I wrote this poem on inauguration day 2017—about a month after the actual Advent season. The poem isn't necessarily about the holiday itself, though it is laden with a sense of waiting (or, if I'm honest, dread).
I wrote this poem on inauguration day 2017—about a month after the actual Advent season. The poem isn't necessarily about the holiday itself, though it is laden with a sense of waiting (or, if I'm honest, dread).
When I was young, I actually did think the soul was a body part. I chalk this up to not understanding abstraction at a young age. Everything was literal to me. I thought that because my mother was alive at the same time as Elvis, naturally they must have met at some point.
I was able to find the energy of "Emotional Lady" through a collage-like process of ordering and reordering different fragments of language and seeing how they interacted and moved as a whole. The language came from scrapped essays and poem drafts and notes in my journal, as well as from things I overheard.
Only someone from the Philippines would so
say they are not from the Philippines.
I'd been thinking about the idea of knowledge versus information for some years. The poem grew out of a frustration of being bombarded with constant news — such as, will the Duchess of Cambridge give birth to a boy or a girl, is camel milk the next super food, did you know the Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years away, etc. Increasingly, I felt that even though we were living in the age of information, the more I read, the less I knew.
Paul Colinet (1898-1957) was a Belgian Surrealist writer, of delightful prose poems, mostly. Like other authors in that distinctive grouplet, Colinet's work was little published in his lifetime and outside Belgium he's still little known.
During my high school days in the early 90's, there was a fad called the Master Cleanse. Perhaps it still exists. It was a sort of potion which was supposed to have extreme purging effects: water, maple syrup, lemon juice and a bit of cayenne. For the truly hardcore, there was the option of adding aloe juice effects.
Commenting on another poem from my collection Ghost, like a Place, a reviewer recently and generously wrote that, "From that recognition of the constitutive activity of absence in life, the speaker learns his new ontology." Sounds great and part of me agrees, but that agreeable part of me is not the part that wrote the poem in question ("Indian & Colored Burial Ground") or any other poem in the book.
The first draft of this poem came at a good time for me. My second year at NYU's MFA was about to start. I had wanted for decades to move to New York City. The chronic pain I had been living with for two years had finally subsided. Summer wind was blowing through our railroad apartment. I sat alone in the kitchen while my wife was at work
"Ajar" was written while I was translating Hesiod's Works and Days, an archaic Greek poem-cum-almanac about justice and farming, chores and the seasons. It also contains a story about the first woman, Pandora, and is the first telling of Pandora and the Jar. Except frequently I was stuck on the translation, progress was slow, I had my hands full with a young child and a toddler, not to mention the endless drama of Greece during the financial crisis, a constant background unrest in the city around us.
On December 3, 2016, Kim Hyesoon, her artist daughter, Fi Jae Lee, and I met at the sixth weekly candlelight protest in downtown Seoul at Gwanghwamun Square. We each carried a lit candle in a cup and a sign that read "Park Geun-hye Step Down." We sat down for a while in awe of the waves of lights and sheer number of protesters parading through the square. The surviving family members of the high school students who had drowned in the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster led the march to the gate of the president's executive office, to continue their demand for an investigation of the disaster.
In graduate school, I had to trace my literary ancestry, and of course, I started with Phillis Wheatley. She was the first back female poet, and that firstness mattered to me. Though, after reading Hayes' poem, I revisited my Phillis Wheatley poems. Why did I desire to communicate with her? What about her life unlocked something in mine?
Although camels originated in the New World millions of years ago, they eventually evolved, diverged, disappeared, and moved on to the Old World where they multiplied. Domesticated, they circled back and returned, riding into the sunset of human nature. Once, I saw a group of college boys try to ride a half-starved camel in the most wretched zoo I had ever been to.
This poem, the penultimate in my book The Fat Sonnets, began as a sort of healing after a difficult day of being reminded by the world that I occupy too much space in it.
Ten years ago, I dated a man who said to me many curious and indeed bizarre things over the course of the nine months we spent together. I wrote down many of these statements, transcribing them verbatim, inserting myself only insofar as I managed order, stanza structure, and line-break. I showed the draft to a friend who suggested I alter one word in the final line.
Chad Bilyeu is one of the most precious people in my life. We met at Georgetown University in 2006. We were in Healy Hall, and someone said to me "you don't know Chad B?!" He met me, and then started speaking even louder.
A few years ago, this question popped into my mind: am I exotic to myself? I mean, in my own eyes, how do I deal with the fact that my young black male body has always had to navigate the fear and desire of a white U.S. American gaze. What is the physical and psychosocial toll that comes with being seen to 'fit the description' (whether that be criminal, sexual, or otherwise) since my early teenage years?
