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

During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness moves us, challenges us, inspires 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.

“I know and have always known my body was mine.”

(from the poem “The Difference.”)

 

Sarah Frances Moran’s Evergreen (Weasel Press, 2016) brings us a speaker whose vulnerability and strength resembles the beauty and transience of the tall Evergreen. Its branches may be chopped, its needles may burn—but the trunk, the soul, is strong. A girl can climb it, dangle her legs over the edge, and look out over the world.

Appropriately, in the collection’s first few poems, the Evergreen is a jailer for everyone who has hurt the speaker. Trees are such common place objects in our lives, always watching us move through our day, this makes sense to us. Moran’s Evergreen feels personal. Whether an abusive step father or a caregiver who looked in the other direction is caged here, the Evergreen holds the keys.  The people who caused harm to the speaker cannot, will not, be rescued. In “This Evergreen’s Locking Up Everyone Who Ever Laid a Finger on Me,” the language is surreal and gothic:

 

“These are the cages I keep where I harbor

all the damaged broken animals of my childhood.

 

If you reside among them it’s only because

you harbor abhorrence that can do nothing

but trickle through the blood stream of the root

of the tree you’d wish to cut down…”

 

Moran separates the sections of the second poem into cages much like humans who can compartmentalize pain—in order to function, to get through our day. In the first section, Cage 1, Moran writes:

 

“If you ever dreamed of being a patriarch, you failed.

You planted a tree

then doused it in gasoline and attempted to burn it.”

 

The idea of a tree acting as turnkey to our cages of people who have misused us is gorgeous and fairy-tale like. The tree is protector and punisher—especially since many people are never punished for their crimes. In Moran’s cages, the pain is kept sectioned off while the speaker of these poems heals and moved forward.

But this book does not limit itself to a compartmentalized kaleidoscope of suffering; as the reader navigates Evergreen’s gritty, dark, and beautiful terrain, they will find that Moran’s poems are multilayered. In the poem “Battle,” the reader not only deciphers an argument about “battling” one’s inner demons, but also a description of the writing process itself. In “Battle,” Moran writes:

“They don’t care about that stifled genius

or about how you’ve received 52 rejections letters to date.

What they do care about,

is the meat of you.

 

What’s deep down in your guts?

What makes them churn and what makes them ache?

 

…You redraft yourself, every day

for this battle.”

This poem uncovers the speaker’s vulnerabilities with lines like “Why do you sit at the bottom of the tub and just cry sometimes?” but also how writers need to reach deep inside of themselves to ask, How do I write this pain? How do I confess about this thing that happened to me and twist it into art?  How often do I cross out and start over— the words, my feelings, plunging a magnifying glass into the past and a knife into my heart again?

Moran has experience as a stellar spoken-word artist and it is thrilling to read “Battle” almost like an audience member at a performance. One can hear her voice create a moment to moment truth. We recognize the speaker’s manifesto of  “get up anyway,” find the strength somewhere, and write the poems.  We are ready to launch our own battle cry.

For example, take “Mama Makowski,” a poem about the speaker’s mother getting day-drunk and trying to compare herself to the poet Charles Bukowski—that icon of male bravado that continues to cling to its status in the literary canon. In this poem, the speaker asserts that her father is still alive, and that she hates a part of him but there is:

 

“…the longing for something not there.

 

We fantasize about holding their hands and

looking up at them with adulation…”

 

a piggy back ride

a stroll through the park…”

Moran shares that with her mother— an experience of fathers consumed by their own violence and drinking. Moran illustrates that what really makes a man is one who will hold a small hand, protect those he loves. The speaker commiserates with her mother over their “broken childhoods.” By this poem, positioned later in the book, Moran’s speaker is already reflective: she knows she was given the short end of the father straw and she still overcomes pain, chooses to honor her mother through cooking her recipes.

This speaker looks to the future. What will she, the speaker, leave behind? In the two poems “Frances’s Fingers” and “The First Time I made a Tortilla,” there is a joy in one’s roots, the peace in knowing who we are and where we came from:

 

“All the bolls of cotton you picked

and endless days in the sun

where your brown skin soaked up ray after ray..

 

Look at my hands and know the work they’ve done too.

 

…I got more than my middle name from you.”

Moran pays homage to an ancestor who picked cotton in Texas. The sun beating down on her skin, fingers arthritic by the end of her life, the speaker communes with this woman in these lines and helps her feel centered, blasts Johnny Cash on the way out of town, feels akin with this ghost. Likewise, in “The First Time I Made Tortillas,” Moran writes,

 

“As I knead the dough

 

the strength of all of my ancestors flow through into my fingertips

and I feel the struggles of feeding and caring for a multitude of children

….

my desire for perfection’s depth

is further than this rolling pin.

 

I simply want to honor my mother with this task

Say to her that the beauty of this creating will not die with her…”

 

Moran’s words vibrate and pull at us long after we close the book. We look down at our own bodies: what did we inherit?  With all of these poems, there is an overcoming of anguish. Flushed-out secrets explode from the tallest tree, find the warming sun, and the music, and always the words that seem to come down to or come back to “I rely on you,”  “I rely on you, “I rely on you.” This repetition is a magical litany: the words make themselves come true. We know what it means to find the ability to trust again, and to survive. Evergreen is legacy.

 

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” just came out from Grey Book Press. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. She also has poetry reviews at The Rumpus and Horseless Press. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

Jansport Backpack

I swap out key fobs like lovers I haven’t had—
blue broken heart, glitter skull, sassy attitude jokes.

Three boys vie for my number, but they don’t speak English,
and their calls come in like water hallucinations in a desert.

In Spanish class I learn dialogue I never mastered in English—
small talk, city planning, how I feel morning, noon, and night.

Walking the halls, you tap my ass when I lengthen
your shoulder straps that sing anthems in white bubble letters—

Peace Sign, WTVR, You Laugh Because I’m Different,
I Laugh Because You’re All The Same.

I buy so much white-out they must think I have problems
of a different kind, unrelated to the test of matchmaking

by expression. Why I feed a hairbrush to your front pocket
every day is unclear to the pep rally for my insecurity.

 

 

Coach Patent Leather Black Tote

First time inside, I swim the opaque blue interior
like the hollow in your neck I always wanted
to fill with my wishes. I wish for a mermaid tail
that increases my vocabulary. We type faster
to taste the creation in our mouths, to slow
the increasing likeness of days. To protect
my holding cell ribcage, I shoulder a sustainable cobweb,
wear a new sludge, push you to the pockets of me
hardest to get to. Old gum, mint-less. A spare
tampon that fits no one. A trail of annotated life,
zipper-thin. And the ocean feels nearer,
the more we breathe.

