Category Archives: Lyric Essentials

Amy Strauss Friedman Reads Jessica Walsh

ASF Head Shot.jpgIn this interview, Amy Strauss Friedman shares a fun story about how she met Jessica Walsh and tells us why reading her poetry for the first time gave her goosebumps. We discuss two of Walsh’s poems from her newest book, The List of Last Tries: “Bitter” and “Night Garden.” Below you’ll find Amy’s readings of these poems and her thoughts on their themes of difference, rejection, and the search for connection.


Riley Steiner: What drew you to choosing these poems in particular?

Amy Strauss Friedman: Jessica Walsh highlights the ways in which we all feel we don’t fit in through the narrative she constructs; she fashions a gothic, dark, disconnected character who taps into our own insecurities. Our neighbors don’t like us. Our towns don’t want us. Complex people, those who don’t fit the cookie-cutter “norms,” are outcasts. We immediately relate to the girl-turns-woman narrator in this book, who ends up orphaned and assumes that even her parents couldn’t bear her. We are all aspects of her struggle.

The two poems I chose emphasize the narrator’s perceived differences between her and the world around her, the ways in which she works to scorn others before they scorn her. The first is a relatable summer camp experience, the second is a result of the narrator’s earlier experiences with rejection. Being discarded hounds her; it becomes her identity. There are many references to bugs in these two poems, as well as elsewhere in the book, as the narrator digs into the earth for connection that she doesn’t seem to find above ground.

Amy Strauss Friedman reads “Bitter” by Jessica Walsh:

Amy Strauss Friedman reads “Night Garden” by Jessica Walsh:

RS: What do you admire about Walsh’s work? How did your relationship with her work begin?

ASF: I’ll start with the second question first because the answer is very funny. Jessica and I taught English at the same community college for five years before we knew about each other. One day Facebook suggested I send her a friend request, so I checked out her profile. I found myself saying, “Wait, what? She and I are both poets and both English teachers and both work at the same school and don’t know each other? How is that possible?” So, I sent her a friend request and then asked if she’d like to meet for coffee on campus. We did so, and I loved her immediately. We went to throw away our coffee cups after our conversation, and both of us just stood over the four or so bins, not knowing where to deposit our cups. We burst into laughter. Compost? Recycle? Trash? Paper? Jessica looked at me and asked, “How many advanced degrees does it take to get rid of coffee cups?”

As to her work, I picked up her first full-length collection, How to Break My Neck, not sure what to expect. There are times where I have loved poets but not their work, and vice versa. But Jessica’s work was excellent. Her poems gave me goosebumps. How they jump into an issue without introduction without losing the reader; that’s a terribly difficult feat to accomplish. How she uses alliteration and line breaks to draw a reader into the ethos of her world. I feel scarcity in her work in the best way. No unnecessary words. No fillers needed to bridge stanzas. An immediate curiosity about message that holds our attention.

I decided soon after reading and being wowed by her first book that I wanted to review it, and I began to star my favorite poems. When two-thirds of the book was starred, I knew I needed a new approach to questions about her writing. Jessica never loses sight of her message, and creates characters worthy of lengthy novels while doing them justice in short form.

RS: What was your experience like when you were recording the poems? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations? What was your thought process behind the way you read them out loud?

ASF: I’ve been lucky to hear Jessica read poems on several occasions, so I knew I couldn’t mimic her style. She reads directly without airs, lets the poem be the performance, and knows from where all her influences and intentions come. I don’t know all of the backstories that create her style of reading, so I put that out of my mind and read them aloud the way they sounded in my head. They tell stories so forcefully that they need little help from me.

RS: “Bitter,” in particular, is striking to me with its air of defiance. Thinking back on when I was younger, I can identify with both girls: the one who acts “as required by popular girls,” and the speaker, who defies those standards. I definitely remember feeling like there were certain mysterious “requirements” to be popular in those middle-school-age days, and also feeling like I’d never figure out what those were. Do you identify with the speaker of this poem at all? Do you think this defiance manifests itself as we grow older?

ASF: I always consider it a bad sign when people peak in middle school. There are very few people I knew as popular in middle school who have ended up wildly successful as adults. The nerds, the outcasts, the misunderstood; they’re the ones to watch as they grow. And among the requirements for popularity when I was young were generally terribly permissive parents who wanted to be their children’s friends. It was usually a particular form of dysfunction that encouraged kids to grow up too fast. Today that happens more readily due to the Internet. But many parents still work to limit those influences. So, I saw the narrator as a person ripe for success one day, who already understood that fitting in with Stepford children was absolutely the wrong path to take. She taunts them. She goes out of her way to discomfit them. And in making herself repulsive to them, she becomes far more interesting.


Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018) in which she applies a doctrine in tort law as a guide to personal relationships, and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016) in which she examines disconnection from each other, and ourselves. Amy’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in PleiadesRust + MothThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.

Further reading:

Read Amy Strauss Friedman’s “What Happens to a Voice Too Long Unused?” in Rust + Moth
Purchase The Eggshell Skull Rule
Read an interview with Amy about her 2016 chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander

Jessica L. Walsh is the author of the poetry collections How to Break My Neck and The List of Last Tries (Sable Books, 2019) as well as two chapbooks. Her work has appeared in RHINO, Tinderbox, Stirring, Sundog, and more. She is a community college professor in suburban Chicago and the blog manager for Agape Editions.

Further reading:

Read Jessica Walsh’s “Reliquary” in Whale Road Review
Visit Jessica’s website
Purchase How to Break My Neck

Riley Steiner is a recent graduate of Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

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Niki Herd Reads Layli Long Soldier

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In this conversation, Niki Herd talks about how Layli Long Soldier’s work exposes the link between difficult language and obscured meaning; how it feels, especially for minorities in the United States, to have that language used in something that resembles an apology; and why it is important to keep writing.  Only Long Solider could have written WHEREAS, Herd says, and, when she brings it into the classroom, “It’s great to share that awe of craft with students.” Thank you for joining us!

 


 

Jessica Hudgins: I’m often conflicted about this series, because when a poet reads, we get to hear their voice but we don’t get to see the poem on the page. So, to start, can you describe what this poem looks like? How are the lines and stanzas arranged?

Niki Herd: The poem is the tenth of twenty-one WHEREAS statements. There is no title and the poem is comprised of three stanzas. The text in the first stanza is fully justified and begins with “WHEREAS I shy. Away from the cliché….” The stanza presents itself visually in the form and language of the document—in this case The Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. A quick Google search online illustrates the form Long Soldier has reframed. The second stanza remains in this form, but functions more like a block quote as the stanza is centered and smaller than the previous. Breaking from the formal constraints of legislative form, the final stanza is made up of phrases broken up by large caesuras that enact through text what Long Soldier calls the “pigeonhole.”

JH: Long Soldier also experiments with the sentence. She breaks the verb phrase “I shy away,” with a period every time it appears in the poem, and the line, “Where I must be firmly positioned to receive an apology the spot from which to answer,” seems to contain two sentences, “Where I must be firmly positioned to receive an apology,” and, “Where I must be the spot from which to answer.” What was this like when you were recording the poem? Did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poem would sound like, or did you try out different intonations and pausing at different places?

NH: Yes, Long Soldier breaks sentences within lines at “I shy. Away…” and other places as well. Her use of unconventional syntax illustrates the difficulty of language, but also conveys the difficulty of narrative; meaning becomes less transparent as disruptive syntax forces the reader to stop and begin again in unexpected ways. The US Government has lacked transparency in their relationship to Native Americans. Long Soldier uses the syntax of the line/sentence to illustrate this—and does so powerfully. In recording it, I wanted the pauses to stand in for the punctuation, but not dramatically so. The poem was recorded several times and eventually I chose the one that sounded the most organic.

JH: I want to stick with that last sentence I quoted. Being in the position to receive an apology is a central concern of this poem and of Whereas in general. Just by standing in front of the person who wronged them, a person offers, “Do you have something you want to say to me?” This position also requires knowing how to respond to an apology, if it were to come. But what the poet says she’s working with is “that stained refusal to come clean.”

NH: That “stained refusal to come clean” is a position many of us minorities understand all too well. bell hooks says that “[s]tandard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination.” If this is what standard English represents, then how is this violence further masked behind the formal and legalese nature of a Congressional document that no attention was brought to? It’s a duplicitous endeavor. As Long Soldier notes earlier in the collection, Native Americans “were offered” this document, but no legal claims can be brought against the American government. The collection highlights the position of the one holding the power to apologize, but is unable to do so justly.

JH: I’m having trouble phrasing a question about this that isn’t just, “Why write?” So, instead, how has Layli Long Soldier’s work influenced your own?

NH: Rukeyser said that “poetry can extend the document,” but I see Long Soldier inhabiting and repurposing the document in such a way that it seems no other poet but Long Soldier could have written WHEREAS—it’s this level of inventiveness, but also this individuality of poetic identity I admire. Long Soldier’s ability to use syntax to create new and complex meaning reminds me of other poets who have done the same with documentary work—poets such as Solmaz Sharif and Juliana Spahr, for whom I share a deep respect. Last semester, I taught three collections, and WHEREAS opened up the most possibility for my students in terms of what a poem can do. It’s great to share that awe of craft with students. There’s also a certain amount of direct fearlessness in this project I’m drawn to. The whole collection implicates Obama, but there’s that line in the poem where Long Soldier specifically signals the former president’s famous campaign slogan, saying “yes I can    shake my head wag      my finger too….” The Congressional Apology took place on Obama’s watch and there aren’t many poetry collections that call him out. And though I was an Obama supporter— it’s refreshing to see a whole book go against the grain.

Why do this work? Because the forces that be are counting on our silence. Every time we write, we choose not to acquiesce; we choose not to make the work of violence and subjugation any easier.