"Then-Wife" is one of the first poems I wrote in The Arrangements and it defined some of the book's concerns. At the time I was chronically reading John Berger's And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, which I kept close by and regularly opened. Berger's obsession with vision and phenomenology infected me and set me on the path to writing what is now a loose trilogy of books of which The Arrangements is the first.
I wrote the first draft of this poem soon after I arrived for an artists residency in upper-state New York in July 2010 The entire east coast was in a record-breaking heatwave and more than one person apologized to me for the heat. Earlier in the day, the housekeeper had collapsed from heatstroke and was rushed to the hospital. I was staying on the third floor of the mansion, in a room with two wood desks, a fireplace, and eight bay windows looking east over the grounds.
I've stuttered since childhood, but "Stutter" is the first time I ever wrote about it. The poem was written during a particularly stutter-heavy period in my life. People who stutter often experience ups and downs with their fluency.
The Italian avant-garde poet Edoardo Sanguineti often found models for his poems in other art forms. "[M]y private appeal to other artistic situations," he wrote in an essay in 1961, "was a way of breaking, in solitude, poetic solitude itself." In addition to novels, plays, critical essays, translations and many collections of poetry written over a career spanning 50-plus years, Sanguineti frequently collaborated with painters and musicians, and wrote several libretti for the composer Luciano Berio.
The title is taken from an Andre Breton poem, and I've sat with that line for a long time. The poem is in some ways a response to that line, an examination of the individual and the collective, and how events, lives, and people turn into news, history, and narrative.
A poet, at times, is the last person to know or to know how to talk about his poems. So, it starts often with the declarative for me, an insistence. With this poem it is a banishment: there are no children here. What a lonesome, futureless place of absence and ghostly laughter. Where the poet fiendishly finds the adult miseries "erotic," linked by sound with "wrecked," totaling the solemn town.
There is a story from when I was a small child and lived in Oakland, California, the city where I was born. One day, according to my mother, I disappeared, and my parents searched for me everywhere, inside the house and in the surrounding neighborhood. Supposedly, they searched for hours. They eventually found me sitting in a walk-in closet, behind some piece of furniture. I now have children of my own, and often wonder about a child's ability to remain still and quiet for so long.
This is poem on a mythological theme: the foundation myth.
A brief recap:
Romulus and Remus are abandoned and left to float down a river
I think a lot about my inability to remember specific details surrounding my childhood. I have no recollection of being a child, my thinking always felt so far ahead of my reality. This is not a brag. More a misfortune? But of course, I was a child. And there are memories. And I never know what to do with them when they show up at my door.
A vanitas isn't a vanitas if it's just the skull; it's the juxtaposition of bone and beauty, often ruinous beauty, that creates the discourse. In "Vanitas," then, many magpied details: a stunning statue of Pan in the St. Louis Art Museum, the weighted blankets used to calm anxious humans, the Idaho tattoo my siblings and I got on our mother's 70th birthday, a bee pin I saw at a pawn shop, a very real twenty-mile river path that runs along the Boise River, and an imagined tunnel I don't yet understand.
Or be reminded. Once I realized I could belong I felt freer. We have a practice of writing down our dreams on sheets of butcher paper first thing every morning. I'm interested in the recognition of someone else's as one's own.
I wrote [untitled] as a prayer over the course of five years. For most of those years it seemed like a throwaway, practice, an underdeveloped b-side; it was a poem that generated the beginnings of new poems and became a receptacle for odd ends of old poems.
A guy I knew in college began a story with the line, "It begins 'in medias res,' which is Latin for 'not very good.'" I later got into two fistfights with that guy. I would say I wonder what happened to him, but I don't.
This poem was first sparked by a lunch in Atlanta with a beloved poet friend years ago, when my first book came out. After we finished our burritos, she took out a clean napkin and a pen and wrote down ten words. Then she handed me the napkin.
I'm interested in the relationship that anxiety and depression and have with addiction, media consumption, and substance abuse. It seems central to so much that is going on in national politics and in the ways that so many individuals are suffering. My book Headline News has a purposefully basic title. (I teach full time at a fashion college, where for students, the word "basic" doesn't have the kindest connotation, and that's sort of how I mean it here.)
The Shutters is a book made out of memories. It insists on remembering, on telling stories of Morocco's history so that the past isn't pushed into obscurity. Its author, Ahmed Bouanani, was born in Casablanca in 1938. Through a mix of prose, prose poems, free and rhymed verse, Bouanani claws and scrapes through his country's collective memory, reconstructing vivid pictures of Morocco's past by intertwining legend and tradition with the familiar surroundings of his present.
I decided to translate Francis Ponge's Nioque of the Early-Spring, in part, for its bridge from the earlier Ponge of Things (playful paeans to objects) and the later Ponge of Making of the Pré and The Table, etc.(serial investigations into the changing thing, prairie, commodity…), but also because the time spanned by the document gains a distinct charge due to their circumstantial nature.
