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Lyric Essentials: Helena Mesa Reads “Winter Stars” by Larry Levis

Helena Mesa PhotoWhen Helena Mesa wrote to tell me which poem she chose to read for Lyric Essentials, she said, “When I think about formative poets for me, Levis always comes to mind. I still remember reading Winter Stars in my kitchen in Houston, and awakening from the thrall, still in my kitchen, sitting on the floor, my lunch cold in the toaster oven.” Here we’ll look at Larry Levis’s control of the line, and think about how that control gives him more freedom to address loss and regret. We’ll also consider how Levis’s attention to specific moments in the past deepen the emotions he describes as happening now. Thank you for reading.

Jessica Hudgins: It was really moving to me, after learning that you first read this poem in your kitchen, to read the poem myself and see that it takes place in another domestic space—the poet’s backyard. You say that this poem and the book Winter Stars shaped you. Can you say a little more about that? How has Levis’ work influenced you?

Helena Mesa: As a young poet first reading Winter Stars, I was struck by the meditative quality of Levis’ poems. I never knew where he would go, how he would arrive there, and I was awed by the way his poems came together. Take the opening narrative of “My father once broke a man’s hand / Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor.” I never imagined that narrative would move to the statement of misunderstanding to the mind-as-city metaphor to the beautiful, intimate arrival: “Cold enough to reconcile / Even a father, even a son.” As a young female Cuban-American poet, I feared sentimentality, so much so that I buried sentiment under layers of imagery and detachment. Reading Levis was invigorating—he allowed readers to meditate on a small moment with him, and through his meditation, he risked revealing emotion as he discovered meaning.

Levis also challenged me to embrace the free verse line. When writing, I’d hear my teachers repeat, “Think in a 10-syllable line.” It was good advice for me at the time—the syllable count gave me a structure to work within and against as I learned what the line could do. And, while I loved poets whose lines weren’t traditionally shaped by syllabics (poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Lynda Hull, Lucille Clifton), I didn’t yet understand how they constructed their lines so each possessed integrity, each resonated. In fact, when I first read “Winter Stars,” I foolishly thought the lines weren’t controlled. Look at some of those early lines:

With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

Two fingers, so it could slash

Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand…

The line breaks are super unexpected. The hard enjambments on “held” and “first” push forward, but Levis’s caesuras within the lines—versus the ends of lines—create tension that mirrors the poem’s opening narrative. When I read “first / two fingers” aloud, the internal rhyme and hard stresses emphasize each syllable, which slows the pacing, which lets me further visualize the image before I reach “so it could slash.” The “sharpened fruit knife”—a dangerous object—is being “held,” and the pacing slows down as Levis zooms in on the image of how Rubén Vásquez held that knife “horizontally”—pause—“& with surprising grace”—slightly longer pause—“Across a throat.” So dangerous. The lines tug between speeding forward and pausing with punctuation, musicality, and end-stopped line breaks. And then, Levis balances the most dramatic detail—“Across a throat”—pause—on the same line with “It was like a glinting beak in a hand”—something potentially beautiful that, of course, isn’t beautiful. It’s such a delicate balance between contrasting elements, and Levis’s craft—his control—both evokes sentiment and undercuts sentimentality at the same time.

Helena Mesa reading “Winter Stars”

JH: The extended metaphor that begins, “If you can think of the mind as a place continually/visited…” is particularly striking to me, and of course the way that Levis’s attention keeps coming back to the stars. Can you point to a moment in the poem that you admire and describe what you admire about it?

HM: Yes, exactly! How those stars become a mechanism for meditating on his father and his looming death. There are so many things to admire. The beauty of the turn “I got it all wrong,” stated in plain vernacular speech. Or, the poignant direct address to his father. Or, the sincerity of “where a small wind.…wakes the cold again— / Which may be all that’s left of you & me.” But, today, looking at the poem again, I find myself focusing on Levis’ repetition of “now” in that almost-surreal fourth stanza. Three times he says “now”—it’s insistent. In its most simplistic function, the repetition grounds the reader by locating us in the present time; but more importantly, the repetition of “now” allows Levis to both move through time and pay attention to time. The present moment—in its limitations and imperfection and sorrow—is merely the present moment, and even this moment will be lost, like the California light, the place in their lives, his father’s speech, his father’s life, their relationship.