 

 

Faux Croc Lime Green Diaper Bag

Hardly a day goes by I don’t walk past a murderer,
or think of throwing the baby in the bear pit at the zoo,

which I say in a safe, plastic-lined pocket, like this poem,
or else it’s effort negated. Preference is default, they say,

Don’t forget to be a wallpaper, patterned and strippable,
an eighteenth-century muse for a modern-day trendsetter!

Half a dye job later, I’m sporting blonde tips
that I offer like free Kung Pao samples at the mall.

Blonde Tip: keep your teen mom comments to yourself
as you feed your inner checkout aisle.

When we played Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board,
my thoughts won, by which I mean

they were feathered and glued to the wall and I was disqualified.
Blonde Tip: Allow open headspace to confound decorum

until you’re two standard deviations away from
a hairdo, a minivan, a steady heartbeat.

 

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 PinchMeridian, 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.

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.

Stay with Me Awhile

By Loren Kleinman

ISNB: 978-1941058350

April 2016

Winter Goose Publishing

Reviewed by Brian Fanelli

Loren Kleinman’s last collection of poems, Breakable Things, had a lot of references to Charles Bukowski, even in terms of subject matter, specifically the poet’s willingness to not shy away from raw subject matter, such as drinking or sex. There are still some echoes of Bukowski in Stay with Me AWhile, but Kleinman’s new book draws more resemblance to Anne Sexton for the way that it addresses matters of the body and notions of beauty. The book is also more expansive in form, containing a number of prose poems and work that is more surreal than it is narrative. At the heart of the collection, however, is a theme that has been most pronounced in Kleinman’s work, the need for love and affection in an increasingly isolated and fragmented world.

Kleinman’s growth as a writer extends to how she addresses the erotic, which also echoes some of Sexton’s work. For instance, in the short prose poem “Me and Him,” the speaker confesses, “I want to know what makes him cum,” but the poem digs deeper than mere sex, illuminating the layers of feelings that coincide with sex in a long-standing relationship. In the next line, the speaker states, “I want to hear what happened to him that one night in his mother’s arms.” In many of the poems, the speaker admits how guarded she is around men, but “Me and Him” shows a tenderness, especially in its concluding lines, “He asks me to take off the do not enter sign/Joseph slides his face against mine. I let him crawl inside me/this time, fill me with sugar and kisses.” This is a nice contrast in tone and subject matter to some of the other poems that address loneliness. In “The Snow Reminds Me to Play,” the reader feels the speaker’s ache and desire for love and affection, especially in the lines, “The snow is loud and strong/It makes love to me when no one else wants to.”

Other poems tackle gender constructs, and Kleinman does so in direct, forceful language. “It’s Cold Out There” recounts a conversation between the speaker and a friend over the idea of beauty. This poem is also different from some of Kleinman’s earlier work for the surreal lines woven throughout the narrative.

 

No. No. I will not go outside and listen to the wolves tear

at the moon. It’s just that I’m alone. It’s just that you make

me feel so alone. You know. It’s not an achievement to be

that pretty, you say. It’s a bunch of glock and glick and it’s

cold out there. Look at my thighs. Look at the scratches

and stretch marks. Look at the skin pulled back from my

fingers. And you lick the marks; you eat them out with a

fork and knife. I’ve already forgotten what it’s like to be

loved; what it’s like to be. Let’s sit down in front of the

TV and nibble at our skin. Let’s sit here and stare into

the deepness of our eyes, then we’ll go outside and eat the

cheese form the mice’s paws.

The lines about wolves tearing at the moon and eating cheese from mice’s paws is an interesting, surreal juxtaposition to the rest of the poem, which is generally a more narrative prose poem. There is also something consuming about the couple’s attention to each other, namely the idea of nibbling skin and licking marks.

Ultimately, the book circles back to the character of Joe, first introduced early in the collection, in “Me and Him.” The concluding poem, “We’re Here Briefly, is celebratory, recalling a simple moment, when the speaker drinks on a rooftop with Joe, while holding his hand and smiling. At last, the speaker finds the love she desires. Overall, Stay With Me Awhile marks a shift in Kleinman’s poetry and shows she is willing to experiment more with tone and form, while addressing a deeper subject matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sinister Barista Meets the Loch Ness Professor

“Let us prepare for a life of rational happiness.”
—Emily Dickinson’s father in a courtship letter to her mother

The summer everyone I knew was going to Italy. The June everyone got
engaged. So much getting down on one knee, so many surprises
(but not really) in gondolas. I’m not ready for these kinds of summers.
I’m not ready to get engaged, I’m not even ready to open a lemonade stand.

Which is not to say I am not in love or not committed or don’t know
how to make lemonade. I am, I am, & I do. I do but let’s hold off
on saying “I do” with the rings & relatives, cummerbunds & giant cake.
Except let’s not hold off on the giant cake. & let’s not hold off on being

irreversibly in love. Happiness needs no preparation or warrantee
or reason. I’m ready to say that. I’m ready to watch any romcom/action
combo where two people topple tyranny, fall in love. I’m ready
for the movie where four people topple tyranny, fall in love,

& make consensual arrangements to keep it open.
Or six people just stay in & become best friends. Or seven
billion people befriend themselves. I’m ready for the movie based
on a true imagination, the poem based on the loveliest headline:

The Sinister Barista Meets the Loch Ness Professor. I’m ready for them
to meet & talk about their common interests. I’m ready for the summer
of the part-time organist with the full-time son of the seamstress.
The ice cream scooper & the delinquent pooper.

The wholesome mountaineer & the shy puppeteer. The perfectionist
cat owner & the petulant dry cleaner. The mechanic & the crescent moon
enthusiast & the midlife crisis magician. The proudest amoeba.
I am ready to court self daring & raunchy listening.

I am ready to court Emily Dickinson’s collected poems. To court awe
before arguing. To court arguing when necessary. I am not ready for it
but will support people getting divorced from each other if they want to.
I am ready for people wanting cake & a good movie to cry to.

Let us not prepare for a life of rational happiness but let us always
have enough money to buy cake ingredients. Let us discuss
many important matters while we work on the cake.
Like how flamingos get their pink. Or the summer sky its flamingo.

Or how the current time is, in fact, a palindrome: 12:21.

