Tag Archives: Lyric Essentials

Uche Ogbuji Reads Two Poems by Christopher Okigbo


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

 

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

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

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

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

Uche Ogbuji reads “Siren Limits” but Christopher Okigbo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Further Reading: 

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


 

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

Further Reading: 

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

 

 

 

 

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Cait Weiss Orcutt Reads Natalie Shapero

 

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Cait and I met a few years ago. I was a prospective MFA candidate at the Ohio State University, and she was a current graduate student. While I didn’t end up attending OSU, I stayed in touch with Cait. In this interview, we talk about how the playfulness in Natalie Shapero’s poems is at once particular to the poet’s sense of humor and inviting to her readers. We talk also about lists in poems, and about life in universities. I was really happy to have this opportunity to reconnect with Cait, and to read a poem of hers I didn’t know, which is printed at the end of this interview. Thanks for joining us!

 

 

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Hard Child” by Natalie Shapero

Jessica Hudgins: OK so to start I’ve got to say that I was nervous when I saw you’d chosen to read Natalie Shapero, and then relieved and surprised when I heard your recordings. I think I thought that, because her sense of humor is such an important part of her poems, she would have to be the person reading them. Did you think about this while you were recording these? I haven’t been nervous with poems by May Swenson, even though her poems are interested in sound, or with an elegy by Philip Levine. Why would I think that poems with jokes seem more private, or more limited to the person who “told” them, than other poems?

Cait Weiss Orcutt: I am in awe of Natalie Shapero’s aura—and when I say “aura,” I mean “aura” as Walter Benjamin envisions it: an essence, a near-otherworldly power rooted in sharing space with something sublime. Natalie’s readings live in the sweet spot between stand-up comedy and performance poetry, and hardly anyone in the audience wants to breathe lest they break the magic. What Natalie as a living force brings to the page and stage is impossible to recreate. So, yes, now that you mention it, choosing to read her poems was a bold move. But life is for living and so here we are.

            As I see it, when you ask about joking in poetry, you’re at least in part asking, “What makes a poem private?” That’s a fascinating question to me. I love that you’re connecting that sense of privacy with a sense of humor, since our senses of humor are so finely calibrated, so minutely shaped and sharpened by the way we grew up, whom we listen to now, how we choose (or don’t choose) to understand the world. I love poems with a sense of humor—not only for the chance to laugh but also because, to me, the best poems are the ones in which I get to see a mind at work. Someone can have a feeling, write it down and then, years later, a whole other human can pick up those words, read them, and have a similar feeling. I was raised atheist and maintain a crystal-embracing agnosticism, but even as a semi-skeptic, I see poetry’s ability to replicate feelings across bodies over time and space as god-like. What is divine if not unfettered connection?

            So again, what poems are private? What feelings are? The right words in the right order will out anything you have tucked away inside. Poetry allows one’s isolated privacies to become a shared public on the page—what is more magical than that?

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Not Horses” by Natalie Shapero

JH: I really appreciate the, like, negative/positive attitude in these poems. The line in “Not Horses” that goes, “Everybody’s/busy, so distraught they forget to kill me,/and even that won’t keep me alive,” is the best example, but also how, in “What Will She Go As,” the past in which an infant may have died turns into a present where the same child is okay. What drew you to these poems? Why did you choose to read this group in particular?

CWO:  As much as I am a reader and a writer, I am also a teacher, working with students at the University of Houston, at HISD high schools, charter middle schools, art museums, the Jewish Community Center and the Salvation Army (for senior citizens and homeless young adults, respectively), local arts non profits and, every now again, community board meetings looking to try something new. Having taught every age from six years old to ninety, I need lessons that will open any reader up to the possibilities and play poetry offers.

            “Not Horses” is one of my favorite poems to bring into a workshop. The speaker aligns themselves with “a bug that lives only one day” and the “little dog / who sees poorly at night and menaces stumps.” Who cannot relate to these creatures, lost but lovable, broken but brave all the same? I believe poetry exists to make living easier, or at least to make living a lot more interesting. I want my students to see how poems offer a framework for survival, like the speaker’s voice coming out of the poem to our ears, small bumbling pets that we are, saying “don’t be afraid— / our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.” Only perhaps not quite as morbid. A poem, just in existing, in telling its story or conjuring its associations, says: “You will survive this like I did. You are not alone.”

            As for “What Will She Go As,” ambivalence around childbirth will always catch my attention. This specific poem does so much: 1. anticipates a baby’s arrival; 2. mocks society’s consumerist, gendered obsessions; 3. references the most famous baby kidnaping crime with tinges of pro-Fascism around its edges; 4. hints at the future absence of the baby in a defiantly daring way that surprises anyone familiar with miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortality. This poem takes the topic of Halloween Costumes and launches off into a multitude of conflicting feelings, connections, threats, promises and resentments. What better way to welcome a baby into a world than with a poem that rockets around the human experience with such wit and vinegar?

JH: In these poems there are lists of traditions, of costumes, and of terrible things that might happen on any given day. These lists are really entertaining moments in the poems, because each item in the list surprises us with how obviously it belongs, even while it’s unlikely for the poet to have chosen that exact thing. Do you use lists in your poems? How do you see Natalie Shapero’s work influencing your own?

CWO: I have always enjoyed a good list, how the tension mounts in a poem as items are added, how one can sense a specificity beginning to show itself out of the block of marble that is Language with each new addition to the chain.