JH: Do you consider “Winter Stars” an elegy? Like, of course it is, but it also seems less concerned with grief than reconciliation and the way that memory connects us to one another. What do you think?

HM: I’m strangely fascinated by elegies that are non-traditional elegies, which might be another reason why I’m drawn to Larry Levis. When asked about being an elegiac poet, Levis once said, “I often feel that that’s what I am as a human.”

I think of “Winter Stars” as having an elegiac eye or positioning—we see him mourn as his father “is beginning to die”—losing language and, presumably, memory. The grief is present, but it isn’t that raw grief we associate with the death of a loved one. To me, that grief points toward a different kind of loss—Levis mourning the relationship he could have had with his father, and realizing it might be too late. If Levis portrays his father as “ashamed” for “a lost syllable as if it might / Solve everything,” Levis may also feel shame for getting “it all wrong.” And, because the poem focuses so much on the father-son relationship, and even ends on those two clauses, yoked in one line—“Even a father, even a son”—it’s hard for me to detach one from the other. To think of his father’s approaching death means Levis is also aware of his own mortality, without saying so.

True to “Winter Stars” as a whole, however, Levis unites contrasting emotions, or perhaps, turns toward complex emotions. The mourning and elegiac eye end on reconciliation. The sky might be a wide expanse, but within it is starlight, which Levis twice alludes to as something that persists. And, in the final stanza, Levis describes a “pale haze of stars goes on & on.” Starlight endures, in contrast to the temporality of the moment (the meditation), in contrast to the tension between the speaker and his father (the past).

 


Larry Levis (1946-1996) was an American poet. He published several books for which he received recognition from the International Poetry Forum, The American Academy of Poets, and the National Poetry Series. Levis taught at the University of Missouri and Virginia Commonwealth University and directed the writing program at the University of Utah.

Further Reading:

“Winter Stars” by Larry Levis
“The Poet at Seventeen” by Larry Levis
Larry Levis reads at the 92Yk
Edward Byrne on Larry Levis at Blackbird

Helena Mesa is the author of Horse Dance Underwater and a co-editor for Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, and Sou’wester. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and she has attended Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshop and Napa Valley Writers’ Workshop. She teaches creative writing at Albion College and lives in Oakland, California.

Further Reading:

Helena Mesa on Verse Daily
Mentor & Muse 
Review of Helena Mesa’s Horse Dance Underwater
Purchase Horse Dance Underwater


A note from Anna Black: It has been my great pleasure to be a part of the trajectory of this series. Through it, I have met many new friends and come to learn about a number of poets that had heretofore been unknown to me. This has been a tremendous pleasure and I am grateful for having had the opportunity. As I am now handling new roles for Sundress, I am handing over the series to the capable and deft hands of Jessica Hudgins, our former intern, and I’m excited to read the new voices that she will bring to the table, too. As for me, you can find me as the host over at Poets in Pajamas, and I’m also now serving as the staff director for Sundress. So I didn’t go far. I hope you’ll welcome Jessica and make her feel at home as you all did me. -Anna

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

 

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Lyric Essentials: Kierstin Bridger Reads Three Poems by Lynn Emanuel

Kiersten BridgerKierstin Bridger came to Lyric Essentials to discuss the work of Lynn Emanuel and really delivered. Here, we see deeply into Emanuel’s work as Bridger highlights her own discovery of Emanuel and the resulting love-affair with her poems. From Emanuel’s uniquely Western aesthetic to Bridger’s dawning understanding of persona, Bridger invites a deep-read and then goes further with an exemplary set of discussion points. And in there too, a 2018 Pandora as Bridger offers “permission to go astray.”

Black: Why did you select Lynn Emanuel? In our earlier emails, you spoke about her inventiveness and her language. Can you elaborate on these, too

Bridger: Lynn Emanuel is magic. She is all mood and slunk. The sound of her “k” is a clunk, a pistol set on a hardwood table. There is something decidedly western about her, an aesthetic she has been known to say evolved from noir, a “light and grime.”

