Category Archives: Lyric Essentials

Lyric Essentials: Lisa Allen Ortiz Reads Three Poems by Victoria Chang

Lisa Allen Ortiz and I sat down to talk about poems, but the conversation wove through not just the work of Victoria Chang and the character Barbie Chang, Ortiz spoke about the connection of the work to current events (namely the Kavanaugh hearings), and love, and Simone De Beauvoir, and women, most especially poems for and about selfish bitches, and so much more as it all swirls in and through Barbie Chang’s world. Allen Ortiz’s love of these poems is passionate and expansive and her thorough reading is intimate and clear.

Black: Why did you choose Barbie Chang to talk about?

Ortiz: As you know, it was difficult for me to make a choice, for as Kaveh Akbar says we are living in a golden age of poetry. This is something non-readers-of-poetry may not know. But much like the leaps forward in the technology of the electric automobile, iPhone apps and authoritarian regimes those of us in the poetry world have been working furiously too, and our recent cultural decision as poets to be more pluralistic and inclusive has birthed a mind-bending, heart-exploding scene of innovation and invention, and the cultural project of poetry is richer, more vital and so powerful that I will barely make a shrug of surprise if soon the whole invention of it blows up every iPhone in every hand of every user and renders flat, prone, and mute every authoritarian on every marble floor of every guarded authoritarian palace all over this tenderly powerful planet. Such is the poetry scene now. And in such a milieu, I picked Barbie Chang.

Two summers ago, for complicated reasons, I read The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir. It’s impossible to understand, but I read it all the same and the impossible thing I understood from this existential-feminist work is that we as women are seminally fucked.

Our political situation is not only a problem of economic and legal justice—as feminism is often positioned in American culture. In De Beauvoir’s vision, women are subjugated because of our very beings, because of our biological-spiritual-spatial connection to men. We love men. We serve men and make babies for men. Not all of us, obviously. But a good many of us, and this has put us in a position in which we hold up and work for a system in which we do not have and never will have full autonomy and self-determination.

The next summer, into my world, fell the book by Victoria Chang, Barbie Chang. It’s a collection of poems about the public life and private life of a woman, of a speaker, and the life she speaks about. And one voice is the private voice talking about the public voice, and one voice is the public speaking to the private. It’s so odd and also so realistic, funny, accessible, contemporary, a collection that hides inside itself and beats its fists on the walls of itself, a collection that is wildly relevant at the moment.

Most of the poems in Barbie Chang are persona poems written in the voice of Barbie Chang who seems to be both a shield and a seed for some other kind of private, true-self.  (They are persona poems but written in the third person, so they have a storybook quality and also a scientific flair of tension.)

The more authentic voice of this project is protected in the middle of the book, manifested as an emotional and lyric series of sonnets. I didn’t choose to read any of those poems here, but really, those are my favorite poems of the book. And the Barbie Chang poems are also mirrored in the epistolary style poems that end the book and which appear to be letters to a daughter and are heartbreaking responses of a woman who is trying to raise a woman who she hopes will live a more authentic and fully realized life, a life chosen with purpose and eccentricity, a life outside the Circle but outside by choice rather than by the system of the Circle, a life more full than the life Barbie Chang navigates with such limitation.

 

Lisa Allen Ortiz reads “Barbie Chang Loves Evites”

 

Black: And why these poems in particular?

Ortiz: It just happens that I am answering these questions in bed, recovering from a radiation treatment. And it just happens that as I am recovering, a certain gentleman of high regard is being called to consequence by a very polite Doctor of Educational Psychology who wanted to know if it was okay if she just politely and reluctantly gave testimony that the gentleman-of-high-regard had sexually assaulted her when she was 15 as it seemed kind of a little bit relevant, and the duty of a good citizen to report an act of blind fury and ego by this gentleman of the Circle who was already deemed the best choice for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. 

So here I am in bed, reading Barbie Chang, watching male senators and judges twist their mugs into ridiculous shapes, insisting that since they went to Yale, they know best, and meanwhile my insides are turning green as my body mutinies against itself—and that’s TMI, but Barbie would totally approve of me making a social gaff like that. She makes social gaffs all the time.

All that to say that Barbie Chang is relevant this very minute and will likely continue to be relevant for a sad stretch of time longer unless what I am witnessing is finally the revolution, and women will heretofore be liberated and self-determining and goodness and equality will reign. If that is the case, we can all read Barbie Chang the way we read Jane Austin, as a fantastic piece of social satire and a sad-laugh at the expense of it all because Barbie Chang is also that.

Barbie Chang, the character, is an outsider in an insider world (she calls the insiders “The Circle”—an idea Victoria Chang has explored in earlier work too). But Barbie Chang’s world is also internal in many ways. She’s inside a house, caring for her ailing parents, for kids, for the domestic world that women, a la Simone De Beauvoir, have as a birthright to manage and see to, a world of graduations and celebrations but also decay and demise and such confounding loneliness that the self is sharpened (at least in these poems) to an ice pick. These poems crack.

I chose “Barbie Chang Loves Evites” to introduce the voice and concerns of Barbie. It’s not as complex as other poems in the book, but it’s funny and emotional, and its concerns appear shallow, but the shadows they make on the page are ominous, and I love that quality that exists in many of Chang’s poems.

(I have to interrupt myself here and say that a real, real reason I also chose this book for Lyric Essentials is that the poems are SO FUN to read aloud. We should all have Barbie Chang parties and read them to each other!  For one thing, Chang rhymes with soul-swinging abandon. Also, there isn’t a scrap of punctuation in this book, but Chang is such a master of music and meter, that I never misread or misunderstand. All the readings I did for this project were once-throughs. The poems read themselves. And they love to be liberated from the page to the ears. I swear. I fell in love with each one more when it passed through my body. Poems are indeed living things that need breath. Oh! Like me.)

Of course, Barbie Chang is pretty messed up. She obsesses about being included. She is slouchy and strange and shirks around the edges of the Circle. She has an apparently made-up boyfriend named Mr. Darcey. She sometimes wishes her mom would die. She’s irritated with her father’s calls. Nonetheless, she loves her parents too much, loves her daughters too much, cares too much about her career, about the Academy, the insiders, the powerful. She judges herself, indulges herself, misunderstands everyone and is misunderstood by all.

… she

is never late when invited

always ready for mimesis ready to put

on her costume to

drink mimosas her heart smells like

moth balls jumps at

every broth bell her heart growls more

each day she trims it with

a number 2 it’s messy work missing

her aorta by a little bit

her heart is always sort of bleeding she is

always waiting for

invitations…

See what I mean about the sound? First of all that mimesis/ mimosas thing!  (Mimesis is the deliberate imitation of the behavior of a group in order to fit in. Like any good word, I had to look it up and now have to use it all the time, and I cannot imagine how I ever understood the world without it in my vocabulary before I discovered it in this poem.)

Second, I love some frowned-upon syntax here like “little bit” and “always sort of bleeding.” That’s how Barbie is— that woman-in-the-kitchen-way of being. I love her. And I am her.  And I thought of Barbie Chang so much as I was listening to Dr. Blasey Ford testify before the U.S. Senate. We recognize what power is when we see a person without it speaking up despite or in the face of. Barbie Chang does that. She’s raising her little voice, and I don’t mean that dismissively. I mean that it’s a truth. Our public selves, our “second-sex” selves have little voices. That’s just true. At least in the world where I currently live and where Dr. Ford and the great poet Victoria Chang live, women are constricted and constrained and speak breathlessly, and yet it’s so odd and surprising that Victoria Chang pushes that constraint forward in this collection where we can examine and acknowledge it for the reality that it is.

I also chose one of the “Dear P—“ poems to read. (There are seven “Dear P—“ advice poems that quietly close the book, and this is the first.) Once again, I chose a less-complex poem because I wanted you to experience the hospitality and transparency that this book offers, but Chang also builds a house, nay a metropolis of the ideas I’m tossing around here. These are nothing but teasers, of course! Anyway, a big project of this book that is also a big project of mine is the idea of love (Haters, back off!) specifically what love does to self and what love requires of self and how love defines what the self is. How much solitude love requires! How much separation. In other words, Barbie Chang can’t find love because she cares too much about the world. But Victoria Chang is well-versed in love and its domain.  These poems reveal that it’s when a person can let go of concern for the world and instead look at the world clearly and quietly, in the way Rilke directs us, say—in complete solitude, in selfless-selfishness. Ah. That’s what we’re looking for.  Love is not forced or inherited or earned even. It’s free and everywhere but few can find it because few are standing still and apart enough the way the speaker in this poem advises her daughter …

                                                …. good things are  often in    pieces    are backing  away from doorways  are alone  the heart   is   alone in  our bodies because   it must be   to love.

I can’t leave without reading “Barbie Chang’s Tears” to you. Maybe you will be thinking of Dr. Blasey Ford while I read it. But maybe you will just be consumed with Barbie the way I am. (Also, I had to include at least one poem with Mr. Darcy in it!)

… Mr Darcy walks around the city

but Barbie Chang can’t

follow him  she can’t promote herself

if she had legs she would

stop begging if she had hands she would

stop her own wedding

Simone De Beauvoir writes: “Her wings are cut, and then she’s blamed for not knowing how to fly.” I’m afraid that’s true, sisters. And look at the sorrow that domestication causes in Barbie Chang. Mr. Darcy (who is some kind of figment, maybe a slant version of Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice) he gets to gets to move freely in the world even though he’s not even real! He’s an UR-man, a perfect gentleman, an impossible situation.  But Barbie has none of the agency Mr. Darcy does.

Mr. Darcy comes and goes, but Barbie stays in Barbie world. In this particular poem, she apparently doesn’t have legs! (Sometimes she has strange doll-like features, but she’s mostly a human.)  If Barbie had legs, she would stop begging.  What can I say to that? If she had hands, she would stop her own wedding.  But she is without agency. She is pure loneliness—which of course is the only way to be a human and to love properly and exist in the world. But the world ignores her. Mr. Darcy is indifferent the way all our imagined figures are indifferent to us. He is perfect and yet imperceptible. Still, she wants to love him. She just can’t quite ever. He evades her grasp. Other men fall like shadows across these poems, but they do not see or acknowledge Barbie Chang except as a subject of aggression or dismissal or confusion.