            Right now I’m working on a series of poems that, in short, bring women back from the dead. When I started writing these poems, I didn’t set out to make them especially baroque, but as I put them together, I realized that, in each one, I’d layered detail upon detail to build environments both shimmeringly beyond the veil and earthy enough for someone who’s seen it all—these survivors step out of lush green glades, move through in-patient rehabs painted infinite shades of pink, skate on Roller Derby teams populated with defiant femme-punned names. List after list appeared in these new poems, always shadowed by the lists of those murdered through partner violence, gender violence, transphobia, homophobia, patriarchal white supremacy. Lists are powerful incantations. Sometimes I wonder if all poems (or at least all lineated poems) aren’t in some way lists—every line giving new solutions to the same overarching problem, different routes to a single destination.

            In terms of Natalie’s work’s influence on me, I have been trying to crawl inside Hard Child ever since I finished my book VALLEYSPEAK, a first-person collection of poems built around a coming-of-age storyline. After VALEYSPEAK, I was searching for ways to write beyond my own family mythos. I admire how Natalie is able to create tension, stakes, personality and (inside, outside, borderline) jokes without actually giving us all that much about her personal life, past issues, or childhood history. Her poems create warmth and inclusion beyond or at least beside the autobiographical narrative mode. Natalie’s work, to me, achieves that perfect balance between the poet casually saying “This wild thing happened, let me tell you about it” and the reader noticing, “Damn, that’s a masterly poem.”

Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “What Will She Go As” by Natalie Shapero

JH: You both attended Ohio State University’s MFA program — did your time there overlap? And you’re in a PHD program now. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in universities?

CWO:  Even though we’re about the same age, I wasn’t at OSU until a few years after Natalie graduated. She was still living in Columbus, though, and taught an afternoon intensive poetry workshop one day my first year there. I think the world of her as a human, a writer and a reader.

            Not to be too infomercial about it, but The Ohio State University’s MFA changed my life. I learned to think of myself as poet, a teacher and a member of the literary community. I met mentors that changed my understanding of poems and peers whose books I will be buying and reading for the rest of my life. I also wrote a thesis that eventually became my first book and met my husband, so I really have few complaints.

            Right now, I’m in the middle of my third year at University of Houston, and again, I’m amazed by the compassion and intelligence of my cohort.

            Still, I would be amiss to omit a few caveats. Universities are deeply flawed in how they allocate funds, how they alter (or don’t alter) curriculum requirements, how they treat adjuncts and Graduate Teaching Assistants, how they devalue, minimalize or wholly deny the experiences of BIPOC and non-male students, faculty and employees. The school I am currently at is forced to allow (hidden) guns in the classroom under Texas’s “Concealed Carry” state law. OSU had its problems too.  All universities do.

            Ultimately I am grateful to be given the opportunity to study, write and teach with a university’s backing and a brilliant, engaging set of colleagues. I value my students and deeply respect how hard they work to balance their family responsibilities, their jobs, their health, and their studies all in fairly uncertain times. I love and admire my professors for the time and care they pour into us. And, as a member of the university myself, I hope to help instigate change where we’re not quite living up to our potential yet.

JH: I feel like we can’t ignore the moment in “Not Horses” where a pet dog appears. Have you ever included a pet in a poem? If so, can we please end with an excerpt?

CWO:  In fact, I have! I just finished a draft of a poem about my cats and poor love choices, and a few years ago I wrote an ode to the two black pugs I grew up with back in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley in the 1990s. The cat poem is still stretching its limbs, but the pug poem, “Ode to the Small Black” was published by The Chattahoochee Review, Volume 36.I. Here is a reprint:

ODE TO THE SMALL BLACK

                                                                        pugs huddled by heating vents. California cold, no one believes it who hasn’t lived here. Temperature is relative, so the family forages scarves & sweaters, mittens, earmuffs. The daughters unbury beanies, but the mother craves the cool wind, lets it caresses her ears, scalp, neck. The family’s pugs cuddle each other, wait for the youngest daughter to slip & spill her sausage on floorboards. She does. She always does. Little creatures, they can’t translate the tantrum that comes after the fall, just the sausage sliding between 4 or 5 snaggled pug teeth. A pet’s joy is a pure joy, a joy more autonomous animals cannot reach. A grandmother visits, calls them bloated ticks. O, everyone has a trash & a treasure. When summer comes, the 2 will gorge themselves on loquat fruit, sweet tumbled meat, but now, they sleep. Dark dog orbs lodged near air ducts. A paradise of squat life: heat, meat & curling up beside another’s feet.


Cait Weiss Orcutt’s work has appeared in Boston ReviewChautauquaFIELD, and more. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. Her manuscript VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3, 2017) won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award, judged by Douglas Kearney. Cait has an MFA from The Ohio State and is currently getting her Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at University of Houston, Grackle and Grackle, Inprint, WITS, the Salvation Army, the Menil Collection, and the Jewish Community Center. She is the graduate advisor for Glass Mountain literary magazine and the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship.

Further Reading: 

Read Cait Weiss Orcutt’s poem “Frontier” at the Boston Review
Read Cait Weiss Orcutt’s poem “To the Loch Ness” at Hobart
Megan J. Artlett reviews Valleyspeak at the American Literary Review
Purchase Valleyspeak at Small Press Distribution

Natalie Shapero is the author of two poetry collections. The first, No Object (Saturnalia 2013), received the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and the second, Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press 2017), was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Shapero has earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, and the University of Chicago. She is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University, and an editor at large of the Kenyon Review. Her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Kenyon Review Fellowship.