She grew up in the city of my birth, Denver, Colorado which definitely has a grit and blue sky sensibility. Her poems elicit a racy and wry wit that jump starts my imagination, “I am so tired,” she writes in The Dig, “I could lie down among these trees. . . / and let the earth take one slow liberty / After another.” Oh God, don’t these lines just exude a perfectly sex-ragged cool with a subversively American tang?! When I grow up I want to be her.

I first discovered Lynn Emanuel in grad school. I remember reading Hotel Fiesta and The Dig, feeling so aligned with her character but not knowing it was a character. Meaning, I knew poets sometimes employed the use of a poetic mask i.e. “the speaker” but I also knew the persona of “speaker” was usually only inches from the author, an autobiographic self if you will.

I remember I flew through my copy of The Dig like it was some kind of hybrid, a memoir/thriller only to realize that the story was not her story. Lynn Emanuel did not grow up in Ely, Nevada. This was not a memoir disguised as a chapbook, this was invention! It was like a big flash of lightning struck. The thought occurred to me that she was giving me permission. I too could write, not just frame my own narrative with artful cuts and lens changes. She is like the Cindy Sherman of poets. In various collections, she embodies the reader, other humans, versions of herself and even dogs—“The Mongrelogues.”  I love these lines from “Homage to Sharon Stone” from her 1999 collection Then Suddenly:

I have always wanted to be a car, even
though most of the time I have to be
the “I,” or the woman hanging wash;
I am a woman, one minute, then I am a man,
I am a carnival of Lynn Emanuels:
Lynn in the red dress; Lynn sulking
behind the big nose of my erection;
then I am the train pulling into the station
when what I would really love to be is
Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone
at six in the morning. 

In “Persona” she enters a dead man, makes the embodiment “meta”, then follows up by showing us how she enters “the other.” All the while she balances this without ever forgetting a poem’s musicality, the necessity of sensory details, and her fresh, vibrant language—“I throbbed in the big fog of his shirt.”   

But it is her humor, her ability to render a poem, to make it turn the corners of a reader’s mouth in a smile while simultaneously leveling something devastating about death, about liminality or about the cycle of abuse.

She uses her mastery of the language in deft, subtle strokes. There is an intimacy with the reader, like she’s taking us behind the curtain to whisper secrets, secrets of craft, of language of humanity but then we close the book and realize she isn’t really there when only seconds ago she made us skip past time and space—I know I sound crazy, but her poems mesmerize me. She casts a very real spell.  I have the distinct feeling she is listening hard to voices that are inaudible to the rest of us mortals. She is a conduit and a witness, and yet … and yet there is a master at work who diligently pushes and crafts her poems into multifaceted gems.

I was especially fascinated with the method she used for her latest book. The Nerve of it, New and Selected Poems. Shunning conventional chronology, she recast the poems and arranged them next to each other in harmony, she allowed one poem to “talk” to the next one. I admire her willingness to see the poems as finished works, objects so removed from her own life, or her publishing timeline that they could be arranged as a painter hangs work in a gallery, related by theme or image. I love how she can let go like that, let the poetic order reassemble into new meaning.

Kierstin Bridger Reads “The Book’s Speech”

Black: I think at one point when trying to decide, you said, “Pivot, Pivot, Pivot!” Tell us about your selection process? Why did you select these three poems?

Bridger: I think I was referring to my “monkey mind” jumping with possible poets to record and talk about. My brain is restless and it can hardly settle on any sort of favorite. Reading one poet leaps to another, one poem to another. Initially, I was worried that if I chose a friend or a former teacher, inevitably someone would feel left out. So I decided to trace all my favorites back to a source, not origin (as in lineage) but a creative source.

When I finally chose Lynn Emanuel I had a hard time choosing poems—I re-read dozens of them. I became transfixed again. She has a long piece called “The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet,” oh! I love it so. It’s long and funny and prose-like just as it’s dissing the prose form. The inherent irony and fun she must have had making it has made me a devoted reader forever.


Kierstin Bridger Reads “Flying Trout While Drunk”

Black: Let’s talk about Flying Trout while Drunk. What’s your take on this poem? What would you teach about this poem?

Bridger: The possibilities are endless! The swagger and tone of the piece stop my heart.  

