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Jason Allen—A Meditation on Fire

Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2016

Page Length: 71

Retail: $14

Poems of Survival: A Review of Jason Allen’s A Meditation on Fire

Jason Allen’s debut full-length collection of poems, A Meditation on Fire, reminds me of what remains in a boxing ring after the final round. The poems spin tales of mental and physical bruises, blood, scars, and shadowboxing. Yet, even in the most confessional, sobering work, poems that speak to addiction and sobriety, the book is not without its humor and salvation.

Several of the poems are so visceral that we feel what the speaker feels as we thumb through the collection. The opening poem, “Blues Before Sunrise,” for instance, loosely plays with the blues form, namely the repetition, not the rhyme scheme and meter, to give us insight into the speaker’s troubled mind, as he listens to Muddy Waters.

I’ve got nothing

to do but listen to the rain

while a dead man named Muddy

sings the blues inside my skull

Immediately, within the short, unrhymed, four-line stanza, the poet does much to establish the mood. There is the physical aspect of the rain, but there is also the haunting quality of the music, which pounds the speaker’s skull like rain to pavement. The rest of the poem takes the reader for quite a ride, with images of a burned-up couch, a rusty canteen, a one-eyed mutt with ribs showing, and vials crushed beneath the speaker’s boots. The imagery does much to set the tone and drop the reader into an uneasy setting. By the end, the speaker states he will leave as soon as he is allowed to leave and he has been waiting for a midnight train. The rest of the collection is a journey of sorts, through drug houses, family memories, and ultimately, sobriety and newfound love.

Much of the book also addresses father/son relationships. “Gunmetal Blue” is sorrowful in its opening, set in the late fall, when the trees are bare and scrape against the speaker’s window, but the poem shifts midway from the image of the outside world to a dream in which the speaker is seated at a bar with his father, making apologies for pulling splinters out of his hand, perhaps after a fight. He is even sorry for forgetting his father’s face. Despite the complicated history, however, the speaker concludes with the powerful declaration, “I’m not one bit sorry/to have survived.”

There is another thread that runs through the collection: the idea of prayer and meditation as a means of salvation. To be clear, none of the poems in the collection are religious, but they do find salvation, either in love or through thankfulness. The way Allen uses repetition throughout the book also resembles the act of prayer. “Angels at Dawn” is another poem set in winter, but it is about overcoming winter, a metaphor for overcoming addiction and other life struggles. Like other poems, the opening stanza immediately establishes a clear, concrete setting:

 

This winter I feel lucky

to have survived

the thousands of miles

of white knuckles on the wheel

the bald tires on snow and ice.

A few stanzas later, however, the speaker confesses:

This winter I may have died

but for a moment I am at peace

weightless in this montage—

 

her sleeping face

the falling snow

the shopping cart man

calling out

to angels at dawn

the morning light

against the frost

on my neighbor’s

stained glass window

the feel of her hand

as she tows the dream-line

and sleepily says goodbye.

In the hands of a less careful poet, the poems of survival and prayer in A Meditation on Fire would not have worked, but Allen is able to mine personal memory without being sentimental. He also constructs vivid images so that we are there with him during his childhood, as he gets in fights with neighborhood boys. We are there in the punk houses, as Black Flag songs blast from the radio, and we are there when the speaker feels the warm breath of a lover against his cheek. A Meditation on Fire is a fine celebration of life and personal triumph.

 

 

 

 

 

During 2016, the Spotlight Series has (usually) focused on the work of (approximately) two poets per month. This month’s second poet, whose feature concludes this series, is Raena Shirali.

 

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?

Raena Shirali: Much of my motivation on a poem-by-poem basis comes from a resistance against silence, as well as a desire to enter into and provide a new understanding of various psychologies. I first fell in love with poetry because of persona, because it provided opportunity to escape my own thoughts (at least, that’s what I thought persona was offering me as a young poet), and I still return to persona or ekphrasis whenever I get stuck. But I think persona provides more than self-discovery by means of vicarious experience. It’s an opportunity to create and cultivate empathy. That’s what makes poetry such a powerful medium—a medium I can’t imagine life without. To loosely quote Casey Jarrin, one of my most influential teachers, poetry is an empathy machine, and everything that fosters empathy is not just worthwhile, but necessary. I think that’s closely related to why I’m excited about the poebiz landscape right now. We’re seeing so many more POC voices, LGBTQ+ voices, marginalized and oppressed voices getting recognition at the Poetry Foundation and Teen Vogue and beyond. That motivates me not just to keep writing, keep remaining dedicated to writing poetry for and alongside my fellow POCs, my fellow women, anyone who has questioned or struggled with their heritage or sexuality—but further motivates me to read and promote those authors actively. How do our fragmented experiences, our traumas, our flawed attempts to articulate those traumas, ultimately add up to our collective consciousness? Our collective empathy? Our capacity to praise, or mourn, or change?

FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
RS: That really depends on where I am in my writing process, but I do make a point to consume art that isn’t poetry every day—whether that’s compiling art on my Tumblr, listening to podcasts, stopping by the Halsey gallery, or reading in a sculpture garden. I’m a firm believer in indirect influence—the confluence of experiences and art forms as the real generative space—as opposed to reading an article and having an immediate reaction in the form of a poem. Don’t get me wrong—social and political issues completely drive my work, but I’ve had to train myself to not let my impulse or initial emotional response take charge in the poem. I have too fierce a reaction to things like gang rape in India—a topic my book addresses extensively—to write the first thing I feel. I have to sit with that violence, and ask how it can speak to, say, a red sculpture smattered with white bird shit I saw a few months ago, or the girls in sorority tees sitting underneath it, talking quietly. I guess my creative influences are those of association and accumulation, which makes sense, considering my experiences with assimilation and camouflaging as a woman of color writing in the South.

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?
RS: Aesthetically, I’m always thinking about lineation and enjambment first and foremost, and I especially prioritize fragmentation over symmetry. To me, no poem is really the final word, even if the poem is fulsome in its articulation and conception. It seems almost haphazard to call the poems in GILT complete, in a way, when the notions of fracture, chaos, and fear are so integral to the project. I think that’s my central challenge and preoccupation—to allow individual poems as well as the book to be a liminal space, where answers aren’t accessible to us, because in any instance of violence, what is the answer, really? How do we explore such barren landscapes— landscapes fraught with the aftermath of violence, landscapes where girls aren’t welcome, where girls are the fear-riddled creatures we’ve brought them up to be, no matter the country?

I’ll say that recently, I’ve moved away from more conceptual poetry, and instead, selectively read work with discernible stake. I’m more drawn to art that allows violence its gruesome elements, while also investigating and implicating lyricism in conversation with that violence. That kind of art—poems like Tarfia Faizullah’s in Seam come to mind—should be as visceral as the event it seeks to expand and mold for the reader. Rape, for instance, shouldn’t fit into a template or a box, and we shouldn’t only be willing to engage with similar subject matters when they fit into outlines that make us, as readers, comfortable. I try to practice that belief in my reading, writing, and teaching, but that isn’t to say it’s not hard, uncomfortable work.

Deconstructing language and experience is cool to me. Poems like Franny Choi’s “Pussy Monster” are cool to me, because they’re risky and fun, while also being succinct and brilliant critiques. Any work that challenges convention is cool to me, too. For instance, I’m enjoying watching the lyric essay as a mode shift and mutate and resist definition even more defiantly, especially in work that engages pop culture and is written with the attention to detail and capacity for empathy of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s “On Serena Williams and the Policing of Imagined Arrogance”. It’s super interesting to me when poetry gets circulated on social media, especially lately around the utterly unfathomable violence against black men and women & the LGBTQ+ population in America. I love that these pieces feel and are more immediate, necessary, and laudable than some of what we, as a culture, still praise canonically. I love watching and being a part (in whatever small way) of that change.