Further Reading:

Natalie Shapero at Poetry Society of America’s “In Their Own Words” series
Natalie Shapero reading “Stars” at Dollhouse #23
Three poems in Pinwheel 
Purchase Hard Child at Copper Canyon Press


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

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Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer Reads May Swenson

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Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson. We consider how reading a poem aloud — deciding which syllables to stress, and when to pause — can express ideas the poem suggests. We take a very close look at phonetics , and discuss how the study of linguistics informs Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s reading of May Swenson’s work. Thank you for joining us!

 

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” by May Swenson:

Jessica Hudgins: OK so obviously the first thing I have to ask in our conversation about these poems is sound – how long did it take you to record them? In “Question,” for example, there are some lines that you stress exactly as I expected you to, “How will it be/to lie in the sky,” and others, “bright dog is dead,” surprised me. Were there any lines that, while you were recording them for us, you had to stop and think about?

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer: Thank you for starting with sound! Warning: if you aren’t much interested in meter and sound, perhaps skip to the next question, because I am about to geek out with great enthusiasm.

So much of what draws me to May Swenson’s work is her musicality, her rhythmic play, her pleasure in the way lines chime. Both “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” are poems I memorized long ago (like two decades ago?), in part because they move me, and in part because in learning them by heart, I’ve been able to challenge and deepen my understanding of Swenson’s poetry.

I should mention, however, that I read both poems on the page when I recorded them for you, in case I’d taken liberties with Swenson’s language over the years (which, it turns out, I had). I recorded each poem two times.

With “Question,” the poem literally gallops. It’s based on two-beat lines, often iambic. However, I choose to recite it as if some of the lines are a spondee followed by an iamb. This basically crams three beats into a two-beat line, perhaps like the way some of us try to cram more “beats” of life into the limited time we’re given. Check out this first stanza:

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

I suppose the first line could be a trochee and an iamb, though that would have less of a charge. And I suppose you could read the third line as two iambs, but that would produce such a sing song effect, and I intuit Swenson wants to evoke a wild ride, a quickening, instead of a predictable Hallmark ditty. The poem is driven, driven with question, driven by mystery, driven with curiosity, and I love the way her metrics strengthen this drive. The poem’s pulse is our pulse, both in its insistence and in its subtleties.

I love, too, that she ends the stanza with an amphibrach (unstressed, stressed, unstressed). So that the stress of the word “fallen” falls off at the end of the line. This mirroring of sound and meaning thrills me. I don’t just hear the fallenness, I feel it physically.

And then, once the two-beat pattern is established in the first two stanzas, Swenson breaks the iambic tendencies in stanza three, adding even more syllables to the lines in a sprung-rhythm way, allowing more movement inside the imposed form.

But now let’s consider these lines:

How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

You noted in your question how I read the last line of this stanza as four separate beats, five really, including “good” from the line before. Well, it’s a line about death, a literal stopping of the gallop of life. And it seems to me that by giving each single-syllabic word an emphasis, Swenson is, in effect, hammering nails into a coffin. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. It’s allowing the silence between the sounds to come to prominence, a preface to the eternal silence that follows that last word, “dead.” By giving each word its own beat, the poem aurally brings home the finality of that line.

Also curious to me: the only question mark in the poem is at the end. The poem thrusts through where any punctuation might try to tame it. As if question is the new statement. When that question mark finally arrives at the end, we can paradoxically rest there in its rising uncertainty.

As for recording “Four-Word Lines:” this poem is the most haunting, surprising erotic poem I know. Though it is startlingly graphic inside its bee/flower metaphor (“I’d let you wade/ in me and seize/ … a sweet/ glistening at my core), it is delightful and playful and even a bit goofy with its insistence of all those sibilants, voiced and unvoiced, creating an audible swarming of bees. Swenson even gives us the odd plural possessive word “bees’,” which to me invites a buzz-heavy doubling of the “z.” Oh the ecstasy humming in the air! This poem makes me simultaneously blush-ish and breathless and foolish.

Once, while walking through a modern art museum, I came to a large blue bowl on the wall that created an echo effect, so I recited the poem into the bowl—the resonance of all those zzzzz’s was deliriously hypnotic.

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson:

JH: In “Question” May Swenson approaches metaphor in a couple different ways. In the first stanza she uses direct address to compare the poet’s body to a house, while in the third stanza she refers to the body by name to introduce a metaphor of the body as a dog. In “Four-Word Lines” Swenson is more focused on repetition and sound. Say a little about why you chose these poems, and about Swenson’s influence on your work.

RWT: Swenson’s use of metaphor is my other most favorite part of her work. In “Question,” she leaps between body as house, horse and hound. Pleasing how she’s chosen three five-letter words that begin with h. Random, but not random. As house, the body literally contains us, “hides” us, keeps us safe, though eventually it will “fall.” As horse, our “mount,” it helps us “ride” and move through the world. As hound, it is our soul’s companion, it “hunts” our food, it sniffs out “danger or treasure.”

She interchanges the metaphors as the poem speeds along, not handling them one at a time, but all at once, so very true to the experience of having a body. And also, as you note, the speaker seems to be both in the body and also witness to the body. She is, at the same time, whatever it is that will die and whatever it is that will live on.