 

Niki Herd’s poems have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Obsidian, The Rumpus, and North American Review, among other journals and anthologies. Herd is the author of a collection of poems, The Language of Shedding Skin, and she recently finished co-editing, along with poet Meg Day, the latest Unsung Masters volume featuring the poetry of disability activist Laura Hershey. She is at work on a meditative essay about memory, gender, and the act of speaking, as well as a collection of poems about violence in America. Herd currently lives in Texas where she is completing her Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Further Reading:

“An Introduction to Niki Herd” at Tupelo Quarterly
Interview with Niki Herd at Houston Public Media
Read Niki Herd’s poem “Kin”

Layli Long Soldier is the author of Chromosomory (2010), a chapbook, and of WHEREAS (2017), the full length collection where you can find the poem Niki Herd read for this interview. WHEREAS won the National Book Critics Circle award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Further Reading:
Layli Long Soldier at On Being
Natalie Diaz Reviews WHEREAS at the New York Times
Purchase WHEREAS

Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Mansfield.

 

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Timothy Ogene Reads Lenrie Peters

Timothy Ogene 12-16---2bPhoto credit: Clare McKenzie

In the this interview, Timothy Ogene reads a poem by Lenrie Peters, a Gambian poet and surgeon. The poem begins with the line “The first rose of the season,” and is the eighteenth in Peters’ 1967 collection Satellites. In this conversation, Ogene discusses how Peters’ work shows us that moments of silence can be moments of growth, and how Peters’ work offers us a model for writing that is at once optimistic and realistic about what Ogene calls “the violence of subjugation.” Thank you for joining us!

Timothy Ogene reading a poem by Lenrie Peters:

Jessica Hudgins: This poem feels really resolute to me. The heavy beats in each line, and those last two lines, especially. What draws you to this poem?

Timothy Ogene: Maybe he intended it. Maybe not. But the number assigned to the poem, 18, and what the poem suggests, ‘Of that which is to come/ In the power/ Of subdued fragrance,’ makes me think of Time and Maturation, how the later, no matter how delayed, is birthed by the former.
I’m drawn to the force and power of that promised ‘first rose of the season’, how it is revealed ‘layer by layer’ through the mechanism of concealment ( ‘Like the foetal head/ Inside an egg’). It is a poem that manages to stay optimistic while speaking to the violence of subjugation; that raises the imagery of birth and promise, calling on the reader to hold that image, but also drawing attention to the enigma of waiting.

JH: The poem makes me think of time, those beats like a ticking clock, and the easy way Peters moves forward — there’s nothing confusing about it, no word I don’t understand, but I feel like I haven’t fully grasped each moment, and then the next is here. That “subdued power” comes from saying exactly what you mean, and doing only exactly what you do: the rose will bloom because it’s a rose. Is this a political poem?

TO: Yes, Time is at the core of this poem. The time of maturation and the time of liberation, the time of waiting and of silence, and the time of bursting forth and glowing in full colors.  Lenrie was writing at the point when the fire of Independence was sweeping across Africa, when young writers and intellectuals saw themselves as voices of freedom and promise, voices whose ‘subdued power’ lie waiting to release their ‘fragrance.’ Read in that context, of pan-Africanist thought and nationalist sentiments, it is political. But it is also a poem that allows itself room for extraction and transplantation, to be read outside its pan-Africanist frame and significance, to be read merely as a song of hope, an ode (if you may) to the power of waiting, a warning that waiting and silence are not sites of emptiness. That they are, contained in their essence, sites of gestation. Silence, the poem seems to say, does not imply erasure. Growth happens even in silence, and it is Time that eventually gives force to voice.

JH: And I also read a lesson about poetry in the last two lines — how has Lenrie Peters influenced you work?

TO: You’re right. There’s something about those two lines. A gentle reminder that it’s all about the process, the act of waiting, of honing, of patience, of keeping watch for the right time and season, of knowing that one’s ‘fragrance,’ closed off or ‘subdued,’ will find expression somehow. That’s the way I see and read it. But there’s something more about Peters’ work that I find interesting. It is his ability to simultaneously approach and detach from the political, to perform what I call a poetics of extraction, where a single poem or line offers itself as a political cry but also self-standing work of beauty.

 


 

Timothy Ogene is a poet and novelist. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a visiting research fellow at Brown University.

Further Reading:

Visit Timothy Ogene’s website
Read three poems by Timothy Ogene at Numero Cinq
Purchase Timothy Ogene’s book Descent & Other Poems at Deerbrook Editions

Lenrie Peters (1932-2009) is a Gambian poet, novelist, and surgeon. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Satellites, which includes the poem discussed in this interview, and a novel, The Second Round. Peters worked for the BBC from 1955-1968, chairing its Africa Forum and broadcasting on several programs. He had a surgical practice in Banjul, and from 1979 to 1987 served as the president of the board of directors  of the National Library of the Gambia and Gambia College.

Further Reading:

Watch a 2006 interview with Lenrie Peters
Read several poems by Lenrie Peters (this link leads to a blog, there may be mistakes in the transcriptions)
Purchase Lenrie Peters’ book Satellites at Bolerium Books


Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Georgia.
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Teow Lim Goh Reads Three Poems by Ansel Elkins

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In this conversation poet Teow Lim Goh and I discuss three poems from Ansel Elkins’ first book, Blue Yodel. We talk about how a life can change when it’s put into words, and Goh recalls how her life changed when she began writing. Goh also talks about her current project, and about how Blue Yodel served as a model for Goh’s interest in persona and writing from the archive.  Thank you for joining us!

 

 

Teow Lim Goh reads “The Girl with Antlers” by Ansel Elkins:

Jessica Hudgins: “You are fearfully and wonderfully made” is a fantastic line. It’s sort of like describing a poem’s tone, rather than identifying it as a sonnet or an elegy. How has Ansel Elkins’ work influenced yours?

Teow Lim Goh: The first time I read Blue Yodel, I was between projects, trying to figure out the approach and tone that I wanted to bring to my work. This book just blew me away. I’m not sure if I can put a finger on it, but I shall try: I think I am most drawn to the ambiguity of her stories. And I think of these poems as short stories in verse. She creates a dream-like mood and at the same time, she touches on something visceral and corporeal.

It strikes me that many contemporary poets write autobiographical free verse. I don’t have a problem with it per se – I enjoy a quite a bit of it – but it sometimes feels like an expectation rather than just one of many modes of poetry. It’s not my place to say whether Blue Yodel draws from Elkins’ life, but it reminded me that I don’t have to write about myself to be a poet.

I tend to write persona poems and draw many of my characters from history. My first book Islanders imagines the lost voices of the Chinese women detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay – I joke that it is about current affairs. My second manuscript, which is currently in submissions hell, is based on the real story of a Chinese prostitute in Evanston, Wyoming.

I feel that I allowed more silence and ambiguity into China Mary than Islanders. I’m sure a part of it is the subconscious influence of Blue Yodel, but who knows.

Teow Lim Goh reads “Autobiography of Eve” by Ansel Elkins:

JH: What are some of your favorite moments in these poems?

TLG: “Autobiography of Eve” is one of my favorite poems, period. Elkins takes a well-known story – arguably, the creation story of Western civilization – gives Eve a voice, and turns the story on its head. She gives Eve her agency, and look how that changes everything:

I stood alone in terror at the threshold between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake – at once alive in a blaze of green fire.

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt
to freedom.

“Devil’s Rope” is based on an old ballad, but here Elkins creates a sestina in the voice of the man who killed his girl Ruby. I like to challenge myself to write from unsympathetic perspectives, so I appreciate Elkins’ approach here, but more than that, she did it with an intricate fixed repeating form. I aspire to write a story in sestina form one day. Meanwhile, I reread lines like this:

In my own dreams I battle with the devil.
He and I could be blood brothers.
He leads me into the ground, down a pitch-black mine,
guides my hand over an earthern wall that spells your name, Ruby.
I touch the ember letters, leave my hand to bear the heat. Dawn
be damned, I will remain here, buried.

I have to say that Elkins’ stories are so intricately layered that it is difficult for me to pick selections from them. Her poems build on themselves:

The devil’s rosined bow begins to fiddle at dawn
as his brothers pick banjo. I carve your name in the stump below mine.
I’ll sing for you, Ruby, and lay you in the shade where the rooster’s buried.

Teow Lim Goh reads “Devil’s Rope” by Ansel Elkins:

JH: These poems each explore how a life can be changed by the words we use to describe it. The last two stanzas of “Autobiography of Eve” make a powerful point: change the speaker and a fall from grace becomes a leap to freedom. The mother figure in “The Girl with Antlers” says, “What you are I cannot say,” and lets the girl be uncategorized. Finally, “Devil’s Rope” is a song written for a woman, Ruby, by the man who has killed her. Was there a kind of watershed moment in your life when you realized the way that language can influence experience?

TLG: In some ways I think of my life as Before Writing and After Writing. I was a math major in college and began writing after I graduated and went into the workforce. Looking back, I was in a place where I felt powerless. I did not have the language to describe even simple everyday things, much less the complexities of my own experiences. It was survival instinct that led me to the glorious struggle of making language.

This much I know: my memories are much sharper and deeper After Writing. I really don’t remember a lot of my life Before Writing. The verifiable facts I know; it is the texture of that life I find elusive. Last fall I spent a weekend in Nashville. It was my second time there – the first was Before Writing – and I felt as if I had never been to the city before. My husband, who was my boyfriend on that first visit, talked about the things we did and the places we went and the only thing I could remember was that we watched the Rockettes at the Opry.

Writing gives a shape to my thoughts and experiences. It has enabled me to reclaim my agency and take charge of my life. And I am beginning to reap these benefits.

JH: Have you adapted other texts, as Elkins does with “Devil’s Rope,” into your work?

TLG: As I have said, I often write from history, which means that on some level or another, I am adapting other texts. In Islanders, I drew on the poems the Chinese men wrote on their barrack walls. (There are no records of poems the women might have written, as their barracks was destroyed in a fire.) I did not even attempt to imitate the classical Chinese lyric form of the original wall poems, but I used some of their images and emotional moments.

