods/like families, like vacations in exotic places. A fire burnt/down the city.” The poem is one of the most biting, in that it also tackles indifference and hyper-consumerism with the concluding lines, “And then everyone involved got into their/warm cars and drove around, with no particular destination/in mind and thought a lot about what happened for a while.”

The end of the book circles back to family, with a poem dedicated to the author’s daughter. “Dear Clare” is a mix of memories of the daughter’s infant years and mediations on her future, and it includes the line, “I wonder if one day you will know/that poetry can often be as basic as a bank receipt.” On the one hand, Vogel has a knack for writing about the ordinary, about images of snowfall and her daughter laughing at images on TV. On the other hand, this collection constantly pushes deeper. Despite the violence that may exist in the world, Vogel illustrates how relationships and love stand as a stark contrast to those ills.

 

 

Seaglass Picnic, by Frances Driscoll

Pleasure Boat Studio, November 2015

Reviewed by Cheryl R. Hopson

distant-ocean-sea-yacht

The late black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde told us decades ago that silence would not protect us. But what happens when we speak those silences – personal, cultural, generational, familial? If Frances Driscoll’s poetry collection Seaglass Picnic is any indication, poetry is what happens.

Driscoll subtitles her collection with a splash of Post Traumatic Stress, suggesting something of the book’s themes–rape, PTSD, suicide, addiction, love, and renewal. And indeed, Seaglass Picnic has the beauty, vibrancy and whimsy of sea glass, as well as the unpredictability and destabilizing force of rape and PTSD. Driscoll opens the collection with a tribute poem to a lost love, Andy—one of five individuals to whom the collection is dedicated. The poet writes,

Roma historian Sarah Carmona says in Romani

when you want to tell someone you love him

you might say,

I eat your heart

Love,

I have eaten your heart,

And,

you,

my beloved,

have eaten mine.

Thus begins the reader’s journey. The poet tells us that, try as we might, there are things that happen to us that can never be forgotten or erased – terrible, torturous, violent things like rape or a beloved’s suicide.

It’s not a rape thing.

I have always loved amnesia.

In the poem He takes off his shirt, the speaker jettisons the imposed/customary silence of rape victims and PTSD sufferers:

I’m a rape victim and

I’m having a small. Little. Well kind of bad

re-occurrence

of post traumatic stress and …

There is no reason to be so afraid

when a man says on the telephone

I am taking off my shirt.

But

I’m as I said having this

little post traumatic stress thing going on

Though I was drawn to Seaglass Picnic, I found myself resisting reading the collection. I know firsthand the havoc and destruction rape and its fallout can bring. I am the sister of a survivor of rape, and I understand by way of my sister—and now, by way of the speakers of Driscoll’s poems—the tenacity and strength it takes to survive what ultimately amounts to the destruction of a person, body and soul. I found myself time and again returning to pieces such as to go properly into the past, a poem in which the poet writes,

Have yourself a little post

traumatic stress episode.

One that comes with flashbacks.

Lots of flashbacks.

And to poems like What Is/What If, part of a series that references the television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. In What Is/What If, Driscoll revises Law & Order’s subtitle, removing the “Special” and replacing it with “Torture.” Victims are not “special,” as the poet tells us. Rather, they’ve been made fragile and left broken by the experience of rape–as well as by their rapist’s inability or refusal to recognize their humanity, and call them by their names.

Too, in a collection that takes on so many serious, gut-wrenching topics, there is levity – and there were moments when I laughed out loud. Consider the poem The Object #2, in which the poet writes of “a very bright pink very large” penis that “once…followed alongside the car/flying with me / all the way home from school.”

I talk with Donald about it.

This is normal he says.

Jung had visions.

I don’t tell Donald,

do you really think anyone thinks

Jung was normal.

Though at times dark, despairing, and damn painful, Seaglass Picnic showcases the power of poetry to revive, relive, relieve, and break—once and for all—the silences that imprison us and prevent healing. I end my review of Seaglass Picnic as the poet began her collection: Frances Driscoll, poet, teacher, and beloved aunt to Ocean, I eat your heart.