…. she prefers to sleep on her

back so she can see the

eyes of her attackers in the morning

a bed with questions

with her depression on each side two

small holes from knees

I can spend the rest of my life reading those three last couplets. I don’t how Chang does that voodoo. That’s why I love all good poems, that thing they can do that makes complete sense and yet is impossible to understand. Revealed here is a submissive affection, an acknowledgment of the confusing reality of aggression, and it’s such a truth—I want to turn from it, but I can’t stop looking. The line “her depression on each side two/ small holes from knees.” does all the work of Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex in 10 deceptively simple and sickeningly heartbreaking words.

 

Lisa Allen Ortiz reads “Barbie Chang’s Tears”

 

Black: Do these poems or Victoria Chang’s work overall relate to your own work? And if so, how?

Ortiz: Well, I’m a selfish bitch, and I like any book that takes on the subjects of selfishness and bitches! That sounds like a joke, but it’s very serious. I spent quite a few years in my own work worrying the questions: “What is self?”  “Why and how does the speaker matter?”  “How can we break down the barriers between the speaker, the spoken, the spoken-about, the spoken-to?” I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. Because, voila: Barbie Chang.

 

Lisa Allen Ortiz Reads Victoria Chang’s “Dear P. There Will be a Circle”

 

Black: What are you working on now?

Ortiz: I’m working on mind-body poems. That’s been done, you might say. Probably. But it just happens that I’m being slowly constricted at the neck, and this is an interesting phenomenon. At the same time, I’m writing about sacrifice because I realized with a spasmodic start that new things don’t grow unless the old things die, and that’s how the whole system works. I’m tripping out about it. (Didn’t you pay attention in kindergarten, Mom? My daughter asked.) I can’t remember much about Kindergarten, but I do think it’s time for me to revisit some basic ideas about transformation. Barbie Chang has only further inspired me as Victoria Chang took this simple idea of exploring the public self of herself, and she tumbled it into a complex and, I dare say, very politically relevant and deeply human work.

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Victoria Chang earned a BA in Asian studies from the University of Michigan, an MA in Asian studies from Harvard University, an MBA from Stanford University, and an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Chang is the author of four poetry collections to date including the most recent, Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon, 2017). Chang teaches in the Antioch University MFA program.

Lisa Allen Ortiz is the author of Guide to the Exhibit, recipient of the 2016 Perugia Press Prize, as well as two chapbooks: Turns Out and Self Portrait as a Clock.  Her poems and translations have appeared in Narrative MagazineBeloit Poetry JournalThe Literary Review and have been featured in the Best New Poets series and on Verse Daily.  She grew up in Northern California and now lives in Santa Cruz. She’s really into growing lettuce and spending time in the forest. www.lisaallenortiz.com

Links to the good stuff:

Victoria Chang’s book, Barbie Chang at Copper Canyon

Victoria Chang’s Website

Chang on Becoming a Poet

Chang at Guernica

Lisa Allen Ortiz’s Guide to the Exhibit at Perugia Press

Ortiz at Verse Daily

Ortiz’s Self Portrait as a Clock at Finishing Line Press

Ortiz at Women’s Voices for Change

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Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore. For Sundress Publications she edits the Lyric Essentials blog and coordinates the Poets in Pajamas reading series.

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Lyric Essentials: Ariel Francisco Reads Two Poems by Denise Duhamel

NY poet Ariel Francisco came to talk about the work of his teacher, Denise Duhamel. In the process, we got to discuss the position of a speaker in relation to a body of work, writing for love, and even a little Frank O’Hara.

Black: Why did you choose Denise Duhamel to read from?

Francisco: She was my first poetry teacher, I love her, and her work, very much. I think I was 19 when I took my first workshop with her (almost a decade ago now)—and didn’t know much about poetry and had no real idea who she was. But she’s really the first person to introduce me to contemporary poetry, through her classes (the first book of contemporary poetry I read was Facts About the Moon by Dorianne Laux in her class) and then through her work. Not only that but she was also the first person to really encourage me in my writing. I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for her and those early classes. My experience with poetry had been mostly awful in high school.

Black: Why these particular poems?

Francisco: “How It Will End” is one of my all-time favorite poems.

I went to a reading Denise was giving at a nearby college when I was in one of her classes. I figured it was a good opportunity to see what my professor put into practice. I don’t think I’d read her work at all at this point. The poem was either the first one she read or the last, but it had been in my mind (and her voice) since that evening.

I love it because I can recognize the location—almost certainly Hollywood Beach, where I would go to skip class in high school and spent most of my summer there between senior year and freshman year of college, having my own series of unfortunate and/or unsuccessful romances. I also love the level of observation taking place, so in depth that the speaker gets lost in it, emerging only at the end.

“Love-Struck In New York,” is another kind of love poem. This poem is from Smile!, her first book, but what’s really amazing to me (and something that I’ve adapted to my own writing I think) is that this is the same ‘I’ as the one in “How It Will End,” years earlier. It’s tricky to call poems autobiographical, and I won’t, but there is definitely a consistency of the ‘I’ in Denise’s poems, throughout the years and the books, so all the previous poems inform the newer ones as a reader (at least to me).

What I really love about this poem is its almost hyperbolic sincerity. Being sincere is something that’s difficult to pull off in a poem but she does it wonderfully and believably. It isn’t too much. Or rather it is too much but that’s exactly what New York would be to a young poet I think. The too-muchness of it is perfectly encapsulated in her love.

 

Black: What is the take away of the speaker of these poems? Is it a love of, or at least preservation of, the self that is present in both of these poems?

Francisco: I think it’s a bit of both. The preservation of the present self is a really interesting way to look at it. The ‘I’ in “Love-Struck In New York” to me is the same ‘I’ in “How It Will End,” two poems that give two very different instances of love (as both a feeling and a concept). Did the speaker’s views on it change over time?

“Love-Struck … ” really captures the brief intensity of it (the brevity not necessarily being a negative here), the speaker is steeped in it, and so we get the outsider’s kind-of-perplexed reactions to her. In “How It Will End” though, the speaker seems to be viewing love from a distance, which is perhaps a metaphor in and of itself.

Black: Is there a connection between these poems or Duhamel’s work in general and your own work?

Francisco: Oh yeah. I’ve definitely taken what I think is a similar approach to poems, which is “this is me where I am in my life right now at this moment.” I, too, am writing love-struck poems in New York, or sad poems on Hollywood Beach (god, so many), or poems where I am somewhere thinking or doing something. I think that awareness of self (which is maybe different than self-awareness) is something that I’ve inherited from her both as her student and just as a close reader of her work. If I had to guess, I’d say she inherited that from Frank O’Hara (I do this, I do that).

Actually, I learned about O’Hara through her, from her poem “Having a Diet Coke With You” which is, of course, a riff off his “Having a Coke With You,” which in turn inspired a poem of my own titled “Having a Rum and Coke Alone.”

 

Black: What are you working on now?

Francisco: More poems, always poems. Also a few translation projects. I’ve been sending out a manuscript of my dad’s poems which is pretty exciting.

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Denise Duhamel is the author of thirteen books of poetry, four chapbooks, and has collaborated on several works with Maureen Seaton. Duhamel’s latest book, Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013) was shorlisted for the  American Book Critic’s Circle Award. Duhamel teaches at Florida International University and Converse College.

Ariel Francisco is the author of A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship (C&R Press, 2019) and All My Heroes Are Broke (C&R Press, 2017). A poet and translator born in the Bronx to Dominican and Guatemalan parents and raised in Miami, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2016, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He lives in East New York.

Links to the good stuff:

 

Francisco at The Boiler

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Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Black received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th ParallelBacopa ReviewWordgatheringSWWIMThe American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore. For Sundress Publications she organizes the Poets in Pajamas reading series and Lyric Essentials.

Lyric Essentials: Ashley M. Jones Reads Two Poems by Lucille Clifton

Ashley M. JonesAshley M. Jones seemed to know almost immediately after being invited to join me here at LE that she wanted to talk about Lucille Clifton. Her certainty made me smile then and her confident answers to my questions since have drawn me in and made me want to hear more. In our chat, she covered important ground, discussing the way that good poems pursue you, the volumes that can be packed into two lines, desire, the sonnet, Black women, the patriarchy, and so much more.

Black:  Why did you choose Lucille Clifton?

Jones: I will always, always, always choose Clifton. She has become a poet-mother to me, speaking to me through the page, and, thankfully, through videos of her reading and discussing her work. I chose these poems specifically because they’ve been on my mind—that’s what good poetry should do. It should haunt you in the most delicious way—to be pursued by a poem is one of my life’s greatest joys.

Clifton has a way of opening life up to its deepest, most honest truth, and that’s one reason why I love her work. I feel like I am, simultaneously, seen and instructed.

 

 

Black: And why these poems specifically?

Jones: So, “sorrows” is a poem I just recently discovered. I have Clifton’s collected works, and although I’ve read many of the poems, I have not read them all—this is on purpose. I’m not usually a cover-to-cover poetry book reader—I like to find something new each time I open the book. I like to linger on a poem and return and return and return.

With Clifton’s collected works, it’s no different—because there will never be new work, I have to savor what’s here, meander through the pages at my own pace. So, I found “sorrows.” I think I was looking for an example of a poem for an intro to creative writing class I’m teaching, and that poem jumped out because it illustrated what poems can do that prose cannot, but the content was also so right-on—again, good poems pursue you in this way, like angels, swooping into whatever you’re feeling—so I kept thinking about it.