According to my notes, the first draft was composed on the third of August 2015. It was perhaps very warm that day and maybe I had gone for a walk. I read plenty that summer and missed going home for mangoes.
In the final scene of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, Butterfly takes her dagger and goes behind the screen. When she emerges again, she is mortally wounded, having cut her own throat. The audience breathes a sigh of relief. At last, the expected conclusion has arrived. Butterfly is dead.
It's interesting to talk about the genesis of this poem, because its current place in my life is what I think about more than how it began. In fact, I have read (and continue to do so) this poem at each tour stop for my first book, Magic City Gospel, not only because I want to tell Sally's story, but because invoking the spirit of a Black woman always brings me peace and power, and Sally is one such woman.
My moves as a child—from Kentucky, to Iowa, to Ohio, and back to the bluegrass—carved a triangle through the Midwest and South, each place a new side to my voice that shaped my tongue and the black alphabet that made me poet.
This poem begins with a plea to stand and move forward. It was written shortly after my mother's death and tracks the human here, not the human gone. I, the poet (Hello, it's me!), am the speaker.
"Spieden Island…" was more of a collective gathering on my part inspired by overhearing many different speech acts—the naturalist guide who asks questions, provides information, voices aspirations, the father prompts thinking towards the end, and then the approximations, or half translations, of the imagined inner thoughts of the sheep.
In the messy aftermath of a death in the family (all life is an aftermath), it took me two years to access and gain entrance into my grief. What enabled this entry was exploration into my parents' flight from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. It was the 40th anniversary of the war's end, and I found myself asynchronous by grief over my brother's suicide—that is, out of sync with loved ones, my environment, my routines.
But I do offer this, and stand by these books, as evidence that there is a new conversation occurring in African poetry, amongst poets, between traditions and culture, between aesthetic movements and impulses, that is now available and accessible to poets, scholars, researchers, and students and fans of African literature, specifically African poetry, that wasn't there before this project emerged. This is a significant intervention, and has revealed to a larger world that poetry in Africa is as alive and as conversation-altering as fiction.
I probably need tell no one that growing up in predominantly white towns, the first day of classes was always a source of strife for me when I anticipated my last name called out. I became a master of the forced/pained smile, making sure everyone (most of all the teacher) was comfortable with (and in spite of) my discomfort.
"Drive Thru" snuck up on me the way lust and hunger often sneak up on me. I am one of those people who can be suddenly struck by craving without realizing that my stomach has been grinding on emptiness for too long. I hadn't mapped out the turns taken by this poem ahead of time—I sat down to write and this is what rose up to meet me. In this poem, the hunger is for belonging, recognition, acceptance. It's a look back on coming out and coming into adulthood.
In "Mourning and Melancholia" (1917), Freud traces the distinction between the psychological state of mourning, a normal response to loss that is finite, and melancholia, a pathological mourning whose labor is endless. Whereas in mourning, the object of loss is clear and can be released by the mourner with time, in melancholia, what has been lost can remain hidden and becomes internalized—"devoured" by the ego, as Freud writes.
Many times I've arrived at the moment of a man entering me and found there two truths: I don't want this; I'm going to have this. When I've studied these moments, a history, they reveal themselves not as single moments but a continuum of conflicts, incessantly opening, branch and bloom. What the body does.
The volta of the Elizabethan sonnet is one of my favorite literary and intellectual inventions. Because it readjusts the rhetoric of the poem, sometimes even pulling arguments inside out like a sleeve, it communicates that a changed position is possible. Each line of what I call my broken sonnets begins with a comma, announcing a new direction, or shifting view. The hope is to keep the poem dependent on the left-hand margin but destabilized and turning. Like a whirling dervish, the movement of each broken sonnet is contemplative.
One of the most resistant images from my childhood, which comes to me from time to time, is the damp school corridor and the cleaning ladies who warn in a threatening tone: "Don't step here!" I don't know why that hallway was always recently-washed, or washed at the wrong time, but it sounded as a punishment to me, as if those two nice ladies, exhausted by their hard work and difficult life, gained a kind of satisfaction when imposing their small power over us, the little ones.
What happens when the feeling's gone? The occupation is evicted, the protest is dismantled, things return to normal. You go to the bar after the protest, and it's devastating. May 1, 2012: the annual May Day immigrant rights march takes place in downtown Los Angeles in the wake of the Occupy movement the previous autumn. Since the massive nation-wide immigrant rights protests of 2006, May Day has been the biggest mass mobilization in LA, combining traditional international workers' day agitation with a focus on (im)migrant rights in the USA.
I intended for this title to be provocative, or rather, I embraced the provocation when the title came to me. It's one of those sentences that arrived in my mind fully formed, and it just happened to be rhythmic and mysterious—so I went with that.
