“When you hear nothing about the body…you stop listening to it, and feeling it; you stop experiencing it as a worthy, integrated entity..So [hunger] persists…channeled into some internal circuitry of longing, routed this way and that, emerging in a thousand different forms…Hunger may be insatiable by nature, it may be fathomless, but our will to fill it, our often blind tenacity in the face of it, can be extraordinary.” ― Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want
When I read the passage above in Caroline Knapp’s posthumous memoir, Appetites: Why Women Want (Counterpoint), I was living in Boston, busy with community and bolstered by solidarity in which it was impossibly easy to think about – and openly discuss! – the lives and real needs of women before they are proscribed by politicians and confined under the guise of decorum. Over the next few years, I recommended the book to others, and loaned out my copy with its pages dog-eared and underlined for their compelling message and radiant language.
Two months ago, as I read Tara Shea Burke’s Let the Body Beg for the first time, some of Knapp’s passages returned to me with keen clarity.
The 16 poems in Burke’s first collection look into desire: how we deny or misinterpret its call from fear, apathy, and misunderstanding, and what allows us to heed its various pleas. The collection achieves its political perspective with personal poems about the body, family, love, and sex.
Though Let the Body Beg does not shy from its feminist and queer sensibilities, it viscerally portrays what Knapp called the “circuitry of longing,” and its arc from struggle to recognition, is universal.
Let the body beg, Burke says, but attend to it – aptly or amid tangles that can accompany attempts to cipher complexities of the soul – with acceptance.
Burke lives in Chesapeake, Virginia, where she lives with her partner and teaches writing and yoga.
Q: When did you start writing and what was the impetus?
A: I love this question mostly because I used to hate this question. I’ve always been in love with memory. I’m also very aware of how constructed and picky it can be. And, I’ve always been a liar. Or, let’s say that now that I’ve come out of my compulsive, impulsive, ungrounded twenties, that I’ve always been a storyteller. That sounds better.
If the stories I’ve told others and myself are true, I began writing stories when I was very young. I’ll never forget the first story that was published in our elementary school’s tiny little lit journal when I was in first grade. It was about a girl who went wandering through the woods and found another world through a hole at the base of a tree. She fell down the hole – or jumped, happily escaping real life, like I’ve always wanted to do – and landed on a bed of mattresses and pillows. I can’t remember what she did in that other world, but I think it was a kind of mixture of my own life growing up in the woods with my imagination, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the cartoon movie adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Probably some of The Neverending Story in there, too. I’m quick to admit that I’ve always had an intense imagination, and have always wished for a life wilder than the everyday; but I’ve always been a copycat, too. My creativity didn’t go very far before I reached for my closest influences to fill in the gaps.
Regarding poems, I don’t remember writing my very first poem, but I do, perhaps, remember the first series of poems that came out of me. It was when I was in the seventh and eighth grades. And it was about the boy mentioned in First Crush, a poem that appears in my chapbook. So they were about love. Love-ish. The kind that hits you like a sack of puppies, right in the face: surprising, soft, and a little wrong. I think many kids write their first, and last, poems about the body as it’s awakening for the first time. We’re either tortured by our feelings or lucky and over the moon. Or, we’re utterly alone. And then we’re embarrassed and we feel that there is no place in the real world for these feelings, so they get put away, swallowed, and shit out.
My teacher read one of those poems aloud in class, after I’d half-seriously turned them in for an assignment. I’ll never forget how proud and embarrassed I was. I used to blab about everything, so even though the boy wasn’t mentioned in the poem, everyone knew who he was and what it was about. At the roller skating rink a few weeks before, I think he took pity on my inability to hide my crush on him, and asked me to skate during a song. I turned that moment into a repetitive poem that made it seem like we had been in love and he had left me to my sorrow. Just writing about it brings it back so clearly! What a mess.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that we all are just so drenched in our yearnings. We just want love…to be seen, to be understood, to connect. When I think back to my first poems, that’s what they were all about. Like most kids, I had these big giant balls of conflicted emotions circling around in my gut, unattended to and unseen. I had to understand them and get them out in a way that made sense. Though I didn’t know it at the time, poetry was this vessel for the human condition…for our emotions and desires and conflicts…for all time. I was simply stepping into a tradition. It was very natural to me. Poetry has just always made sense.
Q: What were you aiming to express in Let the Body Beg?