Sorrow is an emotion many of us know well, but the way Clifton describes it opens it anew. The conceit is that sorrows are like dark angels, leeching onto mortals, falling in love with us. The difference, according to Clifton, between sorrow and desire (or a desire to be desired, even by sorrow) is so slight, we can barely recognize it. That take on sorrow is the most accurate, I think. It is true that to be sad is a deep a commitment, at least in my life, as it is to be in love or loved by someone. It’s a powerful relationship.

“Black Women” has been on my mind for a long, long time. It describes, succinctly, what Black women have given and given up, what place we’re told we hold in society. It tells an entire history of Black womanhood in America in just sixteen lines.

Black women are expected, required, to be Strong and Dependable and Able To Nurse An Entire Nation of Men, but we are not, have not, been valued as sexual (not sexualized—we have been overly sexualized, our sexuality has been and is still misunderstood and misnamed) or as delicate or as worthy of affection.

This country, this patriarchy, won’t allow our strength to fold into vulnerability. It began during slavery—we had to make ourselves undesirable to the masters who raped and raped. We lifted up the Black men so they might survive the daily emasculation they faced, but in that lifting, we endured the way the white patriarchy found its way into our men’s fists and words against us. All of this, for survival in a country in which we were never meant to survive.

 

 

Black:  This line in “Black Women”: America made us heroines / not wives. is one that I know many return to. Would you open it up for us, discuss it a little?

Jones: This line, and the line that follows: “we hid our ladyness / to save our lives” resonates so deeply with me.

It not only explains, as I’ve said, the history of Black women in America, but it speaks to the way we’re seen today, too. America made us heroines—let’s look at that first.

It would seem, at first, that being distinguished as a heroine is a good thing—it means you’re strong, you’re smart, you save people. Yes, those things are true. But a heroine often has no duality, and we know from our own human experience that we’re full of nuance and duality and contradiction and complexity. But that distinction as heroine leaves little room for nuance.

Harriet Tubman, for example, is hailed (rightly so) as one of the great American Heroes of all time. She was strong, smart, brave, and a lover of her people. Nowhere in that story is there room for her to be soft, fragile, vulnerable, desirable and capable of desire. Yes, we learn that she was married but when we look at how people think of her today, it is never in terms of her whole personhood. This is part of the reason I decided to write about her in my new collection—I wanted her to become more than just that one side we see in history books.

Not wives—again, a heroine is a heroine. She’s not desired for anything but the help she can bring. Mammy is an example of this. Like Tubman—and yes, there’s a larger conversation to be had regarding this comparison between Mammy and Harriet Tubman, but go with me here first—Mammy was a savior. She saved the Good Missus from having to deal with wailing, writhing white babies. She knew just how to raise them so they’d leave their mothers alone. She was the best cook this side of heave—-working away in the Big House on dinners her family could only dream about. She was utterly unsexual—nothing but jolly darkness lived beneath her skirts. No rouge for her cheeks. No curls in her hair, just a headscarf and a big, friendly smile.

Although we are neither Tubman nor Mammy now, this expectation for Strong Black Womanhood still exists. And, we, statistically, the least desired (again, this is a waaaaaay larger and more nuanced conversation—I’m just going off of statistics) by men.

Our attributes are praised when anyone else but us has them—Kylie Jenner’s lips, the Kardashians’ claim to have invented du-rags, cornrows, box braids, you name it. Our strength is depended upon, even on a statewide scale—they tell us Black women saved the election between Doug Jones and Roy Moore here in my home state of Alabama. But so many of us face this issue of not being seen as potential romantic partners. That’s what that line drums up for me. All of that in just two lines! Clifton at her best.

Black:  What is the connection, if any, to your own work in that of Clifton’s?

Jones: I hope there is every connection between my work and Clifton’s. I aspire to her brevity and precision, and although I am far from mastering it, I think I draw closer each time I take to the page.

I also aspire to her powerful vulnerability. Clifton is always authentic in her poems—there’s a certain humanity you can feel rising up from the page. But there’s also this sharpness, this undeniable power. She is showing the nuance, the complexity of Black womanhood in each piece she writes. I hope that’s coming through in my pieces—that’s what I try to create in each poem.

Black: You have so much going on, it’s hard to know what to ask you about. What are you working on now?

Jones: Right now, I’m writing a new collection of poems, preparing for the 2019 Magic City Poetry Festival, and trying to be the best teacher to my high school and college kiddos.

The new collection started as a study of Gwendolyn Brooks—her formal poems spoke to me, and her ability to write such biting critiques of American society in an often neat and tidy package (here, I mean form, rhyme, and the sometimes sugary nature of her language) was so appealing that I had to try it for myself! So, I started to write exclusively in the sonnet form, and although I’m still mostly writing in sonnets, this project has become more of an exploration in how deeply I can dig into my own well of emotion and experience to pull up poems that, like Brooks’, simultaneously disarm and alarm the reader.

I’m thinking, specifically, of “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed.” This poem is a traditional ballad. It has a nursery rhyme feel, but it explores the horrors of American life for a Black family. This poem disarms through the neat packaging but delivers its alarming punch in the content. I’m playing with that. What can a sonnet (or near-sonnet) hold that it has not held before? How can I continue the work Brooks (and so many others—Patricia Smith, Wanda Coleman, Terrance Hayes) continue to do in formal work (or, new forms, or even free verse), to open up the canon and create space for marginalized experiences to be lifted up to the heights of the “classics” we study.

A sonnet, you see, is undeniably “artistic” and “important” if it’s written by Shakespeare. What happens when you use that form, that undeniably “art-worthy” form, to talk about lynchings in America?

The Magic City Poetry Festival is a celebration of poetry and place, and I am its founding director. Our second festival is slated for April 2019, and we are working working working on securing grant funding to create an even bigger festival than we had last year. We want Birmingham to become a literary destination, and that takes WORK. If any of you readers are nearby Birmingham come April, we’d love to see you at our events (they’re all and always free)!

Thank you, Ashley.

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Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is the author of 14 books of poetry including the last, The Collected Works of Lucille Clifton published posthumously in 2012, 10 children’s books, and many more. Clifton received a number of prestigious awards in her lifetime including the Ruth Lilly, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Coretta Scott King Award, the National Book Award, and more. Clifton served as a chancellor on the board of the Academy of American Poets in addition to teaching at several universities including UC Santa Cruz, St. Mary’s, and Columbia. In 2006 Clifton was a fellow at Dartmouth. From 1979-1985 Clifton served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland.

Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University.  Her debut poetry collection, Magic City Gospel, was published by Hub City Press in January 2017, and it won the silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including the Academy of American Poets, Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, The Sun, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, and The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. Her second collection, dark / / thingwon the 2018 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press and is forthcoming in February 2019. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is Second Vice President of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave , founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

 

Links to the good stuff:

Clifton’s Homage to my Hips

Clifton at the Academy

Remembering Clifton, in the New Yorker

Clifton Reading “The Lost Baby Poem”

“How to Become a Poet,” Ashley M. Jones at The Rumpus

Ashely M. Jones at her own Website

Three Poems by Ashley M. Jones at Scoundrel Time

 

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Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Black received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore. For Sundress Publications she organizes the Poets in Pajamas reading series and Lyric Essentials.

Lyric Essentials: Alexandra Lytton Regalado Reads Aracelis Girmay

Alexandra Lytton Regalado, the author of Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) read three poems by Aracelis Girmay and I was stunned. Then we got to sit down and chat and she spoke about grief, distance, transitions, her personal mantra, and the word she writes on herself.

Black: What made you choose the work of Aracelis Girmay?

Regalado: Reading Aracelis is like wading into dark water. I’m drawn to the mystery and restraint of her work. She keeps you at arm’s length and I appreciate that control. When I discover a song I like, I ration it out because I don’t want to fully grasp the pattern of the melody, don’t want to decipher the lyrics. It’s like hands are covering your eyes and you’re prying open the fingers and looking through the cracks. Aracelis’ poems deal with mis-seeing, or seeing partially. Declarative statements evolve in increments and that creates a sense of estrangement. She uses these slight shifts of perspective—tiny kaleidoscopic degrees, fly-vision—that relay a steady and relentless sense of seeing.

Her poems are wound tight—there is as much communicated in the blank spaces as in the words themselves. Aracelis says, “Strangeness is what troubles or opens us into discovery” and I’m trying to cultivate that strangeness in my perception. When things become everyday we take them for granted, we are buffered and numbed, and I’m trying to tap into that acute and raw sense of first experiences that makes everything boom, wow, and ah!

Aracelis presents this revelation so clearly in her poem “Second Estrangement” in two metaphors: a child lost in a crowd accidentally reaching for the hand of a stranger and a bird flying into a plate of glass. Aracelis says she carries around a quote from Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem “Headlong”: “Be strange to yourself, / in your love, your grief.” This has been a hard year for me and I’m trying to channel into that wonder.

 

 

Black: And why these particular poems?

Regalado: I have a difficult time with transitions and this year has been wave after wave. I’ve been reading a lot of elegies and thinking about different ways of dealing with grief—whether we receive it with openness or resistance—in particular, I’m interested in what happens if we chose distance over vulnerability.

It says a lot about you—how you respond to pain—your threshold, and if you prefer to go through it alone or if you seek the comfort of others. Most of the time I choose the solo/distance combo—and I have a high pain threshold—and I usually get by with “Shake it off, Roll with it, Deal with it later” mantras, but sometimes I freak myself out and think: I’m going to pay for this compartmentalization, this postponement of feelings. More and more I feel I need to scare myself into my skin and say, “Hey, this is happening now,” and turn my attention to the present moment.

The clock is ticking really fucking loud. I’m hitting my mid-forties so there are those middle of the night living-in-a-very-human-skin realizations, and both of my parents are having serious health issues, and my husband and I are in the woods with our three kids now entering adolescence. So, I have a stack of poetry books on my beside table and they are my routine, in-lieu-of-morning-prayer readings. Aracelis’ poems resonate with me, and these, in addition to my old favorites: Rilke, Woolf, and Tom Andrew’s The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle, are what’s keeping me grounded.