 

 

For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey
after Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]

 

For I will consider my boyfriend Jeffrey.
For he is an atheist but makes room for the unseen, unsayable.
For he is a vegetarian but makes room for half-off Mondays at the conveyer belt sushi place.
For he must vacuum/mop/scrub/rinse/hand sanitize/air freshen the entire apartment to
deal with the stress of having received a traffic ticket.
For he dances in his seat while driving us to the supermarket.
For he despises tarantulas, sharks, flying on planes, & flightless birds such as the cassowary
of New Guinea, which he has only seen in videos & thinks looks like “a goddamn
velicoraptor.”
For he is Jeffrey Gilbert of Gilbertsville, New York.
For he possesses in abundance, no, in excess, the sexiest facial hair in the cosmos.
For he allows his beard to grow & grow, & when it has grown up & down & out, & he
knows he must start afresh, he takes a tenderly long time to shave.
For this he performs in ten steps.
For first he looks upon his furry countenance to assess & accept the difficult journey that
lies before him.
For secondly he washes with holistic care his whole foxy face.
For thirdly he does not use any cheap concoction from a can; he uses Arko, a fine Turkish
shaving soap his father gifted him.
For fourthly he brings the soap to an exquisite lather with a handmade brush.
For fifthly he spreads the soap generously about.
For sixthly he wets his sleek razor in the stream of warm water quietly exiting the faucet.
For seventhly he shaves.
For eighthly he shaves.
For ninthly he shaves, then asks me to come help with the tenth & final step: trimming the
back of his neck with a small electric razor.
For having shaved he exclaims that he feels more himself than ever.
For he more than ever cannot stand Dave Matthews Band.
For he owns & occasionally plays a keytar—a keyboard guitar—if you ask him nicely.
For he owns many musical instruments & can be seen fiddling with them for hours.
For he transfers his music onto a computer where he fiddles with it further in a way that is
recognizably mysterious—it’s the prayerful playing around in rhythms & almost-
meanings—& it requires him to wear big silver headphones, & he looks lost, & he is, I’m
sure of it, like I am when I write a poem, but adorably so, like puppies are when they’ve
wandered away from their mother/owner/anything familiar & yes, he’s wandering in
notes & beats like a corgi yet somehow like a wolf too, utterly focused, & like most
members of the canine family I’ve seen, utterly happy.
For he looks happy & doesn’t know I’m looking & that makes his happiness free.
For he creates happiness on purpose & by accident.
For by holding him I can believe not in God but in goodness.
For by kissing him I can believe not in eternal life but in life.
For he does not fare well on planes but will fly if it means flying to those he loves.
For he flies & he loves.

 

 

Interrogation at the Hands of Rita Repulsa

So you’ve captured me. Unmasked me. Know my true identity. Yes. I’m Kimberly.
The Pink Power Ranger. Likes saving the world. Likes never giving up
& all things pink. Pink punches. Kicks. Dinozord the pink pterodactyl & love
of my life the Red Ranger. I’ll never tell you his identity, go ahead make
the ropes tighter. We’ll always be together, Pink & Red, close shades of Ranger.
Too hard to be with Non-Rangers, we put them in too much danger—
kidnapped, bait, even destroyed. Destroy them! you monsters like to holler.
& when we’re about to tackle you: Crush them! No one says kill or murder
or mutilate. Know why? Got to stay positive. You evil things need to, you keep
getting pummeled by us. We good guys have to, we keep almost getting wiped
out by you. Then at the last minute crushing you, I mean, at last saving
the world. Every week. Do I get tired of it? No. Maybe. This week,
a tiny, & that’s why I’m here, bound. Still, won’t let you destroy me
or the earth. How? How, when I’m your prisoner, & Pink, not Red or Green
or even Yellow? Going to get my morpher back from minion #2. Yes.
Telling you my plan. That’s how confident I am of it. Favorite part of the job,
these verbal jousts. Plus morphing into Pink, simply getting dressed. My costume
like any Ranger’s, except prettier & pterodactyl on the helmet. Helps me feel
positive. Powerful. There’s another popular word. Powerful. No one says
violent. No one says terrified, just a kid, just a minion, only feel safe inside my uniform,
my helmet. No one says too hard even hanging out with regular people, they’ve never
gone into battle, never had to destroy, week after week. Do you ever get tired?
We say, It’s morphin’ time! You say, Destroy them! We say, You’re toast! You say,
She’s escaping! Get her! I say, Too slow! & positively, pinkly smash in your face.

 

 

Playing in the Square

It could happen like this: we rush out of the station,
late for work, & find a small band playing in the square.
Been playing in the square all morning! they shout to us.
& with winsome smiles, urge us to join in, handing us
instruments. & somehow, we’re taking them—
an accordion for you, a fiddle for me.

& more people stream out of the station.
Been playing in the square all afternoon! we shout to them.
& with kind mischief in our smiles, call them
to join in, rolling out more instruments. & somehow,
an old woman with beautiful fingers takes up a clarinet,
a sad-eyed boy becomes our fourth bassist.

& people pour out. Been playing in the square
all evening! & we have instruments
ready. & we begin to spill, the square
stretching strange as an octopus. & the children vote
in favor of dancing, & dance. & somehow,
a stray bulldog becomes our main percussionist.

& doctors treat people without charge.
& mothers laugh with their sons.
& neighbors argue with passion, but no one goes hungry.
& some even fall dreadfully in love. We’re playing
in the square all night!
& the night joins in,

the moon in its borrowed suit of gleam,
the stars & planets finding their spots
a bit clumsily, foolishly—
they each take up their ancient instruments
& spin their amateur bodies, somehow remembering
the music, the movement.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

Bear the Grief : Get Up and Try Again

 

In All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), Sarah Chavez’s narrator unlocks missives to a dead beloved, named Carole. These poems are so full in rich detail and experience, it can sometimes be difficult to remember, as a reader, that they should not be read as non-fiction.

 

In an interview with Les Femmes Folles, Chavez has acknowledged some biographical overlaps between her own lived experience and that of her narrator in this collection. At another point, Chavez noted, “There really was a Carole, she really died, and I do mourn her. I also grew up in Fresno in a working class environment. [However,] these poems, are more concerned with expressing an emotional truth and the details that best serve that emotional truth…”

 

We are increasingly aware, as contemporary readers, of the importance of not assuming that poetry based in biography is non-fiction; if we honor All Day, Talking by reading it as art, and not as confession or reportage, we gain: the work is an elegiac page-turner.  As the narrator mourns Carole, she also mourns herself. Our loved ones are our mirrors.

