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Anne Sexton

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Surrealist Tourist: Alessandra Bava Honors Each Exquisite Corpse
By Jennifer MacBains-Stephens

In They Talk About Death, Alessandra Bava’s first chapbook published in the United States (her third, internationally), Bava represents the voices of the dead through thirteen poems about Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Patti Smith, Henry Miller, Amedeo Modigliani, and Arthur Rimbaud, among others. Lives cut short by drugs, suicide, illness, and murder – these artists and writers inspire Bava’s work. In this chapbook, assembled and handmade by editor and publisher Juliet Cook, ghosts requite and haunt red-walled Parisian cafes, New York street corners, and dark, succulent gardens.

It is no wonder that Bava would be able to channel many voices: she is an active participant in the World Poetry Movement, which uses poetic action to promote multinational communities that work towards social, ecological, environmental, and mental health, revering cultural diversity and social transformation. She is also a member of The 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a group that brings artists and poets together to work and perform, encouraging a sense of community. Both groups honor the qualities of cultural and philosophical diversity that are present in Bava’s own writing. Bava’s muses struggled throughout life to find their place and, whether through confessional poetry or offending critics, Bava portrays this glorious, marginalized group (some of them only achieving prominence postmortem,) in all of their eccentric and damaged glory.

In the titular, opening poem, the scene of a salon is staged. Writers talk and sip absinthe; as “Sylvia talks of her first attempt. Anne [Sexton] listens attentively…” the scene becomes almost like a portrayal of two school girls discussing a crush – words such as “sweet,” “infectious laugh,” and “loving,” convey an innocent intimacy; discussing death feels like looking for the shape of a friend in the dark at a sleepover. As readers, we witness this casual, everyday conversation about death, and the subjects’ preoccupation with ending life itself, capturing our attention, luring us closer to the grave. Experience the following:

“…the sweet

terrible act dissected
with loving details
as on a morgue
table,”

where a “morgue table” is dropped in almost like patio furniture, followed closely by a mention of sipping wine. The casualness of this chat between Plath and Sexton about life’s ending grabs hold of our daily routine as well; we cannot be squeamish, but are forced to encounter the transparent relationship between breathing and not breathing.

When read aloud, these quatrains almost measure out the time it takes to sip a glass of wine or cup of tea. Throughout the chapbook, there is sense of participating in the dead writer’s routines, bridging our closeness with the dead, and with death. The reader shamelessly eavesdrops on these subjects, taking pleasure in their sometimes-imagined conversations, which are interspersed with actual dialogue spoken by the subjects, taken from their body of work or historical records. The words of the dead hold power over us.

Is there any poet alive who doesn’t know that Sylvia Plath left this world by committing suicide, leaving her two children food, a note, and an open window so they would not be asphyxiated by her gas oven? Despite the fact that Plath has been characterized as abandoning her children through this final act, the heart-wrenching poem, Milk and Bread, illustrates Bava’s gentleness with the tortured Plath. Even as she narrates Plath’s suicide, Bava’s language emphasizes motherly, nurturing qualities, with lines like, “I left you in the arms of February winds…” In this chapbook, the inevitable event of that morning portrays Plath in pain, not heartless, as Bava writes lines like,

“I gave birth…
and to you with distant eyes –
in order not to love too much,”

focusing the reader on Plath’s alienation and displacement in the world, her own life foreign to the idea of “comfort.”

The cover art, by Erin Wells, is eerily reminiscent of Sylvia’s famous blond curls. These curls, however, fall over a horse skull, such an apropos illustration for this collection – the whimsical carousel ride of childhood juxtaposed with the ominous horse skull, to somewhat terrifying effect. We are reminded that, though childhood ends eventually, these beasts continue to gallop in a circle forever, reaching up towards heaven and down towards hell, keeping all riders in a state of limbo. Perhaps the resurrected ghosts of these artists and writers find themselves locked into similar patterns: Sylvia, for example, so gregarious and lovely, almost child-like herself in so many photos, gave life and conformist roles a shot, but in the end, her own darkness was the an all-consuming role. She, like many of these authors, now lives out repeatedly in our minds the deaths for which they are (at least in part) so well known. Perhaps the carousel horse reminds us from the cover that we, too, might have to plunge into the depths to come back up. Bava’s exploration of the lives of these creative icons displays the balancing act at knife point. Cut too deep and it’s all over.