I often use this poem in workshops about the body. It is easy to pick almost any three nouns and explore them metaphorically. “Body my slug, my sloth, my soil.” Or “Body my wall, my woods, my wine.” And it is easy, in a way, to imitate her form here, basically a litany of questions.

It is not easy, however, to do what Swenson has done, which is to create a masterful envisioning of the transition from life to death. After the word “dead,” the speaker takes us to the beyond imaginable realm of body-less-ness, offering us only questions, which is the only real answer available to most of us.

I love that pun in the third-to-the-last line, “wind for an eye.” Though the eye still might see, the “I” is unseen, becomes wind, becomes spirit, becomes invisible, powerful and still somehow animate. With its puns and rhymes, this poem is a playground, despite its serious content.

We can find Swenson punning again in the title of “Four-Word Lines.” It is, of course, a nod to the poem’s self-imposed form. The poem is also forward in its sexual thrust. And as the first poem in “The Love Poems of May Swenson,” I think some editor was having fun by making the poem, in effect, the book’s foreword.

Here’s something else I love about Swenson’s writing—she creates simple forms, in this case four-word lines, and then uses this small limitation as something to push against and fuel creativity. Here, she charges the poem with alliteration and assonance. The similarities of sound resonate within single lines, but also reach into the next lines, creating a complex of connections beneath all that constant buzzing. It’s like the two lovers in the poem managing to connect despite the overriding “swarm of other eyes.” Let’s take a look at the inner assonances/alliterations in the first five lines:

Your eyes are just
like bees, and I
feel like a flower.
Their brown power makes
a breeze go over

In line one, we have the /r/ in “your/are,” which carries through in line three with “flower” line four with “brown” and “power” and line five with “breeze” and “over.” In line two, “feel like a flower,” has such strong interplay between the /f/ and /l/, and then the /ow/ sound of line three with “flower” is pulled into line four with “brown” and “power.” There’s the vocalic rhyme of “bees” in line two with “feel” in line three and “breeze” in line five … there’s more, but you get the idea. It’s splendidly woven!

Many years ago, I wrote out the poem in the phonetic alphabet so I could better see the patterns. What thrilled me then, and thrills me still, is the way Swenson seems to let sounds lead her through the poem, allowing her to arrive in unexpected places.

In my own practice, one major inspiration I take from her poems is to let myself be led by rhythm and rhyme in playful, insistent, unpredictable ways. After years of practicing this approach, I still appreciate how sound helps lead me into surprise and revelation/anti-revelation.

By the way, I earned my master’s degree in English language and linguistics because I wanted to understand how phonetics and syntax could inform poems. Swenson, Hopkins, Cummings—these were some of the poets who inspired me to explore this way.

JH: The verbs in “Question” are: do, sleep, ride, hunt, go, know, lie, hide. These are interesting to me, especially the last. No longer having a body should make hiding easy, but we get a sense of what Swenson means. I think I hear you gesturing toward this paradox in your recording. Why would Swenson ask where she’ll sleep after she’s dead? I don’t exactly mean that, but I’m curious how you might answer the question.

RWT: Right … what a curious ending. I have puzzled around this for years. Here’s where I land with it now. I think the speaker is suggesting that the I is the most essential part of us. It is not the body. It is, perhaps, the soul, what animates the body. And, to some extent, the I “hides” in the body. And then, when the body is dead, the I is exposed. The “shift” in the penultimate line is not only a garment, it’s the transformation from body and soul to simply soul.

This poem often makes me think of the Ramana Maharshi quote, “The reason to ask ‘Who am I?’ is not to arrive at an answer, but to dissolve the questioner.” And here, the questioner is still not quite dissolved at the poem’s end. How can it imagine what happens after its own dissolution?

I’m curious what you think about why she asks where the I will hide when the body is dead.

JH: These poems are so disarming. Their tone could be described as innocent, but the speaker is knowledgeable and calm in a way that makes us rethink that as we read on. What do you make of their titles?

RWT: I spoke already about the multiple puns in “Four-Word Lines.” I am embarrassed to say it was years before I found them, but I was so delighted when I did!

As for “Question,” here she rolls many questions into one. It seems to me there is some suggestion that all questions are really parts of the same ultimate question, “Who am I?” Just as all poems are, in some way, trying to answer that one question, though perhaps in a more plural sense, “Who are we? What are we doing here?”

As you say, there’s an up-front innocence that can make the poems feel quite simple. On the surface, “Four-Word Lines” is a modest story of bee meets flower. But there’s daring and pluck in the lines as they limn desire.

I also think that part of the reason the poems are ultimately disarming, as you say, is because they don’t include moral judgement. They don’t tell us how to feel. Swenson’s writing style is observational, terse, permissive. One poem takes us out of the body. The other leads us more intimately into the body. And after reading and re-reading, these poems continue to open, like the “flower breathing bare,” and we see just how richly crafted they are, how they allow us to wade in layers of both meaning and form.

 


 

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer lives in Placerville, Colorado, on the banks of the San Miguel River. She served as San Miguel County’s first poet laureate and as Western Slope Poet Laureate. She teaches poetry for 12-step recovery programs, hospice, mindfulness retreats, women’s retreats, teachers and more. An avid trail runner and Nordic skier, she believes in the power of practice and has been writing a poem a day since 2006. She has 11 collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in O Magazine and on A Prairie Home Companion. Her most recent collection, Naked for Tea, was a finalist for the Able Music Book Award. One-word mantra: Adjust.  www.wordwoman.com

Further Reading:

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s poem-a-day blog
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer on Rattle
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s Tedx Talk on the Art of Changing Metaphors

May Swenson (1913-1989) wrote several books of poetry, including A Cage of Spines, Iconographs, and More Poems to Solve. Swenson received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She served as a chancellor on the board of the Academy of American Poets in addition to teaching at several universities including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University.