 

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?

RS: Language barriers have shaped me more than I care to admit. Growing up, my parents spoke English in the house; and since they actually speak two different dialects of Hindi (Gujaratri and Konkani), and English was more comfortable for them, they rarely spoke Hindi (though, props to my mom, who tried pretty hard to teach us the basics for a year or so in there). So throughout my childhood and adolescence, taking trips to India or visiting family (most of whom speak Gujaratri), I felt this sense of alienation, coupled with a deep desire to fit in (a pretty common narrative for first generation immigrants). It’s interesting because, on the one hand, growing up so blatantly not-white in South Carolina, I wanted desperately to be the antithesis of my family, my heritage, my skin—but on the other hand, I craved a sense of belonging that I must have known, innately, couldn’t be attained by assimilating. I feel that sense of not-belonging in my poems as strongly as I do in my sense of self, and it’s taken years to accept that not-belonging does not mean I have no identity, but rather, that liminality is likely the most significant aspect of my being.

I finally had that realization when I was 22, seeing Fred Wilson’s “Iago’s Mirror” at the Boston MFA, and that was a real turning point in both my poetry and my conceptualization of identity and otherness. “Iago’s Mirror” is this gorgeously ornate series of stacked Murano glass mirrors, but the whole piece is entirely black. Of course, it’s a comment on Othello and blackness above all, but it made me become obsessed with the idea that the act of looking at myself, as a child of immigrants, had been completely altered by the fact of my brownness as other. I mean, at some point growing up, I just stopped explaining what being “Indian” meant. I was always going to be not-quite, and kids explained me away as “definitely being half-white” or “really light skinned for a black girl.” It was exhausting explaining myself, so I just grew totally apathetic. I stopped owning my skin—stopped owning my body, really—and that period of my life is one marked by depression and eating disorders, as a result (subjects that GILT engages with, by the way). “Iago’s Mirror” flipped the lens for me. I was 22, finishing out my first year of grad school, had finally left the South and found a community I felt a part of. And then I saw this piece—one that, it seemed to me, spoke to issues of colorism and diaspora and intersectionality—and I just realized I wasn’t writing about the shit that needed to be written about. I could make the choice to actively embody and promote my identity, not just in my life, but, perhaps more importantly, in my poems. In doing so, I could own the parts of myself that were “too dark.” I hadn’t written a single poem involving my own identity before that point, and now I can’t imagine what my poetry would be without it. That piece of art changed everything for me.

FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.
RS: It almost feels silly to plug it at this point, but given the state of our current political climate, I feel it bears repeating: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is, by far, the most important text I’ve read in the last year, not just because of its exploration of America’s race issues, but because that is a book that, every time I read it, pushes me—in terms of genre, self-evaluation, grief, cultural critique, praise. It asks that we own the microaggressions committed against us, as well as those that we—inevitably, unintentionally—are implicated in the perpetuation of. I think that’s incredibly brave and important work, and am always thinking about how I can navigate a similar space in my poems. Parts of GILT address the aspects of my upbringing that were and are incredibly privileged, while simultaneously engaging in the racialized body as alienated, perhaps as a direct result of the community that privilege entails or bestows. So, I guess I’ll say that Citizen isn’t just important as a text to hold up in order to say, “Racism exists!” but more so for us to examine our own day to day engagement with and movement through our world, and to be willing to change it, to open the door for other POCs, other LGBTQ+ writers, anyone who has been and continues to be disenfranchised in seemingly quiet ways.

The second book I’ll recommend is a stretch, not because it isn’t an amazing collection of poems, but because it is incredibly hard to get your hands on. Morocco by Matthew Savoca and Kendra Malone Grant was released by Dark Sky Books in 2011, and is currently priced at $361 on Amazon. No joke. So it feels a bit ridiculous to even tell people to seek Morocco out, but I can’t answer this question without doing just that. Morocco is scathingly minimalist, and doesn’t fuck around when talking about fucking around. It taught me to truly own how the body can be equally wrecked by grief, love, and heritage. It’s raw and tender and full of slippery things, and both voices in the affair are represented honestly enough to make the reader uncomfortable. You know how sometimes you see a movie or read a book (The Sun Also Rises comes to mind) where the central relationship is so fucked up that it’s somehow appealing? That’s what these poems are. They’re gorgeous, bright, dead spaces. You can’t help but fall in love with them, even though they’re poisonous and addicting. And you don’t regret falling for them once you have. Find this book. Seriously.

 

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

RS: I guess this is the place where I plug the book! My first collection of poems, GILT, is coming out with Yes Yes Books.

And as an end note, I think it’s important to mention that several of the poems in GILT are persona poems dealing with incredible violence and trauma—something that I am cautious and wary of throughout the drafting and composition process. Leslie Jamison, in The Empathy Exams, borrows this little bit of wisdom from Faulkner that I’ve been obsessing over: “It isn’t enough, but it’s something.” I feel that applies to all art, but to poems where the author has to reach beyond their own set of experiences especially. And I think that’s how I feel about GILT. It isn’t enough to write one collection about this truly wide-ranging set of issues, but it’s a start. It’s something.

 

 

Indian American poet Raena Shirali grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where she currently lives and teaches English at College of Charleston. Her first book, GILT, is forthcoming in 2017 with YesYes Books, and her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Four Way Review, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Tupelo Quarterly, Pleiades, and many more. Her other honors include a 2016 Pushcart Prize, the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2016 Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, the 2014 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Prize in 2013. She is currently a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine & will be the Spring 2017 Philip Roth Resident at the Stadler Center for Poetry.  You can find more of her work at www.raenashirali.com

Maria Mazziotti Gillan— What Blooms in Winter

NYQ Books, 2016

Page Length: 116

Retail: $15

The last several months have been trying as an American citizen. Donald Trump’s candidacy has used xenophobic rhetoric to demonize minority groups and immigrants. In these times, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s body of work, which often focuses on her Italian-American family heritage and celebrating the immigrant experience, is especially relevant. Her newest collection, What Blooms in Winter, draws on the deeply personal to vocalize her story and also give praise to the melting pot aspect that has always been a foundation of American culture.

Gillan’s latest collection continues to draw on the narrative form, and most of the poems use personal memory to address broader issues, including the immigrant experience, climate change, and global terrorism. The early part of the collection moves through grade school, before shifting to her teenage/twenty-something years, during the 1960s and 1970s. The book then addresses a number of losses in the poet’s life, including close family. Finally, the book concludes with a number of poems about Italy and her parents’ immigrant experience. The language is accessible, but the content is never simple.

Because of this election season and national dialogue, I was most drawn to poems that explore what it means to be an American. In “The First Day of High School,”  the speaker recounts trying so hard to look like an “American middle-class girl,” including wearing the right clothes. Soon, however, the speaker learns that preppy clothes can’t hide who she really is or mask her “lower-class accent.” The poem then weaves in and out of memory, navigating to a moment when a famous poet told the speaker to hire a voice coach to erase her accent. The speaker refused and concludes her poem in defiance against any notion that she is not American.

Another poem, “Our First TV,” addresses manufactured notions of the American dream. The speaker lists various images from TV shows she watched growing up and their portrayal of the American success story, including the big white house and huge living and dining rooms on “Father Knows Best.” The speaker goes back even further to Dick and Jane books that taught her about “the other America” with a “pipe-smoking father raking leaves/in his cardigan and brown dress pants.” It was that first TV in the living room, however, that taught the speaker about class divide and how her living situation, a “cold-water flat” with small rooms and Italian chatter, was different than the upper-middle class American homes she viewed on TV. The poem concludes with one final reality about class divide in America, and the lines resonate especially well post-Great Recession:

All the TV programs in the world

could not have prepared me

for the invisible walls

that protected those people

from people like me.