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hopson

Cheryl R. Hopson, PhD, is an assistant professor of African American Literature at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Georgia. She has published essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, as well as on U.S. black feminist sisterhood. Her chapbook Black Notes was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.

 

 

 

 

In the Event of Full Disclosure

By Cynthia Atkins

CW Books, 2013

REVIEWED BY CHERYL R. HOPSON

atkins

Cynthia Atkins opens her second collection of poetry, In the Event of Full Disclosure, with a meditation on family love by early twentieth century poet, T.S. Eliot, who writes of such unions as “love that’s lived in, but not looked at, love within the light of which all else is seen, the love within which all other love finds speech.” “This love,” continues Eliot “is silent.”

Enter Atkins, the poet/family woman (sibling, daughter, mother, wife), to break said silence and offer something of the same love, by which she herself sees and writes.

In “Family Therapy (I)” the first of five poems demarcating the book’s themes of family, mental illness, love, shame, and centering, Atkins writes,

I hold the secrets. I am the writer.

I am the sister of a schizo-

phrenic. My elder split—

 

I’m learning how to be a member

of my family, of my society.

I’m wanting a text book

on the matter.

 

With this framing poem, Atkins shines a light on what it means for her/us to be a part of a particular biologic (and national) family, but she also reveals what is referred to in the collection as the insistence of chromosomes – e.g., doom.

And yet, there is a willingness to construct an alternative experience for herself and the family/love she creates and shelters,

I’m looking for a cure, because anguish

is harmful to live with. And yes,

I am a little pregnant. Set another

Place? Erase another place?

I am my child’s child, doomed

For failure.

 

Atkins’s poetry has the urgency and righteousness of June Jordan’s, but it is unlike anything I’ve read before. The collection is dedicated to the poet’s siblings, two sisters and a brother; and the sisterly/fraternal connection is felt. In the poem “Picture This” Atkins writes of

Three sisters just from swimming,

bathing caps, fresh cut bangs –

sitting at the pool’s edge. This safe notch

in time hailed like a taxicab in the rain,

and memory makes it sedate

as a lawn chair, quelled

and awash in Technicolor

 

The poet’s revelation that the three sisters’ girlhood was not easy is underscored, as the poem continues:

At home, two muddy shoes

depressed or manic at the back door?

Life offers possibilities—a kiss with

a fist or a salesman’s pitch? Now tinctured,

with time, bereft of manners

 

Atkins writes in “Family Therapy (III)” that “the mind’s pain / is the last inconsolable extra gene,” and in “Family Therapy (IV)” that “Our shame is seasoned / and matter-of-fact.” But it is also in the context of family love and its inheritance (e.g. ,mental illness), that the speaker has come to understand the necessity of shelter for herself, her loved ones, and her art. In “Nest,” Atkins writes of home as a “kind of grace / nestled in, to protect us from / the elements and the answers.” Home, in the context of In the Event of Full Disclosure, sits astride a river in Southwest Virginia – it is a place where the poet/speaker can be and not be, a quiet calm where she can “…spend the rest of my days / telling [my] story” in verse.

Atkins is a seasoned and gifted poet, and In the Event of Full Disclosure is a must-read.The collection showcases what nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson might refer to as the white heat (e.g., intense and affecting, often painful, energy) of family and family love: the changeling sibling (or parent); the mother’s/sisters’ speaking and silence; the father’s death; and the mental illness presenting itself time and again in the family as, “Brick and mortar, a nervous disorder / marriage, divorce, work to lay-offs” and “…the one window / light that calls us home.”

____________________________________________________________________

hopson

Cheryl R. Hopson, PhD, is an assistant professor of African American Literature at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Georgia. She has published essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, as well as on U.S. Black feminist sisterhood. Her chapbook Black Notes was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

adamsdarling

 

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

adamsdarling

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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. 

_________________________________________________________


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.

 

Kenny- Lightness-Back Flap-Photo

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!
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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.