A: Inclusion. Deep feeling. Bodily attention and messy, sloppy yearning. An awareness, acceptance, and pride in our desires and how we express them. So much of our problems, I think, come from denying our ability to express and feel, and how we carry guilt and fear. There is so much me in that book, but I hope the poems are a kind of call to action, or a call to pay attention to how we live in bodies that are wise and willful; and that it’s all, really, okay. All of it. We have to be true to ourselves first, or we only do harm to ourselves, which therefore hurts us all. I feel like we can be so burdened by information and expectation, which creates a feeling of helplessness. We turn our backs to everyone because we haven’t learned how to turn toward ourselves. Those poems are a bit of my own journey through hunger and into fullness. They’re like my little first step into a kind of bigness I hope to keep moving toward.
Q: What is your daily writing schedule like?
A: Dear Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Great Mother, Atom, and Brain, please give me a daily writing schedule. Please. I’m half joking, but I want one so badly. Thankfully, I have a therapist to help remind me to accept what I can give right now without guilt. It’s a process.
I’ve been thinking about this a so much—what it takes to be a writer. I know that it has to be work. To write poems is to step into the ultimate, intimate, eternal conversation with The Muse, which is spiritual to me. But, to write and embody this spiritual act is also work. I think I have to put the spiritual aside – within sight – to truly get the work done. I have to make it no big deal and see it as just work, and not as this thing wrapped so closely to my identity. It is still personal and spiritual, but I get more done when I see writing like making eggs or drinking coffee.
I currently do not have a daily discipline of writing, or a daily discipline of anything, for that matter. I’m not sure that it’s necessary to have one, either. This isn’t to deny the purpose of daily writing for those for whom it works, but I think many writers in 2014 need a bit more flexibility, too. And we need to not feel terrible if we don’t wake up at dawn and write for 10 hours each day. We need to know that we can still do it, and do it well. Daily writing is a luxury many of us don’t have, both physically and psychologically. I mean psychologically because routine is something that doesn’t come easy for some of us. I have to force myself into a routine, and it really is a fight I lose and cry about often.
I think I can make it happen soon, though. I’m currently carving out space—but sometimes, you just have to be okay with what you can do. I read that Cheryl Strayed binge-writes because there is simply no other time … in her daily life. She would wait tables ferociously to pay the bills and save enough for weekend retreats and hotel rooms, then just shut the door and unplug the appliances for three days until she was spent. I like that idea. I’ve done something similar. If anyone has tips on forcing the attention or tricking the very wild mind into routine, I’ll take them.
Q: Congrats on placing 2nd in “Split This Rock,” a contest judged by Mark Doty with Fall, the poem that finishes the collection. How do you decide which publications and contests you’re going to submit to?
A: Well, that one was a no-brainer for me. At the time, I was writing pretty wildly physical and political poems about the body and lesbian sex, my trip to South Africa, race, class, gender, love. Split This Rock had been on my brain for a while, and they were looking for poems of provocation and witness. Provocation and witness is what I strive for; to provoke and to witness is, to me, poetry’s true radical. I try, now, to look at things in a similar way. I want to find themes that speak to my own themes in my poetry, and I want to know what kind of work a journal or press publishes and is looking for. But I’m going to need to be honest here, and I think many will relate: the places I think are perfect fits for my work almost never pick it up. When I look for general submissions and just start scouring through random listing on New Pages or CRWOPPS, I have better luck. At this point, I’m working on completing a huge bucket of finished work, and then I’m going to send it out to as many places as possible. I’m a gut thinker, though. I send to places that speak to me on a visceral level.
Q: What is your revision process like?
A: This is my magical time. I’ve begun to feel like revision is the true mystical poet-animal, or at least an animal from a separate continent than the one that initially creates. Revision is my favorite, and honestly, that’s mostly been my writing process over the course of these past two years or so. When I open a blank page to try and vomit out new lines of poetry, and nothing happens, I can always look at unfinished poems and play. I reopen the document, read the poem out loud, cut the fat, try new verbs and images, cut the reality out or the last line and see what makes the poem open up. Sometimes I’ll retype a poem from memory to see what stays and what goes. Sometimes I’ll just listen and play with cutting out whole stanzas to see how meaning changes, or where sound takes me. It’s a process I used to resist, and now I love so much. It truly feels like I am of service to language when revision works, and not the other way around.
Q: Does your yoga practice inform your poetry?