Other poems cry out in frustration against global terrorism or climate change. “The Catskills in Mid-September,” for example, celebrates the beauty of the northeastern mountains, but ends with the lines, “As the weather swings from downpour/to drought, I know we are all to blame/know there is so much that has to change.” Other work centers on family and recalls the poet’s sister, parents, and even more recent interactions with grandchildren in bucolic settings of Italy.

Overall, What Blooms in Winter places the poet squarely on the side of the immigrant and the underdog. The book never strays from the narrative mode and frequently draws on the poet’s personal memories, either to merge the personal with the political, or to honor the memory of those who have come and gone in her life.  I am grateful for Maria’s voice. Her work stands as a protester banner, waving boldly against anyone who wants to make the country less inclusive.

 

 

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

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?

Margaret Bashaar: As far as I can recall I’ve always been driven to create—I think most people are, honestly, it’s just a matter of cultivating that drive. I’ve created in a lot of different mediums—I used to sing for many years (I took voice lessons for almost 10 years), I played the violin when I was younger, I used to draw and paint a lot—but poetry was always the medium that I carried with me no matter what other art form I was dabbling in. And honestly it’s the one I’m best at and I’ve been most able to grow and develop within. There was always a ceiling to my ability with other art forms. I have yet to find an endpoint to my growth and curiosity in poetry.

I hate the “poebiz landscape,” truthfully. I think the landscape as it currently stands is detrimental to art and the creation of art. I could rant about why and how all day, but to specifically answer your question, I navigate the poebiz landscape because if I want to share my work, it is part of what I must do. I also routinely work around the poebiz world to share and create poetry and promote and celebrate the poetry of others, so I think part of my motivation in navigating the poebiz landscape is to find new and exciting ways to try to subvert it.

 

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

MB: I always cite T.S. Eliot as one of my influences, because reading “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” when I was in the 6th grade was what made me want to be a poet. Now having a child who is in the 6th grade, I also realize how ridiculous I was to be a 6th grade fan of that poem.

I draw a lot on horror imagery—I’m a fairly delicate, sensitive soul (I swear) and when I was a child I was exceptionally fearful. Like, lie awake at night almost every night genuinely afraid that some unseen horror was lurking in my closet ready to devour me levels of fearful. I think there is a part of me that still has those fears, and so rather than lie around worrying about them, I write them into poems. So there’s a lot of body horror and a lot of people being eaten in my poetry. I’ve had my work compared to films like Trouble Every Day and Martyrs (the original 2008 version).

Though on the subject of body horror, I got an infection in my brain when I was about 12 years old. It affected my basal ganglia, and made me unable to walk or talk for a bit over 6 months. I think some of my desire to dissect the body in my work comes from that—seeing my body as this weird alien thing that wouldn’t do anything I wanted it to at a very formative time in my life. I have some brain damage from that, and while I cannot tell you exactly where that comes out in my poetry, I know that it does—it’s this sort of floating constant, having my brain/body connection always a tiny bit out of my control. It definitely causes me to focus on the body 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?

MB: A professor of mine in college introduced me to Dadaism and Surrealism, and the work both of those movements did in regards to drawing unexpected, startling imagery into poetry and creating unexpected equivalencies in work has stuck with me. I think that really helped shape my aesthetics quite a bit.

If I am being honest, though, most of what I have been trying to do with my poetry anymore is just fucking have fun. If I don’t step away from something I wrote with at least some level of glee at having written, lately I have been questioning why I even spent the time writing that particular piece. I write because I love the act of writing, and I write because I need to write. The writing is the important part—that act of creation and spell-work. And I look for that as a reader, too—if I read a poem or a collection and it feels urgent and it feels like some manner of euphoria came from the creation of the work, I am more likely to enjoy that piece.

 

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?

MB: A few years ago I met this woman in my local artist community and we HATED each other. I thought she was a bitch, she thought I was a stuck-up cunt and we were each annoyed that the other’s friends were also our friends. But somehow, in spite of this, our mutual friend Skot saw something about both of us that made him think we would make the best of friends. So he sort of shoved us together and demanded that we get along. I guess we both like Skot enough that we played nice with each other for long enough to realize that we actually DID like each other and that our initial impressions had been totally and completely wrong. And the woman I thought was a bitch is Rachael Deacon and she’s actually the best human person friend I know and now we run FREE POEMS together and make arts anarchy and I wrote about her in my first book, Stationed Near the Gateway (Sundress Publications, 2015) and she painted the cover art for the book, and I think the moral of the story is that Rachael Deacon is awesome. In all seriousness, though, Rachael IS great, and I feel like it’s really easy to miss that person who jives with you and your philosophy and work over petty crap or an awkward first impression. I feel very fortunate to have a friend like Skot who saw that Rachael and I would get along and cared enough to work to get us to see that too, and to have had the opportunity to try again with someone who has become an amazing friend and the best collaborator in art and arts event creation I ever could have asked for.

 

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.

MB: Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it is one of those books that, whenever someone asks me about poetry that I think is truly great I always mention. She’s such an amazing poet—I feel like far too much of poetry right now is focused on perfecting craft at the expense of musicality and movement, and Espinoza’s work really is some of the most gorgeous, musical writing I have come across in years. I cried reading this book, and I’m not a crier when it comes to poetry. Her writing is THAT moving.

I also really love Deathless, by Catherynne Valente. It’s not necessarily poetry, but Valente’s prose is so gorgeous in Deathless that I would read a few lines and then go back and reread it just because the writing is that deliciously beautiful. It’s pleasurable and satisfying to read in a way that I’d not before experienced with prose. It’s poetic, but without losing its sense of story and movement, which I find is often a problem in fiction that is going for poetic language.

 

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

MB: I’m good! These were pretty solid questions that made me go all think-y. So that’s enough thinking for a bit, there

 

Margaret Bashaar’s first book of poetry, Stationed Near the Gateway, was released by Sundress Publications in early 2015. She has chapbooks from Grey Book Press, Blood Pudding Press, and Tilt Press, and her poetry has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including New South, Caketrain, The Southeast Review, Copper Nickel, and Menacing Hedge, among others. Her most recent chapbook, Some Other Stupid Fruit, was released by Agape Editions earlier this year and is available through THEThe Poetry Blog. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she edits Hyacinth Girl Press and encourages art anarchy.

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s second poet is Yolanda J. Franklin.

 

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?

Yolanda J. Franklin: I am not motivated to write poems. It’s more of a luring, calling, or purpose. I live poems and life is unwritten poetry. Being a working poet, for me, is more about establishing and cultivating friendships with other poets, celebrating their successes and cultivating with a community of writers who are dedicated to developing a craft of poetry as a vehicle for social change.

 

FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically? 3. 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?

YJF: On how my poetry speaks to the current state of race relations, I must say that my aesthetic must always signal beauty, the political, even terror. My poems respond with a notion that each of these positions must exist ubiquitously in order to correctly right, create, and historicize the black experience as a whole. As the poet Vivee Francis notes, “The whole of me is so many things and I have to cover the spectrum in my work.” Therefore, my poetry engages in a discourse that exculpates Cornelius Eady’s claims that, “We are only seen through the brutal imagination. If you want to push back, then write the imagination unbrutal.” Decisively, my poetics fosters a discourse that contemplates this “terrible beauty” and my duty as a female poet of color to interrogate both Francis’s and Eady’s assertions while analyzing the benefits of diverse poetry that I can produce.

