Tag Archives: poetry reading

Timothy Ogene Reads Lenrie Peters

Timothy Ogene 12-16---2bPhoto credit: Clare McKenzie

In the this interview, Timothy Ogene reads a poem by Lenrie Peters, a Gambian poet and surgeon. The poem begins with the line “The first rose of the season,” and is the eighteenth in Peters’ 1967 collection Satellites. In this conversation, Ogene discusses how Peters’ work shows us that moments of silence can be moments of growth, and how Peters’ work offers us a model for writing that is at once optimistic and realistic about what Ogene calls “the violence of subjugation.” Thank you for joining us!

Timothy Ogene reading a poem by Lenrie Peters:

Jessica Hudgins: This poem feels really resolute to me. The heavy beats in each line, and those last two lines, especially. What draws you to this poem?

Timothy Ogene: Maybe he intended it. Maybe not. But the number assigned to the poem, 18, and what the poem suggests, ‘Of that which is to come/ In the power/ Of subdued fragrance,’ makes me think of Time and Maturation, how the later, no matter how delayed, is birthed by the former.
I’m drawn to the force and power of that promised ‘first rose of the season’, how it is revealed ‘layer by layer’ through the mechanism of concealment ( ‘Like the foetal head/ Inside an egg’). It is a poem that manages to stay optimistic while speaking to the violence of subjugation; that raises the imagery of birth and promise, calling on the reader to hold that image, but also drawing attention to the enigma of waiting.

JH: The poem makes me think of time, those beats like a ticking clock, and the easy way Peters moves forward — there’s nothing confusing about it, no word I don’t understand, but I feel like I haven’t fully grasped each moment, and then the next is here. That “subdued power” comes from saying exactly what you mean, and doing only exactly what you do: the rose will bloom because it’s a rose. Is this a political poem?

TO: Yes, Time is at the core of this poem. The time of maturation and the time of liberation, the time of waiting and of silence, and the time of bursting forth and glowing in full colors.  Lenrie was writing at the point when the fire of Independence was sweeping across Africa, when young writers and intellectuals saw themselves as voices of freedom and promise, voices whose ‘subdued power’ lie waiting to release their ‘fragrance.’ Read in that context, of pan-Africanist thought and nationalist sentiments, it is political. But it is also a poem that allows itself room for extraction and transplantation, to be read outside its pan-Africanist frame and significance, to be read merely as a song of hope, an ode (if you may) to the power of waiting, a warning that waiting and silence are not sites of emptiness. That they are, contained in their essence, sites of gestation. Silence, the poem seems to say, does not imply erasure. Growth happens even in silence, and it is Time that eventually gives force to voice.

JH: And I also read a lesson about poetry in the last two lines — how has Lenrie Peters influenced you work?

TO: You’re right. There’s something about those two lines. A gentle reminder that it’s all about the process, the act of waiting, of honing, of patience, of keeping watch for the right time and season, of knowing that one’s ‘fragrance,’ closed off or ‘subdued,’ will find expression somehow. That’s the way I see and read it. But there’s something more about Peters’ work that I find interesting. It is his ability to simultaneously approach and detach from the political, to perform what I call a poetics of extraction, where a single poem or line offers itself as a political cry but also self-standing work of beauty.

 


 

Timothy Ogene is a poet and novelist. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a visiting research fellow at Brown University.

Further Reading:

Visit Timothy Ogene’s website
Read three poems by Timothy Ogene at Numero Cinq
Purchase Timothy Ogene’s book Descent & Other Poems at Deerbrook Editions

Lenrie Peters (1932-2009) is a Gambian poet, novelist, and surgeon. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Satellites, which includes the poem discussed in this interview, and a novel, The Second Round. Peters worked for the BBC from 1955-1968, chairing its Africa Forum and broadcasting on several programs. He had a surgical practice in Banjul, and from 1979 to 1987 served as the president of the board of directors  of the National Library of the Gambia and Gambia College.

Further Reading:

Watch a 2006 interview with Lenrie Peters
Read several poems by Lenrie Peters (this link leads to a blog, there may be mistakes in the transcriptions)
Purchase Lenrie Peters’ book Satellites at Bolerium Books


Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Georgia.
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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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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: Helena Mesa Reads “Winter Stars” by Larry Levis

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

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

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

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

With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

Two fingers, so it could slash

Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

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

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

Helena Mesa reading “Winter Stars”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Further Reading:

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

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

Further Reading:

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


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

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

 

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Lyric Essentials: Kierstin Bridger Reads Three Poems by Lynn Emanuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kierstin Bridger Reads “The Book’s Speech”

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

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

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


Kierstin Bridger Reads “Flying Trout While Drunk”

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

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

Here are a few starting points for lessons:

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

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

3. Efficiency and spare, and precise language

4. Muscular verbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have loved you all my life

she told him and it was true

in the same way that all her life

she drank, dedicated to the act itself,   

she stood at this stove

and with the care of the very drunk   

handed him the plate.

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


Kierstin Bridger Reads “Persona”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black: What are you working on now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________

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

 

The good stuff:

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

 

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

______________________________________________________________________

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lisa Allen Ortiz reads “Barbie Chang Loves Evites”

 

Black: And why these poems in particular?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… she

is never late when invited

always ready for mimesis ready to put

on her costume to

drink mimosas her heart smells like

moth balls jumps at

every broth bell her heart growls more

each day she trims it with

a number 2 it’s messy work missing

her aorta by a little bit

her heart is always sort of bleeding she is

always waiting for

invitations…

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

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

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

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

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

… Mr Darcy walks around the city

but Barbie Chang can’t

follow him  she can’t promote herself

if she had legs she would

stop begging if she had hands she would

stop her own wedding

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

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

…. she prefers to sleep on her

back so she can see the

eyes of her attackers in the morning

a bed with questions

with her depression on each side two

small holes from knees

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

 

Lisa Allen Ortiz reads “Barbie Chang’s Tears”

 

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

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

 

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

 

Black: What are you working on now?

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

________________________________________________________________

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

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

Links to the good stuff:

Victoria Chang’s book, Barbie Chang at Copper Canyon

Victoria Chang’s Website

Chang on Becoming a Poet

Chang at Guernica

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

Ortiz at Verse Daily

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

Ortiz at Women’s Voices for Change

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

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