I also dug into a trove of oral histories with former female detainees. Many of the most harrowing stories in my book are drawn from the records; I could not make them up even if I tried.

I am currently trying to write about the 1885 Chinese Massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I have a box of archival documents: speeches, newspaper articles, and even telegrams between Union Pacific officials and the Wyoming territorial government. I haven’t quite decided how I want to handle it, but I am leaning toward incorporating direct quotes into the verse. There is a bleak and ironic poetry in these source texts.



Teow Lim Goh
is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), a volume of poems on the history of Chinese exclusion at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker. She lives in Denver.

Read three poems from China Mary at Diode
Read Teow Lim Goh’s Essay “On Borders and Citizens” at Catapult
Purchase Islanders at Conundrum Press

Ansel Elkins is the 2014 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, judged by Carl Phillips. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Oxford American, and Boston Review, and has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Discovery/Boston Review Prize. Elkins currently serves as visiting assistant professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Read “The Autobiography of Eve” at Poetry
Read Ansel Elkins’ poem “Tornado” at Oxford American
Purchase Blue Yodel

Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.

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Elizabeth Metzger Reads Two Poems by Lucie Brock-Broido

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Elizabeth Metzger, student and devotee of Lucie Brock-Broido, writes here about discovering Brock-Broido’s work, studying in her graduate seminar, and remembering her after her death last year. Of Brock-Broido’s influence, Metzger says, “I found my self, my voice, my poems within and against and of hers.”

Jessica Hudgins: Can you talk about how you came to know Lucie Brock-Broido and her work?

Elizabeth Metzger: I was writing my undergraduate thesis on silence and the posthumous in Emily Dickinson when I came across Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, which is, to use Lucie’s own term, deeply in “Widerruf” with Dickinson’s Master Letters. The poems were incantatory, disorienting, uncannily déjà vu to me, and uncontainably pained. I wanted to know Lucie—as morbid as it sounds, to work with Lucie felt like the only way in life to know and live with the dead.

I ended up at Columbia a couple years later, too intimidated to even speak a word to Lucie. She was magical in long black gloves and red velvet when we met. Her earrings were silver talismans and she seemed untouchable, ensconced in smoke, almost dangerous. At the same time I was drawn to her the way one might instantly draw an evacuation map in their mind during a bomb scare. She seemed to always have one hand beckoning, pulling each poet in her sphere closer to her. We all gathered one of those first disorienting “orientation” nights in her small office, window cracked for whatever cold we could conjure. I believe she had a teacup pig on her desktop screen, a million trinkets, a lipsticked cigarette, and a roaring laugh.

I was sitting a few feet from where she sat at the head. “Come closer,” she said, “are you scared of me?” “Yes” I said awkwardly, not catching the wink of her. “See me after class” she said, in a faux-stern tone. Terrified, I entered her office after our long late class—Lucie was nocturnal, but more impressively given her carefully calculated seasonal writing schedule (writing only in the winter months and leaving 1,001 days ritualistically between books), she lived outside of time, in what we, her students, called Lucie Standard Time.

In my first experience of this phenomenon, Lucie took me around her dim office, standing shoulder to shoulder as she showed me various artifacts, looking up a word in her favorite edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, showing me a “portrait of her” by Thomas James, and last, full circle, a drawing of Emily Dickinson—given to her by Helen Vendler and Seamus Heaney—which now hangs on the wall behind my desk. I got to know Lucie on her red couch in the middle hours of the night for the three years I spent at Columbia, but in many ways even now after her death I feel I am still getting to know her, and I welcome more than ever the secrets her poems disclose, the agonies made amber, the mysticism, hilarity, and mammalian artery. A soul that spent her time on this earth offering asylum to the living, the dying, and the dead, Lucie lived a life of unimpeachable promises to seek out and protect the suffering, the odd ones out. She made me feel lucky to be one.

JH: There are so many things that jump out at me as I’m reading these poems. Her use of pronouns, her engagement with form, her sense of humor – What’s an example of something you’ve discovered in reading Brock-Broido’s poems, and have experimented with in yours?
 
EM: Yes! Lucie’s poems are full of idiosyncrasy, shockingly pop archaism, and most important to me in terms of my own journey as a poet, irony. In a way it’s hard to talk about discovering Lucie’s work and the elements within it because to some extent I found my self, my voice, my poems within and against and of hers—a way of being a poet in between the poems.

Also quite literally Lucie and her poems taught me everything—her way of teaching was truly selfless in the sense that she gave her self, her “secrets” away. She broke it down into lessons, topics, techniques: the terrible not, the numinous, the feral, cutting out the elephant. And she provided us with the material she herself took to the writing table: the poems, the letters, the images, even sometimes the music or hot cocoa or perfume.

Her teaching was invaluable I think for so many poets with such differing voices because the lessons were metaphorical themselves, often mystical. Like a poem, the technique was one the spirit often had to tightrope to understand. She taught me that “the line is a station of the cross” and to let the poem have its way with you. She introduced me to the conscious and unconscious conversation between whittling bone and “letting birds.”

I think I discovered the important balance, maybe even the lack of distinction between disclosure and transformation. The poem “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to this World” ends on the image of a marmoset in an ape suit, the smallest primate exiting the largest. It’s absurd and so vulnerable, the self confronting the self.

Lucie taught me half-gently half-teasingly when I was too drunk on her, as many of us were, and how important it would be “to kill her off eventually” She told me I was withholding when I didn’t know I was—that like an anatomy textbook a poem needs every system of the body to overlap to build an understandable human. She made the concept of transparency tangible. I discovered in “baring my soul” I wasn’t letting my sense of humor onto the page. I also learned for every rule of Lucie’s (her dislike of ragged lines or the word blank) it was all about earning it–by which I mean being religious enough to ritualize doubt—and constantly raising the stakes. She claimed she didn’t believe in “intelligence” but it is in her poetry, each book of it, that I have come closest to inhabiting another’s intelligence, a dark neural stained glass only as ornate as it is abnegating.

Elizabeth Metzger reading “Am Moor” by Lucie Brock-Broido

JH: “Am Moor” is especially strange and kind of exhilarating to me, I think because Brock-Broido uses all these rare, archaic, or technical words with a sense of playfulness. What are some of your favorite words or lines from these poems?

EM: “Am Moor” is full of mystery and playfulness and a fascinating example of Lucie using another persona or perspective as a lens to the self. There’s connection in loneliness. A lover of Georg Trakl, Austrian World War I poet, Lucie takes his poem, titled in German “Am Moor,” which translates to “On the Marshy Pastures” and uses the sound as a trigger for the music of her own being, the repeating “am,” blurring the biographical reality of Trakl’s life with her own multilayered identity. I love the persistence and variation of the “am” and “was” phrases with the “I” deleted, how it lets the I be multiple and multiplying. And it thrills me that this is a sonic rather than semantic “translation” of a German place. The mind can’t help but associate music into sense.

My favorite moments in Lucie’s poems feel intuitive and irrevocable. Their sense begins within the ear—I trust them though they can be full of bite or bomb. What seems beautiful is the next moment grotesque. What is absurd is the next moment obliterating. Anything full-frontal is later slanted. Language has the soul on a leash. It can be bold or skittish but the soul is always the tethered guide. A few of my favorite phrases from “Am Moor” are:

“wind at withins”: the consonance of wind that surprisingly makes the preposition within into a plural noun, playing with the abandoned farmhouse from Wuthering Heights (Top Withins) as the landscape of the interior.

The build-up of archaic music to the generic simple Saxon of “Was Andalusian, ambsace,/Bird.” I love the mixing of registers and the warning song of it. Sometimes I find the need for a dictionary means a poem stumbles or I am pulled away from rhythm or sense. Here it is textural. Understanding precedes definition, not unlike the feeling of holding a Dickinson poem.

I love inversions like “Am kept./ Was keeper of…” and “furious done god,” the blunt godly done of it, and admire the horror image of “was hospice/ To their torso hall.” Trakl did in fact see war horrors as a triage nurse to wounded soldiers in a country barn. I love the swerve with internal consonance of the medical “Am anatomy” into the I dare you to get away with this pun bloody lamb of “Am the bleating thing.” The word “thing” ends this litany of exacting diction! There’s this mischief to Lucie’s poetics of getting away with things, emotion so intense and attuned it permits extravagant word play.

The lines that give me actual goosebumps when I read or even think them: “…Am numb./ Was shoulder & queer luck. Am among.” It’s the rhyme of numb and among, the total loss of sensation that brings one together with. In her poems and her classrooms, Lucie brought the haunted back together. The poem is a self, and shareable.

And since you picked it out below, my absolute favorite line from “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to this World” (and one of my favorites she ever wrote) is “For whom left am I first?”

JH: I really like the line “For whom left am I first,” in “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” because it uses that “am” to connect the people who remain to the person who will be gone. Has Brock-Broido’s work influenced how you think about death?

Elizabeth Metzger reading “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” by Lucie Brock-Broido

EM: Lucie wrote Stay, Illusion after being orphaned, losing her mother. It just totally devastates me to think that, for many of us there comes a point in losing others (and Lucie traveled to death’s door with so many dear ones), we may no longer be the most loved for anyone left living. People go on to have their own children, marry, etc. Lucie didn’t marry or have kids but she could love (sisters, friends, cats, and students) as strongly and loyally as anyone I’ve met on Earth. The line also calls up that connection between the ones who leave and the ones who remain as you point out—the ones who have left and the ones that are left. There’s the sense of first to go and first in terms of significance.