What’s cool in literature/art and most important to me in a poem is seeing something I’m familiar with in an unfamiliar way, having an emotion evoked that I’m only used to experiencing arise from images and metaphors on the page, and unique innovations with craft that intrigue me sonically.

 

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?

YJF: Currently, I am creating poems that address and interrogate the relationship between white first wave feminists and black second wave womanists. I am interested in “the trouble between us.” For me, this trouble is centered on the silencing of black women’s voices by some white liberal feminists’ blind plight towards their “belief that they really are progressive.”

 

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.

YJF: I am going to reinterpret this question by sharing poets that I think everyone should read. First, everyone should read Natasha Trethewey’s oeuvre, who as a poet in many ways captures all of the characteristics of what makes Zora Neale Hurston the “Genius of the South,” and like Toni Morrison, she interrogates race and deconstructs monolithic notions of Blackness while utilizing historiography with the Ekphrastic form. Secondly, I think that everyone should read Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec because of her personal mythology building; her persona poems that capture her own personal historiography and her astonishing love poems. Finally, everyone should be reading Lucille Clifton, Jericho Brown, Nikky Finney, Claudia Rankine, and so many more….

 


Yolanda J. Franklin
’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in African American Review, Sugar House ReviewCrab Orchard Review’s American South Issue, and The Hoot & Howl of the Owl Anthology of Hurston Wright Writers’ Week. Her awards include a 2012 and 2014 Cave Canem fellowship, the 2013 Kingsbury Award, two nominations from FSU for Best New Poets (2013 & 2014). She is the recipient of several writing retreat scholarships, including a summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s, Postgraduate Writer’s Conference Manuscript Conference at VCFA, the Callaloo Poetry Workshop in Barbados and Colrain’s Poetry Manuscript Workshop. Her collection of poems, Ruined Nylons, was a finalist for the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Award. She is also a graduate of Lesley University’s MFA Writing Program and is a third-year PhD student at Florida State University.

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

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?

Saba Syed Razvi: Every person alive experiences the world according to his or her own unique circumstances, resources, inherent dispositions, and choices—and, yet, our societies and our media often paint what is seen as successful in narrow and limited terms. Measuring life’s experiences by its successes can be misleading, especially when so much of life’s appeal comes from its broader and more nebulous approaches. What I am most interested in is the liminal, the spaces that are rooted not in collective approval or expression but in individual approaches to life and the things in it—desire and dream and longing, fear and despair, the beautiful and the grotesque, the sublime and the strange, the ephemeral, the in-between, the echoes. Often, these things feel more true and more universal than things expressed as universal to begin with. I think that this sense of a truth beyond fact and praxis finds resonance in myth and fairytale, in folklore and in our ideas about the divine and the seductive. So, I guess I am interested in the knowledge of gnosis and noesis, in the epistemological shadows cast upon the primal experiences longing and the unknown, dream and mystery. Poetry is not a practical choice in a world concerned with money, nor is inherently a tool of another experience of reality, and its aims are to reach between psyches to make connections; I find this nebulous but deeply meaningful connection made possible by art is crucial to the experience of humanity in a world which is, at this time, so filled with darkness and disconnection, with the willing turning of a gaze away from the experiences of deep and impossible suffering.

Any art has the ability to connect people to each other in ways that honor their individual experiences of life, but poetry has special meaning for me, and I gravitate toward it with a kind of personal bias. Words carry layers. They hold ideas and sounds, utterances, feelings, evocations, invocations. They bind us and they revile us. They reveal almost as much as they obfuscate, or perhaps the other way around. A painting or a song feels to me like a game taken into the self, but poetry feels like a game which includes the self and the other, a game of overlapping dimensions and infinite possibilities for both experience and expression. The ideas that we can make an art of something like language that can be used for so many less artful things makes every statement a puzzle; in doing so, it makes it possible to give voice to the impossible, the ineffable, and the otherworldly. For its potential and its potency, poetry is the art that most appeals to me – though I have to say that a good story, a good painting or song or sculpture or dance or film can be just as captivating when done by one whose favor lies that way.

The poebiz landscape both delights and puzzles me. It is at once an arena in which possibility and collaboration is possible, and one in which competition and power struggle is common. I am often surprised to see the ways in which the issues of our ages are advanced through the channels of poetic outrage and uncertainty, but it is also in these spaces that I learn to recognize the intimacies of social value. I applaud the social justice and discourse that has been made possible by the poebiz scene, especially on issues of gender, race, religion, otherness and belonging, sexuality, and accountability. It is delightful to see such progress and such lively, courageous ideological engagement and contest in this arena that is often not associated with such moxie and such potency. I appreciate the ways in which the poebiz arena reminds us that words are powerful and that artfulness can matter, especially when it comes to the things that mark as as human rather than machine or animal.

 

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

SSR: I think my answer to this changes based on my moods. I tend to find myself writing and taking notes all the time, whether I am scribbling in a pocket notebook on a hike or tapping on an app on my phone while listening to life bustle around me. I find that various parts of my life—real or imagined, find their way into the shape at the base of a poem or other. Music of all kinds. Painting. Nature. Social Issues. Dreams. Divination. Myth. Artifacts from Ancient Civilizations. Unsolved Mysteries. Folklore and Legend. Superstitions. World Literature. Graphic Novels and Comic Books. Psychology. Space. Astronomy. Riddles. Lullabies. Scientific Innovation. One of my favorite things to do is wander through museums and look at the various artifacts there, examine the descriptions, research the topics myself and imagine a world that contained them. Lately, my interests also include politics, specifically those politics related to human rights and fair representation of all people.

 

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?

SSR: This is a really interesting question to me for a lot of reasons, in part because the idea of aesthetic can be so malleable and varied. What I see as lush, indulgent and intimate might be seen as too much for some readers or not enough for some readers; it all depends on preferences, I suppose, and on value. That’s why I love that you followed up the question of aesthetic with value. I personally prefer my language ornate and playful. I like things that feel baroque and multivalent, multifaceted, multidimensional. I like literary art that seeks to invoke what its about and create an atmosphere or mode. I like work that feels incantatory and immersive, a little wild and impulsive. I tend to enjoy work that doesn’t give in to restraint unless it wants to give in to restraint, the excess over the minimalist. But, I also like work that has energy and that feels powerful, that feels like a dream that won’t let you go or a nightmare that you are compelled to explore and relive in the telling of it. I like nostalgia and reverie, ambiguity. I suppose that because I enjoy these things, I sometimes find them in my work—and that’s definitely true of some of my work, especially In the Crocodile Gardens, which invites the reader into a sumptuous experience, or my chapbook Of the Divining and the Dead. I would like to think that the approach I seek is one juxtaposition, of a dark veil of lace through which bright, neon colors shine upward, or like a stained glass window lit by a candle from the other side, the refraction of light and shadow on a wall upon which patterns are cast, a woodcut printed with India ink on silk dyed in swirls of color, and the hint of pattern on the underside of softness. The idea of phosphorescence and luminosity, specifically that in contrast with shadow, drove much of my first manuscript of poems, heliophobia, some of which might be found in my chapbook by Chax Press called Limerence & Lux. I would like to say that my poems reflect my attitude toward hospitality, there is much value in giving opulently and generously, in welcoming your guest to the best of what you can offer, the most that you can give. However, I should also say that I think it depends on the project. For a long time, I have also been working on a collection of poems inspired by advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive theory; many of these poems focus on restraint and specificity, rather than opportunity and possibility. For me, aesthetic depends on purpose and on the project at hand. My current work seeks to draw from the opulence and decadence of beauty, the intensity which makes the grotesque alluring and seductive, the gaze that can invite as much as it can slice through an intimate moment, the violent assertion of self that the world demands of our waking experiences and the freedom of dream. Perhaps the easiest way to describe how I see my own aesthetic is to say that I imagine writing with luminous color on shadow and waiting for it to fade from sight and to rest on the inside of the eyelids in memory. I hope that my poems will, in some way, make the world seem as unreal and as real as it never can in fact, but always does in the fantastic epiphany of a truth that is felt in the bones.