Further Reading: 

“Question” by May Swenson
“Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson
“While I’m sunbathing, or whatever,” May Swenson on her process with the Modern Literary Collection

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.

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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.

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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: 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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Felicia Zamora reads from House A by Jennifer S. Cheng

Felicia Zamora is the author of three books of poetry and two chapbooks, but more than that, she is an incredible supporter and champion of the works of other writers in a way that makes her an astonishing ally and a valued friend. On poetry she is well-read and searingly intelligent. So of course, I asked her to read for us here at LE and I was excited to see who she would choose to share.

Zamora chose Jennifer S. Cheng’s book House A (Omnidawn) and read three poems for us from this gorgeous book, evidencing her incredible generosity.

Black: What a great choice. What made you choose Jennifer S. Cheng to share with us?

Zamora: Cheng writes, “children experience memories as image and sound, which is to say they experience them as poetry.” Here is a book that builds poetry, history, memory, and home—inside each page, each utterance of longing.

House A is one of those books I ordered because I am a fan of Omnidawn Publishing and appreciate the new voices they bring to the conversation from new and emerging poets. Reading other women poets of color is important to my own writing as I am fueled by the experiences and worlds being created by these poets. These are necessary voices. Voices we all must hear. I was only a few poems into Cheng’s epistolary “Dear Mao” sequence and I was thinking, “Wow, I wish I had written this” which is my telltale sign that I love a book.

Cheng weaves intricate images that make a reader fall into these letters of searching. In “Letters to Mao” she writes, “Lost: the dark / spot inside my mother’s throat. Lost: house inside my seams.” Home is in the flesh. Home is in the history of family and culture. Home is in “the dark silhouette of my mother’s hair” and how her father taught her “to listen to the inside of a seashell.”

Black: Is the entire book in epistolary form?

Zamora: The book comprises of three sections with only the first section comprising of epistolary poems. In the middle and third sections, Cheng explores how one studies and organizes memory and place. She asks the reader to consider how one creates a home from scratch. She never loses sight of the act of building home in all its bodily and worldly means.

In the second section, “House A; Geometry B”, she writes:

“…the body of articulation occurs through

a house…

let us iterate it until it is its own

baseline. dislocation a house. longing as

location.”

This is transcendent work that Cheng accomplishes throughout these pages. She requires readers to rethink how we conceive of “home.” We enter into the journey of searching, not just by language, but by the universal language of mathematics, or ‘geometry’, and through the construction of voice and images, that keeps swimming back to how one makes sense of rootedness and a lack of rootedness.

Again in “House A; Geometry B” she writes:

“the body of a house:

sleeping fossil

geometric shell”

Black: Claudia Rankine said of the book, “Not since Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Calvino’s invisible Cities have I encountered such attention to the construction of love and love’s capacity to transform unimagined locations.” And I’m intrigued by the locations she talks of. Can you speak a little bit to the idea of place in Cheng’s work?

Zamora: It is through loss that the voice finds home in the everyday moments, finds place as something she can stow away into memory and carry with her. These are hard and beautiful poems born of necessity. Poems of a life in question of place. How do place and life come together? How does place etch inside us, leaving its mark? Cheng demonstrates how a body in longing plucks what it must, creates out from love new definitions of place.

She writes:

“…home is a narrative we are both familiar/with…

So that ours was always a story of leaving and never an/

anchoring of place.”

As a reader, Cheng builds micro worlds in each poem in which readers are allowed to swim in and contemplate space and place. She creates a fluidity in both her ideas and her language. This book acts as history, like the water in our bodies, it stays with a person into memory.

In “Letters to Mao” she writes:

“Dear Mao,

I hope you understand that what I am doing is trying to give you a history

of water, which, like memory and sleep, is fluid and wafting in refracted

light. History as water, so that I am giving you something that spreads.”

In many ways, these prose blocks transport and mimic the theme of the book: how home becomes that which we carry inside. How, “Such residue, the way a ghost becomes a blueprint.” There are historical vestiges of place inside those who long.

“Dear Mao,

Phantom limb.

Cheng explores how displacement transforms a person, beyond a diasporic hunger of place, and the how the mind creates the necessary places for survival and love, in a world within us. However, even in the creation of, the voice is still haunted by history and absence; these ghosts in linger.

She says to Mao:

“…You were dust in my house. A

shadow underneath the floorboards.”

Black: What do you want to be certain a reader notices in this work?

Zamora: This is complex work: to unravel time and place in search of meaning in the journey of diasporic history, to speak of “the watery life of home” that goes beyond what Cheng says, “the ambiguity of homeland” that one does not possess in their own memory, for those memories belong to someone else. Connectivity to geography is that of spinning globes, tidewater, and ceramic horses.

She writes:

“…For homeland is something embalmed

in someone else’s memory, or it is a symbol, both close the heart

and a stranger you reach for in the middle of the night.”

Black: Do you see connections between either the poet and yourself or her work and your own?

Zamora: In House A, Cheng uses the form of prose poetry in the first section of the book to explore an intricate weaving of thoughts in compiled letters to Mao. The language in these poems combine narrative and lyric in electrifying and transformative ways, as well as the necessity of the experience being written for the reader to share. She writes, “If I could take a shadow and sew it to another until it formed a roof above my head.” This building of images, I mean, wow; this is world-building.