From the start, my attraction to Lucie’s work and to Lucie’s mind has involved death. There’s a morbidity and terror that I recognized in her work. I think she found a way of including it visually in her lines, in the shapes of the poems in Stay, Illusion, but it’s all over all the books. Even in surviving loss, the speaker’s strength is in demanding everything of herself in language when language is impossible, when she lives near and within the unspeakable. This blurring of grief and death—surviving and dying—is also Dickinsonian: “Tell all the truth I told me             when I couldn’t speak.” The following “Sorrow’s a barbaric art” makes that chaotic grief beautiful and cruel, composed and reckless.

Lucie’s art is made from sorrow obviously and I think I learned from Lucie that the moments and sensations when we are most deeply wrecked or wounded are the ones we must run toward, steep ourselves in, speak from, be transformed by. There is both fate and will in it.

Another line I love in “Stay, Illusion” comes from the first poem of the book: “The rims of wounds have wounds as well.” It is not optimism or healing that poetry brings but the wound made everlasting, boundless fear and pain made containable, sometimes even coy. More than once she described the form of the poem as an “alabaster chamber,” a coffin.

My relationship with Lucie was as much about death in the end as it was about poetry. I was losing my best friend, her astonishing student Max Ritvo, and then of course it was not long before Lucie herself had to face death. Lucie believed in heaven and it’s through this lens that her fear and fascination with death makes the most sense of her poetics: It is always worth decorating the darkness, laughing or tearing one’s hair into it, while cutting away any unsharpened excess, any aspect of living that doesn’t remember it will end. Lucie’s work teaches me that poetry and death are both omniscient and unknowable. I am no less afraid, and gladly.


 

Elizabeth Metzger is the author of The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the chapbook The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Horsethief Books, 2017). Her poems have recently appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, and The Nation among other places. Her essays have recently appeared in Lit Hub, Guernica, Boston Review, and PN Review. She is a poetry editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal.

Elizabeth Metzger’s website
Purchase Metzger’s book, The Spirit Papers
Read Metzger’s poem, “The Inmate of Happiness” at Poetry

Lucie Brock-Broido was an American poet and author of four collections: A Hunger (1988), The Master Letters (1995), Trouble in Mind (2004), and Stay, Illusion (2013). She taught at several universities and served as the director of poetry in the writing division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her work received recognition from the Academy of American Arts and Letters, American Poetry Review, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Stay Illusion was a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Books Critics Circle Award.

“Doing Wicked Things,” an interview at Guernica
Brock-Broido in the New Yorker
An interview with The New School


 

Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.

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Wendy Chin-Tanner Reads Vera Pavlova

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In this conversation, Wendy Chin-Tanner talks about how reading Vera Pavlova‘s work gave her a model to follow in writing short poems about romantic love and about how Pavlovas’ writing disallows sentimentality and by engaging with the past. Pavlova’s poems are sincere, terse, and often also deal in ars poetica. Chin-Tanner puts them in context with Rilke’s Liebeslied, and identifies them as a “call to see things as they are.”

Jessica Hudgins: How has Pavlova’s work influenced yours?

Wendy Chin-Tanner: Vera Pavlova’s work speaks to me about relationality, its contradictions, conflicts, and nuances, especially in the context of romantic relationships. Her poems are imbued with a masterful compositional musicality that stems from her background as a trained classical musician and are delivered with the absolute greatest possible economy of words. I discovered her when I was working on the poems in my first collection Turn through my best friend, Russian-born anthropologist Veronica Davidov whose father, writer Mark Davidov, had worked with Pavlova. Short form poetry was already of great interest to me, but I was having trouble wrapping my head around how to write a love poem and Pavlova showed me the way. She quickly became both a poetic and personal touchstone, as she writes with urgency, immediacy, unsentimental sincerity, and mechanical precision about the emotional dynamics that underlie romantic love, how they necessarily replicate traumatic and triggering patterns of partners’ families of origin and how they are then called upon to make a choice between reproducing those wounding patterns and doing it differently, a choice between “rehashing” and creating. Not only is this an apt description of emotional processes in relationships, but it’s also a metaphor for the artistic process, and on a meta-level, the conflicts and layers expressed in this concept supply the necessary dramatic tension of the poetry. When I began developing the trisyllabic tercets that make up the majority of the poems in my second collection Anyone Will Tell You, I returned to Pavlova whose short lines and confidence in claiming blank space on the page emboldened me to do it, too. Reading her has not only informed my understanding of craft, but also the difference between sentiment and sentimentality.

Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova

JH: In both of these poems, Pavlova brings two actions in relation to one another in order to clarify what each word means. So, when I read, “Enough painkilling, heal,” I get worried, and ask myself, “When have I tried to remove something painful instead of trying to heal?” And, when Pavlova writes “to sing or howl,” the difference between singing and howling emerges, just because the words are next to one another. Do you respond the same way to these poems?

WCT: Poem 22 takes a Rilkean preoccupation, as we see in his poem Liebeslied, with the relationship between the self and the other, and the negotiation of the space between engulfment and abandonment, and gives it a fresh twenty-first century psychoanalytic feminist perspective. I read the opening line, “Enough painkilling, heal,” as a call to see things as they are, to face the truth about ourselves and others, and our situations, the good and the bad, in order to affect positive change.

In poem 62, my interpretation of the line, “to sing or howl,” is that it speaks to the gendered performances of masculinity and femininity as the poet addresses her partner as “a wall of stone,” behind which she is both protected (so that she is free to sing on the other side of the gender binary) and unheard (or stonewalled). Our lived experiences cannot occur, regardless of our politics or wokeness, in a cultural vacuum, and the many contradictions of heterosexual love in an unequal society are played out in this poem in both its pleasures and frustrations.

Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova

JH: What are you working on now?

WCT: Right now, I’m working on the second draft of King of the Armadillos, a novel based on a true story that takes place in New York City and Carville, Louisiana in the mid-1950s that explores the ways in which power, bio-ethics, race, gender, sexuality, stigma, community, illness, recovery, immigration, intergenerational trauma, loss, love, and redemption come to bear on families, relationships, and human experience.


 

Vera Pavolova Vera Pavlova is a Russian writer whose books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She is author of several poetry collections, including The Heavenly Beast, translated into English by Derek Walcott and Steven Seymour;  Letters to the Room Next Door, a collection of 1,001 hand-written poems with illustrations by Pavlova’s daughter; and If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems, Pavlova’s first collection in English.

Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collections “Turn” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards, and “Anyone Will Tell You,” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019). She is a poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, and co-founder of A Wave Blue World, an independent publishing company for graphic novels. Some of her poems can be found at RHINO Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, The Collagist, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. A trained sociologist specializing in race, identity, discourse analysis, and cultural studies, Wendy was born and raised in NYC and educated at Cambridge University, UK. She is the mother of two daughters and the proud daughter of immigrants.

Further Reading

Vera Pavlova’s Website
LitHub Interviews Vera Pavlova
Vera Pavlova Reads at PBS News Hour

Wendy Chin-Tanner’s Website
Four Poems at The Account
Purchase Turn


Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.

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Lyric Essentials: Rosebud Ben-Oni Reads Nazim Hikmet

Rosebud Ben Oni 2018I’ve been reading Rosebud Ben-Oni’s work for a few years now, especially her writing at the Kenyon Review blog. Her reflections on Hikmet’s poem “On Living” are, like the poem, instructive. Rather than emphasizing the connection between one’s personal and political life, Ben-Oni writes, “As a Jew, I go back and forth with the power of living versus how we contribute to the larger living.” Instead of using “sentimental” as a catch-all phrase and moving on, she describes what she means, writing, “Hikmet understood the poet has to reach both the heart and the mind of people without falling into sentimentality, or merely appealing to human sympathies.” Thank you for joining us.

Rosebud Ben-Oni Reads “On Living” by Nazim Hikmet:

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica Hudgins: In our emails, you said that you’ve known this poem for a long time, and that you’ve been coming to it a lot recently. What do you think has made “On Living” stick with you? And what draws you to it now, specifically?

Rosebud Ben-Oni: Well, recently I’ve been in physical therapy for some problems with my spine. I’ve been in chronic pain for the last six years, and 2018 was an especially challenging year, health-wise; sometimes the pain was so bad I’d pass out. I’d turn to this poem in the past when I was at various low points in my life, but last year, there were many times I could not return to it because I felt like I was not strong enough to “live up” to whatever promise and faith the poem had always endowed within me. Then I had surgery. Under anesthesia, I had some really weird dreams that I’m not yet ready to share. But a few days after, when I was more lucid, I returned to this poem, particularly the lines:

with the four seasons and all time,
with insects, grass and stars,
and with the most honest people on earth—
I mean, affectionate like violins,
pitiless and brave
like children who can’t talk yet,
ready to die as easily as birds

      or live a thousand years.

The poem itself is filled haunting images like “women sitting doubled over,/their fists pressed to their flat bellies, or running barefooted before the wind.” Here the speaker makes the journey “with the dead;/with those forgotten on battlefields and barricades.”

Hikmet was a journalist, and you can see that in his work, that he is trying to leave a record of both the horrors and wonders of what he’s seen. A lot of his poetry is very political, but none of it is a rant. None of it is, to use a word I dislike, “spin.” Hikmet does not lose the heart and grit when he leaves us his poetic records, his lyrical commentary. He shows us that despite “brand new buildings” where “hope shone bight green like a young pine” there are too “lamps blazed on foreheads/a thousand meters underground.” He’s showing you what’s really behind the surface, what would otherwise be invisible, without losing the art of poetry.

As a still somewhat practicing Jew, and a tinkerer in string theory, I too have tried to get beneath the surface of things. Recently, Poetry magazine published my string theory poem “Poet Wrestling with Her Empire of Dirt,” in which the speaker and her father have lost faith in both Judaism and science, in the act of living and what is left as legacy.

JH: “On Living” is a didactic poem, but it also has an element of openness, or flexibility. I love especially how Hikmet uses that “I mean,” and the series of hypotheticals, “Let’s say you’re at the front,” and so on. The poet seems both very sure about what he is trying to tell us, and worried that we might misunderstand. Can you take a minute to describe his tone? How do you think Hikmet understood the role of the poet?