 

 

Black: “Elegy” asks us to consider our own mortality in a way which is both prescient and immediate. This again echoes throughout “Luam and the Flies”—the sense of mortality. Can you speak to this as you see (or don’t see) it in Girmay’s work?

Regalado: In “Elegy” Aracelis riffs on the idea of touching, what we hold on to, and carry into our every day. How can we be like the tree that grows and makes itself “useful to the nest” and shades “the heads of something beautiful” regardless of the ongoing cycle of births and deaths? “Nothing else matters,” she is urgent in her instructions: “Listen to me. I am telling you / a true thing.”

The “kingdom of touching” includes all that is disappearing, our human selves and the things of this world. What floors me is Aracelis’ confidence—she’s totally comfortable in that unknowing, that constant flux, and there’s never a need to over-explain. It’s something I have to learn; I have to fight the urge to leave things resolved.

“Luam and the Flies” is about deliberately residing in that uncertainty—really digging your feet into the realization that we are not “moored to place”. That’s another thing that I really connect with: Aracelis’ work is deeply rooted in her Afro-Latina identity, relating customs, tradition, and history in a way that is intrinsic and understood. Her poems don’t say: Look at me, so ethnic & distinct! they say: Here I am, human & ready to connect. It’s that searching voice that invites us: “Daily I am looking for signs / of what has lived & what is lost.”

I’ve become obsessed with ampersands after reading her work. Also, her enjambed line breaks and her use of commas as stanza dividers, those yokes and tethers, those snapping points and lists that guide us to how we will one day become a “city of eggs”, a “harvest” a “&”, a “port / or harbor”. She taps into our sense of mortality so quietly and subtly like those “serious games” we play with ourselves, creating gods to negotiate with, our perspectives shuttering between “You. Not you.” Her poems offer that nudge and with such a slight touch.

 

 

Black: Does this work connect to your own in some way?

Regalado: When I wrote the poems included in Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) my gaze was oriented outward and because I was writing in El Salvador (the murder capital of the world) mortality is front and center.

There is a saying, “Aqui no se vive, se sobrevive” and I wanted to understand what it meant to live, or in the case of many women, to survive in El Salvador. In my poem “La Sandía” I describe how I used to think of myself as just “human” but when I was giving birth to my first child it was as if a machete split me in half and I was sent “searing into my gender.” I never intended to write about women’s issues or social justice poems but it felt impossible to write about me, me, me when there was so much going on around me. Aracelis’ work points to the direction my new work is taking. My gaze is turning inward—I can’t seem to find enough time to be alone.

The new poems I’m writing are very personal and I need to gain a little more distance, grow a thicker skin before I send them out into the world.

Black: What are you working on now?

Regalado: In the air I’ve got lots of spinning plates: I’m writing essays, short stories, an ekphrastic poetry collaboration with Emma Trelles; I’m co-editing a soon-to-be-launched Salvadoran/Salvadoran-American online literary magazine; I’m translating and editing bilingual collections forthcoming from Kalina press (the small publishing company I co-direct in El Salvador), it’s the third year I’m co-organizing an annual book fair in El Salvador, and developing art programs with the Museum of Art of El Salvador (MARTE) to promote contemporary Salvadoran artists.

That’s just my working life; it’s a constant juggle: mom of three, wife, daughter, sister. Just listing all that makes my shoulders ache. So, what am I really working on right now? Learning to let go! I would never get a tattoo—I have enough scars from a car accident when I was 21—but if I were to get one now it is the word Relinquenda. Latin for “relinquish”, it’s a word my mother introduced to me, and it seems what I need now is a constant reminder to let go. So, Relinquenda is not a tattoo, but a word I constantly write on my palm, my wrist, my fingers. It’s also the working title of my new poetry manuscript.

 

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Aracelis Girmay is the author of four books including the most recent, The Black Maria (BOA Editions, 2016). She was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011 for her collection, Kingdom Animalia and in 2015 received the Whiting Award for poetry. Girmay received her MFA from NYU.

Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s poetry collection, Matria, is the winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). Her poems, stories, and non-fiction have appeared in NarrativeGulf CoastThe Notre Dame Review, and Creative Nonfiction among others and her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2018, Misrepresented People (NYQ Books, 2018), The Wandering Song (Tia Chucha Press, 2017), and others. Co-founder of Kalina press, Alexandra is author, editor, and/or translator of more than ten Central American-themed books including Puntos de fuga / Vanishing Points: Contemporary Salvadoran Prose (2017). She is the winner of the 2015 Coniston Poetry Prize and she was the recipient of the third Letras Latinas / PINTURA PALABRA DC Ekphrastic residencies. Her ongoing photo-essay project about El Salvador, through_the_bulletproof_glass, is on Instagram. For more info visit: http://www.alexandralyttonregalado.com

Links to the good stuff:

Aracelis Girmay at the Poetry Foundation

Girmay’s Website

Selected Girmay Poems at PBS

Regalado’s Website

Regalado’s Matria at Black Lawrence Press

Regalado’s poem, La Mano at Poets.org

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Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

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Lyric Essentials: Julie Marie Wade Reads Two Poems by Maureen Seaton

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose and a longtime reader of Maureen Seaton. When we sat down to talk about Seaton’s work, Wade had deeply valuable insight which took us down roads from the epiphanous to the Blunderbuss. Wade looks deep into the heart of Seaton’s work and evidences the grace and good humor with which she connects. This interview is as much a tribute to Seaton by Wade as it is an instructional for anyone who hasn’t yet considered the importance of Seaton’s wide-ranging body of works. This interview made me wish I were one of Wade’s students.

Black: What made you choose the work of Maureen Seaton?

Wade: I think there are poets each of us have needed for many years before we find them, and when their poems appear before us at last, the experience is almost mystical—a feeling of having known someone before you knew them, of being deeply affirmed by the epiphany of their presence in the world. Maureen Seaton is just such a mystical, epiphanous, much-needed poet for me.

I went to high school and college in the 1990s, at a time when Maureen was coming out as queer and coming into her own as a poet who worked as diligently in form (sonnets, villanelles, et al.) as she did in the most envelope-pushing, experimental spaces. She was taking risks, in her life and in her art, that I didn’t yet realize a person, let alone a woman-person, could take.

Somehow I did not encounter Maureen’s writing until after I had already taken the greatest plunge of my own life, though—not going through with my marriage to a man at the end of my first year of graduate school and continuing my journey through life with my true love, a woman named Angie, to whom I am now happily married.

Not long after that plunge, in 2003 or 2004, I read a poem by Denise Duhamel called “When I Was a Lesbian,” which I found stunning and thrilling, a poem which opened doors for me to imagine my own life as formerly (for all intents and purposes) heterosexual. I took that poem as an invitation to begin exploring more consciously the first twenty-two years of my life “when I was straight.” But what I didn’t realize until I delved deeper into the collaborative poetry written by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton (Exquisite Politics indeed!) was that Denise’s poem was written as a response to Maureen’s own “When I Was Straight,” which belongs to an ever-growing series of other poems—“When I Was Avant-garde,” “When I Was a Jersey Girl,” “When I Was Bi(nary),” etc.—that opened onto the vast landscape of Maureen’s work in conditional, circumstantial, and subjunctive spaces.

Years later, I had the privilege of meeting and coming to know both of these poets, long-time friends and collaborators, in real life, and I was audacious enough to ask them to bless my own book-length project, a collection of poems called When I Was Straight. Not only did they bless it—they blurbed it, collaboratively!

 

Black: Why these particular poems of Seaton’s?

Wade: I have never read a Maureen Seaton poem where I didn’t have the sensation, at one point and usually at many points, of hearing a gong reverberate inside my head. When I read Maureen’s “When I Was Straight,” the gong struck loudest at this moment: “there is no lover like a panicked lover.” It was one of those moments—the best moments for readers of poetry, I think, or readers of any literature—where I sketched in my notebook, How did she know?!?! There was a cosmos in that line, one I recognized in my own life but had never even attempted to name, let alone in such a concise and elegant (and witty—I love the omnipresence of Maureen’s sense of humor across her canon) way.

So I knew I wanted to record this poem because it was the first, though by no means the last, of Maureen’s poems to seize me in that visceral and oracular kind of way. Then, I started looking at other aspects of the poem, particularly the diction and the juxtapositions. Who describes heteronormativity as “that Old Boyfriend Theory of Headache and Blunderbuss”? Who uses the word “blunderbuss”? I started noticing the little sparks coming off of pairings like “linearity and menthol” (an abstraction paired with a potent concrete), “pretense and fellatio” (there again), and chewy Anglo-Saxon words and phrases like “crowded with cleavage,” “fickle,” and “winged clavicle.” Which is to say I fell in love with this poem on all levels: conceptually, sonically, stylistically. It’s also meta, as the poem performs its own “trapeze art and graceful aerobics.” The poem is that art, those aerobics.

For the second poem, I ran into the challenging fact of the enormous range and depth of Maureen’s body of work to date. With so many gongs striking inside my head, so much marginalia scribbled on every page, I decided to choose a poem that moves in diametrically different ways than “When I Was Straight.” That poem is pulled taut like a tightrope in its shape on the page—all those lovely tercets upon which the speaker-as-tightrope-walker is performing her remarkable feats, turning somersaults and riding unicycles and juggling torches. I wanted to showcase something different. There were so many poems I considered— “What She Thought,” “Impatiences,” “The Nomenclature of Wind,” “He Crossed the Hallway with a Soul in His Hand,” and “Red” standout among them—but in the end I chose “The Realm of the Wide” as exemplar of Maureen’s wide-realm poetics. Instead of a tightrope, this poem is the circus tent, a canopy she opens over the whole world of her knowing and longing and wondering. If this poem were a horoscope, it would describe something essential about every Zodiac sign.

 

Black: “The Realm of the Wide” is particularly unique in its scope. This is a winding long-poem with a lot of great turns. What about it do you want to call particular attention to?