I’ve been drawn to the prose and prose-ish poem in my own poetry, because of the work the form requires of a writer: intimate attention to both the line and the sentence in simultaneity, and the poet must consider the role of each of these elements and how they function cohesively in the poem.

I also connect with Cheng’s work because she attends to the missing, the absent, the hole so authentically and with such necessity. She weaves the intricate fibers of language in these poems, and strums. My history was also shaped in absence and a different kind of displacement, so Cheng’s poems idea of home speaks to me and how home resides more inside my body than outside.

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Felicia Zamora’s books include Of Form & Gather, winner of the 2016 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame 2017), & in Open, Marvel (Parlor Press 2017), and Instrument of Gaps(Slope Editions 2018). She won the 2015Tomaž Šalamun Prize (Verse), authored two chapbooks, and was the 2017 Poet Laureate of Fort Collins, CO. Her poetry is found in Alaska Quarterly Review,Crazyhorse,Indiana Review, jubilat, Meridian, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, West Branch, and others. She is an associate poetry editor for the Colorado Reviewand is the Education Programs Coordinator for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

Jennifer S. Cheng received her BA from Brown University, MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa, and MFA in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She is the author of MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems, selected by Bhanu Kapil as winner of the Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize (May 2018), HOUSE A, selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Omnidawn Poetry Book Prize, and Invocation: An Essay (New Michigan Press), a chapbook in which fragments of text, photographs, found images, and white space influence one another to create meaning. A U.S. Fulbright scholar, Kundiman fellow, and Bread Loaf work-study scholar, she is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Harold Taylor Award, the Ann Fields Poetry Award, the Mid-American Review Fineline Prize, and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poetry and lyric essays appear in Tin House, AGNI, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, The Volta, The Offing, Sonora Review, Seneca Review, Hong Kong 20/20 (a PEN HK anthology), and elsewhere. Having grown up in Texas, Hong Kong, and Connecticut, she currently lives in rapture of the coastal prairies of northern California. (Bio is from JSC’s website.)

Links to some good stuff:

Jennifer S. Cheng’s Website

Jennifer S. Cheng at Entropy Mag

From the Voice of a Lady in the Moon, a poem by JSC

Felicia Zamora’s Website

Zamora’s Poetry at Poetry Northwest

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: 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: Brian Oliu Reads “[asking]” by Barbara Jane Reyes

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Brian Oliu reads “[asking]” by Barbara Jane Reyes.

Brian, this is a damn beautiful poem you’ve read for us today. Before we get to “[asking]” could speak more generally about Reyes’s poetry and how you came to be familiar with her work?

Brian: Yes! So, I was a graduate student at Alabama when the University brought her in for a visiting writer’s series. My good friend Jeremy Hawkins was extremely excited about her coming to read & so he sent me a bunch of her work. I went to her reading & was really blown away by not only how phenomenal her work was, but how good of a reader she was. I think the thing that I enjoy most about her work is the earnestness of it all; how it is completely unapologetic in how it is crafted. It is something that I always try to strive for in my own writing—this notion of saying exactly what needs to be said without any reservation.


Chris:
What elements of “[asking]” make it essential to you as a writer? I’m moved by the imagery in the poem, particularly “…water and rock contain verse and metaphor, even wild grasses reply in rhyme” and the bit that follows, “moment of lucidity; summer lightning bugs, sun’s rays in a jelly jar.” Is it the imagery that does it, or is there another quality that resonates with you?

Brian: I would say the imagery too! I really love how Elizabeth Bishop talks about how poems should have more “things” in them & I totally agree—I think strong imagery is what brings energy to a piece. We can talk about our feelings & higher level concepts in a work, but all writing is a confession of some sort—therefore we have to find creative ways to put our emotions into a piece, & for me, it’s the concrete that helps me latch onto the more ephemeral beauty.

Chris: We’ve totally nerded out about Bishop on Lyric Essentials before—definitely one of my favorite poets. What imagery in “[asking]” brings energy to the poem for you? What are your favorite “things” in this poem?

Brian: “some mythic angel” just makes me want to fist pump in the air. “a cove to escape the flux” is a line I wish I wrote. I just keep finding my head bobbing along to it.

Chris: How have you used these ideas and concepts in your own writing? Are there particular things you like to write about and explore, or anything specific you’re writing about now?

Brian: I think a favorite trick that I love to use is negation—to define something by what it is not, & I love that is how the piece ends; there’s so much that the poem “is” that exists just beyond the constraints of what we have. I always like to imagine that each thing that I write is a sneak peek into what is actually going on—it is here, and then it is gone. I was a kid who constantly found myself not wanting stories or poems to end & imagining new endings or moments where I’d ask “where does everything go from here?” & I feel like this does this beautifully. I’ve been writing a lot about running as well as professional wrestling—both are two things that never truly end; there is always more to run in the same way there is always a new show & universe that needs to be explained.

Chris: Where can our readers get more of Reyes’s poetry? Any books or poems you can recommend?

Brian: Well, first & foremost, she has a KILLER blog (http://www.barbarajanereyes.com/blog/). To Love As Aswang is phenomenal. & as for individual pieces, [the siren’s story] hits all the fabulous notes for me.
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Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games, Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press, 2015), essays on NBA Jam, and i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015), a memoir in the form of a computer virus. Current projects include two books on professional wrestling, a memoir about translating his grandfather’s book on long distance running, and a nonfiction book about the history of the track jacket.