RB: Oh, I’m so glad you noticed this about his tone because that’s in part what first attracted me so to this poem. I like the “speaking to you” element of this poem. There’s both an urgency and patience to his tone. Like he’s trying to work it out in his head to say exactly what he means while feeling and knowing exactly what he means.

I believe all poets are trying to do this, no? That we sometimes, if not often, feel a knowledge, deep down, of exactly what we say, and are trying to write and position that best on the page. To me, Hikmet understood the poet has to reach both the heart and the mind of people without falling into sentimentality, or merely appealing to human sympathies. He was talking about fighting for the much larger things which is fighting for the much smaller things—that we plant olive trees and not just for our children, to paraphrase another line from “On Living.”

JH: What moments in “On Living” do you particularly admire?

RB: All of them? But I’m serious. The third section in particular cements the whole deal you are making with him as a reader. That not only is life here on earth short, but earth’s life itself is short. Perhaps our larger impact on the cosmos will only be felt in ways that exclude our particular contributions if humanity is ever gone. That is to say, there will be something that we leave behind, but perhaps it won’t be able to be traced back to us. It does make me sad, in a way. It’s very Jewish of me, I suppose. The whole name being inscribed in the Book of Life by God during the High Holy days. As a Jew, I go back and forth with the power of living versus how we contribute to the larger living. They are two very, very different things. “On Living” doesn’t make navigating this perilous channel any easier, but it does shed light on why we should both live and more importantly, why we should live as part of the human race.

 


Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 CantoMundo Fellowship. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, POETS.org, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, among others. Her poem “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, and published by The Kenyon Review Online. Her second collection of poems, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE, and will be published in 2019. She writes for The Kenyon Review blog. Find her at 7TrainLove.org

Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) was a poet, novelist, and playwright born in Salonika, Ottoman Empire, (now Thessaloníki, Greece).  He lived in prison and exile for many years due to his revolutionary politics; in 1950, five days after Hikmet ended a month’s-long hunger strike which received international attention, the newly-elected Turkish government adopted general amnesty law, and he was released. Later that year, he received the International Peace Prize. His works translated into English include Human Landscapes from My Country: An Epic Novel in Verse (2009), Things I Didn’t Know I Loved (1975), The Day Before Tomorrow (1972), The Moscow Symphony (1970), and Selected Poems (1967).

Further Reading

Rosebud Ben-Oni reads with the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series
“I Guess We’ll Have to Be Secretly in Love with Each Other & Leave It at That”
Interview with Rosebud Ben-Oni at Poets House
Rosebud Ben-Oni at the Kenyon Review Blog

Review of Orhan Kemal’s In Jail with Nazim Hikmet
Upcoming Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival
Hikmet reading his work in 1955
Some Hikmet letters at the International Institute of Social History


Jessica Hudgins is a poet currently living in Georgia.

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Lyric Essentials: Leslie Miller Reads Paisley Rekdal

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Here Leslie Miller and I talk about poetic range, how influential place is, especially that place where a poet started out, and Elizabeth Bishop (it always comes back to Bishop!) and James Wright. Thank you for joining us.

Leslie Miller reads “At the Fishhouses” by Paisley Rekdal

It’s so apt that you chose “At the Fishhouses,” because it’s exactly in the spirit of this series. The poem even begins with “And!” How has Paisley Rekdal’s poetry influenced yours?

Very simply, Paisley Rekdal’s poems give me faith in the future of the art—and that’s something we all need to go on producing it. Her poems, as you can see here, have tremendous range; they are keenly aware of the poems and stories of the past on which she builds, and they break new ground while honoring the work of poets gone before. And this: they not only make poetry feel vital and new, but they carry out the important work of feminist critical positions with the tremendous range of emotion necessary to the complexity of the issues.

I taught Imaginary Vessels (2016) in a women’s literature course, and when I chose it, as with many books I love, I worried my students would not love it as much as I do. Maybe I secretly suspected that as budding feminists in their late teens and early 20’s, they would find Rekdal’s allusions hard to reach. Many of them did not know who Mae West was, for example, but we had a pretty good time looking at YouTube mashups of Mae West one liners, and then watching Paisley’s film of her poem “Self Portrait as Mae West.” I also worried that Rekdal’s work might strike them more as a poet’s poetry—by which I mean the way poets love other poets for their astonishing dexterity with aspects of craft— images, sound, form. General literature students can sometimes seem less wowed by these craft details that creative writers love. Rekdal’s over the top sound devices are so much fun—because even as they go overboard and get some laughs for their absurdity (as in “Dear lacuna, Dear Lard”), they manage to haunt, to maintain an edge, a tone of serious inquiry. In the end, I think the book went over well with my class because I loved it so much (or maybe my students were too kind to admit that my love for the book was itself an entertainment).

These poems are so different from one another! “At the Fishhouses” deals with how slippery memory is, and it uses long lines and a sort of associative logic, whereas “Vessels’” focus is intent on its very specific subject, and its thinking seems to be more controlled. You said in our emails that you had a hard time choosing which poems to read – what made you choose these two?

I had a hard time picking poems of Rekdal’s to share because I like them so much in the context of the book as a whole. If I could have chosen a poem of hers that I think most representative of what I admire, it would have been the long “Nightingale: A Gloss” that appeared in APR recently. That’s the poem I have been handing over to smart young feminist poets lately, and I’m still marveling at its range and power. But I chose two from Imaginary Vessels, one lyric and one more meditative/narrative because one of the things I admire most in Rekdal is the ease with which she moves among the various modes. “At the Fishhouses” has another signature Rekdal feature—the layering of other poetry, other traditions, stories, pop icons, and yet doing this without fanfare, without having to pound down a conclusion about what that allusion means or lends to the poem. I suspect she knows, and hopes we know too, but that she’d also wish our knowing differs from hers.

It’s something we love Bishop for, especially in her poem of the same name, or in her famous poem, “The Fish,” the way the elements of story are so clearly delineated and yet not driving at a single “meaning.” A dozen critics can all come up with a different read on it, and none of them is really any more “right” than the next. The ability to make a poem that observes the world and includes elements of story so precisely that the reader buys into it at the same time that the reader cannot be sure of a “point.” You’re constantly asking yourself as you move through the poem whether you’re tracking the story or the images, and sure, you are tracking both, but one dissolves easily into the other and back again, so that when you reach the final image of the taste of the friend’s mouth in Rekdal’s poem, it isn’t exactly a kiss so much as it is an amalgam of kissing Bishop, the grandmother, the berries picked with the grandmother—it’s all those things, and none of them alone, so you understand that you have to rest on that perilous place between close observation and story and just be there, be present to the way those things mix in the mind.

At the Fishhouses” is at once a complex and entirely clear trajectory from an initial moment that is both the here and now of the poem and a memory of Bishop—from the start, it’s not cleanly one or the other. The story of the friend follows on the establishment of place/time, so the friend is set in the memory/literary allusion fusion as well. The friend quickly segues into a memory of the speaker’s grandmother in a way that fuses, yet again, a past memory and a present character, and Rekdal brilliantly gets us out of the impasse with the image of the raspberries:

were raspberries. Very red, very sweet, furred
like my friend’s upper lip I remember
between my teeth as we stood
on the docks. The smell
of iron and winter mist, her mouth
like nothing I have tasted since.

There is no line at all between what is happening in the now and what is happening in the mind. Rekdal has prepared us incrementally for this moment of sheer erotic joy in a taste and texture that is neither here nor there but a fusion so precise that we’re there tasting it too.

It’s almost as astonishing as Bishop’s close:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.   

But Rekdal has made it her own, rearranged the elements, feminized the memory from a grandfather to a grandmother and held on to what is most fetching in the original: a moment of fusion between the self, the past, the erotics of the present environment—and, of course, it’s a moment of transcendence that is gone as soon as you’ve noticed it because it was made of all these contingencies, the ugliness and the beauty, the real and the remembered, and nothing else will ever again quite match it.

Do I love the Rekdal because I love the Bishop so much? Maybe. But I also love that she doesn’t damage the beauty of the Bishop in channeling it for her own. It’s a beautiful homage, and I love Rekdal for loving Bishop exactly as I think Bishop ought to be loved. If I were truly picking a poet whose influence over my own work has been long and deep and ongoing, Bishop wins every time—but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that, so I wanted to pick someone writing now that everyone could go out and read!

Leslie Miller reads “Vessels” by Paisley Rekdal

I love that the first sentence in “Vessels” is, “Shouldn’t it ache…,” and then the very next sentence begins, “It hurts/to imagine it…” Rekdal asks a question, and then almost answers it, until we read across the line-break. Can you point to a couple moments you particularly admire in this poem?

Vessels” is a very different poem, and yet a few of the tactics of slide and fusion happen here too, but I chose “Vessels” for its lyric qualities. Rekdal has dozens of poems that play sound devices forward, and truth be told, I’d love to read them all out loud (we did in my class, and maybe that was part of their success with my students), but Rekdal herself must have thought of this poem as special, key to the collection with which it shares part of its name. Like “At the Fishhouses” “Vessels” turns on a single image, only in this case with a bit less narrative, and reprises that image in ways that allow it to be simultaneously lovely, vulnerable, ugly, wounded . . . The poem’s subject is an oyster, though it isn’t named right away, and, in fact, the short lines here allow her to feature “slit” at the end of the first line in such a way that we who own these body parts know instantly in our flesh that it is our own genitalia we are seeing/feeling, even as we are watching the oyster be parted from its “vessel” and understanding our own bodies as vessels as well—as entities that both contain and are contained. The sound here, though, is amazing, because the word “slit” is harsh, and that harsh sound gets picked up again fast in all those following “t” sounds, “sweet,” “salt,” “water,” “meat,” “hurt,” “abductor,” “harvest,” “cyst”—the violence just keeps hitting as it morphs into different iterations of the same sound, even as what we’re seeing is undeniably beautiful.