Wade: Through all my years as a student, there was an incongruity—really a snobbishness—that I never understood in the realm of literary theory. We learned there was a school of criticism called reader response, but then we learned, both explicitly and in a variety of subtle ways, that this school didn’t “count” as a real school. We could deconstruct and post-structuralize. We could go through mimetic doors and intertextual doors and feminist doors in our examination of texts, but we couldn’t go through that primary door of our own personal experience of intellectual-emotional-visceral engagement. As a teacher of creative writing, I know I don’t stand a chance of encouraging my students to “write as readers”—to cultivate an awareness of their audience—without acknowledging and anticipating a reader’s response to their work. And if we are writers, we were readers first and also readers in a state of essential perpetuity, let’s hope! So how can I ask my students not to cross the threshold of reader response, which I value not only as a doorway to meaningful analysis but also as a doorway to meaningful emulation?

Which is to say: “The Realm of the Wide” speaks to me directly as a poet with similar intellectual and emotional investments to Maureen Seaton. It also speaks to me as a poet who is always studying the possibilities of poetic form and the elasticity of poetry as a genre. It speaks to me as a teacher of poetry for similar reasons—the thrilling range of invitations and permissions the text offers to fellow and future writers. This poem further addresses me as a person with multi-genre and hybrid-text infatuations and commitments. I wonder whether poem is really only one name this text might answer to. Is it a micro-lyric-essay, too? A micro-lyric-segmented-braided essay? Some or all of the above?

This imperative alone: “Feel yourself mingle with the word you love beside you.” That’s what poets do, and lyric essayists, too. The words are alive. They can lose cells and run temperatures.

I’m also obsessed with finding new ways to talk about the moon, something that crystallized for me when I read Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s extraordinary memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. She invites readers to tell her something she hasn’t heard before about that much-romanticized heavenly body. Maureen does it here, seamlessly: “this moon has got me up the way someone comes in and drags you out of bed to play cards or eat mayonnaise on toast at 3 AM…” Yes! That way. That moon. Exactly.

There are bullet points in this poem, denoting the list from “baby pigs” to “a shaman in a wheelchair.” The blanks that follow the chorus of adjectives “Sorrowful,” “Joyful,” and “Glorious” are actual blanks, not the word “blank,” which changes the experience of reading the poem on the page versus listening to the poem read aloud. These visual poetics in Maureen’s work instantly transform the ranch house poem into a multi-floored mansion: rooms on top of rooms, a ceiling that is also a floor, etc.

And then the two quotes juxtaposed at the end, the high-art intellectual sound of Magritte’s statement about “symbolic meanings” and the profound yet directly accessible statement about vanilla attributed simply to “Nick,” the famous artist in conversation with the Everyman or Anyman. This is Maureen’s hierarchy-neutralizing power as a poet. She validates so many ways of knowing simultaneously. She rejects high horses. Her work is full of dark horses and wild horses. Her work epitomizes for me what Magritte means by “the inherent mystery” that many people sense in an image but are also frightened by because it can’t be easily named and thereby tamed. I find that inherent mystery everywhere in Maureen’s work, so I’m just holding up this poem as a representative example. When she says, “It mattered, but only slightly,” she is making a spectrum out of a taken-for-granted binary. If we are used to thinking of things mattering or things not mattering, as many of us are, then here come those surprising hoofbeats of “slight mattering,” the invitation to a thought experiment of mattering on a sliding scale.

Maureen’s is a luminous, curious, capacious, unrelenting mind. I would follow her anywhere because she has never used her intellect as a weapon or crafted her rigorous, expansive poems with only an elite readership in mind. On the contrary, I find Maureen Seaton to be one of Poetryland’s most generous guides. If she takes her readers into a swamp, she supplies the waders. She also grows and tends the orchids we are destined to find there.

Black: Does this work connect to your own in some way?

Wade: Perhaps more than any other poet, Maureen has taught me that you can write as and from all your varied versions of self, including the most seemingly contradictory. Many poets become known for writing a certain way, a certain kind of “signature style,” a recognizable shape to the content and/or appearance of their poems—but not Maureen. I think her poems are deeply fluid, within and across every book project and sometimes even within a single poem. These poems are queer in the truest and deepest sense of the word—spectral, rhizomatic, protean, “all-of-the-above” poems. And this fact alone has given me tremendous permissions in my own approach to writing. I’m not trying to make my work into something that stays put after it’s placed on the page. I want to make work that feels like a living organism, the way Maureen’s poems do. Instead of the poem (or lyric essay, or hybrid form) as art object, I want to learn how to make the most porous and anti-static kinds of creations. If the poem is likened to a painting on the wall—vivid and imagistic—let it also be a painting where the eyes move, where the frame slants, where it is never the same painting twice that the viewer looks upon.

I often talk to my students about entering their own writing “through the smallest door,” and sometimes the smallest door is a single word. I like to get as close as I can to individual words, and Maureen’s poems bless and press that enterprise further. One whole stanza from “The Realm of the Wide” consists of: “The word: Outlandish.” And what a word! I love the invitation to stare at the word, to see the “out” and the “land” and the “dish” in it just by lingering in that long pause. I’ve never asked Maureen if she is synesthetic, but her poems are, and as a synesthete who experiences the world of language in vivid colors, Maureen’s poetry amplifies my synesthetic experience of the world as well, adds another tier/floor/skylight. “You could jump the fire and ride to where the words are backdrafting,” she writes. How visceral and invigorating and absolutely true!

Finally, I think it’s Maureen’s own biomythography she’s drafting and revising and reimagining across these pages. (I hope Audre Lorde wouldn’t mind my invoking her term here, as I know Maureen and I both deeply admire and write as grateful readers of Lorde.) Maureen’s poems resist stasis because she has resisted stasis—staying put in any one role, category, or geographical location. Maureen is candid about falling into and out of love, marriage, divorce, sexual awakenings, motherhood, faith, doubt, and always, the complexities, dare I say “the inherent mysteries,” of gender, desire, and the body. There is much in her life’s reckoning and recurring themes that overlap with my own. In another salient capsule of experience that seems to denote the way she was raised, Maureen writes, “Everything/ should be Disney or saintly.” That was my first imperative, too. With every poem and hybrid form, Maureen is teaching me how to write my way beyond those initial strictures of conventional beauty, contrived happiness, and religious dogma.

Black: What are you working on now?

Wade: On the prose front, I’m writing essays for a collection called “The Regulars,” which is another slant on my own bildungsroman. At a certain point in time, I realized that I have stories I tell and stories I write, and it occurred to me that some of the stories I tell—which are often the most absurd glimpses of my childhood, darkly humorous but also intimidatingly sad—might have another kind of life on the page. The title is a reference, in the most literal sense, to being regular customers at the Old Spaghetti Factory every Sunday, my parents and I, but also to the relentless quest for normalcy—or at least to be perceived as normal and consequently likable, admirable, and good—that governed my upbringing. (“Everything/ should be Disney or saintly” indeed!) Angie, my spouse, suggested the title, which I love, and so I’ve been writing my way into some of my own personal oral tradition, the stories I have only shared with close friends who say, “Tell us about the time you had to …” or “What was it your parents did when …”

On the poetry front, I’m writing a lot of secular psalms for a sequence that I think will belong, eventually, to a collection called Quick Change Artist. That project might also subsume some or all of the poems from When I Was Straight, which illustrates the before-and-after experiences of someone, essentially the same someone, who was first perceived as heterosexual and trying very hard to tow many tacit heterosexual lines, and then who, in the second half of the project, reckons with all the new ways people respond to her as an out lesbian, a woman marked by sexual difference.

There’s also a hybrid-form memoir about food that I’ve been toying with for years called The Western Family. (I grew up on the West Coast, and the brand of most of the food products we ate in our home was “Western Family.” Food as source of pleasure, shame, ritual, family connectedness and family discord, and food as marker of a particular zeitgeist is something I intend to explore.) And eventually, I plan to write a collection of poems that mirrors the question-and-answer clues on Jeopardy!, the game show that seems to have played ceaselessly at the dinner table throughout my youth and is now playing throughout my adulthood, recording daily on our DVR, in fact!

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Maureen Seaton received her MFA at Vermont College and is the author of nine poetry collections and a memoir, Sex Talks to Girls among many other projects. Her work has notably appeared in Best Small Fictions and Best American Poetry among many other places. Seaton has received multiple awards and recognitions for her work. Among them, several Lambda awards, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection, Fisher was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2018. Seaton is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Miami, Florida.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, including Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires: Essays, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, Catechism: A Love Story, SIX, Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems, and the forthcoming The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, co-authored with Denise Duhamel. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Florida International University in Miami.

Links to the good stuff:

Seaton at Black Lawrence Press

Seaton’s Newest Collection, Fisher

The Rumpus Interviews Maureen Seaton

Seaton at Lambda Literary

Julie Marie Wade’s Website

Julie Marie Wade at The Academy of American Poets

Julie Marie Wade at Tupelo Quarterly

Wade’s When I was Straight

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Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. She received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

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Lyric Essentials: Sarah Clark Reads Two Poems by Michael Wasson

Sarah Clark works in some of the most important areas of our industry. They are a VIDA board member and her work with Anomaly, Drunken Boat, and others has been outstanding. I swear they are busier than most anyone I know and yet she took the time to visit us here at LE with poems by Michael Wasson. We were able to talk about the colonializing of bodies in literature, discomfort, tropes, and so much more.

Black: What made you select these particular poems?

Clark: This is the question that I have been avoiding for weeks. Because it means having to answer a question that I didn’t want to and that you didn’t ask. I haven’t wanted to broach being asked to participate in this series when many readers, educators, and editors were wondering what to do now that Sherman Alexie has been accused of serial sexual misconduct. A startling number of people have asked, “Who will fill the void in Native American literature?” And I take issue with the idea that such a void ever could exist. There are so many extremely talented Native, First Nations writers (not to mention the many more indigenous writers across the American landmasses) who are, and have been, producing extraordinary work for decades.

The writer I almost chose was Ai.

