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

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

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

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

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

With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

Two fingers, so it could slash

Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

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

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

Helena Mesa reading “Winter Stars”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Further Reading:

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

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

Further Reading:

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


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

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

 

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Lyric Essentials: Kierstin Bridger Reads Three Poems by Lynn Emanuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kierstin Bridger Reads “The Book’s Speech”

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

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

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


Kierstin Bridger Reads “Flying Trout While Drunk”

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

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

Here are a few starting points for lessons:

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

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

3. Efficiency and spare, and precise language

4. Muscular verbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have loved you all my life

she told him and it was true

in the same way that all her life

she drank, dedicated to the act itself,   

she stood at this stove

and with the care of the very drunk   

handed him the plate.

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


Kierstin Bridger Reads “Persona”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black: What are you working on now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________

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

 

The good stuff:

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

 

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

______________________________________________________________________

 

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

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Lyric Essentials: 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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