Category Archives: Lyric Essentials

Lyric Essentials: Dan Albergotti reads “A Stubborn Ode” by Jack Gilbert.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Dan Albergotti reads “A Stubborn Ode” by Jack Gilbert.

Dan, as I searched for a copy of “A Stubborn Ode” I came across your recommendation in Post Road Magazine in which you mention a moment when a friend read “A Stubborn Ode” to you out loud. Was that the first time you were introduced to Jack Gilbert’s work? What else can you tell us about that moment and about discovering the work of Gilbert?

Dan: That was basically the first time. The friend in the anecdote is Melanie Carter, a fine poet whose amazing “Water to Sky” I once discussed in an essay on metaphor in Poets & Writers (Jan/Feb 2012). She’s the person that introduced Gilbert to me, most definitely. At the time, she had recently discovered his work when she attended a summer seminar at Bennington where he was a visiting faculty member. She came back from that seminar singing his praises, but I was skeptical and resistant. In fact, I think her reading that poem aloud to me was probably provoked by a question from me along the lines of “What’s so great about this guy’s work?” I can still almost hear the poem in her voice and see the image of her clutching the book to her chest when she was finished. Within a year, I was a devotee, a full-fledged member in the cult of Gilbert. If any of your readers are unfamiliar with his work, I would encourage them to rectify that tragic situation as soon as possible, starting with his magnificent third collection, The Great Fires, in which “A Stubborn Ode” appears. (I would also encourage readers to seek out Melanie Carter’s work, some of which is available online.)

Chris: What are the particular elements in this poem that illustrate Gilbert’s essentiality?

Dan: The poem seems to compress everything—and I mean everything—down into a hard, sharp gem. It is intimately specific and broadly universal. There is achingly personal grief (for his late wife Michiko, “buried in Kamakura”) and pure empathy for the suffering of others. In one way, it seems like anything but an ode with its aggressively prosy diction and line-breaks. Yet it is certainly what its title claims: an ode, and stubbornly so, damn it. It’s even coyly sonnet-esque in its 14 lines. In a way, the poem seems like it could be a response to Theodor Adorno’s pronouncement “No poetry after Auschwitz” (that’s a common reduction—I think the actual quote is closer to “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”). The poem catalogs disappointments, injustices, griefs, savagery, and despair. It quietly says, yes, yes, yes, yet nevertheless.

Chris: So was it Gilbert’s ability to compress emotion that finally won you over then? Or was it something else in that year of becoming a devotee that made you a convert?

Dan: As with most passions, it’s hard to point to one thing or to condense the experience into a pithy description. All I can say is that “A Stubborn Ode” led me to read The Great Fires, and it was over from there. I jokingly (somewhat) referred to “the cult of Gilbert” above, but my conversion experience is not uncommon. If you want evidence, check out the prices listed for signed first editions of his work by second-hand book dealers.

But in an effort to more fully answer your question, I will point to something I wrote for Borderlands in 2005: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/coming-end-his-triumph-retrospective-jack-gilbert. That piece began as a review of his fourth collection, Refusing Heaven, and metamorphosed into a short career retrospective. In that essay, I refer to Gilbert’s entire life being a poem. It’s easy to become a devotee when you perceive that. Happily, I turned out to be wrong about his imminent death and no fifth collection. The Dance Most of All was published in April 2009, and Jack died in November 2012.

Chris: I completely lose it at the tenth line, “All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.” There are several succinct, declarative lines like this in the poem that make the piece—I like how you said it—“a hard, sharp gem.” Is there a line or part of this poem that is especially poignant for you? What do you hope readers of this poem will walk away with?

Dan: The poem begins with a three-word fragment: “All of it.” And it ends with a four-word sentence: “And I say, nevertheless.” Even in their brevity and simplicity, each feels especially poignant to me. Between them in the poem, I believe there is, as I said above, everything—all of it. Everything that Gilbert provides, and everything that the readers feel as well: their own horrors, griefs, sadness, despair. I hope readers feel all of that when they read the poem, and I hope they walk away saying stubbornly, with Jack, “nevertheless.”
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Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008) and Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), as well as a limited-edition chapbook, The Use of the World (Unicorn Press, 2013). His poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Five Points, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and two editions of the Pushcart Prize, as well as other journals and anthologies. He is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.

Chris Petruccelli doesn’t know what he is anymore. His chapbook Action at a Distance won the 2014 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest. His poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. In his spare time Chris enjoys running and whisky.

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Lyric Essentials: Janeen Pergrin Rastall reads “Weather Picture” and “Allegro” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Janeen Pergrin Rastall reads “Weather Picture” and “Allegro” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton.

Janeen, I’m a total lover and believer in the power of the small poem and we’ve got that going on here in both the poems you’ve read for us today. Is brevity and concision typical of Tranströmer’s poetry? Are those characteristics something you implement in your own work?

Janeen: While Tranströmer does have some longer narrative pieces like “The Baltics”, brevity and precision are characteristics of his poetry. Tranströmer wrote, “I have tried to write as unsentimentally and nakedly as possible…” I, too strive for a stripped down poem. I try to write with immediacy; perhaps my decades of writing computer code could be to blame. I admire Tranströmer’s ability to create drama with so few lines. He wrote collections of haikus including this one:

Here’s a dark picture.
Poverty painted over,
flowers in a prison dress.

From The Great Enigma: New and Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006)

Chris: Why did you choose to share these two poems together? Is there a similar essential feature present in both? Or, does each poem have its own unique essential elements?