Ai was the first Native writer I encountered in college who was unashamed to be mixed and unashamed to be queer. At this point in my life, certain Native (or Native-themed) literature had been passed my way. Because, since I was Native, wouldn’t I want to read the work of another Native author? But instead of feeling liberated, I felt chained to all of this turquoise, all of these fancydances, these misogynistic narrators encountering city life for the first time, these endless Educations of Little Tree, these writers who weren’t Native at all but felt it was their right to tell our stories.

There was something different about the way Ai wrote. She didn’t deal in those tropes. And, while their work isn’t formally comparable, when I found Wasson’s work for the first time, I felt a similar spark. It was like seeing a familiar face. It was like something unspoken—hope in a body of literature that I could relate to.

Black: What is your sense of Wasson’s work as a whole?

Clark: The most beautiful boneyard I’ve ever seen bloom.

A few years ago, I was hoping to work on a project, concerning a museum that had been selling postcards and displaying the remains of members of my tribe. I fell into a research hole, reading archaeological accounts of the dig sites where they gathered the bones, as well as the objects buried alongside these people. There were detailed descriptions of their bones. I hesitated, realizing I, too, was about to call them, simply, “the bones.” There was speculation about their heights, their diets, whether their pelvis bones suggested they had given birth before, whether one woman held an esteemed place in our tribe, because so many beads had been sewn to a shroud beside her.

I had to give up the project. My partner was driving me to the museum. I was going to see them. These people. Who had been seen so intimately by strangers.

I kept going back to one section of one anthropological journal. It’s standard practice to measure the bones. There was such dizzying detail. Every femur, every tooth, all quantified and numbered. Numbered.

I felt outside of my body, outside of what felt like this entire planet. That a thin line separated who I am from bone trivia.

My sense of Wasson’s work as a whole is that he’s grappling with questions familiar to many of us who are indigenous. The foremost of which is space. I’m not sure if it comes across when listening to these poems as opposed to seeing them on the page, Wasson makes expert use of space, and I can’t help but feel this is in part a reclamation.

Space has been taken from indigenous people in a variety of ways, most literally in the form of land, but also when it comes to seats at the table, and the temporal—there’s this idea that indigenous people are only real and valid when we embody certain traditional aspects of our respective tribes. I suppose it’s important to remind the readers here that we are after all over 500 nations across this landmass, but I digress. Wasson makes use of Nez Perce language as well as English, the language that ironically unites hundreds of tribes, yet Wasson’s work is never that which caters to tropes, to what is expected by non-Native audiences, the “Indian Poem” so to speak. Any indigenous people reading know what I mean.

Wasson’s work is a reclamation of the autonomy of indigenous thought, neither denying the traditional nor dependent upon it. Wasson’s work looks forward and inward.

Black: There is a tremendous force of/on/in the body within both of these works. Embodied seems like too soft a word for the way they resonate in the flesh. Is there a connection in this way to your own work?

Clark: Extremely. All of my work deals with the body in one way or another. For all of the times I’ve had to fight for my body, I now want nothing more than to fight for the bodies of others. For those with embodied experiences to tell their stories through poetry, essay—however a writer can feel their body is no longer erased or invalidated—that’s the work that I’m invested in, as an editor. I’m interested in the ghost stories of the living, and I’m interested in those of us who survive and reclaim our bodies day after day.

 

 

Black: Do poems grant us passage in the body of another?

Clark: It’s a colonial fetish to be granted passage into the body of an indigenous person (regardless of whether the author or I may want that to happen). However, I do believe in empathy and literature, and perhaps by truly opening oneself up to to the experiences of another, one may experience necessary growth not just as a person, but as a reader, a writer.

For that matter, I’m also interested in the ways that these poems do not grant passage into the body of another. The ways that a reader may feel lost or may realize they cannot relate. I think that there is great value in those truths and that it should not be a goal to always “skinwalk” as another, but to accept that there are lives that we for whatever reasons will never lead. To explore one’s own body and the connections that radiate out from it is always a good starting point for reading, writing, editing, and for being a fellow human being.

Black: What do you want readers to really notice when they hear or read these poems?

Clark: Any discomfort they might feel. And I hope they’ll hold onto that discomfort until it starts to make some sense. If any discomfort remains illegible, then that’s perfect. Because then, I’d want readers to turn to Wasson’s work, and really, truly listen. To abandon their gaze, as much as any of us can, and—bare and vulnerable, allow Wasson’s work to speak, uninterrupted.

 

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Michael Wasson’s poems appear or are forthcoming in DialogistPrairie Schooner, and Waxwing. He is Nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Lenore, Idaho, and currently lives in Japan. (Bio from The Academy of American Poets.)

Sarah Clark is a disabled two-spirit Native editor, writer, and cultural consultant. They are a VIDA Board member, and Assistant Editor with the VIDA ReviewCo-Editor of the Bettering American Poetry series, and Managing Editor and Features & Reviews Editor at Anomaly

Clark curated Anomaly‘s GLITTERBRAIN folio and a forthcoming folio on Indigenous & Decolonial Futures & Futurisms, and edited Drunken Boat’s folios on Sound Art, “Desire & Interaction,” and a collection of global indigenous art and literature, “First Peoples, Plural.” They were co-editor of Apogee Journal‘s #NoDAPL #Still Here folio, and co-edited Apogee Journal‘s series “WE OUTLAST EMPIRE,” of work against imperialism, and “Place[meant]“, on place and meaning. Clark freelances, and has worked with a number of literary and arts publications and organizations, including The Atlas Review, Apogee Journalcontemptorary.org, Sundress Publications, Best of the Net, The Paris Review, and Blackbird. In her spare time, Clark has strong opinions and is very queer. They cannot pass a Turing test.

Links to the good stuff:

Michael Wasson on Lit Hub

Michael Wasson’s This American Ghost at YesYes Books

Michael Wasson at Passages North

Michael Wasson at Gulf Coast

Sarah Clark at VIDA

Sarah Clark at Anomaly

Sarah on Twitter

 

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Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. She received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

 

Lyric Essentials: Emma Trelles Reads Three Poems by Ada Limón

Poet Emma Trelles, author of Tropicalia (Notre Dame, 2011), came to chat about the extraordinary work of Ada Limón. We talked about horses, chaos, and the importance of Latinx poetry.

Black: Limón’s work impacts a lot of people and as a result, she enjoys well-earned success. What is in her work that you are particularly drawn to?

Trelles: There’s so much I admire about her work. She is a master of cadence in that she knows precisely where to expand and contract her lines to create a voice that reads to me instead of the other way around. I think it might be easy to miss this aspect of craft in her poems because the sound of them is deeply engaging, like having a conversation with a confidante. But it takes a lot of effort to create that ease and she renders this armature invisible. I’m also drawn to how her poems are both joyous and melancholy at once as if she is celebrating the experience of life instead of simply its victories. “In the Country of Resurrection” comes to mind; she begins with the mercy killing of a possum on a dark road and ends with a gush of morning light in the kitchen. In seven couplets, a shape that echoes this duality, she moves us through despair, and in the final two she speaks to the decisiveness, the choice, it takes to move forward. Her poems are survivors, and the ability to endure inspires me as an artist and a human every time I’m bludgeoned with another slab of bad news. We must continue.

 

Black: Horses are a recurring theme throughout the book, and we see it again here in “Downhearted.” This theme really hit home for many readers. Do you connect with it, also? And if so, why? Where does it take you?

Trelles: That’s interesting—I hadn’t thought about horses as a theme but more of how they fit into the prominence of the natural world in these poems. A terrible accident kills six horses in the first line of “Downhearted,” and this tragedy sets off a meditation about how we manage or manufacture sorrow even as we long for “the blood to return…the thrill and wind of the ride.” From beginning to end, this book houses creatures, landscapes, flora, the pleasures and failures of the body—they all are themselves, of course, but they also serve as fleshy signposts that point her, and us, toward ourselves and something bigger than ourselves. Namely, how we try and find meaning in chaos and how that process sustains us.

Black: Limón moves into prose poems off and on throughout the collection and we see it here in “The Quiet Machine.” What do you see as the purpose for this movement? How does this play with the other forms in the collection?

Trelles: I’ve thought a lot about how “The Quiet Machine” feels like an ars poetica to me and, now, looking at the other prose poems, I’m starting to suspect they all address writing in a way, or at least the feeling of making, and how that arrives through whir or stillness or somewhere in between. To me these poems serve as a deep pause; they slow down the hearty gallop of the book (which is astonishing for a collection of poems!) in a way that amplifies intimacy. Some of these poems felt like reading the pages of a secret notebook … 

Black: Do these connect in some way to or intersect with your own work?

Trelles: Oh yeah; my own writing also teems with trees and birds, sky and water. I’ve always been a great watcher of the natural world and my first book, Tropicalia, explores how the subtropics intersect with the built environments of South Florida and what it means to live in the midst of that thicket of concrete and lushness. I also connect to Ada Limón’s work because we are both Latinx writers who do not necessarily address our heritage in the ways that have come to be expected of us, such as through the lenses of ancestry or immigration, for example. I love reading those poems and greatly value the work of poets who write within this framework.

Perhaps now more than ever, Latinx poems are crucial to humanizing a population who is currently being criminalized in our country for no other reason than where we come from. With 57 million of us in the US, I’d also like to think there are lots of different ways to live and write as a Latinx poet, and these poems are important too because they show how we are not a monolith; our experiences are nuanced and singular and so is our creative work.

 

Black: Will you tell us about your work both completed and any current projects you’re working on?

Trelles: Well, it’s been a while since Tropicalia, won the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and was put out by the good folks at the University of Notre Dame Press. Since then, I moved to California and now program the Mission Poetry Series here in Santa Barbara. I’ve worked on a number of projects with Letras Latinas, most recently as an editor for its contribution to the Poetry Coalition, a national coalition of more than 20 organizations that promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities. I’ve been writing and publishing poems and hope to finish a working draft of my next manuscript by the end of this summer. There—’ve said it in print and now I’m beholden! I’ve also been collaborating with Alexandra Lytton Regalado on a series of poems inspired in part by the work and lives of women artists. In fact, I owe her an envoi and that’s the very next thing I’ll write.