Here are a few starting points for lessons:

1. Character and Persona (If we read this poem as autobiography the poet would be four years old in 1953 so it must be said that this experience has been rendered with another lens, perhaps a compression or amalgamation that do not make it less “factual” ie. less accurate but, instead, more real and true in a deeper sense—(those buttons falling, can’t you just hear and see them? “buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.”)

2. Mood (noir sensibility. “Dark slung across the porch”)

3. Efficiency and spare, and precise language

4. Muscular verbs

5. Ridiculously fresh metaphor and simile—“a man of lechery so solid you could build a table on it” or “the trout with a belly white as my wrist”

6. The camera lens approach i.e. going long and tight in focus

7. Sensory details for beginners as well as practiced poets, (the bacon and the trout!)

8. How to approach mystery, i.e. how to intrigue reader without baffling the reader: We think we know where we are in this poem even though time telescopes and turns mobius because of her startling first line. She puts us smack dab in the middle of the scene. That her mother’s knees glowed in the green light was a memory imparted to the daughter as opposed to direct knowledge—so already the poem’s veracity is purposely off kilter. To ground us, the speaker puts herself in, gives us her first-hand account … suddenly we are dragged into the drama just as the child is drug into a drama which will become her own, a history that repeats, “When I drink I am too much like her.”

9. How to juggle time and space in ways fiction can’t do as well or efficiently.

10. The space a poet gives the reader to bring in our own understanding and experience, the essential work a reader must do to connect. In the last third of the poem, we are asked to find meaning, to fill in the blanks. For example, when I was in high school my drama teacher asked us to pantomime sneaking into the house while drunk. Many people overdid it, big pratfalls, and belches, loud steps, and exaggerated movements but the performance she liked best was the sneaky but slightly sloppy precision of the actor who tiptoed in. That last bit:

I have loved you all my life

she told him and it was true

in the same way that all her life

she drank, dedicated to the act itself,   

she stood at this stove

and with the care of the very drunk   

handed him the plate.

When I read those lines I am in that class, I am also in my house at seventeen sneaking in, at the same time I am imagining this mother intoxicated not just momentarily but chronically, thereby rendering her decisions clouded by the disease. I think of the people I have known like that, the trout from the first part of the poem, the smell, my own Colorado childhood … it’s incantatory, positively spellbinding.


Kierstin Bridger Reads “Persona”

Black: Do these connect to your own work in some way? And if so, how?

Bridger: My contemporary work often has a dark tone, especially when I write about growing up in the rural west.  My poems yearn to be as spare and rich as Emanuel’s but I’m still working!

I’ve had fairly good luck with persona poems. My book, Demimonde, has lead me on many fine adventures since its publication. It has won a few awards and I have been able to reassemble my turn-of-the-century research of contraceptives, suicide, yellow journalism and medicinals into a few historical lectures and tours. The book concerns 19th-century prostitutes in small western mining towns. In researching it, I turned into a history nerd overnight.

When I began the book, I was in the midst of completing my thesis manuscript.  I was overwhelmed by talking about myself so much in both my critical essay and in organizing poems that were incredibly personal. I needed a break. 

A project about women who really did not have a voice, women who became, over the course of history, caricatures rather than characters became a bit of a side hustle for me.  I was grateful for the permission my Pacific advisor Sandra Alcosser gave me. She encouraged me to dive in deep to the humanity and lives of these women. Sometimes we all need a strong dose of encouragement and permission to go astray.

The smaller project had no expectations or personal weight. It seemed to have a life of its own. Doing the research lead me to poets like Natasha Trethewey, and her book Belloq’s Ophelia. Though I deeply admired the way she wrote about prostitutes in Storyville, I knew my take on persona poems would have to look completely different—no letters for one thing.

I wanted to conjure women who were, by and large, illiterate. I began like most writers, writing about them using a narrator’s voice but the poems didn’t have a pulse until I changed perspective. I had to use persona in a first-person voice to make them come alive. I had to listen hard for their voice in the aspen and in the cool rivers near my home. It was a time of deep imagining but also a kind of enchantment. It revived me and turned into a book I love. My publisher, Lithic Press, did a gorgeous job with the presentation. We layered the poems with vellum printed antique photographs.