Janeen: I chose these two poems to show Tranströmer’s use of language. Both poems are concise yet approachable and full of amazing imagery.  The subject matter and tone make his poems feel contemporary. “Weather Picture” is from an early collection, Secrets on the Way and is a classic example of how he captures a place, in particular the sea and islands of Sweden. Living across from Lake Superior, I connect with these landscapes. The line “a dog barking is a hieroglyph…” is such a perfect and unexpected simile. Reading his poems is like having synesthesia or living in a Dali painting. The world becomes hyperreal. Like so many of his poems, “Allegro” appears deceptively simple. Tranströmer played the piano and music was a vital part of his life. The poem could be seen as a joyous celebration of the Hayden’s compositions. Tranströmer was a psychologist. Is the poem also a prescription: wave music, a haydenflag against depression?  “Allegro” was published in 1962 shortly after Tranströmer’s trip to the Middle East, the building of the Berlin War and dark days in Vietnam, Hungary and Alabama. Perhaps the poem is a brave statement about how art can teach us to survive and protect us from the madness of the world?

Chris: “Allegro” is interesting to me because it has the potential to be horrific, especially with the couplet “The music is a glass-house on the slope/ where stones fly, the stones roll.” There’s no way this glass house is going to make it, but Tranströmer negates the whole scene when he states that each stone passes through the house and “each pane stays whole.” Which, it just dawned on me, is that a play on whole/hole? But more seriously, what do you make of this sort of duality of the home—a thing seemingly fragile yet it’s able to go unharmed?

Janeen: Exactly, Chris. He is waving his haydenflag, letting us know as the stones are flying at us, when we feel most vulnerable that we will be okay. We will not splinter, crack. We have music and art. We can take everything thrown at us, absorb it and remain unchanged.

Chris: You mentioned that reading Tranströmer is like living in a Dali painting. Is embracing the weird (for lack of better words) something that you always enjoy doing when you read poetry? Or is Tranströmer’s weirdness just particularly well done? And, if you enjoy embracing the weird, are there other poets who you enjoy reading that make you feel like you are in a Dali painting?

Janeen: I love poems that lead me to unexpected places. I also love Imagists. I have a list of poets’ whose books sit beside my bed. Some of them are: Czesław Miłosz, Charles Simic, Wisława Szymborska and Anna Swir.

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Janeen Pergrin Rastall lives in Gordon, MI (population 2). She is hopelessly in love with Lake Superior, the great saltless sea. She is the author of In the Yellowed House (dancing girl press, 2014) and co-author of Heart Radicals (ELJ Publications, 2016). Her chapbook, Objects May Appear Closer won the 2015 Celery City Chapbook Contest. Her work has been twice nominated for a Best of the Net Award and for the Pushcart Prize. Visit Janeen at her author page: janeenpergrinrastall.wordpress.com

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and Still: the Journal. Chris is currently severely hung over in East Tennessee.

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Lyric Essentials: Caolan Madden reads “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices” by Sylvia Plath.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Caolan Madden reads “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices” by Sylvia Plath.

Caolan, this is a really interesting, unique, and powerful poem you’ve read for us today. I’m sure Sylvia Plath needs no introduction, but what about this poem? Who are the three women?

Caolan: Three Women is a verse play that Plath wrote in 1962, not long after the birth of her second child. I had always kind of assumed it was a closet drama–a play that wasn’t meant to be performed–but it was apparently commissioned by the BBC and produced as a radio play in August of 1962, with three different actors voicing the three women. So the “three voices” were really three different voices, not three voices that you imagine inside your head, or three aspects of one voice like they are in my recording.

At the beginning of the poem, each of the three women is pregnant. (The setting for the play–the only stage direction–is “A Maternity Ward and round about.”) They go on to have three different experiences of hospital birth or miscarriage. The First Voice’s story is maybe the most familiar–it’s the kind of birth narrative that our culture, and even more so Plath’s 1960s Anglo-American culture, tends to celebrate: she gives birth to a baby boy and brings him home to the nursery she decorated for him. The Second Voice, a married woman who has been trying to conceive, has a miscarriage. The Third Voice, an unmarried college student, has a baby girl and gives her up for adoption. In the excerpt I read, which is from the very end of the poem, the women have all left the hospital and are starting their lives back up again, with or without children.

Chris: What made you decide to read this Plath piece above all her other poetry? What’s in this poem that makes it essential to you and your writing?

Caolan: Plath was the first poet I really loved–I first read her poems when I was thirteen, and for that reason she might be the only poet whose work I will ever love in this fundamental, visceral way. Obviously falling in love with Sylvia Plath at the age of thirteen is not an uncommon experience! But I wish more people were aware of the tenderness and humor and wonder in her work, as well as its fascinating, ambivalent relationship towards women’s popular culture. When people talk about, for example, Plath’s Mademoiselle internship or her desire to be the perfect housewife, they talk about these things as oppressive structures Plath had to strip away in order to become her true self, the avenging spirit of the Ariel poems. In reality that relationship is much more complicated and was, I think, much more generative than these narratives allow.

So that’s one reason I didn’t pick a really famous Plath poem like “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus”–I love those poems, but I love to introduce readers to less familiar aspects of her writing. I’ve always been especially drawn to Plath’s accounts of domestic interiors, to the clear, focused attention she brings to the details of home décor, children’s toys, clothes, accessories, stuff, and the processes of maintaining and preserving that stuff–painting, sewing, polishing, gardening. I think Plath uses this stuff to write about love–not necessarily as metaphors for love, although that’s probably true, too, but more as a way to enact or perform love within the poem and in the real world.

“Three Women”–particularly the section I’ve read–is really a goldmine for that stuff. The First Voice painting the nursery and the Second Voice sewing her material are both doing creative, domestic work that is also protective or reparative. There’s darkness there–traces or more than traces of acquisitiveness, selfishness, compulsion, codependence, delusion, denial, complacency–but there’s also so much tenderness, determination, courage, generosity, creativity, resourcefulness, patience, attention, labor, care.  All those things are part of how I understand my own writing process, as well as my own relationship to the people I love, and the spaces and things I love, too. And I tend to express love, too, by making things and places and poems for people, and I think that’s one thing that draws me to good-student-Plath and happy-housewife-Plath, the Plath who a lot of people dismiss or deride.

Chris: What do you make of Plath’s juxtaposition of these three experiences? Why this sort of format as opposed to having three separate poems, or more than three voices?