 

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?

SSR: I grew up in the Houston metropolitan area where it is possible to find a myriad of cultural and artistic events to attend and experience. My parents often took me and my sisters to various events with them. Among the museums, wildflowers, orchards, symphonies, plays, and libraries, we attended parties held by the Hyderabad Association, such as mushairas. If you’ve never been to a mushaira (or, never heard of one), it’s essentially a gathering of poets which feels like a cross between a featured reading, a poetry slam, and a spontaneous concert. It was at these occasional mushairas, filled with words and forms I didn’t really understand yet and with literary traditions I only later studied, that I was immersed with a love of the communal and joyful aspect of poetry. Often, the younger children and teens would retreat to the back of the ballrooms or auditoriums, or into some lobby or anteroom, and build a sort of commentary apart from and parallel to that of the larger audience. We would tell stories of ghosts or djinni, share dreams and wishes and crushes and struggles, bond over our hybrid cultural identities, our cultural in-betweenness and our ordinary lives, or simply fall into what seemed like an absurdly big family party with its familiarity and its fun and its secret intrigues. People we met here were friends that lived all over the country, friends that we only really spent time with at these events. A floating community, a temporary zone of shared time, a confluence of coincidence. I learned the power of the word in this way, of song—and it reinforced the various stories and songs and performances of my childhood, too. I learned that poetry could be a thing that binds people together who would never otherwise have cause to connect. I learned that community can be joyful as well as judgmental, that life is all about the adventures you choose to create in the spaces created by others around you. Somewhere, in the overlap of these things, I found that poetry had woven itself into my earliest impressions of what it means to connect to other human beings. Even now, when I attend conferences or readings or festivals, I am reminded about the possibility of transcending the ordinary spaces of life by way of words that access the fantastical, the frightful, the intimate, and the beautiful.

 

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.

SSR: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Conference of the Birds. I think that the former reminds us to value delight and open-mindedness, especially in the face of the unexpected; the latter reminds us that all of our experiences are multifaceted and that mindful reflection upon them creates an awareness that leads to confidence and connection. I have so many favorite books, and I change my mind daily on what I love the most, but today, I think that these are the lessons that we don’t get enough of in our hyper-connected and still alienating experiences of the world.

 

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

SSR: I didn’t talk much about the role of popular culture or cultural criticism, yet, but I do think it’s important—not because of the authority that it contains, but because of its potential for compulsion of the heart and mind. I didn’t talk very much about narrative or academic scholarship, but I have to say that a great deal of my experience as a writer has been shaped by my experiences in the academy and my experience in rebelling against a narrative imposed upon me by the world, rather than presented by myself. I think that a lot of really wonderful poetry is being written today, that much of it contends not only with the worth of one’s voice, but also with the structures of knowledge the seek to contain it. I would like to think that this informs not just my own work, but that of the poets whose work I love to read, the journals and books I most appreciate. Sure, there is a lot of work out that there that seems to be stuck in a past that isn’t as concerned with a real kind of fairness, but I think there’s a lot out there that has chosen to transcend that attitude—and I would like to hope that my voice is among the ones that people will want to hear. The things that people want to hear tend to fall like echoes over the crests and peaks of the terrain that makes up every horizon. Some of the most interesting narrative that is being written today tends to find a place in Speculative or Science Fictional spaces, spaces of popular culture, and I think that’s worth thinking about: what holds resonance on a large scale. One of the things I really love is the television program Doctor Who (and the world of spinoffs and characters and ideas it’s created), and there’s an episode in which The Doctor says something like, “We’re all stories in the end; just make it a good one,” and there’s another episode in which he says, “Nobody really understands where the music comes from . . . when wind stands fair and the night is perfect, when you least expect it, but always, when you need it the most, there is a song.” I just wanted to end on those two statements because I think that in this current moment, poetry lives between story and song—maybe it always has—and, that is just where I want to be, as well because it feels like a space that is full of dynamism and hope, life and dream; I hope that pocket outside of time is where my poems will take readers or listeners, too—and that they enjoy being there, inside those words.

 

Saba Syed Razvi is the author of In the Crocodile Gardens (Agape Editions, 2016). She is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston in Victoria, TX. Her poems have appeared journals and such as The Offending Adam, Diner, THEThe Poetry Blog, The Homestead Review, NonBinary Review, 10×3 plus, 13th Warrior Review, The Arbor Vitae Review, and Arsenic Lobster, among others, as well as in anthologies such as Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War Faith and Sexuality, The Loudest Voice Anthology: Volume 1, The Liddell Book of Poetry, and is forthcoming in Political Punch: The Poetics of Identity. She has been honored by James A. Michener, Fania Kruger, and Virginia C Middleton Fellowships. She earned a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing in 2012 at the University of Southern California. Her chapbook Of Divining and the Dead was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012, and her chapbook Limerence & Lux was published by Chax Press in 2016.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

What is cool/important?

Hybridity

Realism

Hyper-Realism

Narrative Drive

Grittiness

Honesty

The Body

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Fact: History Gets Revised.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Barbara Elovic_final (2)
Michael T. Young: Thank you, Barbara, for agreeing to an interview.

Your newest collection is called Other People’s Stories. I wondered if you could tell us a little about the significance of the title and how it relates to the theme of the collection.

Barbara Elovic: Other People’s Stories serves as the title and the underlying theme of my poetry collection for a few reasons. As a young poet I wrote mostly confessional material. As I got older I found myself less interesting as subject matter and was intrigued by the idea of telling stories that weren’t about me. Philip Levine said long ago in an interview that even though the audience for poetry is small he wanted his poems not to be so recondite that someone had to be a regular poetry reader to understand what he was talking about. That idea appeals to me greatly. I also was lucky enough to have both as a friend and teacher the underacknowledged brilliant poet, Enid Dame. She taught me about the craft of midrash poetry in which the writer chooses stories from the Bible as subject matter to retell with one’s own understanding, insight, and spin.

Even though some of the poems’ subjects are imaginary creatures or people I’ve only read about, I’m telling their stories not mine. Of course, my perspective influences the telling and clues about me are revealed, but the I of the poem is someone other than Barbara Elovic.

Michael T. Young: The collection seems to explore the complex and often plastic way stories are told. I think of the last lines of the poem “Arshile Gorky,” which go, “the stories he told about himself/were just another work of art.” I wonder if you could talk a little about the art of storytelling and its importance in the collection.

Barbara Elovic: I believe that as people live through their days part of their consciousness is the story of the life they believe themselves to be leading. We as individuals tell stories to ourselves, not necessarily as they happen. Perhaps after a day or a much longer period of time an introspective person sits quietly and thinks about what he or she has been doing and what it adds up to. This was an idea featured in feminist thought a few decades back when women were acknowledged to think of themselves as the heroes of their own stories; specifically as regards the Western literary canon in which male heroes and protagonists predominate. Or the idea that what Hemingway wrote was full of big ideas about the world and women who wrote about what happened in individuals’ homes were not doing something equally important.

Michael T. Young: A number of the poems hinge on a shift of perspective or alternative points of view as, for example, “Eve’s Version,” or “You Think You Got Problems?” I wondered if you might address the significance of these alternatives in the collection and its theme.

