Tag Archives: Lyric Essentials

Amy Strauss Friedman Reads Jessica Walsh

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


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

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

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

Amy Strauss Friedman reads “Bitter” by Jessica Walsh:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Further reading:

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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Niki Herd Reads Layli Long Soldier

Niki Herd Tucia Image 2

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

 

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Lyric Essentials: Rosebud Ben-Oni Reads Nazim Hikmet

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

      or live a thousand years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

Further Reading

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

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


Jessica Hudgins is a poet currently living in Georgia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

……..

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

……

“a hand on the door
from around my body”

……

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

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

“they bend”

“I’m backing up slowly/”

“The sloping line of their small snouts & /”

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

“Stripped down”

“The bottom of me

Dropped/”

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

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

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

“They are big, extra large”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Further Reading: 

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

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

Further Reading: 

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

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

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Uche Ogbuji Reads Two Poems by Christopher Okigbo


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

 

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

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

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

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

Uche Ogbuji reads “Siren Limits” but Christopher Okigbo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Further Reading: 

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


 

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

Further Reading: 

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

 

 

 

 

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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

real life photographs (33)ee_trommer

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.

 

_________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________

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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