Black: What are you working on now?

Bridger: I’m excited about reinventing a project I’ve been working on for a while, a historical project that may turn into collaboration. I enjoy working with people. I recently completed a back and forth piece with Irish Poet Clodagh Beresford about a Colorado/Ireland donor eye transplant. We traded stanzas in a see-saw fashion. It was incredible. We did a Skype reading of it not too long ago—she was in Ireland while I was in my car in a parking lot outside of a hospital. Isn’t technology grand?

I’m always working on at least ten different projects at a time. I’m re-designing a house we want to buy, organizing the poets for our reading series, planning a trip, but in terms of my writing life? I feel I am finally at a place I can encounter my biography and push harder on what I once saw as periphery.

Perhaps I used to think “going deeper” meant getting more confessional, more in touch with how I felt as a child or a teen, exploring my culpability, or my adult perspective thrust upon a long ago occurrence, but recently I have discovered I need to ask more questions.

When I was sixteen, I was involved in a fatal car accident. It surfaces in my writing because, thirty years later, I still grapple with it, the survivor’s guilt, the loss of life and innocence, but in the wake of the “me too” movement, I’ve begun to question the circumstances of the life of the girl who died that night.

I want to get beyond my personal stake in the narrative and ask bigger questions. Why was she so estranged from her family? What were the circumstances around the intimate, on-and-off relationship she had with our much older boss? Why did we not question it at the time?

Sometimes I think I have a memoir in me and sometimes I can’t imagine the amount of plot and storyline that would require. Though I flirt and publish short-memoir and flash fiction, I can easily lose hours in a poem with 37 lines.

I ask myself, how would I possibly manage chapter after chapter of a full-blown memoir? Mary Karr did it, Patti Smith did it, Nick Flynnthe list goes on and on I say. In some ways, my full collection All Ember (Urban Farmhouse Press) was a memoir.  But if I’ve learned nothing else from Lynn Emanuel, it is that time and practice reframe events with new understanding as well as new levels of artistic design.

Here in Telluride, literary burlesque has been a big annual event for the past 5 years at the Telluride Literary Festival. Every year I swear I’ll never do it again because of the time involved and the difficulty of shepherding extremely busy, really talented women together to rehearse. Every year it’s a different theme. Last year, it was my turn to direct a huge performance we called “Uncorseted.” We made unsung heroines of the world war era come alive. Our point of entry was “where did the suffragettes go? We became Margaret Sanger, Anna Akhmatova, Margaret (Molly) Brown, Inez Milholland Boissevain, Mata Hari, and Marie Marvingt. It was incredible. I may or may not have some ideas brewing about 2019! Wink.

Something brand new: I’ve taught in workshop settings, guest lectured and stoked the fires of a small literary community but I have never taught a full course at the University level. In January, I will begin teaching online poetry at Adams State University. Preparing curriculum, researching poems and poets is a rabbit hole I thoroughly enjoy exploring, even if I get lost sometimes. In fact, as I answer these questions, I am at the same time researching the perfect political poem to read at a talk I’m giving with our Colorado State Laureate, Joseph Hutchison.

I have noticed I rarely tread the same stone twice—endless combinations thrill me. My daughter came home recently and asked us to guess how many combinations existed in her upcoming class trip matrix. She said there were three trip options and twenty-three kids. Each trip needed at least seven kids. This kind of story problem usually gives me a headache and I tap out immediately but what I loved was the idea of calculations which could endeavor to account for all the possibilities, called combinatorics.

I think the continued conversation with my students and peers will open up paths I’ve never tread before. I rarely cook the same meal twice. I know I will never teach a class the same way twice, either. Reinventing the wheel is where it’s at. I’m eager to begin something new.

______________________________________________________________________

Lynn Emanuel has twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Emanuel also won the 1992 National Poetry Series for her book, The Dig. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, Oxford American Poetry, and many more. Emanuel teaches at the University of Pittsburgh where she directs the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers’ Series which she also founded. Emanuel is the author of five books.