Barbara Elovic: “Eve’s Story,” and “You Think You’ve Got Problems?” are written in the first person because I wanted the poems to have immediacy for the reader. I come from an Orthodox Jewish background from which I’ve lapsed, but I was taught stories from the book of Genesis when I was a very young girl. When a person learns something as a child it sticks with them on an almost subliminal level. So I had both what I learned as a small God-fearing child in mind when I wrote both poems and my adult re-evaluation of the biblical stories referenced at play. I believe now that Eve was portrayed as a temptress and a troublemaker. Now I think being a troublemaker can be heroic.

To Order Other People's Stories, click the image.

To Order Other People’s Stories, click the image.

Michael T. Young: The collection takes up a number of political and socio-economic issues. There are the overt poems about Robert Moses or Susan B. Anthony. But there’s also the poem about Dorothea Lange. Could you tell us a little about these political and socio-economic issues and how they relate to the collection’s theme?

Barbara Elovic: Robert Moses and Susan B. Anthony were clearly the kind of brave troublemakers I just mentioned. And Dorothea Lange is best known for the pictures she took while working for the WPA Artists Project that Franklin Roosevelt established to help the country out of the Great Depression. Her compassion for her subjects make her photos breathtaking. She composed her most famous photo, “Migrant Mother,” with the subject at the center. The mother’s hair is dark, but her face is deeply lined and she’s probably younger than she appears to be in the picture. Two small children with their backs to the camera bury their heads on both of the mother’s shoulders, framing her. We as viewers can only see the mother’s eyes. The photo makes explicit that she bears the weight for the care of her kids literally. Long after I had seen the photograph, a documentary aired on public television about Dorothea Lange and helped explain at least one source of her compassion. She had suffered from polio years earlier and that pain helped her identify with the suffering of people from a less-privileged class than hers.

Michael T. Young: What do you see as the relationship between imagination and history? How is it important for us today, dealing with current issues in the world?

Barbara Elovic: It took me decades to learn that the history taught me up until high school was only one version of America’s story. Now that I embrace left-wing politics I would say that in fact what I was taught was a combination of propaganda and lies. In fourth grade we talked a little about racism and slavery, but nothing much that I remember was said about the persistence of racism. The story of Thanksgiving was a pallid, happy story worthy of a bank calendar; Native Americans and the Pilgrims sitting down to dinner and being good neighbors. Indian reservations were still to come and the imminent theft of their land appeared nowhere in my social studies textbook.

Imagination at least in part is what one thinks for herself when ranging outside of the conventional boundaries of a shared narrative. American Exceptionalism, which many people in this country take as a given, is a myth to me that excuses the murder of the indigenous population of this country and the second-class citizenship of people of color. And then there’s the right to interfere in other countries’ politics because we’re inherently better than they are when all we’re really doing is adding to global corporations’ profits.

Cell phone cameras have only recently revealed what American cops see as unquestionably appropriate behavior when harassing, wounding and even murdering black men and boys. We now at the very least have some cognitive dissonance popping up, but I don’t see police training or tactics adapting. In fact right-wing politicians blame the group Black Lives Matter for inciting murder of police, which is malarkey to be blunt. They are demanding equal treatment from law officers, but the cops have tin ears and see them as a threat. And too many politicians back them up.

Michael T. Young: In reading the collection and considering the importance of telling our own story and even the freedom to remain anonymous, I also wondered where those needs come together with our need for friends, for companionship. Is that intersection where we share a common story or is it in some other place?

Barbara Elovic: I think in today’s political climate in which rancor predominates we tend to have many friends with whom we share ideas about what’s going on around us. I have friends really annoyed at me for not being a Hillary Clinton supporter. That disappoints me greatly. I’ve learned of late to nod and make sympathetic noises because I don’t want to argue anymore. I was the captain of the debating team in my high school, but that was a long time ago.

I have this Jules-Feiffer-inspired notion of adults as aging bodies encrusting little children inside them riding tricycles whose feet don’t quite reach the pedals. I think it’s the rare person who actually grows up as she grows older. I think artists, those that interest me anyway, are truth tellers. That doesn’t mean they have outstanding social skills, but it makes their ideas more interesting. It also doesn’t make me want to be friends with great artists.

I was very young when I went to graduate school in creative writing and I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to behave among the professors. Most of them weren’t very kind and too many of them had serious drinking problems, which brought out the nastiness in them. Their best selves were in their poems, not in the personae they paraded around among us lowly students.

It’s wonderful to have friends from different backgrounds. Today my poet friends fill some of that bill.

Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Other People’s Stories and why is it significant for you?

Barbara Elovic: My favorite poem in the collection is the last, “Leap of Faith.” My father died when he was in his early sixties after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for more than twenty years. When I was young and naïve I assumed I’d have a book published by the time I was thirty because I would calculate the ages of the contemporary poets’ whose first books I admired. They were usually in their early thirties. Easy peasy. I’ve written many poems about my father and had hoped to make his story better known because my poems would be widely read. Ha!

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?

Barbara Elovic: For this collection biographies had direct influence on some of the poems I wrote. I also wrote some of these poems many years ago. Biographies of Robert Moses and Arshile Gorky supplied some of the information for the poems about them. I loved the Curious George books as a kid. I learned the improbable story of his creators from an exhibit at New York City’s Jewish Museum. That’s a very specific answer to your question. In a more general sense I assume that every book that I read and enjoy influences me. I won’t read beyond page fifty of any book of prose that displeases me because there’s always so much more to read and life is short.

Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Barbara Elovic: I enjoy teaching the Pilates exercises as well practicing on my own. I love taking long walks. I also love to travel and gain the perspective that I get from seeing other places and talking with the people living there.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, Barbara. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Other People’s Stories.

Leap of Faith

Whether I light Sabbath candles
on time or not at all
is only my affair.
So when the eager young woman
comes between my friend and me
on the street to ask
Excuse me are you Jewish?
I always lie.

What I love and whom I believe
is strictly up to me.
My prayers are only mine and always private.
But my father who died years ago
took his faith with him across the ocean.
Running from the Nazis kept him motivated
the rest of his short life.
On his yahrzeit I light a candle
that blazes while I sleep.

If you would like to read a review of Other People’s Stories, you can find it here: http://prickofthespindle.org/2016/05/13/the-power-of-anonymity-a-review-of-other-peoples-stories-by-barbara-elovic/

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

51320826
Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors
by Leslie Heywood, Red Hen Press, ISBN 9781597097307
 