Chris Petruccelli is still in Northeast Tennessee, but planning–and hoping–to be in Kentucky over the summer. His Rowlet is now a Decidueye. He also has a Metang and a Salazzle. Things are lookin’ pretty good. Chris’s poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and elsewhere. He is also the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). He runs his first half marathon in two weeks.

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Lyric Essentials: Lindsay Tigue Reads “Water Sign” by Margaret Hasse

LindsayTigue

Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Lindsay Tigue reads “Water Sign” by Margaret Hasse.

This is a neat little poem you’ve shared with us today, Lindsay. When I looked up this poem for reference I found that it was published in a series of three poems about this Charlie character at Verse-Virtual. What can you tell us about these Charlie poems and Margaret Hasse’s work in general?

Lindsay: This is perhaps a bit of a digression, but I feel I need to explain my introduction to this poem. I first encountered Margaret Hasse and this poem in 2009. I heard her read it as part of a panel at AWP in Chicago. It was my first AWP and I was in the midst of my first failed attempt at applying to MFA programs (I didn’t get into a program until my second try a year later).  This poem meant a lot to me, partly for its insistence on this final image, for the way it re-sees a child’s mistake as abundance and beauty.

I was mostly writing fiction at the time, but Hasse’s use of this image reminded me of a prose ending I was working on. I had written poetry in the past and would end up returning to it during my MFA program a year later. I don’t really remember thinking of myself as a poet at this time at all. I don’t remember thinking of myself as a writer even; I was at AWP in a work capacity as an editorial assistant at a nonprofit publisher. I went up to Hasse in the bookfair after the panel to buy a book and my friend told her I was a poet and she wrote “To Lindsay, fellow poet” in my book. The timing of that simple message provided a buoying feeling of hope as, similarly, this poem does for me.

Margarat Hasse is a Minnesota-based poet and the author of five books of poetry. This poem comes from her book, Milk and Tides (Nodin Press, 2008), which includes several poems dealing with motherhood and adoption. The series of poems in Verse-Virtual were reprinted from the book and all feature the character of “Charlie,” the speaker’s son and speak to the experience of mothering a child at various stages.

Chris: By the end of this poem I feel like I’m reading something both cute and innocent, but also something dark and sinister. I can’t quite put my finger on it though—the final lines I feel like they take the slightest twist. What do you make of the ending of “Water Sign”?

Lindsay: I do see something complicating the celebration in this poem. There is a bit of violence in the suggestion of play between Charlie and his brother  “who spray tomatoes with the intensity / of fire fighters at a five alarm fire.” There is also the acknowledgement that Charlie’s enthusiasm is “inconvenient” and it is the narration that suggests the mother and brother have to check their reaction in order to admire Charlie’s unrestrained love of the water he pours through the floor. There is acknowledgement of intensity in this poem and also the nod to the self as source of some of the world’s forces.

Chris: You mentioned that “Water Sign” provides you with a feeling of hope. How do you see the poem achieve that emotion? Are there other elements of “Water Sign” make it essential to you as a writer?

Lindsay: For me, there is hope in this re-seeing the speaker undertakes. It suggests an enlarged empathy, an enlarged love for the world. For me, another essential element of this poem is the title, the way it points toward astrology lends a layer echoing differences in character or temperament. The way the meanings of the title expand out delicately was a strategy that was really useful for me when thinking about titles.

Chris: In addition to “Water Sign”, what other Margaret Hasse poems should our readers look for? What would be on your Hasse must-read list?

Lindsay: Other poems to check out include “After I Tell Four-Year-Old Charlie the Story of His Adoption, He Counters with His Own Version” and “What It Is Like for Me This Fall.”
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Lindsay Tigue is the author of System of Ghosts, which was the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, is a finalist for the Foreword INDIE Poetry Book of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for the 2016 Julie Suk Award. She writes poetry and fiction and her work appears in Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Rattle, diode, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among other journals. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a James Merrill fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, and a former graduate assistant at the Georgia Review. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and is a current PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. She is originally from Michigan and now lives in Athens, Georgia.

Chris Petruccelli is sometimes a park ranger, sometimes a teacher, and takes what he can get the rest of the time—but he manages to stitch it all together. Chris is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press) and his poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Connotations Press, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. Chris recently started the Alola island challenge with his Rowlet. In his free time, Chris enjoys drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.

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Lyric Essentials: Nicole Rollender reads “A Summer Garden” by Louise Glück

NR

Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Nicole Rollender reads “A Summer Garden” by Louise Glück.

Nicole, there’s a lot to love in this poem. One of my favorite aspects of “A Summer Garden” is the play with time and space. I feel like Glück is a master at transporting the reader into specific psychological spaces and physical landscapes. What makes this poem stand out to you? Does “A Summer Garden” exemplify a specific quality of Glück’s work that you admire?

Nicole: For me, Louise Glück is kind of the über-narrator, and as you observed, a master at whisking the reader into suspended hyper-emotional spaces/physical spaces.

Back in 1975, Helen Vendler wrote a review in New Republic of Glück’s second book, The House on Marshland. This quote captures for me what’s so powerful about these complex narratives Glück has been composing for more than 40 years now: “Glück’s cryptic narratives invite our participation: we must … fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can utter her lines, decode the import, ‘solve’ the allegory.”