 

These poem-letter-monologues spike with heartbreak, anger, and humor: we play spectator to their hardcore honesty and relish the narrative stream of consciousness. If Carole is a ghost, she is alive on every page of this collection. We read the words as in a poem movie. The text sparkles with cinematic flare, the characters walk through scenes with fluidity whether hanging out at a bus stop, cleaning up dead beetles, or eating Twinkies. We hitch a ride with the narrator, ourselves visiting ghosts, witness the narrator’s shivering loneliness in buying a coffee:

 

“…the woman behind the counter,

she fucking looks like you. Tall,

round breasted, long stringy hair, skin

white, shining from the heat

off the espresso machine,

What can I get you hun, she says.

She calls me “hun.” You

would never call anyone that…

You hated false familiarity

that veneer of sweetness…I

miss you so much it’s like I swallowed

a bomb…”

 

 

This recreated action in the poem is so detailed, so signature of each page—they are every tiny action in the world and the narrator is just trying to hold it together. The narrator wants to tell many people to fuck off: those who slighted her, those who remind her of Carole. Yet she does not. She buys her coffee, her finger grazing the finger of the waitress who looked like Carole, almost cries. She goes to work. She gets a haircut. Through her days, she functions, because her lips are always moving, always talking to Carole, re-connecting, rebuilding.

 

The skinny format of these poems presents themselves like letters, or a grocery list. Of course, they are like a list. The narrator catalogues Carole. The bare bones of the words and mood are present: we want to, no we need to remember it all, like possessions lost in a fire. Make a list while everything is still fresh in your mind. There is no need for flowery language: these poems are crisp.

 

Chavez writes:

 

“Dear Carole, I finally did it

 

I cut it all off into a trendy bob

that fades up from the back. You told me

not to, said you loved my hair long.

Well you’re not here anymore.”

 

And then this two line poem on its own page:

 

 

“Dear Carole, Just a quick note

 

C Flat.”

 

These mini poems check mark off moments with Carole: a conversation about getting a haircut or not—the C flat comment comes off, potentially, as a private joke. We don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t matter.  We witness these intimate moments, feel the bond between Carole and the narrator, reflect on our own bonds.  As the narrator informs us, these poems are about “Nothing./ Anything. Everything, really.”  Every phrase, bad joke, like, or dislike is catalogued. When Carole is gone, she still smokes, walks around, drives a Cadillac down the sun-blazed street.

 

We tick off Carole’s likes and dislikes with the narrator throwing in our own as well, thinking what will we remember when someone we love is gone? What will be the hardest memory to mourn?

 

Some letters and images have a vulnerable symbolism. Items symbolizing loss:  hair, teeth, a dog, and a ring.  Using commonplace objects further our feeling of loss for the narrator and for Carole herself. Every day descriptions also illustrate that perhaps we stay in similar routines with various people.  When that person is gone, we suddenly don’t know what to do with ourselves. In the poem referenced above, the narrator gets the haircut she wanted, maybe having mixed emotions about it. When the narrator goes to the dentist to get her wisdom teeth pulled, she is alone. She gets drunk the night before as a coping mechanism to “dull her brain.”  The narrator tells Carole about it:

 

“I want to yell at him: Don’t you know better

than to take from people who have nothing

but these relics, these baubles?

 

But he’s got my still slab of tongue in his hand

and the noise that comes from the back

of my throat is just choking, as if a person

could even choke an absence.”

 

The reader feels her isolation: having to complete stressful activities alone, not having that ride home from a loved one. The narrator mourns the loss of Carole through teeth getting pulled, wanting to yell at everyone who does not seem to understand. How could they?  We are all alone in our grief, or it feels that way.

 

Through the mentioning of the dog, “Shadow,” we experience a new kind of loss: regret. Chavez writes that the narrator sees a dog that looked like Shadow, who was sad to being with- (It was as if the universe had been playing mix-em ups with spare dog parts.) The narrator expresses:

 

“…I wish

we’d never brought him home.

If we’d never met him, never been licked

by his fat pink tongue, been warmed

by the heat of his solid body on the couch

watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer,

we’d never have known the desiccated

emptiness of every night

after the night we found

his bed vacant ad the back door

yawning in the stasis of moonlight.

 

It doesn’t matter how loud or late

into the night you call someone’s name,

if they are gone, they are gone.”

 

The loss of the dog reflects the narrator’s pain in losing Carole. She does not know what happened to Shadow: if he ran away because he was tired of living with them in their “filthy mobile home,” or if he was stolen by a “crack head.” It is the not knowing that exacerbates the pain of the loss. The mind plays tricks, questions if there was love present at all. The narrator regrets the dog and also, never saying thank you to Carole, once, when she splurged on pizza for them, when money was tight. Whether big or small, loss is loss.

 

These poems are not without humor. Despite the fact that the narrator admits that she cries at Folger commercials or goes weeks without touching another human being, we also laugh at the particular details that create a whole human. When we laugh, we forget pain momentarily.

 

An impressively descriptive poem begins with “Dear Carole, Today I’m wearing that ring…/ you stole for me at the art fair…”

 

It is in this poem that we travel with Carole and the narrator to the art fair, laugh as the narrator describes the “hot hippie without a bra” that Carole would roll her eyes at. It is poignant. When the narrator talks to the hippie vendor and covets a large red and black swirled ring: the hippie says: the ring wants to be a ring. I never take from the Earth without permission. The narrator feels nervous, says “Cool,” and walks away.  A few minutes later, at a cross walk, Carole presses something into the palm of the narrator’s hand. It is the ring. Carole then says:

 

“The stone told me to take it. It said it wanted you to wear it.”

 

We cannot help but smile.

Pages later when we learn that the ring breaks, we feel a heaviness in our chest.

 

These poems rise and fall with the everyday rush of a river current.  Even the mundane, the humorous episodes, the losses these women experienced together, all of it— we feel with gusto.

 

Chavez’s very last line of the collection is something we already know (we empathize with all of these poems), yet this last line comforts us. We simply recognize: “Always the talking is to you.”

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

 

Marcus Elliot is a jazz musician from Detroit who has been playing professionally since the age of 15, and continues to garner increasing recognition for his imaginative improvising and fervently thoughtful voice on the saxophone. Elliot has led the Marcus Elliot Quartet for the past eight years; they perform weekly in the Detroit area. He has performed internationally, including in Cuba, Barbados, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia. He has two self-released albums, Looking Forward (2010) and When the City Meets the Sky (2015), and has shared the stage, as a sideman, with a long list of exciting performers, including Talib Kewli, Bob Hurst, Karriem Riggins, James Carter, Jimmy Cobb, Bobby Broom, Marcus Belgrave, Johnny O’Neal, Jimmy Heath, Sean Dobbins, Kris Johnson, Thaddeus Dixon, Ettiene Charles, Mulgrew Miller, Rodney Whitaker, and many others.