Caolan: Well, we can read Three Women biographically, as describing Plath’s own experiences: she gave birth to both a son and a daughter, she had at least one miscarriage, she worried about unwanted pregnancies when she was a student at Cambridge. I hesitate to even say that, because readers’ fascination with Plath’s biography can get in the way of reading her actual poems. But in this case, I think biographical detail helps us understand that the poem is working both to represent a range of experiences with pregnancy and birth and to suggest how all of these experiences might be part of a single person’s life. There’s a productive tension in the poem between universality and particularlity, which is reinforced by the tension between the poem’s performance history as a radio play performed by three different actors and the experience you have reading the poem on the page, or listening to my recording here, where you realize Plath didn’t do much to differentiate the voices from one another in terms of diction or rhythm. One powerful effect of that tension is that it becomes almost impossible to make moral judgments about these women. For example, if these three voices actually belong to the same woman, we can’t think of the First Voice, who keeps her child, as a better person than the Third Voice, who doesn’t. Another effect is that the poem discourages us from psychologizing the woman or women as character(s), and instead focuses our attention on its concrete descriptions of what are often considered taboo bodily experiences. Earlier in the poem, describing her contractions, the First Voice says “I am used. I am drummed into use”–an incredibly evocative and brutal description of labor that I, personally, don’t think I fully  understood before the birth of my daughter, but that probably helped shape my expectations for what childbirth might be like.

So we can think of the poem as describing three aspects of one intense, complicated experience–kind of like  Robert Graves’s idea of the Triple Goddess, whose three aspects are the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Plath was really into Graves, and really into three as a magic number, especially when you’re talking about groups of women: there are three Fates, three Graces. So that’s one reason there are three voices, not four or five or six.

Chris: You spoke earlier of how you enjoy introducing readers to the less familiar aspects of Plath’s writing. Is this poem one you came to know early in your reading of Plath? Also, what Plath poems in addition to “Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices” showcase the things you love about her poetry?

Caolan: I remember reading this poem in eighth grade, when I was reading almost anything by Plath that I could get my hands on. But before I opened my copy of Plath’s Collected Poems to make this recording, I’d forgotten what an involved history I had with “Three Women.” There are notes in the margins from papers I wrote when I was in college and grad school; there are also notes that suggest I must have performed some of the Second Voice’s sections as a monologue in my high-school drama class. And in college I took the title of my senior thesis, which was about Plath’s depiction of domestic space, from one of the First Voice’s lines: “I Have Painted Little Hearts on Everything.”

If you’re looking for it, you’ll actually find a lot of the things I love about “Three Women”–the attention to material domestic detail; the interconnectedness of creative work and love and protection; the TMI physicality–all over Plath’s writing, including her most famous poems, her prose writing, and her journals. But some great poems to revisit are “Letter in November,” “Last Words,” “Nick and the Candlestick,” “Morning Song,” “By Candlelight,” and “Kindness.”
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Caolan Madden holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins and is currently a PhD candidate in English literature at Rutgers. Recent poems have appeared in Bone Bouquet, Cartridge Lit, glitterMOB, Split Lip, and Black Warrior Review; some of her essays on literature and popular culture can be found online at weird-sister.com. Girl Talk Triptych, a collaborative chapbook she co-wrote with the feminist poetry collective (G)IRL, was published this spring by dancing girl press; her chapbook VAST NECROHOL is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

Chris Petruccelli is snackin’ on some cornbread and debating what kind of gravy he should have for breakfast–sausage, or red eye? His poetry has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.

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Lyric Essentials: Chen Chen reads “Lone Star Kundiman (For the Guy Who Seized My Arm After I Accidentally Cut the Line for the Toilet in Austin)” by Patrick Rosal.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Chen Chen reads “Lone Star Kundiman (For the Guy Who Seized My Arm After I Accidentally Cut the Line for the Toilet in Austin)” by Patrick Rosal.

Hey Chen, before we get deep into this poem I’d like to start by saying that I’m a total sucker for long titles—I think it comes from my scientific background where for a while I’m pretty sure scientists were competing to give their articles the longest titles imaginable. This title takes the cake. So, first question, when it comes to a title are you a fan of the one worders—“Winter”—or obscenely long titles like the one you’ve read for us today?

Chen: Obscenely long. Yes. I mean, the title of my forthcoming book is When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. And recently I had a poem published called “I am reminded via email to resubmit my preferences for the schedule.” I love long titles. I love titles that are full, obnoxious sentences. But I also love the one worders. It’s so bold just to call a poem “Winter” or “Snafu” or “Poem.” Louise Glück has the plainest titles and she makes it kinda badass. So in my book I also have very short, humble titles. Titles all in lower case. Titles that require a magnifying glass. Molecular, nano titles. You know, for balance.

Chris: With the pop song references, the triumphant double slap redemption, and those final two lines I find myself terrified at what the narrator experiences, but also laughing and cheering on their vindication. Am I reading more humor into this piece than is actually present, or is that something you experience in this poem as well?

Chen: Definitely humor here. Which we can also think about in maybe a darker way—that the humor in the poem indicates or registers the (enormous) extent to which the speaker has experienced these racist microaggressions and so has come to see them as almost everyday. Well, because these incidents do happen all the time.

This discussion is making me think of a great moment from a great piece by Jacqui Germain: the phrase “c’est la vie” pops up in the middle of this piece, which is about being a black girl and hearing one’s white professor and white classmates casually throw around the n-word in the middle of a literature seminar. Because the texts feature that word. Because of whiteness. The phrase “c’est la vie” is so funny, the way it just shows up in the midst of all this awfulness. But the phrase is also completely serious. There’s a shrug the speaker of the piece seems to do, a shrug of “c’est la vie,” as in, “well this kind of thing happens and happens and here we are again here we go okay but not okay.”

As a queer Asian American, I do see and use humor as a coping mechanism, a survival tool, a form of awareness and knowledge that lets me be inventive in the face of a violation or erasure. Still, it’s not exactly healing, this kind of humor. It can be a band-aid on a gaping wound.