What attracts me most to “A Summer Garden” is the narrator’s really overt attention to memory/nostalgia (which is a huge preoccupation in my own work), as in the first (“Indeed, dust covered everything: it seemed to me the persistent/ haze of nostalgia that protects all relics of childhood) and second parts (“the past is buried in the future”) – yet within this overtness and drama creates a sense of wistfulness/urgency/longing that doesn’t read as, “Oh, OK, we’ve heard this all before.” Also what Glück does well: She pulls us into familiar emotional landscapes (isolation from family, rejection from a lover, reckoning with our own mortality). I mean, she makes me care hard in this poem.

I get what’s happening here: You find a photo in a marked-up copy of Death in Venice of your mother who has since died, and you’re existing in this weird place of multiplicities, all different times, but against a summer garden. You’re going into the photo’s park/garden landscape and sitting with your mother; you’re remembering her alive then (maybe it was even before you were born); you’re remembering her right before she died, and in her moment of death. Yet, she’s really never totally alive and dead, since she exists within these multiple conscious spaces. And I think the idea, when we’re in certain places and moments of our lives, that we really feel like time and our lives are infinite – and then we look back at those times and remember.

One last thought: I’m obsessed with Czeslaw Milosz’s book Bells in Winter and the first poem, “Encounter,” where the narrator recalls with a certain wonder how he can recall a wagon ride during a winter dawn many years earlier with a friend, how they sighted a hare: Yet now, in the moment of recollection “Today neither of them is alive,/ Not the hare, nor the man …” It’s this particular gaze informed by the acute awareness’s of life’s temporality, which we all experience – it just depends to what hyper-aware degree. I’m just fascinated again and again by memory’s power to let us mingle again and again with the dead, but also how it teaches us how quickly our lives move away from the current moment.

Chris: The third section stands out to me in particular. It feels sparse, compared to the other sections, but also makes what feel like loud assertions—there’s the presence of the “immodest god” and at the end Glück invokes an ominous vibe with the mention of Pompeii. What do you think is being communicated with this sort of turn at this point in the poem?

Nicole: I remember back in grad school, one of my professors kept insisting that Pan was a real spirit that manifested most clearly at noon. I remember considering that as a possibility and the strange feelings it evoked in me. This third section echoes the moment I felt Pan’s presence: silent, no wind, very bright, behind me his shadow the only thing moving across the lawn. In this poem, the ominous sun/shadows and then super brightness it creates (“He must be very close/ the grass is shadowless”) communicate to me the relentlessness of how our lives move. Even as we stand young and lush under the noonday summer sun, Pan will exist as he is forever, as we are every moment passing away. Yet, as in Pompeii, where the ash shells of those humans’ final moments exist in a way, our tiny momentary triumph may be that we existed here – and that we realized our smallness, our transience, yet our place among the largeness of the universe and its change/immutability.

Chris: Is graduate school where you were first introduced to Glück’s work? And what was her influence like when you began reading her — was it immediate, or did it take time to get into Glück’s complex narratives?

Nicole: It’s funny: I can’t remember when Glück’s work came into my life. Does that mean I’ve never been without her? And her so many books? When I first awoke to poetry as a young teen, her books were among the first books I bought, along with those from Jon Anderson and Denise Levertov. I connected really quickly to Glück’s introspection/weaving narratives and an underlying melancholy or sort of understanding of mortality. Like, every minute you’re alive you’re also cognizant of death. I read Firstborn and The House on Marshland a lot, early on.

Chris: You mentioned Czeslaw Milosz earlier. Who else plays with memory/nostalgia in their writing that you admire? And, in addition to “A Summer Garden,” what are your must-read Glück poems?

Nicole: That’s such a good rabbit-hole of a question, since the use of memory and nostalgia is so important to me in poetry. But, here’s a short list of some poets and particular pieces that really resonate for me (of course, the list is always growing and shifting):

Ocean Vuong’s “I Remember Anyway” in Guernica

Kaveh Akbar’s “Unburnable Cold Flooding Our Lives” in TriQuarterly

Maggie Smith’s “Your Tongue” in Memorious

Ada Limon, “The Last Move” and “Relentless” from Bright Dead Things

Walt Whitman’s “Poem of Joys”

And same with Glück: I suppose it depends what day you asked me which poem of hers was essential to me. Today, it’s “For My Sister.” Before Glück was born, her sister died. She wrote in an essay, “Her death was not my experience, but her absence was. Her death let me be born.” People should read “For My Sister” in The American Poetry Review; these lines especially:
Now, if she had a voice,

the cries of hunger would be beginning.

I should go to her;

perhaps if I sang very softly,

her skin so white

her head covered with black feathers…
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Nicole Rollender is the author of the poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Editions, 2015), and the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press), and Bone of My Bone, a winning manuscript in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Memorious, Radar Poetry, PANK, Salt Hill Journal, Thrush Poetry Journal, Word Riot and West Branch, among others. She’s the recipient of a  2017 poetry fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Princemere Journal and Ruminate Magazine. She earned her MFA in poetry at the Pennsylvania State University. She’s the editor-in-chief of Wearables and executive director of branded content & professional development at the Advertising Specialty Institute. In 2016, she was named one of FOLIO’s Top Women in Media. Visit her online at www.nicolerollender.com.

Chris Petruccelli is doing his thing, he guesses. Some new poetry recently appeared in Crab Fat Magazine. You can find his work in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. Chris is still running and drinking whisky.

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