 

The good stuff:

Lynn Emanuel at the Poetry Foundation
Lynn Emanuel’s The Dig in Publisher’s Weekly
Lynn Emanuel’s The Nerve of It at Project MUSE
Lynn Emanuel at Ploughshares
Kierstin Bridger at Colorado Poet’s Center
Kierstin Bridger at Fruita Pulp
Kierstin Bridger’s Demimonde at Lithic Press

 

Kierstin Bridger is a Colorado writer. She is the author of two books: All Ember (Urban Farmhouse Press) and Demimonde (Lithic Press) which won the Women Writing The West’s 2017 WILLA Award for poetry. She is a winner of the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize, the 2015 ACC Writer’s Studio award, a silver Charter Oak Best Historical Award, and an Anne LaBastille Poetry Residency. Bridger was also short-listed for the Manchester Poetry Competition in the UK. She is editor of Ridgway Alley Poems, co-director of Open Bard Poetry Series, co-creator of the Podcast, Poetry Voice with Kierstin Bridger and Uche Ogbuji and director of the 2018 literary Burlesque at The Telluride Literary Festival. She earned her MFA at Pacific University.

______________________________________________________________________

 

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: 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: Patricia Colleen Murphy Reads Terrance Hayes’ “Fire” and “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals”

Trish Murphy’s book, Hemming Flames is a deft exploration of trauma and incredibly difficult topics with a rich topography of image and language. Pretty much, I consider her a true adept at wielding her words. And this is exactly what she had to say about why she admires Terrance Hayes as a poet as well as loving his work. We got to talk about the surprise of his lines, and the way his stance makes the poem completely trustworthy.

 

 

 

Black: What draws you to Terrence Hayes as a poet?

Murphy: Terrance is a brilliant, generous, and funny human being. I love how many times his poems surprise me with unique phrases, strong images, but also deeply personal touches. In a reading he gave here in Phoenix in 2016 he said something that really moved me. He said that when he writes poems he keeps, “one foot in reality and one foot in imagination.” That is the way I like to posture myself as a poet as well.

His poems are full of musicality, masculinity, sensuality, whimsy, insight, AND moments of profound tenderness. How does he do it? He is a poet I read and wonder, how does his mind work? A line like, “Has your memory ever been / an unfenced country?” or “I know decent lies in the word descent.” There are so many moments in his work that I am thankful for. I picture him sitting at a desk—do these lines fall from the sky? How does he access them!?

Black: What is it about these poems that draw you to them? Do you connect with them personally, professionally, both? And in what ways?

Murphy: I’ll start with “Fire.” Now let’s be honest. I love dropping what I call the “M” bomb. There is no word quite like “mother” to stir emotion in the reader. It’s a cheat word in some ways because it’s so heavily weighted. I write about the mother a lot.

But I love the way the mother appears in Terrance’s work. In “Fire,” she is part of the landscape, but she is also a mythic savior. The way he reaches the mother as a topic is subtle and quiet and natural.

I do connect with this poem personally and professionally. When I’m reading submissions for my magazine [Superstition Review], or even when I am teaching writing of late, I talk about the 3 C’s: content, craft, and composition. In this poem there is a mastery across the board—the poem paints an image of a dream scene that allows the poet to portray the mother as a mythical hero. The poem is full of sensory detail and image and metaphor. And the writing at the word level is stunning. I love the line, “There was the calm & discretion / of giving up.”

In “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals” we get even more evidence of craft—the language here takes on more sophistication and playfulness. I love the line “I will remember my / brief career as an infant.” I love how socially aware this poem is without being self-conscious or self-important. These poems are so deeply personal that the reader is drawn into the experience on an intimate level. In this particular poem, I am attracted to the use of repetition, the play with words, the imagery, the refrains. I have tried to write a poem like this.

 

 

Black: Do you see connections from “Fire” or “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals” with your own poetry? And if so, how so?

Murphy: I can only say that I wish I could write like this. Maybe I have succeeded a few times with a few lines here and there.

Black: What are your feelings about the use of the first person in a poem?

Murphy: I write mostly in first person, though I do have several epistolatory poems. When I talk to students about first person in poetry, I talk about the main problem as I see it: that overuse of the “I blank” construction becomes repetitive and it also can indicate a level of self-centeredness. So in revision (or in editing even), I also recommend a ctrl-F for “I.” A lot of times sentences can be reworded so that they are simply more interesting.