I also admire the precision of diction in Rekdal’s poems. In “Vessels,” words like “adductor” and “caisson,” are not only precise terms for the mussel’s parts, but even if a reader doesn’t know their meaning the first time through (I had to look them up myself), their sounds give us just as much to go on—“adductor” sounding so much like “abductor” and suggesting female abduction, “caisson” sounding so much like “case-on.”

Do you have a poem that is in as close a conversation with another poem as “At the Fishhouses,” that you can excerpt for us? Or, what are you working on now that you’re excited about?

Oh, this question is so hard to answer after having spent the last few questions in the minds of Rekdal and Bishop! I certainly have written a lot of poems that work in conversation with poets of the past, and to some degree, it’s hard for me to imagine any strong poem that isn’t, even in some very sublimated way, having that kind of conversation.

One recent poem of mine that is more direct in its conversation with an existing poem might be one called “Sumac.” I love that moment in autumn when sumac turns bright red, and when I see it, I always think of the poet James Wright. I grew up in Southeastern Ohio, not far from where Wright grew up, and though I didn’t discover Wright until after I’d left Ohio for good, his poems have always held a special place for me because they’re so good at evoking where I came from—and sumac is common in Southeastern Ohio river valleys, so it shows up in his work more than once, particularly in his prose poem, “The Sumac in Ohio,” which uses sumac as a metaphor for the particular beauty and toughness in the landscape and people of the region. The final sentences of the poem are a signature Wrightian declaration: “ The skin [of the sumac] will turn aside hatchets and knife blades. You cannot even carve a girl’s name on the sumac. It is viciously determined to live and die alone, and you can go straight to hell.”

Though I’ve loved that poem and those lines for years and felt deeply attached to the vision of my geographical home offered by Wright, recently, I reread those lines and saw them differently– as a woman who grew up in that environment and ran as fast as I could away from it, even though I retain a very complicated relationship to it, as to Wright. It’s hard to excerpt from my response poem without giving you all the dimensions of that complication, but here’s a snippet:

and when
I came of age in words, I married
his enduring spell of rivers, mills,
our hills scraped white by monster
draglines, and dusted in the mist
of steel spit and soot.

You could say I had a bit of feminist awakening about the need to give the sumac a different reading, also a loving but stern critique of a poet and generation of poets, really, that was ultimately a boys’ club. There was something about that “You cannot even carve a girl’s name on the sumac” that made me wince. For one thing, it absolutely assumes a male reader, and for another it conjures a place and time in which casual violence against women was commonplace. I can’t read these lines anymore without thinking about the women, girls really, who got stuck in it—as an actual place and as a way of thinking about place. I might have escaped the former, but I didn’t escape the latter!

 


 

Leslie Miller’s sixth collection of poems is Y from Graywolf Press. Her previous
collections include The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See (Graywolf
Press), and Yesterday Had a Man In It, Ungodliness and Staying Up For Love (Carnegie
Mellon University Press). She has been the recipient of the Loft McKnight Award of Distinction, two Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowships in Poetry, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and the PEN Southwest Discovery Award. She has also held residencies and fellowships with Le Château de Lavigny, Fundación Valparaíso, Literarisches Colloquium, and Hawthornden Castle. Professor of English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, she holds degrees in creative writing and English from Stephens College, the University of Missouri, the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the University of Houston.

Paisley Rekdal is author of five poetry collections, A Crash of Rhinos (2000), Six Girls Without Pants (2002), The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (2007), Animal Eye, and Imaginary Vessels (2016), as well as the book of essays The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In (2000), and a hybrid memoir, Intimate. She has received several awards for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She teaches at the University of Utah.

Further Reading:

Leslie Miller’s website
Leslie Miller at Crazyhorse
Interview with Leslie Miller on Words Without Borders

Paisley Rekdal’s website
Paisley Rekdal’s forthcoming book Nightingale on Publisher Weekly‘s Top 10 Poetry Book of 2019 list
Pre-order Nightingale here

Jessica Hudgins is a writer currently living in Georgia.

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Lyric Essentials: Clodagh Beresford Dunne Reads Two Poems By Jan Beatty

i84a1802-2-webWhen Clodagh Beresford Dunne sent me these poems, I found “The Kindness” right away, but couldn’t find “T-shirts.” None of Jan Beatty’s books were at my library, and I couldn’t figure out which book the poem was in, anyway. I emailed Clodagh to ask if she could send me a picture of the poem. She replied, “I’m afraid I don’t have a book excerpt of T-shirts, and I can’t seem to find the name of the collection it comes from, either. All I know is that it was sent to me by my friend Thomas McCarthy just following my own father’s death. A poem I sent him, about finding my father’s spectacles a month after he died, prompted Thomas to send me the Beatty poem.”

Jessica Hudgins: Both of these poems begin with a physical object—the elk, the bag—that gives Jan Beatty a starting point. She describes where these things are, and where she is as she looks at them, and then why she’s looking at them. It’s a really simple, really expansive way of approaching a poem. When you write, do you begin in a similar way? How has Beatty’s work influenced yours?

Clodagh Beresford Dunne: This is a really good observation, and you’re right, it’s a wonderfully expansive way of entering a poem. I believe it stems from the brilliance and sincerity of Beatty’s grounded narrative.

This entrance mechanism is beautifully filmic if you think about it—it instantly creates a sense of place, of truth, of measured step – the essential components of the perfect poem. With Beatty’s poetry there’s always a sort of reassurance that she’s a poet who has properly experienced life—that she’s been in a familiar place, that she has taken the time and care to accurately record its dimensions, that she can constantly triangulate the what, the where, and the why if you like.

There’s a brilliance in the clarity of her imagery, in all of her work. The precision and concision of her language generates a real and physical force.

In terms of my own approach to writing, I suppose, yes, I sometimes begin in a similar way – not that it’s ever a conscious decision, of course. I think the storyteller in each of us will always take the same beaten path. Sometimes, the clarity of the narrative won’t be straightforward, to begin with, though—I’ll notice, after a few drafts perhaps, that the strongest entry point might be hidden in the middle of the poem. I have a habit of “throat clearing” when I begin to write a poem and it’s almost a given that I’ll scrap early lines or stanzas as I begin to edit. I find it really helpful to leave poems for weeks or months or even years and go back to them when I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say. Your inner ruthless critic is great at locating the cleanest line from A to B.

In terms of how Beatty’s work has influenced mine, I would say that it’s her fearlessness and the breadth of her voice that I’ve been inspired by the most. She’s given me the confidence to write with courage—to say what I feel, to avoid my self-censor, to write from my heart, and, at all times to be authentic and human. She’s taught me that to write is to be engaged in a warfare of sorts – that you must endure through the pain, and make it to the other side – that there will be momentary peace, that there will be full-on battles, and that it’s perpetual.

The poems I’ve chosen to record for you, are tender poems—two poems that mean a lot to me, but Beatty is probably best known for her kick-ass poetry (I’m thinking of her work in The Switching/Yard, in particular—poems like Dear American Poetry, Letter to a Young Rilke, Why I don’t Fuck Intellectuals, for example). I’ve been privileged enough to hear her read to packed audiences in the U.S.—to witness her, in her own inimitable, gentle way,  instill a crowd with a fire and energy like I’ve never seen before. And that’s what I love about Beatty and her work – that she addresses subjects like suicide, abortion, misogyny, kindness, love, grief all with the same precise and balanced pen. Her lyric is so wonderful, too, of course, and, for me, she symbolises the excellence that women writers should continually strive for—the courage to speak up.

The dedication in Beatty’s most recent book, Jackknife reads like this:

“For women everywhere
who are told to be nice
and to shut up.”

JH: These poems are gentle with their subjects. Especially in “The Kindness,” when the poet describes the calves, “as they bend to eat grass / look up / at the mother at the same time.” Can you point out a few other moments that you admire in these poems, and describe what you admire about them?

CBD: I admire so many moments in both poems. They’re both so intricate and work on a multitude of levels, yet both have this wonderful accessible ordinariness about them, too.

Clodagh Beresford Dunne reads “The Kindness” by Jan Beatty:

 

In “The Kindness,” what I might admire most is that one might think that Beatty has been gentle with her subject, yet, the reader has, in fact, unwittingly, been taken on a terrifying, physical, reverse-journey with Beatty, and, by the end of the poem, they end up being equal beneficiary of the small act of historic kindness, that Beatty has been shown.

This physical pull is created in lots of very clever moments in the poem. For example, Beatty instantly places her juxtapositions on common ground, if you like: calf and mother, city dweller and rural dweller, fragility and strength, looking up, looking down, liberty and preclusion … so, with the mere mention of football fields, we’re off! And the poem becomes a rapid and physical episode.

The language used creates moments of beautiful unification with the scene and the movement: e.g. “run into each other” “hold” “steal” “bumping” and I love the moments of false peace that emerge in the poem—e.g., the gentleness of the title and the bucolic opening scene of “The mother elk & 2 babies” that is quickly toughened up and cancelled out by “sniffing / the metal handle of the bear-proof trash bin.” and again when the poet dwells on the elk babies’ beauty, only to be jarred into the realisation that she’s still not at a safe enough distance from the elks.

There’s remarkable effectiveness in the three indented sections of the poem, too – where the kindness actually occurs—and where Beatty captures the physical pushing-in of the door, within the poem’s architecture.

……..

“a hand on the door,
I was walking in”

……

“a hand on the door
from around my body”

……

“a hand on the door
& the bottom of me
dropped/”

Beatty also has brilliant pacing and distancing in this poem and she guides the slide and reversal into memory with her use of movement:

“they bend”

“I’m backing up slowly/”

“The sloping line of their small snouts & /”

“…backing /into the woods past the lodgepole pines”

“Stripped down”

“The bottom of me

Dropped/”

I read recently that Solzhenitsyn once said that courage and kindness were the greatest virtues. It’s as if “The Kindness” is a lesson in both. It’s a very real and very beautiful poem.