In addition to his impressive résumé as a performer, Elliot is a composer and educator; he has been giving private saxophone lessons for approximately the past decade, and is the current Artist-in-Residence at Troy High School. He served as saxophone instructor at The Young Musicians Program in Berkley, CA, from 2009-2011, and as the Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Band in 2012-2013. A strong supporter of the arts, Elliot has created and funded a scholarship at Milford High School in Detroit that gives monetary awards to young musicians and visual artists who exhibit both creative promise and tenacity. After listening to several recordings of Elliot’s live performances, I asked him whether he would be willing to share some of the aspects of his creative process with us. He graciously agreed.

 

Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through music. There are many ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to create music, specifically?

Marcus Elliot: The core of my creative drive comes from my hunger to express ideas and concepts that cannot be expressed in other mediums. Music is one of the few art forms where you can actually express the idea that you are trying to convey in real time. You cannot receive all of the information at once: it must be played out through time to be understood fully.  This forces people to truly appreciate each moment that goes by. It forces you to feel how time moves and dances.

 

FFF: That description is fascinating to me. Can you talk a little bit more about your creative or aesthetic influences (what and/or who), and their impact on your work?

ME: I am currently drawing a lot of inspiration from Nature. I want my music to be an expression of how things in our natural world exist. Everything from plant life to the planets has a rhythmic cycle that governs them. Even our own bodies have cycles that we must obey or we will cease to exist. I am interest in understanding these patterns at a deep level and somehow reflect these cycles in my music. It already happens naturally with sound, what I am interested in is organizing the sound in ways that imitates these patterns that we see in nature.

 

FFF: Conceptually, that seems like such an interesting approach to creating your art. Coming off of that idea, I want to ask about how you balance this really organic approach to creating art out of sound with some of maybe the less organic or more artificial aspects of being a working artist in the world. I know that in the literary world, for example, it becomes very important to make the distinction for yourself between your art & its genesis and the industry side of things. It can be sort of soul-crushing, I think, if you don’t differentiate your success in creating your art from your success in marketing that art as a product. I’m speaking about the literary industry, but I’m curious about what this is like for professional musicians. Do you find yourself needing to make a distinction like this, or is it a more seamless path between the genesis of the music and the marketing and/or public performance of the music?

ME: This is something I think about a lot. The way I am dealing with this issue in the present moment is to make sure that I put the music first. Yes, I must feed myself and put a roof over my head, but it is more important that I stay focused on what is really important to me and my community. I have always been told since I was young, “If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.” What that means to me is if you stay true to who you are, everything else will fall into place the way it needs to. It is an example of living in harmony with yourself.

 

FFF: I really like that idea. I also admire the tenacity and hustle that I think it takes to live that attitude out in the world. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about your aesthetic motivations—what do you value most in your music?

ME: I value original thought. I value bold, original and thoughtful music. I value music that transforms me emotionally and spiritually. These are all things that I hope to accomplish in my own music and so I am constantly seeking others that are making music like that from their own perspective.

 

 

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 help shape your creative consciousness?

ME: I have a weekly gig with my quartet. For the most part, we play all original compositions written by myself and other people in the band. The bass player has a composition that is essentially a launching pad for “free” improvisation. We have played this composition multiple times, but one particular performance of this tune was a very powerful experience for me.

We began to play the melody of the tune and then we moved into the section of “free” improvisation. As we begin to step into this unknown territory, a series of emotions and thought begin to run through my mind. This is not an unusual thing to happen when I begin to improvise. First is a feeling of excitement for beginning the journey. Then it’s a feeling of fear of not having any clue of what is going to happen next. Then I become very self-conscious, and I begin to start asking myself, “Am I playing too much? Should I play more? Does the audience like this?” Et cetera. These thoughts that are zipping through my mind can sometimes get to be overwhelming to the point where I forget that I am even playing music. But this one particular time I made a realization that, if I am so busy having all of these thoughts, then who/what is playing the music? Obviously, these thoughts that I was so focused on did not have as much weight as I was giving them. The music was still happening. As I let these ideas float away, I was able to fully submit to and immerse myself in the moment. This realization made it clear to me that playing music can be used as a tool to transcend the self.

Once I was able to do this, it brought me into a state of mind that connected me to a larger/group consciousness. It was no longer four musicians on a stage improvising individually: there was only the music. The music became this living, breathing, morphing organism that I was just a small part of. As we continued to play for another 15 minutes or so, the music had taken on so many different forms and shapes, highs and lows, until it began to die. It was almost as if it had lived a life full of experiences and it was at the end of its journey. As we all played our parts to the end, finally we all stopped playing. The silence at the end felt like it lasted an eternity. Everyone in the building was silent as if they had witnessed a death. Then, finally someone broke the silence and began to clap. We had another 15 minutes to play in our set, but we decided to just end it there. There was nothing more to be said and we needed a brief second to catch up with ourselves.

This experience proved to me that music is much more than some sort of enjoyable, passive exercise that takes place at social functions. It became clear to me now why we use music in so many religious rituals. It connects you. It can be used as a tool to send a message. It can literally raise your consciousness. These are all things that our world needs desperately. If we understood the FACT that we are all connected, so much pain and suffering would be gone. We have been fooled by our own egos to think that we are separate from each other, when this is just not the case at all. We are all parts of a much larger consciousness, and music can provide the experience for people to understand that.

 

 

Marcus Elliot currently lives in Detroit, where he is studying, practicing, composing, and engulfing himself in the rich history of the Detroit music scene by performing with local artists and ensembles. Readers who are interested in listening to more of Marcus Elliot’s music and finding available downloads may do so here.

 

Malachi Black – Storm Toward Morning

Copper Canyon 2014

Page Length: 75

Retail: $15

 

Like the greatest formal poets, Malachi Black writes in shapes. Received forms sculpt the shape of a poem by the measure of their recursiveness: the manner in which the poem moves forward and back simultaneously. In a traditional sonnet, for example, as the speaker develops an idea, a scene, or a narrative (an argument), she also, at the end of each line, creates sonic consonance with that which precedes and/or follows. The result is the sensation of forward movement through recurring patterns and the modulation of poetic effects (in this example the effect in question is end-rhyme, though the same argument can be made for poetic features like anaphora, syntactic parallelism, and other features that can echo through a poem). This recursiveness of the sonnet is heightened and dramatized when the poem looks back on itself in its volta: the previous content is artfully repeated and thereby modified, and the result is something like epiphany. The extent to which a poem establishes and then resists its form can be understood as its poetic “shape.”