Black: Thank you, Emma, for sitting down with me. And I’ll be hoping for that next collection, I can’t believe you committed to that in writing!

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Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky WreckThis Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky. Her new collection, The Carrying, will be released by Milkweed Editions in August of 2018. (Bio is from the author’s website.)

Emma Trelles is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and the author of Tropicalia (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, a finalist for Foreword/Indies poetry book of the year, and a recommended read by The Rumpus. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry, Best of the Net, Verse DailyPolitical Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity and others.  Recent poems appear in The Miami RailZócalo Public Square,and SWWIM.  A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, she lives with her husband in California, where she teaches at Santa Barbara City College and programs the Mission Poetry Series.

Links to the good stuff:

Limón’s Website

Limón at Compose Journal

Bright Dead Things at Milkweed

Limón at The Poetry Foundation

Trelles on SWWIM

Trelles at Zócalo

Trelles at Best American Poetry

Trelles’ Tropicalia at NDP

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Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, SWWIM, and New Mobility among others. She was awarded her MFA at Arizona State University and has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

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Lyric Essentials: Joanna C. Valente Reads Two Poems by Kim Hyesoon

Joanna C. Valente is a poet I have admired for some time. I’ve long wished I could absorb a smidgeon of their daring, their bold virtuosity, and their determination. So I was a little in awe when they agreed to sit down and talk to me. And they did not disappoint. Most people know by now that if I get to talk experimental poetics, I’m pretty happy, and Joanna came through, for sure.

Black: What brought Kim Hyesoon to your attention?

Valente: Cathy Park Hong! While I was getting my MFA at Sarah Lawrence, I took a workshop with Cathy my last semester and she had the class read one of Kim’s books (All the Garbage of the World, Unite!) which changed my entire world. I love poetry that is excessive and delves into the grotesque and also explores the female body (and bodies in general)—and it’s what I was trying to do myself (I was writing my thesis, which later became my third book, Marys of the Sea). So, it couldn’t have been better timing. Kim has been such an inspiration and influence on my work; I love her. Ever since, I’ve been reading and teaching her work for my workshops at Brooklyn Poets.

Black: What do you love about these particular poems?

Valente: There is this feeling that the speaker is talking to themselves, and to an extent, the void. Repeating words and images as a kind of chant or spell, or coping mechanism to the world around us, that is both beautiful and destructive. That feeling couldn’t be more real right now, sadly. The repetition is so strong and so emblematic of how humans think and feel in the world. Of course, Kim is also a master at using strange images that stick in your mind, which I’ve always been drawn to in art in general.

 

 

Black: In “Driving in a Downpour” there is this impulse that moves away from the declarative and into the interrogative form. There’s something humble in that decision. What is your take on this movement?

Valente: We ask questions often knowing the answer. I think that is what the speaker is doing here, wanting, perhaps, a different answer if they ask enough times. We also come to the truth more, and closer, when we ask questions, even if we do know the answer in the back of our heads. Questions make things, like feelings, real. They make us have to take ownership of what we feel, but also what we’re asking. Why things are the way they are, which Kim is doing in the lines:

“Why am I breathing like a lungfish, opening and closing my mouth, why have I lived so
long in the same body, am I sighing under my heavy dress, are my eyes open or closed,
in a night of a heavy rainfall why does the vast Andes appear in front of me again
and again?”

How heartbreaking, but so true and real are those lines? Why have I lived so long in the same body? Why am I sighing? Why am I breathing? While the speaker compares breath to a lungfish, the question really is, why am I breathing? Why am I alive? Why is my life like this? It’s so amazing, and so tense, and also so reflective of who we are and what we think. It’s about those thoughts that we would hardly admit to our friends and family because it’s hard to admit weakness or existential terror. Or just some uncomfortable or unsettling feelings in general. That impulse to make everything OK is so dangerous and so common.

Black: Can you talk a little bit about experimental poetry and in particular, what are your thoughts about its role in poetry today?

Valente: I think experimental art, not just poetry, but especially poetry in my case, is so important because it’s often political. When we experiment, we’re questioning ourselves, our positions, our views, and the world we live in. I can’t stress enough how important that is right now when the world seems to be collapsing, when it’s being shipped into a wreck. This is not to say that form poetry can’t be political or experimental, but I do think when we push ourselves beyond the conventional boundaries of language, we are pushing ourselves beyond what we normally do and see, beyond the linguistic worlds our brains are used to and live in. Creating new worlds, new thoughts, in language is how we move into more progressive spaces, in my opinion. Poetry has always been a form of protest for me.

Black: Does this work intersect with your own?

Valente: I’m all about pushing myself out of my own comfort zones in my poetry, often trying to write “ugly poems” or making “ugly” art for the sake of exploring real vulnerability, and not just a crafted vulnerability. This is not to say I don’t love Kim’s images or think they are beautiful in their own ways, but I don’t think the poems are trying to be pastorals for the mind. I think they’re trying to be real, and gritty and uncomfortable. I always strive to do the same in my work, even before I read Kim’s. It’s important for me, also, for every project I work on to be different and explore different themes or obsessions. I also love the use of persona, which Kim explores often as well, especially pertaining to bodies. As a non-binary femme, exploring bodies and gender and sex is definitely at the core of what I’m doing – especially through the use of persona, as a way to get outside my own lens as much as possible.

Balck: Will you tell me a little bit about your own work and current projects?

Valente: Too many things, because I love being busy! Right now, I’m working on a novel told in nonlinear vignettes, a sort of possession and ghost narrative focusing on sexual violence and nonbinary and transgender characters. It’s called “Baby Girl and Other Ghosts.” I’m also working on a poetry collection that is basically done, “White Men Tell Me Things About My Body,” and another called “Werner Catzog,” which will also be illustrated. As if that’s not enough, I’m collaborating with two friends, one on a project called “Metal Poems” (with Chris Antzoulis) and another called “Killer Bob: A Love Story” (with Matthue Roth). Besides all of that, I’ve been writing and drawing a lot, having completed a collage poetry collection this year (called “Too Dumb, Too Stupid”) and started an illustrative poetry/sketchbook project that is currently untitled. And somehow, I recorded an album with a friend, Andrew Ross, under the band name Ghost Mother, although we still have to master it; the release date is tentative. Apparently, I love ghosts being in titles, which is not something I set out to do at all!

Black: Thank you so much, Joanna, for sitting down with me and for shining a little more light on this important poet.

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Kim Hyesoon is a South Korean poet with nine books in English (most translated by the poet Don Mee Choi) and many more published in Korean. Hyesoon has received multiple prestigious awards for her poetry including the Daesan Poetry Award and the Midang Poetry Award.

Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017). They are the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.

 

Links to the good stuff:

Kim Hyesoon at World Literature Today

Kim Hyesoon in Guernica

Kim Hyesoon at the Poetry Foundation

Kim Hyesoon’s Page

Joanna C. Valente’s Page

Joanna C. Valente on Instagram

Joanna C. Valente on Twitter

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Anna Black was awarded her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

Lyric Essentials: Dorothy Chan reads Barbara Hamby’s “Ode to Sirin”

Dorothy Chan is editor of The Southeast Review and just released her book, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), so it was a stroke of luck that she found time to sit down and chat about poetry. We covered a lot of ground—ranging from the long-standing tradition of bird poems to the strength of women and even Ava Gardner.

 

 

Black: What made you select this poem?

Chan: I couldn’t help myself. A poem with the opening lines, “What woman doesn’t want to be a goddess with wings / to fly over the world of men with their erections / of stone and steel, to go to war like Athena, / or become Aphrodite who could crumple men / with her eyes” is such a winner. I don’t think any lines can top these opening lines. I’m absolutely enthralled, and I think a cardinal rule of poetry is to always have your reader’s attention. I remember Alberto Ríos once saying in his Deep Revision class, “The line I’m reading should be the best line of the poem.” Every line of the poem needs to be the best line of the poem. Always. That’s what Barbara Hamby does.

 

 

Black: What is your sense of this newest collection of Hamby’s? Not that you need to write a review, but overall. What do you love about it?

Chan: I love that Hamby’s Bird Odyssey is all woman. I also love that it’s about travel and flight—women are goddesses, so let’s put our wings to use, let’s go on a mission, and let’s conquer the world! Speaking of missions, another big standout of the collection is “Elvis and Tolstoy Save the World,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Barbara read at this past AWP Tampa. I love its bold, matter-of-fact nature: “and if one more supernatural thing happens, my brain / might explode” and “And I think, Groupie? Black Sabbath has groupies, but Tolstoy? / And if I were going to be a groupie, I’d be following Chekhov / around, because he’s my idea of a guy I’d like to spend time with.” I also remember immediately falling in love with “Athena Ode” when I saw it in The New Yorker. In this poem, Hamby’s speaker calls Athena a “divine mixologist,” which I think is perfect. I like to compare the art of poetry to the art of mixology. Great poems are like very complex cocktails, the kind you order at a swanky Las Vegas bar, the kind that is literally set to fire—the kind that comes in a sexy glass that leads to a memorable night—and then of course you order a couple more rounds.

I’d also like to add that I’m also extremely attached to Hamby’s On the Street of Divine Love, particularly the poem, “Ode to Wasting Time and Drawing Donatello’s David.”

Black: Is there a connection to your own work either in this collection of Hamby’s or in some other way that her body of work might be influential to you?

Chan: Barbara is my mentor, and her work means so much to me. Again, I love how her poems are all woman. I admire her use of what she calls “word tango.” This “word tango” is extremely influential to me, and it also lends itself to longer lines as well as thoughtful associative leaps and language. Barbara has taught me so much about voice, and I appreciate her directness in asking students how they each define their own poetic voice. I think it’s important for every poet to define their voice succinctly.