In “T-Shirts” I really admire the moments where Beatty offers her reader the specifics of what she’s retained and what she’s given away. It creates a heightened sense that although the subject matter is universal, this is a unique and individual experience. We’re told exactly how and where the T-Shirts are stored in her apartment, their size, the slogans they carry, how they’re speckled, stained etc. We’re given precise colours, fabrics etc. of the items she’s given away, too.

“I keep my father’s  T-Shirts
in a brown bag in the hall
in between the bathroom and the bedroom.”

“They are big, extra large”

“One says ‘The Best Beer Drinkers Are From Whitehall’”

This sort of detail is so brave and honest and we’re given a calm and composed, yet deeply sad, explanation as to why the poet is keeping the T-Shirts, how they were a huge part of her relationship with her father,  how her engagement with them or attention to them, since he has died, is much the same as the way in which one encounters grief: a mere glance or a fixed stare, depending on the day.

What’s particularly lovely is how Beatty so simply gets a hold on one of the most difficult aspects of grief—that part of loss which is so personal to the bereaved; the texture and touch of the loved one, their smell.

“Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep,
I go to the bag and sort through them,
hold them to my face
and say hello”

Clodagh Beresford Dunne reads “T-Shirts” by Jan Beatty:

 

JH: “The Kindness” is such an interesting title because it at once points to the specific gesture in the poem, and elevates it by referring to it more generally as kindness. We would expect “Kindness,” or “The Act of Kindness.” Obviously, the one Beatty chose is a better title. With “T-Shirts” it’s the opposite. The poem is about grief—why title it “T-Shirts”?

CBD: It’s an indelibly perfect title, isn’t it?  The simplicity of what Beatty chooses as the tangible in order to illustrate the intangible is what makes the title so effective, I think.

T-Shirts are such universal and light items of clothing—they’re garments we’d normally wear on sunnier days, in casual, home-life, relaxed settings and this instantly suggests the familiar, something with which the reader can immediately connect and feel at ease, and the grief becomes so painfully understandable, almost unbearable, as a result. There is no longer any use for the T-Shirts here—there are no more T-Shirts to be purchased, to be worn, to be speckled with paint, “There is no place for them since he has died.”

There’s nothing extraordinary about a simple speckled, sloganed T-Shirt, yet when its owner dies it becomes an irreplaceable item connecting this daughter with her father, the only remaining evidence of the love that existed between the two, a holdable item that carries the essence of the departed, in every sense of that word.

The T-Shirts are suddenly rendered surplus, defunct, useless after death. If one thinks about the word T-Shirts, they’re so-called because of the shape they make when laid out flat—(t-shirts would be incorrect) and there’s a poignancy in that, too—a surrendering to death, and to grief, in a way.


Clodagh Beresford Dunne is an Irish poet, living in Dungarvan, Co Waterford in the southeast of the country.  Her poems have appeared or are upcoming in Irish and international publications including Poetry (Chicago), The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, and The Stinging Fly. Her work has also been recorded for broadcast in Ireland and the USA. She was the recipient of the Arts Council of Ireland Emerging Writer Award, in 2016,  and her poem “Seven Sugar Cubes”  was voted Irish Poem of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. A former lawyer and award-winning public speaker, she is currently working towards publication of her first full collection.

The poet Thomas Mccarthy has said of Beresford Dunne: “She is a writer of immense seriousness and purpose. Her poems announce a new vision to us, a new vortex of energy that localises human experience and domesticates genius.”

Further Reading: 

Clodagh Beresford Dunne’s website
Clodagh Beresford Dunne at Poetry Ireland
Clodagh Beresford Dunne at the Irish Times

Jan Beatty is an American poet. Her books include The Switching/Yard (2013), Red Sugar (2008), Boneshaker (2002), and Mad River (1995), published by University of Pittsburgh Press. She is a recipient of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and the Creative Achievement Award in Literature. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Further Reading: 

Jan Beatty on WQED’s “Voice of the Arts” series
Jan Beatty reads “The Kindness” at Split This Rock Poetry Festival
Jan Beatty in conversation at Cold Mountain Review
Purchase Jan Beatty’s Jackknife 

Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.

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Uche Ogbuji Reads Two Poems by Christopher Okigbo


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This is an especially exciting post for Lyric Essentials. Christopher Okigbo’s writing is not widely available, and here we get to hear it read aloud by poet Uche Ogbuji. It was such a wonderful opportunity to talk to Ogbuji about how Okigbo’s poetry has served as a model for his work, and to gain some context for some of Okigbo’s more difficult passages. Thank you all for joining us!

 

Jessica Hudgins: You say that in writing “Limits,” Christopher Okigbo establishes his voice. In Part II of the poem, Okigbo describes, I think, that process. What do we mean when we say a poet has “found his voice”? How has Okigbo’s writing and thinking about this influenced yours?

Uche Ogbuji: I’m glad you picked up on that statement of mine, truthfully just an off-hand use of the critic’s trite formula. My first reaction was: “Ooh! Shouldn’t have tossed that off so thoughtlessly,” but I pondered what that expression might mean in the case of this particular poet, and in so doing I think I’ve been able to better organize and explain my thoughts on his significance.

Most would actually say Okigbo found his voice in “Heavensgate”, the long poem that preceded “Limits.” Before “Heavensgate” he’d published various lyrics, and a sequence entitled “Canzones” but these were quite clearly derivative of Eliot, Pound and Hopkins, his early lights, and carried less of the sonic energy that characterizes “Heavensgate” and later work.

The common reaction to Okigbo is something along the lines of: “his poetry is so obscure but so appealing to the ear and his images are so enticing that you somehow feel compelled to grasp them.” That ability to create broken-mirror collage with hypnotic tones and assonances, along with his unique and arresting way with symbolism is the key quality of Okigbo’s voice, an instrument that surely took copious preparation and experimentation to master.

Uche Ogbuji reads “Siren Limits” but Christopher Okigbo:

Most likely my subconscious assignment of finding-of-voice to “Limits” was born in selfishness: what does it mean to me for Okigbo to have found his voice?

Africa’s literate classes venerate Okigbo because in just one half-decade (mid 1960s) of dazzling output his confident, unignorable voice demonstrated a potence that’s ours as well to claim, even from within the colonizer’s language. Okigbo’s poetry was the first to wrest control of the apparatus of modern poetry, applying it successfully to concerns of Africans building their own nations, remoulding their own cultures in the new global context. In “Heavensgate” he operated for himself, charting a journey as a prodigal (scion of a Christianized family conducting his intellectual discourse in English) returning to indigenous religion and idioms for true fulfillment. “Limits” echoes many of the earlier poet’s themes, but it’s clear the journey is not just for himself, but for others to follow.

As you say Part II, with its sustained image of a sapling finding its way to sunlight under the canopy, captures the situation of the artist in the immediate aftermath of colonialism. His own ancestors seem to tower above, as do the edifices of departed Europeans. So who is he? How does he burst through and take his own place? Who is to say he has a rightful place, hybrid that he is? The artist must start with roots deep in his own traditions and make canny use of the sap of colonial education in his veins, both of which together support growth towards an audience, towards the sunshine of present and future relevance.

Just because my ambitions would have me break through among the tall trees as Okigbo did doesn’t mean I should slavishly follow Okigbo’s style. Quite the contrary. The entire point of his work is to clear the passage, to bless my own individual instincts in growing both from my indigenous roots and from my colonized sap. My own poetry is less modernistic fragment and more old bardic patterns and narrative, rejuvenated by another art form that’s succeeded in easing African (diasporic) sources into modern global context: Hip-Hop.

Under the separate influence of Hip-Hop I’ve gone back to insistence on (often modified) meter and rhyme in a way some might like to believe unworthy for post-colonial poetry. Mine shares no superficial resemblance to Okigbo’s style. But, and this is the crux, it’s thanks to him I carry the conviction that what I’m expressing in my own way is a genuine furthering of the cultures of Eastern Nigeria to which I was born, to which I still feel the most urgent belonging.

There in the innumerable times I’ve read Okigbo’s poetry, in the many passages I’ve memorized are lessons on the use of language’s music to entice the reader, have them persist though my layers of meaning may not be immediately clear. Okigbo taught me to make harmony among the branches, however dense and prickly.

JH: In these excerpts from Paths of Thunder, we see a brief but striking description of the elephant, which I understand as a symbol of the strength that comes from belonging to the place where you live. Your first book is called, Ndewo, Colorado. Can you talk a little about how your writing engages with place?

UO: The elephant, ényí in Igbo, is the symbol of an Igbo community, powerful for Okigbo as it is for all Igbos, and to some extent for all Nigerians. The Nigeria Airways logo in its heyday was a flying elephant, perhaps an odd image to westerners, but one that expressed the capacity of a determined people to achieve their intents. A national airline was a prestige institution in those days. Of course this one was destroyed by corruption among its administrators, and there we behold the danger of power accumulated not for the common good but rather for the enrichment of a few—Okigbo’s hunters sharing the elephant’s meat among themselves.

My interest in poetry flowered at Nsukka, the University of Nigeria, the very place where decades earlier Okigbo had served as librarian, the place associated with so many of Nigeria’s celebrated writers, from Chinua Achebe all the way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was an engineering student, but promptly set aside proper engineering things to sojourn among Nsukka’s vibrant community of artists. In transferring to US university I avoided flunking out, got serious and earned my degree in Milwaukee. Alas my impetus for poetry faltered, as if that part of me wilted when uprooted from its native soil. A move to Colorado, having fallen in love with the place—and especially the landscape—on an earlier trip, saw me ease back to verse. I found community here—less elephant and more coyote, but anchored in genuine love for the ground immediately under our feet, and that was exactly what I needed to find poetry again.