 

Malachi Black’s poetic shapes are both elegantly discursive and dizzyingly circular: spiritual yearning in swirling eddies of sonic clusters. Storm Toward Morning, Black’s first full-length collection, relies heavily on received forms (most notably the sonnet) to present an aesthetic argument that is equal parts familiar and strange, and the result is palpably beautiful tension: between the traditional and contemporary; between first-book energy and technical virtuosity; and, most importantly, between faith and doubt: a spiritual disquiet masterfully imbued into content and form.

 

Black possesses an astounding command of prosody, and like a world-class athlete, he moves through his lines without wasted motion.

 

“Rocking in my midnight robe, I am

alive and in an eye again beside

 

my kind insomniac, my phantom

glass, companion and my only bride:

 

this little window giving little shine

to something. What I see I keep

 

alive. I name the species, I define

the lurch and glimmer, sweep and pry

 

of eyes against the faint-reflecting glass

by what they can and what I can’t

 

quite grasp…” (Against the Glass)

 

While this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, Black opens with a procession of trochees that accentuates the quietly desperate state of the speaker. Notably, the opening line ends with a kind of existential release: “I am,” which both posits a stability of self and shifts the poem into its natural meter, which wraps itself around the line in a series of enjambments that create a cascade effect as we progress down the page: “I am / alive”; “my phantom / glass”; “What I see I keep // alive.” But as we course through the couplets, we are returned to previously introduced sounds. At times this consonance is semantically pleasing: “I am / alive;” “my only bride;” “I keep / alive.” However, at other times the effect is something more unnerved: a kind of haunting: “phantom” and “companion;” “faint” and “can’t.”

 

Black’s formal recursiveness is a microcosm of his poems’ engagement with poetic tradition: there is something undeniably traditional in Black’s prosody, yet that quality is cantilevered by Black’s associative ingenuity and contemporary diction, concerns, and general aesthetic orientation. In this regard, there are echoes of James Merrill, Robert Pinsky, Frederick Seidel, Thom Gunn, and the very best of Philip Larkin. And yet: the heart of Black’s formalism, which is, in the end, utterly Psalmic, seems to be in the spirit of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century: John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw and Andrew Marvell, to name a few. These poets sought in their verse an ascent into the mysteries of the divine—mysteries rarely resolved but left open like metaphysical wounds that are simultaneously fatal and freeing. It was this quality, their articulation of spiritual brokenness in formal precision, that T.S. Eliot found utterly compelling, which led him to not only champion these once-derided poets into their still-standing critical favor, but eventually state that devotional poetry is actually poetry in its highest form.

 

Black’s poems are devotional in this regard: rather than proclaim “truths” about the divine, they are poems written toward the possibility of God. This postmodern faith is most prominently displayed in the second section of Storm Toward Morning, a crown of sonnets that testifies to both the undeniable reality of the sacred and its impossible position within the profanity of human living.

 

“There is no end: what has come will come again

will come again: and then distend: and then

and then: and then again: there is no end

 

to origin and and: there is again

and born again: there is the forming and:

the midnight curling into morning and

 

the glory and again: there is no end:” (Vigils)

 

Rarely are form and content so seamlessly transposed: as in Heaven so on Earth; so too in the poem. “There is no end” is both a joyful declaration and an ominous lament: to be “born again” in poetic rapture is to see the infinitude of experience within the finite moment. Or, as Blake famously wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” And yet: to be born is to be subjected to death. Incessant birth yields incessant death, and this fact yields profound ambivalence in Black’s poetry, which hiccups its rebirths and stutters its praise. In this, we are reminded inseparability of beauty and death, a tension that cannot (and must not) be resolved.

 

This resistance to resolution is Black’s most unique aesthetic move. While it has become a hallmark of postmodern poetics to parade this resistance, Black’s angle is fresh because of the shape of his formalism. Received forms convey implicit order: they are teleologically determined from the outset. Black’s sonnets are both elegant and desperate—their formal ruptures proceed out of existential doubt.

 

“Once more the bright blade of a morning breeze

glides almost too easily through me,

 

and from the scuffle I’ve been sutured to

some flap of me is freed: I am severed

 

like a simile: an honest tenor

trembling toward the vehicle I mean

 

to be: a blackbird licking half-notes

from the muscled, sap-damp branches

 

of the sugar maple tree… though I am still

a part of any part of every particle

 

of me, though I’ll be softly reconstructed

by the white gloves of metonymy,

 

I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut

that doesn’t heal a bit too much.” (This Gentle Surgery)

 

Black oscillates between formal precision and something like an artful wobble: by embracing imperfection in the presence of technical virtuosity, he dramatizes spiritual poverty and celebrates the fallibility that constitutes the essential distinction between the human and the divine.

 

 

 

Every few weeks she met Saint Jim in the park.
She just wanted to get on Saint Jim’s bed and float

away; the bed which happened to be on the same
street as her beloved Mark. But, Saint Jim was

difficult and recalcitrant as is often the
case with saints. So, for now she had to be

happy with their short walks and discussions
of New York, October light, tiny animals, and politics.

Saint Jim told her don’t you dare put me in a poem
as he tried to feed a squirrel an acorn.

JenniferBartlett_forTHETheFeaturePiece 2

If I cut my body in half, vertically,
words would come pouring out.

If I cut my body in half, I would
have to cut vertically, I would need

really big scissors to do this
and fish would pour out.

JenniferBartlett_forTHETheFeaturePiece 4

She imagined him telling the next one

about her as he had told her about

 

the previous one. She imagined him

kissing her as he had kissed the previous

 

one. She imagined him holding hands

with the future one as he had held hands

 

with her. She imagined him putting

his hand up the skirt of the future

 

one near the river as he had put

his hand up her skirt near the river

 

and up the skirt of the previous one.

She imagined him not telling the future

 

one nor the past one that he loved them

just as he had not told her he loved her

 

not in their bar, nor the house, nor by the river.

She imagined him putting his fingers

 

inside of the others: the future, past and present

as he had put his fingers inside of her.

 

She imagined him lying to the previous

ones, the future ones, and the current ones.

 

But some of the facts were also true.

 

Jennifer Bartlett is the author of three books of poetry and co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. She is currently writing a biography on Larry Eigner.

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

 

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?

Jennifer Bartlett: I have always been attracted to words and reading. I love visual art too, but using words and connecting with the world through language feels natural. In terms of “why poetry” I believe it’s random. I know people who are musicians and visual artists and each kind of art, including nonfiction and fiction, has its own language.