That’s what Rosal seems to be getting at: the fact that the speaker and the man he accidentally cuts in the line, both of them are dealing with a lack. The poem’s wrestling with these notions of strength versus power, compassion versus domination, healthy personhood/agency versus toxic masculinity. The speaker questions his own capacity for compassion. The man the speaker cuts clearly needs to question his lack of compassion, or patience, in that moment in the bathroom line. The speaker, as a Filipino American man, as one historically and presently oppressed, points out how exiting the bar in Austin doesn’t really solve anything. He still has to face a city, a state, a country that tends not to see people like him. The other guy, the white man, can go on to use the encounter as a chance to really learn something or to dismiss it as some random, irritating event. The other guy can literally go “c’est la vie” and be done with it. The last sentence of the poem, “No white boy left behind” is similarly complicated in its humor, I think.

 Chris: It seems that Rosal’s use of humor is doing a lot of work in this poem as it raises the questions you’ve pointed out in regards to race, oppression, and the need to evaluate one’s compassion and empathy (or lack thereof). In addition to the humor, what is Rosal doing in this poem that you find to be essential to you as a writer?

Chen: I’m struck by his use of the pronoun “you,” which shifts from being the guy in the bathroom line (“how you eyed me to my place with your little smark”) to being, perhaps, the reader, or some generalized person (“In Texas, you can sit in a diner…”). But that second kind of “you” doesn’t seem generic to me, doesn’t seem to be a synonym for “one.” The “you” is at once another “I” and a kind of “you” that inhabits an othered, racialized body. I read the lines, “you practice what it’s like to be the last man on earth/or the first one to land in a city where no one sees you” as a particular experience, an experience of being an Asian American man. I’ve felt this kind of invisibility and erasure. I’m living in a Texas city myself at the moment. Few Asian Americans here, probably far fewer than there are in Austin, Rosal’s setting for this poem. I love Rosal’s use of the “you,” how the gaze of the poem shifts, how the poem asks a reader to inhabit an Asian American perspective as both “I” and “you,” how the poem asks the person who was “you” in the beginning to try seeing things as this “you,” this person who’s “in a city where no one sees you.” And when someone does see you, it’s to put you back in your (unthreatening, obedient, invisible) place. I think also of Claudia Rankine’s use of the “you” in her book, Citizen. The disorienting, destabilizing possibilities of the second person.

Chris: Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene in this poem that stands out above the others? Is there a piece of this poem that is most important to you, or does it change every time you read “Lone Star Kundiman”?

Chen:  My favorite lines are: “Truth is, I couldn’t stop to consider how we both live/in a country mostly afraid of the difference between/strength and power.” I’ve been thinking and thinking about this difference, how these two words can mean radically different things. How power depends on hierarchies, binaries, absolutes, forms of domination. How strength is rooted in the difficult/lucky practice of love, community, open communication, vulnerability, an embrace of the unknown. Thinking this way is making me rethink a term like “empowerment.” Do we want to be powerful? Is power all about our own individual success? Does power always reproduce itself? Its assumptions and structures? Are we making real decisions or are we merely helping to perpetuate the world as we know it?
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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 work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Phantom, Drunken Boat, and Poem-a-Day. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary fellow, Chen is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. For more, visit chenchenwrites.com.

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). You can find his poetry in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Chris currently plays too much Civ V, nearly purchased the Sid Meier’s Civilization board game, and is searching couch cushions for enough change to buy a new desktop PC and a copy of Civilization VI.

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Lyric Essentials: Nancy Reddy reads “Walmart Supercenter” by Erika Meitner

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Nancy Reddy reads “Walmart Supercenter” by Erika Meitner.

Nancy, there’s so much to love here. I myself love the moist dimes being traded for honey mustard because I’m all too familiar with pulling soggy dollar bills out of my pocket to pay for a coffee. Also, coming from the bible belt I really dig “God is merciful and gracious, but not just.” What are some of your favorite parts of this absolutely brutal and beautiful poem?

Nancy: I love the (for lack of a better word) thing-iness of the poem, the way it’s full of the stuff of ordinary life – the honey mustard and moist dimes you mention, the flip flops and lounge pants, the plastic shopping bags. This poem takes in the world, and not just the parts that are obviously beautiful or “poetic.” And it places that stuff alongside these really sharp, moving explorations of mercy, forgiveness, justice, as in the line that jumps from the seven abandoned kittens to the cashier speaking about small mercies. It’s rooted in incredibly close attention the material world, but it’s also capacious in its scope.

Chris: How about the qualities that make this poem essential? What are the elements that elevate this poem above others?

Nancy: I’m obsessed with how this poem moves. It starts in this utterly ordinary place – a trip to Walmart for juice, Pampers, tube socks, and it arcs up into a meditation on mercy and justice. It alternates between the speaker’s maneuvering of the shopping cart and a multitude or quirky and horrible things that have happened at Walmarts all around the country. These are the kind of stories that seem to just constantly arrive unbidden – every time I log in to Facebook or flip through the radio dial or catch the local news, there’s some fresh horror, usually something unimaginable that’s happened to a child. As a poet and as the mother of two young boys, I don’t know what to do with that. But this is a poem that doesn’t look away. It doesn’t try to impose any kind of neat moral, but it grapples, and it holds these really lovely, tender moments – a friendly old man on a scooter waving, the girl buying honey mustard sauce – against the other awful things. To me, this is a poem that demonstrates just how much poetry can hold. I think we need more of that.

Chris: Is that something you experiment with in your own poetry—testing how much a poem can hold?

Nancy: Absolutely. (I think our obsessions in reading often track really closely with our interests in writing, right?) So right now I’m working on a second collection of poems that’s about – in part – pregnancy and motherhood, and alongside those central themes, I’m also thinking about quantum physics and primates and evolution and human ancestors and theories of scientific mothering, among other things. Copia (the book this poem’s from) has been really essential as I write my way through connections and digressions and juxtapositions. Meitner’s work is just so capacious (to be a little punny), and it’s helped me to think about the poem in terms of capacity and breadth.