About ten years back I put a very good poet into a panic by putting the word confessional next to her work. It wasn’t being labeled that bothered her as much as that particular label.  Seems the word had accrued a largely pejorative meaning, as if poets ought to avoid writing from their own lives at all cost (of course the MFA students who gave the confessional a bad name wanted to avoid writing from their lives at all costs  because they hadn’t lived any lives to speak of except those of  privilege and mostly male avoidance of feeling)“Confessional is a dirty world.” She said.” You can’t use it.” The word, as I was employing it, was accurate: confession or the poetry of witness, not in the Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Snodgrass, and next generation Sharon Olds sense, but in the sense of St. Augustine and Rousseau  and Wordsworth’s Preludes (modeled on Roseau to some extent) and the poetics of those who have been othered or cut out of the normative discourse. Confessional in this respect combines narrative, conversational lyric and introspection with larger social and ontological implications. It is both more ambitious in scope and more scrupulous in detail than the personal self-indulgence of which the confessional poet is often accused (note that it became considered self-indulgent only when it was no longer controlled by men). This is witness poetry rather than memoir and more ferocious and lyrical and its mode is conversion in the full Latin sense: con (with) and vert (a turn): “With a turn.” This “confession” is often a conversion narrative: one begins at point A and then turns, becomes turned and is transformed. Sometimes this conversion narrative takes place over a single life time. Often it is generational (as in the novel Wuthering Heights which might be seen as thesis, antithesis, synthesis—the joining of the natural and social realms through a great storm over three generations.  Faulkner’s novels are often generational, but, being 20th century works, they can be rather pessimistic (like Spengler) and might represent the inter-generational descent as a sort of historical pathology, a series of vicious circles rather than any hope of healing. In this respect, Emily Bronte’s take on the generational novel of dysfunction was way ahead of the curve and might, for all its gothic flights, be more well-grounded in what neurologists are started to know about the traumatized brain. Leslie Heywood’s new book of poems, Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors, is, to a great extent, a conversion narrative of witness under those terms: lyrical and full of turns away from the social determinism of family trauma stretched out over generations to the possibility of healing (though not in a new age or self-help way) and toward an end to the pathological “(the viscous cycle) of violence, alcoholism, and the ghosts that not only haunt, but which reconfigure the map of the brain itself. The first poem in the prologue clarifies the title, and the title actually bleeds directly into the poem:
 
Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors
Or “stereotypies,” as animal behavioral
Researchers sometimes call them, are seen
Especially in research animals who live
Their lives in tiny cages or who live                                                                                                                               
 In larger cages in zoos, anywhere there is
A sense of conflict and panic and feeling trapped
 
This is the base line for the repetitive behaviors of loss, anger, and being trapped in behavioral patterns   these are threaded with such clarity and compassion through the book. At some points “repetitive behaviors” becomes a metaphor for how we keep reenacting our damage even when the cage has been torn down,  the bars long taken off, even when  there is nothing to stop us from walking to freedom. Just as the neurology of base line emotions are first at the scene of any trauma, they are also likely the last to get on line with new circumstances. Heywood privileges no human emotion over the base line emotions we share with most mammals: RAGE, FEAR, LUST. CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. Our ability to cover these up as it were with social appearance and the decorative aspects of secondary feelings and rationales often causes more problems than it solves. At best,  such secondary affects are constantly making the present prologue to the past. She writes in “Night Ranger, Don’t Tell me you Love me:
it is four decades later, but my body                                                                                                           
behaves as if it does not know this,                                                                                                                      
As if everything now is the same                                                                                                              
As it was then and it is on guard,
this body on guard before it thinks.
 
“Before it thinks’ is an important qualification. The emotions (not feelings) in Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors precede thought, as do the emotions in Wallace Stevens The Irish cliffs of Moher where the poet addresses the cliffs and asks where is my  father… “before thought, before speech?”
The central relationship in the first part of this book, the author’s “Heathcliff’ is her father. The poet does not learn that her paternal grandparents were a murder/suicide until she is an adult. (Imagine a father keeping that bit of news secret). She doesn’t know he was a concert level pianist until her mother spills the beans. In one respect, this is the Mary Gordon narrative of the secret father reversed since every new revelation helps shed light and understanding and empathy on the father– but without white washing him. The narrator of the poems loves her father fiercely (ferocity is an ongoing theme), and yet she fights him with her fists. He is often drunk and beats her. Her mother uses her as a human shield. Only her dogs (she shares a love of dogs with her father) and a friend named Lucille remain true and constant, and yet the narrator loves her father– even when she is estranged from him, even when they do not speak almost to the moment of his death. The great triumph of this book is that, as Toni Morrison makes the good reader sympathetic to a father guilty of incest in The Bluest Eye, Leslie Heywood makes the reader see this man whole, gives the reader not a sense of his worthlessness, but, rather of his broken majesty. This is not a book for the knee jerk, for those who love the easy judgement of the politically correct.. It’s not a book for people who would read “My Papa’s Waltz” as merely an abuse narrative. Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors is for those who know life is complicated enough so that the greatest pain is that we cannot unlove those who leave us misshapen because they themselves were misshapen and, at the core, the wounded animal cries to those who have been equally wounded. It is truly in the tradition of generational forgiveness (As O’Neill said, “In the end, there is only forgiveness. There is only forgiveness, or there is nothing” )In that respect, Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors has the scope of drama and novel rather than being simply a collection of poems. It grounds itself in the new neuroscience that proves through experiment what poets and writers have always shown at the highest levels of their art: that the animal cry in us informs the spirit and the spirit is never far from that cry; we cannot be divorced from the body or the brain by any cognitive trickery, or metaphysical disowning of the base emotions.
Sometimes, the smallest things in the midst of a great storm may calm us, help us to live another day. Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors is also full of such temporary reprieves and comforts, as in the poem “Tea cart” where the poet remembers her maternal grandparents:
My grandparents were beautiful like the glass
and their voices were always kind
and now the tea cart sits in my living room,
sunlight twinkling across the long-necked bottles.
 Note the “like the glass” and take that at its full connotation. Glass is beautiful, but easily broken and must be handled with care. Not just beloved objects tied to kindness help us heal, but also the reprieves adding up to a real change in the next generation. This change, as in Paul’s “conversion” is not into a new creation, but is a transformation that takes the genetic and neurological elements already there and turns them towards their original purpose and light.  The last poem of the collection “Caelan at Thirteen” might be perceived as the full conversion, the turn of fortunes that allow both the family and the synapse of generations to heal. The author depicts her daughter on the cusp of adulthood, stable, with a realistic view of things, not tormented by the same level of suffering visited upon the poet and her father. She is like the characters at the end of Wuthering Heights when the next generation is able to enjoy the deepening companionship and love Cathy and Heathcliff were denied:
My daughter, at thirteen, this unicorn, all legs
and brains and speed, now winning
All her cross-country meets and reassuring
Herself when she too melts down,
Caelan its only hormones. what
you are feeling isn’t real.
My daughter, who knows at thirteen
Things it has taken me
four decades to start sorting out,
what my grandmother, my father’s mother Annie,
could never sort through with all those
emotions running through her like flame,
making her dangerous, the one you can’t stand
to be around; never for Annie, four decades for me,
what my daughter knows now
at thirteen.
 As the poet, Maria Maziotti Gillan says in her blurb:
 
Terror still lives within these poems and sorrow for the cruelty and chaos of a world in which humans cannot seem to exist without destroying as much as they create, but the vision of a new world is there. What an amazing and powerful book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJE: Not that I can think of! Thanks!

 

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

Dinner Table Refuge by Benjamin Schmitt

Punks Write Poems, 2015

Paperback, 118 pages, $14

ISBN: 978-0986170737

Clocking in at over 100 pages, Benjamin Schmitt’s Dinner Table Refuge tackles a number of issue— death, politics, homelessness, love, punk rock nostalgia, and even zombies and robot takeovers. The collection is not only wide in scope, but wide in its array of forms. Collage poems mix with straight-forwarded narratives, but the work resonates the most when the poems are clear, when they recall the idealistic punk rockers of the poet’s youth, or offer meditations on love in the book’s final section.

There is a thread of memory, images of slam dances and sweaty punk clubs that reoccur in the book. The poem “1997,” for instance, transitions between the past and present well. Set against the backdrop of punk rock youth, the poem drives deeper, hitting notes of love and heartache.

In 1997

the punk rocker read a book on this curb

returning now

fifteen years later

he doesn’t remember until he begins crossing the street

and sees that spot he sat reading Homage to Catalonia

one youthful melancholic Friday afternoon

a few hours before she broke up with him

The poem continues to weave in and out of the past and present, as the speaker remembers the various punk patches that adorned his studded leather jacket. The conclusion echoes the beginning, when the speaker again remembers the girl who broke up with him and his book that she never returned. Schmitt has a knack for writing about memory and the passage of youth, while detailing the people that inhabited those clubs, making them more than punk rock caricatures in Doc Martins boots and Black Flag t-shirts.