A: I used to think these were very separate identities for me, but since I’ve started teaching yoga and changing the way I understand what the practice truly is, the answer to that question has been yes: yoga informs my poetry immensely. Yoga is not about the body at all, really. One tiny part of the yoga practice says to move your body in such a way to clear it out and calm it down, so you can sit with a calm mind and heart and observe the world, both within and without. It is about clarity of attention and deep calm. Poetry is also about this, even when it is radical, angry and wild. There are many misconceptions about what it means to be a yogi or practice asana. People think that to be calm is to not feel, be angry, or react; but true yoga actually asks us to feel as deeply and as truly as possible. It asks us to see both sides of a debate, but also to act in the face of oppression and in the name of humanity. If we are angry, we need to communicate it in a healthy way, not stifle it or pretend it is not real. The more I realize this, the more my poetry begins to slow down and look more closely at things as they are. Yoga asks me to be radically honest and radically okay with the present moment so I can live truthfully and give myself to humanity with a big open body and heart. When I sit down to write poems now, I try to remember this and simply describe what is, whether the subject is the boy shot in the streets, Ebola, my own body, or the way I wash my dishes each day. It all matters. Every moment. Every breath. Every body.
Q: Does your teaching impact your writing process?
A: Yes. On a very literal level. Teaching (whether it’s yoga classes or general education classes about literature and writing) is so hard and so beautiful. I’ve tried to resist this profession I’ve found myself in over an over again, but I come back every time. When I’m in it, deeply, I don’t write, but when I’m away from it, just waiting tables or trying on other jobs I can do with my strange background, I miss it terribly. Teaching feels honorable to me. It matters as much as writing poems do, I think. But the attention it asks of me keeps me from the page. Here’s some truth: I haven’t quite figured out if I should be teaching right now, mostly at the university level. I know I will later in life, but I don’t know why I keep coming back to it when it causes so much anxiety for me. The students break my heart and refill it over and over again, and are so wonderful – at the end of the semester. I think I feel like I have to, like I owe it to my degree or my identity or something to do this important, worthy thing. But I’m not quite sure if it’s right for me as I work on my first full manuscript. Space is important. Routine, as I said above, is necessary. When I teach I don’t feel like I have space or a routine. I’m all over the place. And it makes me emotional in weird ways. I want so badly for my classes to have a huge impact, and I have to check that shit at the door, lest I think of myself as a failure when that impact doesn’t happen.
I will say, though, that teaching humbles me. Feeling the reciprocation of impact in the classroom through sharing stories is powerful. It keeps me on my toes and makes me want to write more.
Q: Who are some writers who have been influential in some way on your writing?
A: My beloved teachers, Tim Seibles and Luisa Igloria. They are and always will be in my head. Always. Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Nikky Finney, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kristen Naca, Mark Doty, Naomi Shihab Nye, Stacey Waite, and Julie Enszer. The list of poets goes on and on, mostly contemporary. Ani Difranco, though. That little radical folk singer that could, she is probably my reason. For everything. All my feeling, all my love and understanding. All my fight. I’m also highly influenced by memoirists like Cheryl Strayed, Jeanette Walls, Joy Ladin, and fiction writers like Jeanette Winterson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sheri Reynolds, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, and Margaret Atwood.
(Editor’s note: this poem first appeared courtesy of Split Rock)
By Tara Shea Burke
When we met we fell for each other like leaves.
Behind black curtains your bedroom was always dark
except for unexpected soft-yellow walls. Your dogs
would lie behind the closed door, waiting quietly
to be let in between us. Later, we became
four sloppy beings intertwined: fur, legs, breasts, sheets
skin, slobber, scents—all sleepy and sweet together, snoozing
until the bedroom’s next dark noon. We slipped pink steaks
between our wine-stained cuspids one night, chewing
and chatting by autumn city fire pit, enjoying the slow
getting-to-know-yous necessary to make something more
than just sex. Why would you want to fight in Iraq? I asked
between bloody bites, knowing the wrong answer might set
me off, make me primal, an animal wanting nothing more
than a few more nights: tipsy urge-easing evenings. Nothing more.
Your answers always surprised me. You taught me
more than I’d bargained for, the old me ready to run with one
wrong answer about war. You made me listen, and your body
suspended my judgment long enough to fall quickly. I worried
every night that I’d become a dry winter earth, cracked and cold
from holding in all the protest, just to experience, just once
what it was like to fall in love. That night, we took the fire
to the bedroom again. I expected the slow honey we’d made
to cool off, change shape. But I ate the thick sugar and finally
let go. I dreamt of you behind steel Navy-Walls at sea, not
active but present, taking down American-made enemies,
awoke in the dark and touched your skin, understood
like most things that live in the raw honey between extremes.
We were two women finding beauty in clichés, in differences,
in overlaps, the sweet burn of sun on our skin as we fell
to the ground.