Chris: You discussed the movement earlier and it really is totally bonkers—it feels like a one player game of weird Walmart one-upmanship. In terms of the justice/mercy where do you think the narrator lands one the issue? Is Walmart and what it represents forever a place of struggle? Or, is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Nancy: One of the things that I really like about this poem (and about the other poems in this book, which take place in convenience stores and rest stop bathrooms and Detroit) is that it doesn’t judge the place. It doesn’t have an ironic distance from Walmart – like, oh isn’t it hilarious that I’m here, buying my domestic goods? – and it also doesn’t look down on Walmart or its shoppers, which would have been really easy to do. For me, the role of Walmart in this poem is just that it’s actually such a central place for so much of America. Part of my family lives in a pretty rural part of central Pennsylvania, and for my stepsister, growing up, Walmart was just where you’d go with your friends to hang out. If you stayed there long enough, you’d see the whole town go by. And in this poem, the same thing’s true at a much bigger scale – if you scan the news for Walmart long enough, all the horrors in the world will happen there. But there’s also some beauty and some kindness, too.
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Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Horsethief, The Iowa Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. The recipient of a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.

Chris Petruccelli is eating offal and drinking Tecate in Northeast Tennessee. He is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press) and his poetry appears or is forthcoming in journals such as Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere.

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Lyric Essentials: Hazem Fahmy reads “After the Cameras Leave, in Three Parts” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Hazem Fahmy reads “After the Cameras Leave, in Three Parts” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.

Hazem, this is an incredibly poignant, powerful poem you’ve read for us today. What can you tell us about Abdurraqib’s poetry for those folks who might not be familiar with his work?  Also, have you had a chance to read his new, debut book The Crown Aint Worth Much?

Hazem: Hanif’s work is so rich and captivating, I really don’t think there’s one way to exactly encapsulate its power. I’d say my favorite thing about it is his incredible weaving of pop culture and personal experience to create a mythos out of his native Columbus. I know of no other poet working today who has such an impeccable ability to immediately and thoroughly familiarize the reader with their hometown and, really, whole world.

I actually just recently ordered the book and it’s on its way now!

Chris: What are some of the elements that makes “After the Cameras Leave, in Three Parts” essential to you as a writer? Are there certain qualities in this poem that you try to emulate in your own work?

Hazem: This poem really highlights three things I am actively concerned with in virtually all of my work. It’s a powerhouse narrative that works with culture’s relationship to trauma and empowerment and brings the history alive through the voice of a city. As a Cairo native navigating American spaces that continually demonize and ostracize my culture and identity, I find immense power in this kind of emphasis on cultural history as a means of validating both the self and the identity to which the self belongs.

Chris: I’m curious about your take on the opening line of “After the Cameras Leave, in Three Parts” where the narrator says, “They listenin’ to the wrong music again, child.” What do you think the narrator is trying to communicate about the wrong music (“Mississippi Goddamn”) and right music (“Sinnerman”)?

Hazem: I am not very familiar with Simone’s work (let alone nearly as familiar as Hanif is), so I won’t attempt to analyze the dichotomy between the two songs too much. As I understand it, both songs are a response to extreme violence, but in slightly different ways. “Sinnerman” seems to be more concerned with sheer grief whereas “Mississippi Goddamn” focuses more on rage. This poem takes a long, hard look at the trauma and grief marginalized communities often can’t find the time for, often because the brutal marginalization is ongoing, and in that sense I see why Hanif would pay more attention to “Sinnerman”.

Chris: Cultural commentary, conceptions and receptions of the self, and “powerhouse narrative” as you put it seem especially important to poetry today which calls to mind a lot of incredible books—Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village is one, Suck on the Marrow by Camille Dungy is another. Hanif tweeted the other week about his poem, “On the Filming of Black Death” being shared after the recent events in Tulsa and Charlotte (Hanif’s poem references a different, earlier shooting in Tulsa). Are there writers in addition to Abdurraqib that you feel people need to be reading right now?

Hazem: In general, people absolutely need to be reading more poets of marginalized identities, especially ones who’re actively attempting to craft new narratives out the of histories and cultures we’ve been born in. If I have to pick a few, I’d start with Safia Elhillo. Reading her work means being in a master class on how to see the world, in all its beauty and pain, through the smallest and most seemingly commonplace facets of our lives. Ocean Vuong has similarly changed the way I think of writing on the self, especially in the way he weaves his personal and family history with that of his country. I can also never recommend Danez Smith enough. I can’t think of any other writer who has such a thorough ability to wrestle with trauma and the horror of oppression while also creating space for hope and breathing.
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Hazem Fahmy is a poet and critic from Cairo. He is currently pursuing a degree in Humanities and Film Studies from Wesleyan University. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in Mizna, COG and HEArt. In his spare time, he writes about the Middle East and tries to come up with creative ways to mock Classicism. He makes videos occasionally.

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Chris enjoys drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.

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Lyric Essentials: Emilia Phillips reads “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

 

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Emilia Phillips reads “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

Emilia, what a haunting read! A few months ago Kori Hensell read Dickey’s “The Sheep Child” which “Song” reminds me of with its strange, surrealist qualities. What makes “Song” essential to you as a writer?

Emilia: “Song” embodies the essential strangeness and loneliness that I most admire in poetry. It’s not just about grief or violence or loss, or reconciling those things together, but the feeling that the poem in some way moves into that space freed up by something left behind or taken away, and it can never quite fill up that space. I often find that I’m most interested, invested, and devastated by poems that do that very thing.

Chris: I love the exchange between the beginning and ending of this poem where the goat’s song at the start appears to become the song of the boys who did the killing at the end. What do you make of this kind of reciprocity that bookends the poem?