The idea of lost youth returns later in the book through the poem “We were radicals,” as the speaker reminisces about all of the idealistic plans he and his punk friends had, such as plotting for the overthrow of capitalism, while quoting the Dead Kennedys and Bakunin. There is a collective “we” that echoes throughout the poem, too, which stands not only for the speaker and his friends, but also the activist punk scene. That said, there are times when I wanted these characters to be given more specific names and details, like the girl in “1997.”

The collection makes a major shift in its final section, through a series of love poems. Here, Schmitt offers some of his most well-crafted lines and images. In “T.,” he writes, “I rediscovered my body/in her arms. As she/clutched me I felt the music of pores/singing through skin and I knew/that to truly love the music one had to be/reborn in such embraces/to experience the inevitability of total loss/before sensing the fluidity.” Another poem, “Weirdos,” reads like a praise poem, as the speaker compliments all of the nerdy characteristics of his partner, including her Captain America action figure and affinity for Lord of the Rings marathons.

 Dinner Table Refuge is not afraid to address more serious topics, such as white guilt and homelessness, or how the passing of time can tame youthful ideals, but it’s also a collection that will draw laughs from the reader through its pop culture references. It is a book diverse in both subject matter and form, and some of Schmitt’s strongest poems successfully capture a moment and place in time, be it a punk club or a first date with his partner. The lines range from funny to confessional and even sensual in the final pages.

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Solmaz Sharif – Look

Graywolf Press 2016

Page Length: 93

Retail: $16

 

 

The winner writes history; the loser writes poetry. Not that Solmaz Sharif’s debut from Graywolf Press, Look (2016) is anything short of extraordinary. It’s just that the cliché about the “winner” is too true for Sharif to resist subverting in her urgent, prophetic, and virtuosic invective against the Nation State in general, and the contemporary American Nation State in particular.

 

It is hardly new for poets to use poetry as a means of political resistance, but rarely have we seen the politics of language play such a prominent role in the resistance. Sharif uses a variety of avant-garde forms to put enormous pressure on language itself so as to exploit its materiality, and therefore its malleability—a process of weaponization that can be used to liberate as well as oppress. Given the enormous oppression brought forth by the militarization of language, which is itself a kind of violent occupation, Sharif seeks to re-contextualize weaponized words in a process that might exorcize the English language of its most demonic possessions.

 

Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:

All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:

American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness

Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.

I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.

I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness

by shocking dogs. Eventually, we things give up.

 

These opening lines of the poem “Desired Appreciation” present the reader with a credo that posits the “learned helplessness” of nonviolent poetry as a means of complicity. The speaker gestures to the death of her own complicity in a brilliant image that serves opposite agendas: “Eventually, we things give up.” The “learned helplessness” of human complicity—of poetic complicity—is the resting state of one exposed to prolonged torture (here represented by the shocking of dogs). The American public—and by extension American poetry—has been psychologically tortured by prolonged exposure to “shocking” horrors, such that we must learn to normalize brutality and unspeakable violence not only in our lives but in the very language that is the substance of our thoughts. This acquiescence to horror is a “learned helplessness,” such that we must write about flowers and falling in love lest we lose ourselves in the grip of despair. Poets too are things, and, “Eventually, we things give up.” But even as Sharif offers a potent metaphor for the “learned helplessness” of American poetry, she, with the exact same metaphor, offers us a means of resistance: to “give up” docility is to be shocked too many times—to, in an act of poetic desperation, use the very means of torture to subvert the captivity.

 

This is precisely what Sharif accomplishes in Look, which offers contemporary American poets a look into what a revolutionary resistance to Imperial co-option might look like. The most pronounced example of this is the many poems in the collection that re-appropriate terms taken from the United States Department of Defense’s “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.” This practice participates in the tradition of the American avant-garde, beginning perhaps with Gertrude Stein and extending through the Objectivists and then later the LANGUAGE poets, which seeks to subvert the Imperial occupation of the English language by calling attention to language’s materiality. This is accomplished largely by the process of re-contextualization in which words’ meanings are determined not by some kind of intrinsic semantic cargo but rather by the larger context into which words, like objects, are placed and misplaced.

 

Sharif uses familiar, stabilizing poetic forms such as anaphora, the litany, and parallel syntax to place tremendous pressure on the diction culled from the DOD’s lexicon, words marked in the poems as foreign by their appearance in small caps: terms like INTERTHEATER TRAFFIC, HUNG WEAPON, PENETRATION AIDS, and SAFE HOUSE. In this typographical designation, Sharif mimics the problematic us/them tribalism inherent to all ethnic and political identities. This presentation of language inherently “other” calls attention to it—our awareness is heightened by its dual-citizenship, and we instinctively wonder whether its presence disrupts an otherwise “safe” poetic experience. In this way, we come to distrust the words, for we know that whatever sense in which they belong to the poem, they also serve another, more sinister master. In doing this, Sharif indicts the “learned helplessness” of benign, supposedly-non-political poetry by calling attention to its inattention: by interrupting poems that might otherwise be pleasant to our palate with targeted phrases like DESIRED PERCEPTION and THRESHOLD OF ACCEPTABILITY, Sharif brilliantly and subtly incriminates the reader for a habit of CIVIL CENSORSHIP. In so doing she implies that much of American poetry is little more than a LOW VISIBILITY OPERATION.

 

Sharif’s is the ground of BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION, whereby the poem seeks to redeem language itself for its complicity in human atrocity. Hers can be described as a guerilla poetics, whereby the overwhelming force and hubris of the occupying force is used against it, and this is made possible only by the native’s intimacy with the nuances of the terrain. Here the “native” is the poet and the terrain is our language—violently taken and brutalized by a Nation State to which it does not belong. Many twentieth-century guerillas believed that a true revolution could only take place when the occupied population became sickened at the abuses of its occupier. By forcing readers (and poets) to LOOK at what is being done in our “homeland,” Sharif accomplishes extraordinary work toward our necessary revulsion.

 

The bad news is that language, as an object, can be weaponized as a means of oppression and terror. Worse yet, unlike steel and plutonium, language is the substance of thought and identity: it is only through language that we can understand ourselves and the world in which we live. It is what we use to make sense of our lives: to justify the things we have done and want to do. When a Nation State occupies the language of its people, it creates an “us” by engendering a “them”—it necessarily splits the world into a quasi-tribal dichotomy. By doing so, the State unifies its populace by the perpetual generation of an enemy—a something against which we can be together. It is language alone that makes this possible.

 

However, the good news is that a word, unlike steel and plutonium, can never only be one thing. A word is unique among objects in that it always exists multiply: it may mean one thing, but it always necessarily also means something else. The alchemy of this transubstantiation resides in the power of context, and Sharif is an extraordinary wizard. The context of the DoD manual is war; the context of the poem is supposed to be peacetime. Of all the binaries Sharif seeks to dismantle in this collection: East/West; Islam/Christianity; Brown/White; Terrorist/Soldier; Enemy Combatant/Civilian; none more pervasively haunts the pages than the dissolved line between Wartime and Peacetime. This dissolution, only possible in an Empire, is the collateral damage of the weaponization of language. Sharif masterfully undermines and contradicts this violence by exposing the inherent multiplicity of words; which is to say, she rages against the dull machine of war by turning its weapons against it—into poems with which she hopes to provoke a sleeping community out of its “learned helplessness.”

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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