Tag Archives: Lyric Essentials

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

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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 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

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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 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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Lyric Essentials: Claudia Cortese Reads “Notes on Desire” by Eve Alexandra.

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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 Claudia Cortese reads “Notes on Desire” by Eve Alexandra.

Claudia, this is a wonderful and intense poem you’ve read for us today. Before we dive into “Notes on Desire,” what can you tell us about Eve Alexandra and her work?

Claudia: Eve Alexandra has disappeared. She published one book, The Drowned Girl, from which this poem comes, and as far as I can tell, has published nothing since. I have scoured Google and social media for her and found nothing. The Drowned Girl won the Wick Prize in 2003 while I was a student at Kent State—that’s how I heard of her—and we all got the book, became obsessed with the book, let the book tear us open and transform us. When I say “we,” I mean my little crew of poets that sat on my wood-rotted porch drinking boxed wine (a liquid delicacy only undergrads can truly appreciate) and reading poems and crying and talking.

I still remember hearing her read a poem about date rape, simply called “Rape,” when she gave her Wick prize-winner reading at Kent State. The poem describes assault in plain-spoken and direct language. The speaker asks if the rapist’s penis is in her vagina or her asshole—no euphemism or pretty language, just the confusion and trauma expressed directly: “His penis is in your vagina. / Or is it up your ass? / This is what you don’t understand: / how you lose track / of your own body.” Listening to Alexandra perform the poem, I cried harder than I have ever cried at a reading, and I wasn’t the only one. The packed room shook with grief as we all bore witness to Alexandra’s work—and by “work,” I don’t only mean her poems: I also mean The Work (with a capital w) that they were doing.

Chris: The amount of power in this poem is incredible. The repetition combined with the brevity of the lines and strong language makes the act of recollection so visceral. Do you create similar effects in your writing? What are the elements in this poem that make Alexandra essential to you as a writer?

Claudia: “Notes on Desire” cracked open poetry for me. Before reading it, poetry unfolded in neat and precise boxes: event A followed event B followed C and voile! at the end is a lovely epiphany earned by a story well-told. This poem showed me how to queer form and language—that the self’s desires are so fucking complex and the denial of that is based on our profound fear of pleasure—the fear that we are capable of infinitely more pleasure than our heteronormative culture deems imaginable. The speaker of the poem fucks men and fucks women; she likes her sex soft and she likes it rough; she comes when her lover calls her “whore, bitch, my little slut.” She entered “into the world . . . with the knowledge of her own sexual power” and yet her power is just as often compromised. In other words, her desire brims with contradictions that are not actually contradictions—the body can hold that much complexity.

The choppy sentence fragments which are not broken into lines or stanzas—the poem is a block of prose—leap without warning between genders and bodies and scenes, which mirrors the realistic ways that we experience memory and body: one moment we want to have rough sex; another moment we may suddenly feel turned off. One day, we feel like we are completely straight and the next day we see someone of our same gender (or of neither or both genders) and we think, Daaammmnnn!

I just published a book of prose poems and flash fiction stories called Wasp Queen. The book develops and focuses entirely on a character named Lucy. Each piece is a character study, a vignette, a small piece of a not-so-small girl. Sometimes, Lucy calls herself a fat cunt. Sometimes, she wants to rub “her bottom part” against her best friend, Stephanie, and other times, she yearns for a boy who lives in the forest. Sometimes, Lucy sweetly pets the edges of her favorite ribbon and other times, she tears her dog’s fur with her teeth. Alexandra showed me I can say “cunt” in a poem, and she showed me how to create a character whose desires and life are as complex as all of our desires and lives.

Chris: It’s wild that Alexandra’s The Drowned Girl had this profound impact, going so far as to influence your book Wasp Queen, and then she virtually disappears. Who did you read after poetry cracked open for you? Who else is writing today that helped inform your poetry in a way similar to Alexandra?

Claudia: Meghan Privitello’s A New Language for Falling out of Love!!! Dear God, Meghan can WRITE. The book is a collection of prose poems. I totally have a crush on the prose poem and I totally have a crush on Meghan’s poems. What I find so exciting about her work is that I never know what she will say next: each line veers and twists and contorts away from the previous line, though somehow the car of coherency never falls over the cliff into meaninglessness.

CA Conrad’s Book of Frank and Shannon Hardwick’s Francine poems showed me I could pour my monstrosity—all the vulnerable, horrific, strange parts of myself that scare the shit out of me—into a character that isn’t me, and by not being me, she could be more completely me than I had ever been before.

Some other writers that take the top of my head off: Grey Vild, Gillian Cummings, Lidia Yuknavitch, Aaron Apps, Toni Morrison, Megan Giddings, Natalie Eilbert, Morgan Parker.

Chris: To end on “Notes on Desire,” is there a particular section of the poem, or an image that you can’t get enough of? I love the lines, “She said Yes, yes. It was summer. In trees. By the water. No moon. No stars. Just dark. The dark and their tongues. Their eyes. Their Hands. Their scent.” This whole exchange is bracketed by one of those gender-desire shifts you talked about and it all works together so wonderfully. The dark and absence of light work to symbolize the traditional ideas of “danger/impurity/ending,” but they’re also contradictory and can represent a sort of celebratory revelation—maybe an orgasm? Totally babbling at this point, but what is or what are the parts of this poem that still resonate with you today?

Claudia: Haha! The best poems inspire the best babbling! “She came into the world like this. A child with the knowledge of her own sexual poem” still shocks and amazes me. The image of a child experiencing her sexuality at such a young age, and feeling her sexuality not as a possible source of trauma and, thus, powerlessness, but rather as the place from which her power would spring is shocking, taboo, fierce, and fearless. I hope badass and brilliant Eve Alexandra reads this interview and comes out of hiding! The world needs her.
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Claudia Cortese is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her first book, WASP QUEEN, was published by Black Lawrence Press in early 2017. She has had work featured in Blackbird, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast Online, and The Offing, among others, and is a book reviewer for Muzzle Magazine. The daughter of Neapolitan immigrants, Cortese grew up in Ohio and lives in New Jersey. She also lives at claudia-cortese.com

Chris Petruccelli remains unsure of what he is. His poetry appears in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. Chris’ chapbook Action at a Distance is available from Etchings Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chen:  My favorite lines are: “Truth is, I couldn’t stop to consider how we both live/in a country mostly afraid of the difference between/strength and power.” I’ve been thinking and thinking about this difference, how these two words can mean radically different things. How power depends on hierarchies, binaries, absolutes, forms of domination. How strength is rooted in the difficult/lucky practice of love, community, open communication, vulnerability, an embrace of the unknown. Thinking this way is making me rethink a term like “empowerment.” Do we want to be powerful? Is power all about our own individual success? Does power always reproduce itself? Its assumptions and structures? Are we making real decisions or are we merely helping to perpetuate the world as we know it?
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Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Phantom, Drunken Boat, and Poem-a-Day. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary fellow, Chen is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. For more, visit chenchenwrites.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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