What I like about these two poems and the way they use first person is that I feel so connected with the speaker. I believe the I. I believe the poet.

Black: What else would you like to point out about these poems? The language, the use of imagery? I’m interested in knowing what else moves you about his craft? What do you want students to take note of?

Murphy: It strikes me that the poets I admire most are the ones who take the time to imagine through to image. Perhaps that’s why I feel that these poems are so generous and thoughtful. The poet works through concept, “For house pets being American / is a cinch.” But also through image, “what I have eaten of you tastes like mint and damp clay, tastes exactly like the soil / I ate in my grandmother’s yard as a boy.” I really appreciate work that feels intentional and genuine, and Terrence Hayes is a poet who delivers every time.

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Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press) won the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award judged by Stephen Dunn, and the 2017 Milt Kessler Poetry Award. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, and most recently in Copper Nickel, Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Smartish Pace, Burnside Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Hobart, decomP, Midway Journal, Armchair/Shotgun, and Natural Bridge. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.

Terrance Hayes is a MacArthur fellow, a National Book Award winner, and the author of six poetry collections including his newest, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assasin. Hayes has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, won the National Poetry Series in 2001, and has achieved many other landmark accolades. In 2017 he was made a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

Links to some good stuff:

Terrance Hayes at the Poetry Foundation

Terrance Hayes’ Website

Terrance Hayes at the MacArthur Foundation

Trish at the Academy of American Poets

An Interview with Trish at Diode

 

Anna Lys Black is the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is a Virginia G. Piper global fellow, a graduate excellence awardee, and mere weeks from completion of her MFA. 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.

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Lyric Essentials: Sonya Huber Reads “Revenge” by Elisa Chavez

Anna: What are your feelings around this poem? What sparks for you?

Sonya: This poem both speaks to a certain moment in time, post 2016 election, but also to wider issues of resistance and identity. And I love its attitude and voice—a very subtle braiding of confidence, humor, and a kind of prophetic voice summoning the will to resist.

Anna: There is this moment in the seventh stanza where the speaker asks, “what are we but a fire?” And you can hear poets snapping agreement, assent, cohabitation in this phrase. And given what I know of your work and activism, I imagine you’re one of them. Can you speak to your own feelings about activism and poetry? Where do they intersect and where (if at all) do they dissect?

Sonya: I love the overlap between writing and activism in general, though when I was getting my MFA in 2000-2004, I was often ashamed about my activism in some weird way, as if I were leaving art behind when I was getting my hands dirty with real-world ideas. Even at the time that idea didn’t make sense, as I knew of so many political poets and writers, but I didn’t necessarily have the confidence to put my own political issues in my work without those issues coming off as partisan or didactic. I did it anyway, but with anxiety. I think these days that concern seems kind of quaint, as there are so so many political poets. And as poet Danez Smith has recently articulated, all poetry is political. I think where literary writing and poetry and activism diverge is that sometimes, one has to use language as a blunt instrument in activism, whereas in literary work, you’re always tending toward complexity. That said, even while those two aims are not the same, they are not diametrically opposed. They’re still kin. So I am of the school of thought that says that all art is political; sometimes a work’s politics is just more visible than others.

Anna: What is your impression of the reception of the poem?

Sonya: I found this poem after dozens of people forwarded and posted it on social media when it was published. It was covered on Quartz and on the Stranger among many other outlets and proclaimed a “rallying cry for the next four years.” I definitely agree. It seemed like such a fiery balm at the time I read it, and it remains that way.


Anna:
Can you offer some of your impressions of the poet and Chavez’s work overall?

Sonya: Chavez, as far as I can find her online, is a slam poet based in Seattle who has inspired huge devotion with a few poems in print, and I am waiting for more from her. I can’t wait to read a book of her work if one comes out.

Anna: Is there a connection from this poem to your own work? What are some of Chavez’s technical moves that you’d like to embrace or in which you see a connection to your own work?