I don’t know to what extent I’m really involved in po-biz. I am in the sense that I’ve gotten in quite a few fights for my radical views on disability. I tend to insert myself in places that I probably should not. I believe that ableism (the prejudice against disabled people) should be spoken about and fought with the same rigor as the other isms. I have gotten into “battles” because sometimes my methods aren’t always the best. I sometimes insert disability into discussions about gender or race, and this makes people feel put out. But, there is also the fact that people don’t want to discuss disability at all. Ever. Poets pick and choose what they want to fight or speak about and, disability as a metaphor or inaccessible spaces just doesn’t interest them.

I do not have a university job in creative writing. I currently teach English Comp and this is what I prefer. I also don’t make much money. I make some but not enough to live on. I wonder if this takes me out of the ‘competition’ to a certain degree because there is no prize for me. I do it because it’s fun and it connects me to people. But my livelihood isn’t really connected to whether I publish.

 

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

JB: I want to answer this in form of lists [more or less]:

Poets: The Language Poets, The Black Mountain Poets, mostly Charles Olson. I love the idea of duration. Lisa Jarnot, Lisa Robertson, Fanny Howe, Kathi Wolfe, and Andrea Baker. Earlier than that, two big influences were Muriel Rukeyser and Allen Ginsberg.

Visual Artists: Woody Allen, Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, Bill Viola, and Mark Rothko.

Music: Miles Davis, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Fiona Apple.

Personally: My husband and son.

Nature: specifically Oregon. Motherhood. New York City.

Politically: Ableism and the way that people approach people with disabilities. I want to break down all the barriers and perception of disability, specifically in terms of education, accessibility, and sexuality.

 

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

JB: I read this term in an old copy of Acts of verse called Analytical Lyricism. That seems as good a term as anything. In poetry, I am most interested in beauty. For me, that is the number one quality that makes a piece of art worth engaging. It can also show great ugliness and still be beautiful. I also like simplicity and understatement. Meditative.

 

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.

JB: Not to be too egotistic, but I really think Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability is the book that “everyone should read.” I think this because it is so crucial for people to learn about disability and how people with disabilities actually live rather than perception. The essay that comes to mind is Laura Hershey’s “Getting Comfortable.” This is part of the book that people who are not poets have told me they connect with the most. I assigned it to my students this semester and they loved it. Hershey’s writing is direct and honest. She has a gift for evoking empathy. Unfortunately, Hershey passed away before Beauty was published. I wish she had lived to see what a great effect her writing had on people.

The other thing about Beauty is that it was put together by three different editors with different experiences and tastes. So, the book comes at poetry from many different angles. It includes poets who derive from the New York School and Black Mountain as well as narrative works that come from the crip poetics side of things. The essays also open it up to non-poets. Do I sound like an ad?

 

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

JB: I don’t want to sound like Denise Levertov, but I really would be a better writer if I didn’t have a cell phone and owned a working dryer and a good vacuum cleaner.

 

Jennifer Bartlett is the author of three books of poetry and co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. She is currently writing a biography on Larry Eigner.

Beauty Broken and Decamped

The women in Ivy Alvarez’s chapbook Hollywood Starlet (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) have all lost something. Whether it’s their minds, a man, anonymity, peace, or a sense of self or place, it’s not coming back. We feel for their losses, but like any disaster hungry mob, we cannot look away. All of the titles have a name of a “starlet” followed by a word depicting an action of loss. Here are some of the titles: “What Vivien Leigh Dropped,”  “What Greta Garbo Offered,” “What Betty Grable Gave.” These women are missing pieces; like the artist Lana del Rey, they embody that idea of “beautiful sadness.” Alvarez captures this theme to a tee in this collection.

In “What Katherine Hepburn Lost,” we are transported into her inner conscious. Alvarez writes:

“Yorkshire. Why’d he bring me here?”

“…How long since I’ve had dirt under my nails?

This pantsuit’s stained with chlorophyll.

Maybe I’ll change. He can’t marry me. I have my role to play—

good time girl and quick repartee doth not fine marriage material make…”

Alvarez’s last lines carry a plea: “Oh Spencer, It’s me Kathy.”

The poem goes from recognizing Hepburn as the quick witted “girl Friday,” the friend, not the lover, and ends in heartbreak; we feel her plain yearning at the end. Alvarez brings out the “Kathy” (vs Katherine)  in us, in the wanting what we never seem to get, even though we already seemingly have it all.

Even the elegant and pristine Olivia de Havilland pines silently. She says, “Errol –

please call me Livvie once more.”

In “What Olivia de Havilland Wished For,” the last couplet is:

“I wish for something more than a celluloid kiss,

the mirage of eternity between our lips.”

Alvarez captures the persona of these famous heroines in a few lines of poetry. Olivia de Havilland was classy and perfect, never mussed up. What did this cost her? Alvarez offers us a personality for us to recognize and touch. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction. The poems are emotional truth.

We never know where Alvarez is going to direct us next. These short celebrity poem portrayals are surreal and bizarre. There is a welcome grittiness to some of the poems.

In “What Clara Bow Stole,” we are introduced to an obvious director’s statement when he says “Don’t speak…look pretty.” And Clara is a trouble maker, full of vim and vigor.

“…When I stole

my mother’s coat, after she held that butcher’s

knife to my throat, it scratched like that…

One more bite. Just like her, I’m committed

to my paper bag, my asylum of sweetness.”

This was one of my favorite poems. With Clara Bow, Alvarez draws attention to the fact that these women were forced to fit in a certain mold/persona.  The movie production companies controlled them and used them to make a profit.  These women fit into boxes of “best friend,” “siren” “ingénue,” “tomboy,” etc. Once the die was cast, no one could escape. These poems offer an escape. Alvarez offers an insight to a different reality for these women. They can escape, leave the set, love someone they are not supposed to. And they do it with tenacity.

In “What Ingrid Bergman Wanted,” we are made privy to Bergman’s thoughts. The actress was always so cool and collected in her films, but Alvarez throws in some grit and immediacy:

In Bergman’s thoughts:

“I spot a chapel in the shade

covered in lichen’s dull brocade.

No-one’s looking at me, kid.

Take a flake of rock, scratch the word

Ingrid into bark, letter by letter.

By the force of my hand.

I might earn permanency.

Let that plane leave without me.”

Alvarez gives Bergman a voice. She isn’t “made” to get on a plane by Humphrey Bogart, the symbol of a masculinity and control. Bergman stays because she wants to stay and maybe she lives in the woods, carves her names into the pines. Other starlets are given a voice as well: Frances Farmer chooses to swallow a chicken fetus whole while living in a foreign country. Rita Hayworth is nostalgic for her childhood, dancing with her father.