Emilia: That ending seems to be more about the poem’s songiness more than the voices of the goat or the boys. In some ways, the song is the poem, and so the poem describes its own creation by its description of the song at the end. This feels especially true to me because of the poem’s title—“Song.” The poem is the song that is sung within the poem. It’s like looking into a mirror that’s facing a mirror here, and because of that, rather than crowding out the reader, it opens up space, to create more loneliness. I can’t help but think of a line in an Elvis Perkins song here: “Your vampire mirrors, face to face, / they saw forever out into space.” The poem that is the song that is the song mentioned in the poem seems to leave a gap, a loop that can never close. In that way, the poem sends us spinning back to its beginning: “Listen,” it says forever.

Chris: “Song” then epitomizes the type of poem you’re most interested and invested in by promising an eternal redundancy of almost fulfilling a void via the loop it creates? That is absolutely brutal! Also an incredible, and beautiful concept. How else does Kelly appeal to your interests of loneliness and strangeness in this poem? Is there any particular part of the poem that catches you every time you read it?

Emilia: Well, I don’t think I could answer this question without mentioning that singing goat’s head! But, in some ways, that’s the most obvious strangeness of the poem, right? I mean, what really gets to me is the way in which the girl interacts with the goat. There’s loneliness there, but I don’t see it as a bad loneliness. Isn’t the girl with the goat not in a contented loneliness? Is not each lonely unto its own species, not to mention its own self?

Chris: Is the “essential strangeness and loneliness” you mentioned admiring characteristic of Kelly’s work? What other poems or books do you enjoy that attempt to fill a void, but come up just short?

Emilia: If I had to create a synesthetic analogy for Kelly’s work, at least those poems in the book from which “Song” appears, I’d have to say that she reminds me of standing on a windy hill, where the wind fills one’s ears and seems to carry snatches of meaning, but they dissolve quite quickly. That’s not a complaint. For me, Kelly is a master at mystery, of not over-determining a poem. That’s what I most admire. Levis does this, and so does Alice Oswald. I also feel it intensely in the works of Lo Kwa Mei-en, Paisley Rekdal, Diane Seuss, and Dana Levin—but all in different ways! For me, the work that really devastates is that which buckets out a lot of water in an idea but spills some in the process and can’t fill that space back up.
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Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Groundspeed (2016) and Signaletics (2013). Her poetry appears in Boston ReviewNew England ReviewPloughsharesPoetry, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2015 Nonfiction Prize from StoryQuarterly, the 2012 Poetry Prize from The Journal, and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, among other places. She’s the Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Centenary University.

Chris Petruccelli is still doing his thing in East Tennessee. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Connotation Press, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. Chris continues to drink whisky and smoke cigarettes with older women. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from Etchings Press.

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Lyric Essentials: Emily Corwin reads “Damsel, Stage Directions” by Stacy Gnall

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Emily Corwin reads “Damsel, Stage Directions” by Stacy Gnall.

Emily, a fantastic poem you’ve read for us today. What can you tell us about Gnall and her work?

Emily: Gnall’s book, Heart First into the Forest was recommended to me by a friend who had read her work and immediately thought of me. In poems, I am always interested in female bodies, fairy tales, girlhood, woods, Midwestern landscape—all of which Gnall is investigating, so the book was really inspiring for me. She is from Ohio, which was another connection, since I spent my years in undergrad and grad school there, and she completed her MFA at Alabama. I believe her first book draws heavily from her MFA thesis collection. It is really a magical set of poems. I also discovered, recently entering the role of Poetry Editor at the Indiana Review, that we had published some of the poems in that collection back in 2009. It was so exciting to see the poems in a different context, to see them before they became part of the book.

Chris: I find the “stage directions” portion of the title intriguing. There is the implication that this is an act, but throughout the poem it seems the escape we are witnessing is real. What do you make of the title and how it influences the poem?

Emily: I would say, the poem is playing with the idea of a damsel in distress as a role to be played, but interestingly, a role that follows certain directions. She must wake in a place she doesn’t recognize, she must fall just once in the chase. Gnall is playing with a familiar narrative, that of the girl alone in the forest, the girl running from a mysterious, implicitly male threat. There are expectations for what that looks like—we know with this scene of the chase, we have seen it before. But we don’t know, in this poem, how it will end, and that creates tension, an investment on our part. Notice how, by the end, the repetition of “must” has fallen away. The girl manages to escape the threat as well as the expectations embedded in her narrative.

You’re right to say it feels less like an act and more real. I would read the “stage” here as being less of a theater stage and more cinematic. The poem has an immediacy and a motion to it, like a film sequence, the camera tracking our heroine through the woods and out into the road. The stakes are so high—we want her to survive, and we are given access to every moment of the chase. So that, by the end of the poem, when there is the implication of a happy ending, that she made it—this is very satisfying. Though we do not know with certainty if the threat is still behind her, there is still a sense of relief and triumph—that at least, she has made it out the woods. This poem stays with me—I return to it again and again, and each time, I still get caught up in the suspense. What happened to her before the poem began? Who is the “him” and how far behind is he? Will she make it out this time? It really is like watching a favorite scary movie.

Chris: I love the open endedness of this poem that you mention. It gives the poem this sandbox feel—allowing the reader to change the story every time the poem is read. Are uncertain endings something you use or experiment with in your own poetry? Or are you more of a definitive ending type of person?

Emily: I like uncertain endings for sure—my writing tends be extremely lyrical, ambiguous, suspending the reader in emotion. The poems I like reading too tend to end in an undefined space. I think that’s what makes a poem beautiful—its mystery, its multiplicities, the poem as a site for many readings. I don’t want to know everything about it all at once, I want there to be something open and indefinite, a thing I can return to over my lifetime and understand it differently each time. That kind of poem has longevity and power for me.

Chris: In addition to the suspense and urgency in this poem, what other features of “Damsel, Stage Directions” make this poem essential to you as a writer? Are there other poems by Gnall that you would recommend to us?