The theme of motherhood is perhaps paralleled by a theme of lost father figures. Bava captures the robust, punctual words of Henry Miller when he meets up with the author herself in a café. The poem Exquisite Corpse reminds us of partaking in life lessons and meaningful conversation. Bava writes of Miller in groups of three lines – the words are shorter and come faster, there is a rawness of Henry Miller. Who wouldn’t want to meet Henry Miller in a café and write a poem with him? Having escaped to Paris, Miller befriended the Surrealists. Inspiration from these meetings brought Miller his first famous works: Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. The Surrealists repeated the same mantra at every meeting:

“Le cadaver exquis boira le vin nouveau.”
(The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.)

The Exquisite Corpse was, of course, a Surrealist game in which each person present contributed one line at a time to a collaborative poem, without being allowed to see most of the lines written by the others. In Bava’s poem, she and Henry play this game together:

“The morning ritual starts
as Henry walks into the
café and sits close to me”

Henry “demanding the pen…”

We feel the heat of him next to us and on the page. Miller writes a line and then Bava writes a line. They create a poem together as people (and Bava’s readers) watch.

Miller, one of the early figures of the “Beat Generation,” turned realism on its head: his books banned in the United States for a time due to their graphic sexual content. Miller could be the long-lost son of Rimbaud, whose sadness and magic hit a nerve but often remain obtuse. Miller slaps us across the face with life. Bava captures Rimbaud’s romantic slow passion, though even in Bava’s world, Rimbaud is tortured:

“I stare at his . . .
Provincial clothes,

At his holsters
Full of satisfied

Flesh, Christian
Mothers’ morals…

I pause, I pant, I shoot, I write.

He grabs my hand
And cries, “Wake up!

I’m just a ghost
Selling false promises… “

This ode to Rimbaud is at the end of the collection, almost feeling like the reader has time traveled and come back full circle to the café. It is only in the café that we shake off the grime of the New York streets. It is our respite after touring the Bowery with Patti Smith, Rimbaud’s
dark, hungry, crow-like daughter-figure. Bava describes Smith using stark apostrophe: “Your dress is scanty and no black train follows it, your lips are smeared with poison…” conveying the sexy rebellion of Madame Bowery. Smith shunned the glittery big hair/loud make up of this decade, choosing to wear men’s clothes and live in the un-glamourous Alphabet City. Smith, having shoplifted Rimbaud’s book Iluminations when she was young, said Rimbaud was like her boyfriend, that she connected with his words immediately. The godmother of punk, Smith’s song fused rock with poetic verse, belting out explicit heartfelt lyrics and embracing the darkness in life. It is in embracing the dark, that the light becomes more apparent.

A favorite aspect of this collection was the feeling of these people co-mingling on the page. Even though they existed in different countries, in different time periods, they fit together so well in They Talk About Death, almost familial. The reader re-befriends them through Bava’s poems and as is one purpose of creating or writing anything at all – there is immortality in these pages: they are not dead. But we live in the world of the living, and hence, we do experience loss. The author’s own vulnerability and connection to these lost souls is palpable. In Vision, (for Sylvia Plath,) Bava writes: “As I carve my own poem, I hear the apse rustle./ The vivid stained glass windows on my bark shake…/ I am left to contemplate the Apocalypse of the Word.” The reader’s brain wants nothing more than to replace “word” with “world.” Why is anyone on the path they are on? How do we alter life with casual or concrete choices made in a milli-second?
And the reader, who has doubtlessly been inspired by at least one of the dead in this chapbook, happily goes along for the ride, conjuring spirits through Bava’s poems. Our own mortality is a post-it note. We go to the ledge, but we don’t have to step off. It feels good just to stand there, playing tourist to these ghosts wandering around in dark mental caverns. We are here to “stare at our beautiful corpse of a poem,” and Bava generously allows us to dip a toe in the afterlife. If we are lucky, we can grab for a stronghold in the cliff and hold on.

They Talk About Death, Alessandra Bava
Blood Pudding Press, 2014
20 pages
$7.00

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Jennifer MacBain-Stephens attended NYU, and has spent a large part of her life moving up and down I-95 and I-80 in the Midwest; she recently moved to the DC area. She is the author of the chapbooks Clotheshorse (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming, 2014) and Every Her Dies (ELJ Publications). She has written four YA non-fiction books (Rosen Publishing). Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, and can soon or recently be found in Dressing Room Poetry Journal, The Blue Hour, Vector Press, The Golden Walkman, Split Rock Review, Toad Suck Review, and Hobart.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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