I put together my first chapbook, “Ndewo, Colorado”—“Hello, Colorado”—in Igbo, rather quickly, an offering of gratitude. I love this place, and no small part of my writing is occupied herewith. How lucky to have at least two places to call home: the rich rainforests of the river Niger’s lower reaches and the semi-arid expanses of the eastern Rockies. It is very important to me that my writing honors both.

I believe Okigbo would have approved; He is among the array of poplars towering above in my own forest. In a messianic sense he died for his beloved Biafra in the war. My father, a sergeant in the same army was shot, and met my mother, a field nurse, while convalescing. My parents married in the immediate aftermath of having lost the war, and I was born in those circumstances. They left the country where they now stood on the wrong side of political reality and made the sacrifices of immigrants across three continents to create a life such that their children could feel at home anywhere in the world. Everywhere my parents passed through there were others who had cleared a path, the Windrush Generation and other belittled immigrants to the UK, the great civil rights leaders of the 60s in the US.

A popular Igbo chant, from sports fans to Biafran soldiers is “Ényíḿbà Ényí! Ǹzọ̀gbú!” Meaning “Elephant of the people! Trample down your opponents!” This bespeaks the sacrifices of all those inestimable forebears, who remain with me, and in whose name I feel honored to work a claim on broader global perspective, a future for humanity where brown people negate all attempts to erase them. It is said of the Igbo that we’ll travel wherever in existence you can find a marketplace, and I’m sure Okigbo would be delighted to hear an assuredly African voice echoing the marketplaces among Colorado’s mountain ranges.

JH: I want to stick with that image for a minute, because I really like the attitude it conveys. “With a wave of the hand/He could pull four trees to the ground.” The elephant is godlike – when he moves, his motion is at once destructive and something that doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with him. What specific moments do you love in these poems?

UO: The elephant is the people. They had the ability to bend the landscape to their will, as evidenced in the thriving pre-colonial villages and towns of the Igbo. As you say the consequences of the elephant’s merest progress are world-changing, so imagine the consequences of the elephant’s downfall. The subtitle of Path of Thunder is  “Poems Prophesying War,” and here is another part of Okigbo’s legend. In this, his most clearly political verse, he was not only decrying the venality and increasing violence in the nation, but also suggesting the inevitability of what became the Biafran war, and his own death in the circumstances of war. He was—too sadly—right.

Uche Ogbuji reads two sections of “Path of Thunder” by Christopher Okigbo:

In Path of Thunder Okigbo expresses ambivalence about the January 1966 coup d’état which ended an era of monumental civilian corruption, but also ensured a cycle of repeat violence. I love how he uses variations on Igbo proverbs to get these points across. Igbo proverbs are famously open to flexible interpretation, requiring a sensitive reading of context.

The eye that looks down will surely see the nose;
The finger that fits should be used to pick the nose.

Having declared that the necessary had happened, brought about by the only realistic agents available, Okigbo frets about the consequences: action was required, and immediately so, but risked being cut short of fulfillment by a chain of counter-actions.

Today – for tomorrow, today becomes yesterday:
How many million promises can ever fill a basket…

Of course the poet was putting himself in grave danger by daring to speak of such things.

If I don’t learn to shut my mouth I’ll soon go to hell,
I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.

That outright rhyme, a very rare thing in Okigbo, startles the reader with its sounding finality.

The moments I love most in Path of Thunder are in the preceding poem, “Come Thunder.” I’ll have to forbear from quoting the entire poem. Not only is it a masterpiece of Okigbo’s ability to stitch together the oracular and the proverbial, but it is a feast for the ear, and the imagination.

NOW THAT the triumphant march has entered the last street corners,
Remember, O dancers, the thunder among the clouds…

Again Okigbo is expressing his ambivalence around the coup and the lingering violence, emphasized in how he repeats this couplet’s rhetorical formula. The third stanza is then a brooding, intense sequence of images expressing the thick air of danger in the country, the unavoidable path to war. Then, oh my goodness! oh my word! A bellowing of lines etched by the oracle on scraps of iroko bark.

The drowsy heads of the pods in barren farmlands witness it,
The homesteads abandoned in this century’s brush fire witness it:
The myriad eyes of deserted corn cobs in burning barns witness it:
Magic birds with the miracle of lightning flash on their feathers……

In farming and the relationship to land are the true reading of the world for traditional Igbo. Okigbo feels everything in that tradition vibrating with signs of the war that will soon devastate Igbo and allied lands. Death will come for all sides with the supernatural force of lightning, its agents visible to all, brandishing their weapons over the landscape.

How might Okigbo’s people be delivered from the horrors he foresaw? Though never ones to actually invest in the Christian god, both Okigbo and his friend and colleague Chinua Achebe were happy to use the religion’s literature to express salvation from a powerful enemy, whether the colonizer or the generals who fanned flames of ethnic vengeance after the January 1966 coup. Achebe’s book title invokes the Arrow of God, as does Okigbo in this poem. The language echoes David’s song of praise after victory over Saul.

He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet.

Out of the brightness of his presence bolts of lightning blazed forth.
The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded.
He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
—from 2 Samuel 22, New International Version of the Bible

The thunder drumming accompaniment to the dance of death grumbles into the poem’s ominous ending.

And the secret thing in its heaving
Threatens with iron mask
The last lighted torch of the century…

Reminiscent of the ominous ending of the poem that gave Achebe another book title (“Things Fall Apart”).

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
—from “The Second Coming”, W.B. Yeats

You don’t have to hail from Nigeria to grasp the chill of what was to come. Horrible images of mass starvation brought by war to one of the most fertile corners of the world led television newscasts on every continent. Okigbo’s prescience could not help his people, but the fire of those words scorch every cell in my brain that is the product of my parents.

JH: Okigbo’s poems are long! Do you often write long poems? What do you admire in his use of the form?

Okigbo insisted on pushing up the temperature with his themes as he returned, progressing through the verse. His major publications were long poems which can be taken as sequences of short poems, but at the risk of fracturing the motifs and echos he so carefully builds. I made my excerpted recordings as short as I could while doing the poems proper justice.

I mix short and long poems fairly evenly. I do admire Okigbo’s dedicated focus in comparison to my ragged chewing through on so many fronts at once. I’ve come to grant myself that I haven’t his luxury of concentrated purpose. I am an immigrant working as an entrepreneur in technology, which can be an unforgiving grind for livelihood. I steal as much time for poetry as I can, and sometimes all I can manage is to get down a short lyric germinated in my head. Now and then a longer matter emerges and insists, so I’ve gained practice developing these in the available bursts of time.

Okigbo’s poetry engages despite its demands in length and obscurity because of how expertly he maintains the energy of his language. It pulses with warm, red blood, thus I can flow along wherever it takes me, even if I can’t immediately make conscious sense of the landscape rushing by on the banks. There is a litheness, a musclarity to Okigbo’s verse, and I very much recognize my own tendency to write verse as a quasi-athletic endeavor.

Okigbo was a fine footballer, captain of the University football team, travelling all over Eastern Nigeria to play. Friends noted his restless animation, a restlessness I know too well. I need to do a hundred things in order to be settled. I still play football some five days a week, mixing in other sports, including snowboarding, as suits a Coloradan. I crave that physicality but the rush of applied energy writing poetry can feel weirdly akin to running the pitch, sticking in a tackle, kicking the ball with skill and purpose. I often stand or pace as I write. Oh to channel that restlessness with the constancy of Okigbo’s poetic dedication! But I’m probably just not that sort of poet. I take as much from hot moments of street-side rap/beat-box cipher as I do the ritualized yam cultivation that gave me my surname, that gave Okigbo some of his signal motifs.

Okigbo’s dedication is especially notable in his many passages suggesting that even sexual energy must be packaged as an offering to the goddess supervising his creativity. The outlet of sport is acceptable, but he knows he risks dissipation in some of his other urges.

I hang up my egg-shells
To you of palm grove
Upon whose bamboo towers hang
Dripping with yesterupwine

Once properly cleansed, having made the right offerings—those long poems that preserve so much of his life-force—he can impose himself on the world with the confident poise that forms his bequest to us, to me. Upon his example I can journey halfway across the world, have those crucial roots unservered, stew richly in the sap of modern consciousness, and gear up to light everything I perceive with a flame of tutored energy.

Queen of the damp half light,
I have had my cleansing,
Emigrant with the air-borne nose,
The he-goat-on-heat.


Uche Ogbuji, more properly Úchèńnà Ogbújí, was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived in Egypt, England and elsewhere before settling near Boulder, Colorado. An engineer by training and entrepreneur by trade, his poetry chapbook, his poetry chapbook, Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press) is a Colorado Book Award Winner, and a Westword Award Winner (“Best Environmental Poetry”). His poems, published worldwide, fuse Igbo culture, European classicism, American Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop. He co-hosts the Poetry Voice podcast with Kierstin Bridger, featured in the Best New African Poets anthology, and was shortlisted for Nigeria’s Eriata Oribhabor Poetry Prize.

Further Reading: 

Uche Ogbuji’s website: http://uche.ogbuji.net/
Purchase Ndewo, Colorado herehttp://uche.ogbuji.net/ndewo/
Hear more of Ogbuji’s poetry: https://soundcloud.com/uche-1
Follow him!: https://twitter.com/uogbuji


 

Christopher Okibgo (1932–1967) was a poet, teacher, and librarian born in Ojoto, Nigeria in 1932, and recognized today as a major Modernist and post-colonial writer. He worked as assistant librarian at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and as West African Representative of Cambridge University Press at Ibadan. He founded Citadel Press with Chinua Achebe, and belonged, with Achebe and Wole Soyinka, to the  Mbari Writers and Artists Club. His work is published in several collections, including Heavensgate, Limits, Silences, and Path of ThunderHe was killed fighting in the Nigeria-Biafra war.

Further Reading: 

Learn more about Christopher Okigbo’s life and poetry here.
Read an excerpt from his biography Thirsting for Sunlight here.
Chinua Achebe speaking at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference in 2007:

 

 

 

 

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