The closing poems are a direct line from A to B in terms of “innocent girl” transformed into Hollywood icon. They are “What Marilyn Monroe Ran From,” and “What Norma Jean Became.”

With Norma Jean, Alvarez pointedly describes an insecure girl, seeking validation:

“I’ve trimmed my flesh for muscle…

…becoming more anonymous with every step.”

With Marilyn, she is pursued by a swarm, “a halo of flies.”

“Jackrabbits, ears pricked,

follow me with their eyes.”

Like Ophelia wandering in madness, who takes center stage handing out herbs and flowers in one of her final scenes, she enraptures the audience for a time, steals their hearts.

But then we hear of her death offstage. Only her essence lives on, floats through our memories until the next breath of fresh air, the next live performance.

 

 

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of two full length poetry collections (forthcoming.) Her chapbook “Clown Machine” is forthcoming from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Freezeray, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.

Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow – Whale in the Woods

Rescue Press 2012

Page Length: 73

Retail: $14

 

Blueberry Elizabeth’s Morningsnow’s debut collection, Whale in the Woods, is mythic and mammoth. Winner of the 2011 Black Box Poetry Prize from Rescue Press, Morningsnow gives us a vision that is obsessive, oddly spiritual, and urgently beautiful. The result is one of the freshest, most original spiritual voices in Contemporary American Poetry.

 

At the core of Morningsnow’s poetics is the fusion of the elemental and the spiritual. Many of these poems center on large, recurrent, elemental themes and symbols: the weather, the moon, stars, fields, bodies (human, aquatic, celestial), dust, mountains, and copious amounts of light. Atop these Morningsnow layers a spiritual valence that ambiguously and provocatively begs the question of how imbued these elements might be with spiritual forces: ghosts, god, breath, and death.

 

“Ghost trapped in a cloud:

it’s not my fault when a fish drowns
look at me lakestorming
I’m dissolving all the time

A cloud is a crowd, a crowd

My brains drip onto flowers, roofs, absences, whatever

Yet I’m not part of the external and its edges

I even help this lake

But the lake’s without humility

And forgets that there’s a middlest, finest hole

An internal to everything”

(“Ghosts Are Nature”)

 

The title of the poem makes a bold metaphysical claim: “Ghosts Are Nature.” If this collection’s sprawling metaphysics could be summarized by a single statement this would surely be it. It would follow naturally, then, that our experience of the natural world would be haunting—that beauty would be wound tightly with terror—that the known would merely float in the greater expanse of the ominous unknown.

 

Morningsnow’s poetic forms follow this animism: often presented in bursts of lyrical vapor, evanescent and inevitable, voices emerge from the previously inanimate. We find the landscape surrounding the human milieu to be fully alive and capable of speech, and the words being spoken are equal parts human and oddly-something-else.

The following is spoken by “The Lake,” a recurring character:

 

“Can I kill as well as die many times? Yes. Can I live as well as get born forever? Yes.

 

I am the bone that never stops softening. Yes. There are swellings and

balloonings inside me. Yes and I am chunked up with ice.

 

I’m the Lake and a poem.

 

My consciousness goes grey and I turn to sleep in my center for I am not sorry, as you are, that everything constantly changes.

Look how I am. I have drowned you with my swillings. Look how I carry you into silence. Do you feel that words are true. I am ragged, I am ragged. I am ragged.

Breath is the only thing that’s fair.”

 

(“Of Clearness and Birth”)

 

However clever many of Morningsnow’s poetic constructions can be, she is also, at times, stunningly forthright. In very basic terms she makes a very large claim: the poem is not human. While it is composed of language, the most human phenomenon in the universe, the poem is more a coalescence than a willed construction: it is a lake that collects its contents passively and then reflects to its reader what may be momentarily looked into before it changes irrevocably.

 

The resulting effect is a brilliant juxtaposition of clarity and obscurity: a voice that phases between registers, scenes, and characters, yet never hides behind those devices for fear of what they might reveal. Accordingly: this is a poetry of revelation and discovery, a kind of poetic animism that seeks to divine the sacred from within the world’s (and the mind’s) many strange forms. Its vision is offered with a ferocity that testifies to the unadulterated violence of beauty.

 

“Remember when I killed my own brother       turning him suddenly and stabbing

him …

then, chopping up his various parts and scattering them in the path of our father’s warriors?

how is it, we wonder, that people are bound to each other

remember when I was darkening and widening                like a river

tearing its throat out in the sea”

 

(“Argosy”)

 

While some poets may opt for highly-sanitized creation-symbols such as the epiphanic sunrise or beatific copulation, the creative center of Morningsnow’s universe is thoroughly visceral: the image is of perpetual birth, and where there is birth there is afterbirth, not to mention the looming inevitability of death.

 

“And you are dead if you’re reading this because I have bursted on you and

killed you out of this and beyond dissolvings.

And because I have seen

trembling transparent eyes

rippling eyes

eyes of dying

there are pure psychic places

inside my self

inside my drain

inside my up and down

Because I have no such thing as desire or guilt

poems do not exist

they are merely:

discardings of skin (something you float in)

 

(“How the Lake Learned English”)

 

Morningsnow’s spiritual-poetic animism is preceded in the 20th-century Western canon primarily by poets influenced by the East: Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, and Allen Ginsberg, each of whom refuse to distinguish between the earthly and the heavenly: the profane and the sacred.

 

However, Morningsnow’s approach to this dissolution (the central action of her poetics is captured by the verb “to dissolve”) is entirely different from these quasi-mystics. While the destination of her poetic orientation is similar, Morningsnow’s path couldn’t be more distinct. Indeed: her path is distinct because the starting point is her own. Whereas Snyder, Merwin, and Ginsberg bring to the poetic line the simulated weightlessness of meditation, Morningsnow is thoroughly Western in her rough pilgrimage through a world of terrible, dangerous beauty. Accordingly, an aesthetic kin can be found in the ragged Deep Imagism of Robert Bly and James Wright, not to mention the epistemically-obsessed naturalism of Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Forest Gander, and Susan Howe. Graham is, I think, a particularly interesting comparison, as Morningsnow, too, is concerned with the ever-shifting lines distinguishing the known from the unknown from the unknowable.

 

Whale in the Woods is equal parts shocking and lovely: its poetic machinations are diverse and unpredictable, and its dream is utterly unique. Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow presents us with a fiercely singular spiritual vision and a world entirely her own: dissolving; unstable; filled with bright and strange debris; uncompromising; necessary; fleetingly salvific.