More specifically, I’m thinking about the voice in “Fried Chicken Boiled Peanut Blues.” First of all, I love how Barbara works with food in her poetry—I mean, don’t we all wish there were more poems about food? Who doesn’t love food? And in this poem, Barbara’s speaker presents one of the best meals at Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis. The speaker is yearning for “every boiled peanut stand on Highway 319,” but then she makes an association that turns the poem into one about her family, in particular, her mother. Hamby’s leaping is always seamless.

Black: I’m seeing a lot of birds in poems and other works lately, are you? And if yes, what do you make of that?

Chan: Yes, I think birds continue to be popular in poetry. When contemporary poets write about birds, they are clearly also paying homage to an unofficial poetic tradition. It’s amazing how Poets.org has a whole section dedicated to bird poems. Anyway, I love how Barbara tackles the “bird tradition” head-on with the title, Bird Odyssey, and then with the section titles: I. Six Blackbirds on the Highway to Moscow, II. Three Vultures on the Blacktop to Memphis, and III. A Chickadee at Troy. Like anything, if you’re going to do it, be direct. That’s another aspect I enjoy about Barbara’s work.

Black: I love this line about the “glorious vagina mind”—Did you feel that personally, too?

Chan: Ah!! Such a great line! It’s so clever, isn’t it? Yes, I do feel that personally, too. Again, I think the best poetry is direct and confrontational, and if women are living in this society that men so want to continuously dominate, then let’s fight back with the very thing that those harmful men desire and turn it into a weapon. Every part of a woman’s body and mind and spirit makes her powerful. Women are strong as hell. They give birth to everyone’s fantasies and nightmares. I mean, Barbara’s speaker also mentions Ava Gardner. Think about Gardner on screen. She was once known as “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal,” and no one commanded a room quite like her.

Black: Tell me a little about your new book.

Chan: Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) is led by a series of female speakers, mostly independent, bold, Chinese American women who want to reverse the male gaze, bringing attention to the female gaze and what’s sexy to a woman. The collection is a lot of fun.

Sometimes I joke that my poems can be summed up to “food and sex,” but if you think about it, those are such big topics, and food is inherently linked to both family and culture, and the discussion of sex evolves into a discussion of “traditional” vs. “nontraditional” Asian and Asian American perspectives. For instance, in my poem, “Ode to All My Flings Who Have Hated Dim Sum,” originally published in Hobart, my Chinese American female speaker is fed up with white boys calling her an “adventurous eater as I spit / out the bones from my chicken’s feet bathing in porridge, / though my grandmother orders the same dish / every morning in Kowloon.” Here, food and sex become tied yet again. The speaker is tired of explaining dim sum dishes to her flings because this pattern leads to the reduction of her culture. And in the end, she outright states, “I’m not your Asian cupcake, / your Chinese wet dream in a slit red slip and pink kimono. / I’m not your stuffed panda that dances when you poke / my button.”

_______________________________________________________

Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The Common, Diode, Quarterly West, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Chan is the editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.

Barbara Hamby is the author of many works including her most recent poetry collection Bird Odyssey (Pitt Poetry Series, 2018). Hamby has been awarded a Guggenheim, an NEA grant, the Iowa short fiction prize, the Vassar-Miller Prize, and other notables. She is a Distinguished University Scholar at Florida State University.

The good stuff:

Hamby at the Poetry Foundation

Some of Hamby’s Poems

An Interview with Hamby

Chan at AAP

Chan at Queen Mob’s

Chan at Ghost Ocean

 

Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

Lyric Essentials: Andrea Scarpino Reads Adrienne Rich’s “What Kind of Times Are These” and “Five O’clock, January 2003”

Andrea Scarpino is the author of four books, the Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, is the co-founder of the Disability March, and more. Scarpino teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield, but despite what is almost certainly a packed schedule, she sat down with me to talk about Adrienne Rich and the ongoing need for these poems and this work.

Black: “What Kind of Times” is one I’ve reached for a few times in the last year. Most recently I read it again when Bears Ears and Grand Staircase were devoured. You too? What moves you to share these poems? Is it a love of them or their prescience or…?

Scarpino: I also return to Rich’s poems again and again! When I’m struggling in my writing, I read her poems to remind me to be brave. When I’m struggling with our political situation, I read her poems to remind me that resistance is possible and can take many forms. When I’m looking for new forms, I read her poems to study the ways in which she plays with form. Her career was so long and so varied that there really are poems in her canon for everyone! 

 

 

Black: Adrienne Rich might be considered “larger than life.” What is your sense of her life and career?

ScarpinoLarger than life definitely seems right, at least in some circles. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati, she came to do a reading and some lectures, and I remember so vividly that the university booked her in one of the largest rooms on campus—this horrible concrete auditorium that sat like 700 people. The place was packed. Like, seriously packed! And when Rich was introduced and walked out onto the stage, she looked so small in such a huge space, but the entire audience stood up and applauded. She hadn’t spoken a word, and she received a standing ovation. And I burst into tears. It was the only time I have ever seen that reaction to a poet and the fact that she was also a feminist icon when I was really just learning about feminism was even more meaningful to me. Here was a woman telling the truth of her life, and being rewarded for doing so. It was incredibly powerful. 

I know Rich is derided in some circles—I had a graduate school professor who used to tell me my poetry was veering towards “the bad Adrienne Rich” which I always took as a compliment even though he intended it as a mean criticism—but I have always loved her courage, her sass, her wit, her clear-eyed look at the world around her. I hope people are still reading her in 100 years because she was really a game-changer for so many readers and writers and people interested in moving towards equality. 

Black: Has Rich influenced you and your work then? And, how?

Scarpino: Yes, absolutely! For one thing, she reminds me to tell my truth, to write bravely, to keep myself attuned to the world’s atrocities no matter how painful that can be. Especially as a middle-class white woman—white US culture definitely supports us in refusing to engage with the atrocities of the world. And especially as a white US poet. There have been these conversations for way too long in white US poetry about the division between the personal and the political where the personal is supported and uplifted and the political is derided and downplayed. If you’re interested in writing political poetry in the US, you have a harder road ahead of you in terms of publication and general acceptance by the “academy.” And Rich reminds me how limited those views are, that they are particularly white US American views and that most people in the world don’t share them. I find that incredibly empowering. 

Something I love about so many of her poems is that they follow Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—“ Take “Five O’Clock, January 2003.” That poem starts with soldiers “being hauled / into positions aimed at death” but immediately moves into a conversation about Ed Azevedo “half-awake in recovery / if he has his arm whole / and how much pain he must bear / under the drugs.” Rich never tells us who Azevedo is or why he is important to the speaker, and almost the entirety of the poem addresses his arm and what happened to him. A reader could forget entirely that the backdrop of the poem is war until we arrive at the end: “I didn’t say Your war is here.” That line always makes my stomach drop. It brings us so quickly back to war and the ways in which war creeps into our lives like an infection, a poison: it starts as a minor cut and ends with emergency surgery. 
 
And I love how Rich does this in so many of her poems: she tells us the truth, but from an angle, from a slant. She doesn’t explicitly say “war is a destructive poison” but we understand that from spending so much time with Azevedo’s arm. She does a similar thing in “What Kind of Times Are These” which ends, “because in times like these / to have you listen at all, it’s necessary / to talk about trees.” I hear Rich saying, look, I know you won’t listen when I talk about all that we’re disappearing, I know that’s uncomfortable to you, dear reader. So I’ll write about trees and hope that you understand I’m also writing about what’s missing from the trees. 

 

Black: Are there connections between these particular poems and your own work?

Scarpino: Definitely! I actually used that last quote as an epigraph to my book-length poem What the Willow Said As it Fell, which is a book about chronic pain and the medical establishment and the intersection of gender and medicine. And also, about willow trees and ash trees, both of which have traditionally been thought of as healing trees. Willow branches have a substance in them called salicin which is related to our modern day aspirin and which was used for thousands of years as a pain reliever—people in childbirth would chew on willow branches to help with the pain, for example. And in Norse culture, it was thought that if you passed a sick baby under the ash tree, the tree would heal the baby. And I loved the idea of using these two trees as foes, in a sense, to be able to focus some of the book on the trees instead of on unrelenting chronic pain. That is completely a strategy I learned from Rich! I basically took her advice literally—if I’m going to get a reader interested in reading about chronic pain for 70 pages, I better spend some time distracting them with trees. 

But more generally, Rich’s work has always reminded me that it is okay to write politically—in fact, it is necessary and important to write politically! So much of my formal education taught me to revere the personal without any acknowledgment that of course the personal is political and the political is personal. The two aren’t ever easily separated. If ICE is deporting your family, then the political is deeply personal. If the president is sending you to war, then the political is deeply personal. And Rich continues to remind me of that when I lose my way: tell your personal story with an attention to the political world in which you exist. It’s the only way. 

Black: What do you want readers to notice in particular in these poems?

Scarpino: I would love readers to notice their beauty, the beauty of Rich’s language, the beauty in a line. Even when writing about really hard subjects, Rich writes with an attention to image, to sound, to the movement of each line. They are works of intense beauty, and that is part of what draws me back to them again and again.

 

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Andrea Scarpino is the author of the poetry collections Once Upon Wing Lake (Four Chambers Press, 2017), What the Willow Said as it Fell (Red Hen Press, 2016) and Once, Then (Red Hen Press, 2014). She received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and an MFA from The Ohio State University. She has published in numerous journals, is co-editor of Nine Mile Magazine, and served as Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula 2015-2017. Her upcoming edited anthology is Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice (MSU Press).

Adrienne Rich was an intellectual, poet, writer, and activist, whose career spanned countless works. Her writing and activism have influenced some of the greatest minds working in literature and activism today.

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The good stuff:

Adrienne Rich at the Poetry Foundation

“What Kind of Times Are These” at the Poetry Foundation

“Five O’clock, January 2003” at the Monthly Review

Adrienne Rich’s Obituary in the Times

Andrea Scarpino’s Website

What the Willow Said as it Fell, At Red Hen Press

An Interview with Andrea Scarpino at Wordgathering

The Disability March

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Anna Black received an MFA from Arizona State University and a BA from Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.

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