Sonya: I’ve been obsessed with voice for a long time, because I struggled to find my own writing voice and my voice in activism; I struggled to find a strong stance from which to speak. Whenever I see this kind of powerful stance related to activism, the combination of beauty and toughness and humor and focus, I take notice, because I need this myself. So I hope I am doing this work with my own writing, using beautifully voiced works like this as a model. What I admire most is the modulation in voice. Yes, this is a rant of resistance, but it’s also theory and humor and a snapshot of real life and a reminder to stay human.

I love the mix of colloquialism and dense language, like this pair of lines: “because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming./
You just delayed our coronation.” That use of “real talk” runs up against “delayed our coronation,” offering a wide range of tongues that the author has in command. The “delayed our coronation” is a kind of regal pause, a celebration. I love the line about “folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them” because yes, that happens in activism, and so she’s stepping to the side of activism to laugh with it, and then she steps right back into the river: “but I won’t, because they’re my family.” She’s continually complicating and confounding, without making a big show of it; that folding of voices is in the DNA of the poem itself. The line “you brought your fists to a glitter fight”: gosh. If I could ever have a line like that. I love this so much, also because it’s so politically astute. In this poem’s “anxious America” is the analysis of all the different explanations for why Trump got elected. This complexity combined with confidence is my hope for my own essays and nonfiction.

Anna: When I asked you to do this, you mentioned that you’d have a hard time choosing. Which poems were some of the runners up?

Sonya: I love the poetry of Jack Gilbert, especially “Tear it Down.”

I love a lot of Wislawa Szymborska, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich. Also this one by Marge Piercy, “To Be Of Use.”

Anna: Thank you, Soya, for being our guest today. To our readers, know that I invited Sonya because I am in love with her work and I’ve included some links to her work below her bio for your perusal so that I might share some of why I am such a fan of hers.

Sonya: Thank you for allowing me to think about and refuel on poetry!!

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Elisa Chavez on tumblr

Sonya Huber is the author of five books of nonfiction, including the new collection of essays on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Other books include Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, Opa Nobody, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers, and The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The New York Times, The Atlantic, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.

Sonya’s Website
Her Shadow Syllabus
Pain Woman Takes Your Keys
Dear Thrasher

Anna Lys Black serves as the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is a Virginia G. Piper global fellow and mere weeks from completion of her MFA. 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.

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Amy Watkins’ “Firstborn”

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Firstborn

There is a globe of silence around them
after the doctor leaves with his uncertain news.
Will the lesions on my mother’s spine
spread upward, dragging paralysis over
her lungs and heart like a heavy blanket?
Or will the stillness seep from her abdomen,
down her long legs, and out through the soles
of her swollen feet, pooling
at the end of the hospital bed
like the light from the open door?

My father cups her face between his hands,
his crooked middle finger over the pulse point
at her temple, and I wonder if he feels its flutter.
His lips tremble against her dark hair,
she holds his wrist, and my presence
makes their loneliness complete.
“We’ve been through harder fights
than this,” she says and means the two of them.
Her dry throat breaks the words like kindling,
and he blinks, rapidly, his blue eyes.

At home, I kiss your ten fingers and watch
the slow rise and fall of your breath
even after you turn away from me
to sleep. Our daughter, an unborn witness,
rearranges her miniature limbs.
When I press my hand against my abdomen,
she presses back, the way months from now
we will touch hands, palm to palm.

 

“Firstborn” appeared in Amy Watkins’ book, Milk and Water, available from Yellow Flag Press.  Purchase yours today!

Listen to an audio recording of “Firstborn” read by the author!

Amy Watkins grew up with the alligators and armadillos in the Central Florida scrub, the oldest child of a nurse and a carpenter. As a kid, she wanted to be an artist, a doctor, a teacher and a contestant on Star Search; she became a writer instead. Her poems and essays have recently appeared in Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Small Poems, BloodLotus, and Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine. She lives in Orlando with her husband and only child, Alice.

This week’s Wardrobe Best Dressed was selected Nicole Oquendo. Nicole Oquendo is an Assistant Editor for Sundress Publications, and the Nonfiction Editor of Best of the Net. Her most recently published essays and poetry can be found in DIAGRAM, fillingStation, Storm Cellar, and Truck.

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