Emily: What makes this poem essential for me is its attention to pacing, its whimsy and magic, its lush imagery that opens up into larger themes of gender, myth, and story-telling. I love all of Gnall’s work, but especially, “Bella in the Wych Elm,” “Trespass,” and “What the Child Was Given Next”—all of which are in Heart First into the Forest. I cannot wait to see what she does next.
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Emily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Winter Tangerine, Hobart, smoking glue gun, and Word Riot. Her chapbook, My Tall Handsome was recently published through Brain Mill Press. You can follow her at @exitlessblue.

Chris Petruccelli recently spilled boiling hot mashed potatoes on his foot. Yikes. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and Still: The Journal. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris continues to drink whisky with older women.

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Lyric Essentials: Pauletta Hansel reads “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Pauletta Hansel reads “The Hug” by Tess Gallagher.

Pauletta, this is a wonderful poem you’ve read for us today. I’m not sure if Gallagher or her work need an introduction, but do you remember your first experience with her poetry? What do enjoy most about Gallagher’s work?

Pauletta: Chris, I think the first poem of Tess Gallagher’s I read was “I Stop Writing the Poem” “about” (ostensibly) interrupting writing to take care of the laundry, which always gives me an immediate ping of recognition—the tangle of art and life and memory. I am drawn to narrative poems, both in reading and writing. To poems where the story itself is the metaphor for some larger story. Gallagher does this especially well. The intimacy of the details within her poems gives me a sense of not just clearly viewing the scene, but embodying it.

Chris: What about this particular poem, “The Hug”? What are some specific elements that make this poem stand out to you as an essential piece of writing?

Pauletta: I chose “The Hug” as a poem to learn by heart when I used some of the practices in Kim Rosen’s powerful book Saved by a Poem in one of the poetry classes I teach. The poem was given to me by a potter friend who is also a great reader at a time when I was helping to care for a dear friend with brain cancer. Caring for him meant also caring for his complicated and somewhat ornery family. Pam said, “You have to read this poem!” And so I did, and not just read it but lived with it, took it into my breath, chanted it (“How big a hug is this supposed to be?) and through this process, came to a deeper sense of what it means to be connected and responsible to and for, not just those we choose, but those whom our lives choose for us.

What I never managed to do is to learn the whole poem by heart—it’s a long one!—but there are still bits and pieces of it embedded and available to me when I need them, as I often do, caring now for my mother who has dementia, and doing this within her current living situation in a memory care unit of a nursing home, so that hardly a day goes by that I don’t “lean my blood and my wishes” into a stranger for whom I feel such tenderness or into my mother who, while never a stranger, is often so very different from the mother I knew.

So, how do you (do I, do we) come back from those experiences? We don’t, in a sense, because they remain within us, “the imprint of/a planet in my cheek/ when I walk away. When I try to find some place/ to go back to.”

Gallagher’s poem is so much about a particular hug—hers, not mine—that I can smell the man’s overcoat, hear the voice of the street poet recede as the coat and the man envelop me. And “the houses—/what about them?— the houses.” (Ah! That line gets me every time!)

But the poem is also Joe, and my mom and the guy, Bill who paces the dementia unit and says, “Hi, Babe” every time he sees me. We writers all know that the universal is only visible within the particular. Gallagher does such particularities brilliantly, I think, and then startles us into the universal as the image of a button imprinting a planet on the speaker’s cheek, becomes one world flowing into another. For me, this poem (like the hug it describes) is truly “a masterpiece of connection.”

Chris: Do you find it difficult to read and write narrative poems given the level of intimacy and transportive power that exists in them? I imagine that it takes an emotional toll to “go there” while writing, reading, and creating such emotive conditions in a piece of writing.

Pauletta: The short answer is no. When I write I usually go to an interior place that I identify as being “down below” emotion. I feel a sort of clarity, an intense desire to “get it right,” to write my way through a remembered experience to a place of truth—albeit a subjective truth. Mostly I feel a sort of relief that I am naming the experience as fully and well as I can. I don’t write for catharsis. I write for understanding, and hopefully to create something beautiful and whole out of my life, even the broken parts. Especially the broken parts (that’s where, as Leonard Cohen says, the light gets in.)

Right now, much of my writing is about my mother’s experience with dementia, and my experience with her. I find myself living, and writing, very much in the present. The past feels less available to me and happy memories make me sad! I am sure there is a perversity about that statement which says as much about my personality as it does about my current situation! But the losing of self for my mother, and the losing of mother for me is constant—not static—a verb, not a noun, and this is very much affecting the poems I write. The remembered experience may be from this morning or last week, rather than decades past, which gives it a sort of immediacy on the page. So the challenge becomes how to contain this in a poem in such a way that it is not overwhelming to the reader. To write poems that are intimate but still communal. I find myself turning to form, which is new for me. The sonnet has been particularly useful to me. It helps me lean toward craft in my poems even as I am writing them, which, for me anyway, provides a counterweight to the intimacy of the poem’s present tense.  So, the short answer was no, but the long answer is…complicated. (Tangled, again.)

Chris: One last question, Pauletta. What other poems by Gallagher would you recommend to us? And—I lied—one other question: are there other poets you enjoy reading who tangle together all the threads of our tumultuous, beautiful human lives?

Pauletta: Gallagher is one of the poets that I have encountered mostly in anthologies, rather than in her collections, and I see I need to change this. In addition to the poems mentioned above, I love “Black Silk” (and recommend, too, the essay where I first encountered it, in Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry).  Also the poems, “Choices” and “Red Poppy.” And here, Chris, is the great gift of this interview to me: I did not know that Gallagher wrote about her mother’s journey with dementia. My research to answer this question sent me to a book on my shelf I have not yet read, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease, with a foreword and several poems by Tess Gallagher.

Other narrative poets I love? So numerous! Allison Luterman, Dorianne Laux, Larry Levis, George Ella Lyon, Ada Limon, Cathy Smith Bowers (proving I read poets whose names don’t begin with “L!”), Sharon Olds, Nick Flynn, Maurice Manning, Linda Parsons, Frank X Walker, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Lisel Mueller …I’ll stop here, as there is no way to name them all! But you might note that a fair number of those have southern and Appalachian roots. Appalachian literature is as diverse as the region itself, but still, there is something about a good story that is a connecting force.
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Pauletta Hansel was recently named Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate. Her poems and prose have been featured in journals including Atlanta Review, Talisman, Kudzu, Appalachian Journal, Appalachian Heritage and Still: The Journal, Stirring and on The Writer’s Almanac and American Life in Poetry. She is author of five poetry collections, most recently Tangle (Dos Madres Press, 2015), What I Did There (Dos Madres Press, 2011) and The Lives We Live in Houses (Wind Publications, 2011).  Pauletta is managing editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. Pauletta leads writing workshops and retreats in the Greater Cincinnati area and beyond.

Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry can be found in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. Chris himself can be found somewhere in northeast Tennessee drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.

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Lyric Essentials: Kirun Kapur reads “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass.

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kirun Kapur reads “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass.

Kirun, I remember first being introduced to Robert Hass through his book Field Guide and getting absolutely floored. Sun Under Wood was really spectacular as well. I could read Hass all day. Do you remember your first run in with his work and what that was like? What makes Hass’ poetry so essential?

Kirun: My first encounter with Hass took place in the stacks of the University of Hawaii library. I was still in high school, but, occasionally, I could get permission to visit the University library for “research purposes.” I pulled Field Guide off the shelf at random, never having heard of the book or of Hass. I didn’t read him all day, but possibly all afternoon. The UH library was difficult to like. It was dark and cavernous and the lights in the poetry section never worked properly, blinking and buzzing. The only thing it had in common with the sunny, tropical exterior was that it was always humid. I read Field Guide, damply, sitting on the floor at the end of an aisle, angling the book to catch some light from the windows.

What’s essential about Hass has changed for me over the years, but what I remember from that first encounter is simply the way the opening poem captured me. The first line is “I won’t say much for the sea.” For someone living on an island (an island sentimentalized and exalted precisely because of the beauty of the sea) this was an extraordinary thing to say. I loved, immediately, his tone—seemingly frank, unsentimental, occasionally edging toward raw, even rude. “Here filthy life begins.”—another line I remember so clearly. I loved the way the delicacy and power of the ocean scene is entirely preserved, even heightened, by Hass’s bald tone. That tone allowed him to say anything and everything—from minute observations (“fins of duck’s-web thickness) to grand truths (But it’s strange to kill/ for the sudden feel of life. The danger is/ to moralize/ that strangeness”). I read the poem over and over, first marveling, then trying to understand the trick of it.

Chris: My favorite thing about “Meditation at Lagunitas” is how simple and universal it is. I have to admit I almost cry whenever I look at a photo of Robert Hass—he’s just so damn perfect. And his work is the same—so smooth, approachable, and calm. I always get choked up and swoony at “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” What lines or images do you most enjoy in this poem?

Kirun: Oh, there are many. The line “to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” is such a pleasure to say, making a bramble of my mouth. The lines “After a while I understood that,/ talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,/ pine, hair, woman, you and I” are favorites, too, capturing so much of what I love about this poem—its scope, meaning, its perfect balance of intimate and abstract. Really, the whole second half of this poem kills me.

Chris: I love the quiet tension that Hass creates. “Meditation at Lagunitas” always seems so multifaceted and clever—part elegy, part ars poetica, a celebration of diversity and our inability to wrangle our minds and language around everything we experience. I’m fanboying. What are the elements in this poem that are most important to you as a writer?

Kirun: It’s hard to pick just one or two important elements, but recently, I’ve been interested in how far a poem can travel, how much space it can create in that journey. Meditation at Lagunitas travels such an incredible distance, moving from the abstraction of the beginning (“each particular erases/the luminous clarity of a general idea”) to the concrete nouns of the end (“shoulders,” “pumpkinseed,” “bread,” “blackberry”). It moves by turning inward—from the world of big ideas toward the most intimate world of private speech and feeling: first a personal talk with a friend, then the memory of an intimate love affair, and, finally, the self talking to the self in private revelations that send us back out into the world (“it hardly had to do with her.” “I must have been the same to her.”). When I read the poem, I feel that movement as a lowering of the voice, both the sense and the volume of my voice falling through the registers of sound and speech.  You can’t possibly say the first line, “All the new poems are about loss,” in the same manner as you say the last: “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry. The word “blackberry” has been transformed by the movement of the poem—by the end it is a platonic ideal, an intimate sensual object, a numinous religious relic; it is a word, a thing, an elegy and an immediate feeling, all at once.

Chris: One last question in regards to “pumpkinseed” as a name for the flitting orange fish, are there any names of things that you particularly love? Or do you have a name for something that you, a friend, or family member has created that you enjoy?

Kirun: I grew up in Hawaii, where the English is sometimes heavily inflected with a creole called Pidgin. Pidgin incorporates words from a great variety of languages—Hawaiian, Samoan, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese—reflecting all the cultures that have come to the islands. I love so many Pidgin words and phrases. “Hemajang,” for instance. It means completely messed up. As in, Kirun’s answers to your questions are all “hemajang.”
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Kirun Kapur is the winner of the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize in Poetry and the Antivenom Poetry Award for her first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (Elixir Press, 2015). Her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, FIELD, Prairie Schooner, The Christian Science Monitor and many other journals. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and at Brandeis University. She will be a visiting writer at Amherst College in the fall. Kapur has been awarded fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell Colony. She is the director of the New England arts program, The Tannery Series, and serves as Poetry Editor at The Drum Literary Magazine. She was recently named an “Asian-American poet to watch” by NBC news. Kapur grew up in Honolulu and now lives north of Boston.

 Chris Petruccelli’s latest poetry can be found in Appalachian Heritage. New poems are forthcoming in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel volume 19: Appalachia Under Thirty. His work can also be found in Cider Press Review, Connotation Press, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. Chris currently works, runs, and drinks whisky in east Tennessee.

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