I gave myself a simple prompt: Write a poem of thanks. Like I'm delivering an acceptance speech at the Oscars or something, but the only "award" I've received is the gift of being alive. How would I convey my appreciation with that red light blinking, urging that my time is almost up? How would I rush that unspeakable gratitude into words?
As I was writing the collection that became Virgin, I became obsessed with how female identity is represented in Victorian England. Particularly, how female "innocence" is seen through the eyes of male figures—and how that has or has not changed in the last few centuries.
I wrote most of The Fix during the slow dissolution of my first marriage. Leaving was a fix I'd theretofore regularly administered: schools, jobs, relationships—all quittable in the impulsive instant, provided you can live without care, money, or instruction. But divorce is a whole other kettle of fish.
I'm a Virgo and I live for a plan, a list, knowing what is and what isn't. I'm also a sucker for love. As a child, I would write lists imagining what my life would look like: a loving husband, two kids, a house, and maybe a dog.
This is a poem that began from a passing remark that struck me as simultaneously comforting and mystifying. My son has a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, or high functioning autism, and throughout his childhood we've seen various doctors and therapists.
This was the year I stopped flying. After staying at a string of so-called haunted hotels, mostly by chance and then with acquired interest, I think I caught a ghost. I believe it happened at the Hotel San Carlos in Phoenix, where this poem was conceived.
I wrote this poem on my phone in someone else's house. I was feeling bored and kind of physically gross, like I needed a shower. I went to take a picture of the cat and the camera accidentally turned on my face, a contemporary occurrence that, to my horror, happens to me almost daily.
I've always been scared of fireworks. As a kid, like many other kids in suburban New Jersey, I went with my family to the local park on the fourth of July to sit in a lake of seated people and watch the explosions. When I was very little, my mother tells me, I was so scared that my flesh practically melted into hers.
Writing a poem to Norife Herrera Jones, a woman I never knew personally, was fraught with questions about right. What is right. Do I have the right.
Some years ago, I got a call from my brother to tell me that my mother had fallen and, despite an emergency alert necklace, had spent several hours on the floor before firemen broke down the door. This wasn't the first time she had fallen—and her doorframe was permanently warped from other forced entries—but it was the first time we noticed signs of dementia.
Like many of Ryszard Krynicki's poems, "What Luck" exists in several versions, and before I came to translate this one, I read the later version in which Nineveh and Pompeii are replaced with 'Warsaw' and 'the Betar movement', bringing the poem unambiguously into the 20th century Poland.
Years before his bedroom became the "spare room," my nephew—firstborn of the newest generation in my family—must have spent some minutes or hours there practicing signing his name on the fly-leaves of his books. Years later, in the months following his suicide, I came across his childish hand in one of his old books, and it shook me.
The wealthy in Ancient Egypt had detailed guides to the afterworld, called books of the dead, inscribed in expensive papyrus in their coffins; if you were poor, you died without instruction, consigned to wander confused forever. (The formal scheme of The Walmart Book of the Dead, and the titles of its sections, this one included, are taken from Egyptian books of the dead.)
Sometimes I think I've fallen prey to a client-server model of consciousness. Like I'm a web server and everything around me is a hit, an ask, a demand. I send back a slow-loading web page with a pile of paragraphs and some assets. I send back errors, evasions, interjections. Or I get the hit and I have nothing, I just stand there numb, counting seconds. Maybe I'm resting.
In Islam, Allah has 99 names—The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful, The King, The Light, The Living…—but some are kept hidden from mankind. I was thinking His hidden names seem like a metaphor for how love works: you can never really know another person, not completely. Love is a kind of faith: you give it without knowing if it will be returned or how long its returning will last.
"[Yesterday I found myself awake]" isn't the best poem in the book, or even a personal favorite, but it's one of the most important moments I've had while writing. My partner and I got married in a bar in Chicago, then one month later packed up and moved to Montana for graduate school, having never stepped foot in the state. Everything in front of us seemed like a blindfolded rollercoaster ride, a plunge into the wild unknown.
When a reader picks up the book and opens to the first page, they open the door to my house. My house is unfamiliar to me when suddenly there is somebody new—a visitor to startle me off the couch where I've grown listless from memory.
This poem began as I assume all poems do: with a gift. The gift in this case was a stone, smaller than my palm, which my two-year-old daughter, Esther, picked up in the parking lot of her school. (She's now three-and-a-half, and my pockets are still filled with stones, leaves, dried flowers, and other of the world's ephemera.)
I had a difficult time selecting a poem from Barbie Chang because I often have trouble seeing my own work objectively so I picked a poem at random called These Men Can Be Collected. I wrote this poem a long time ago, after I had my first child.
In 2014 I encountered a painting in the Portland Art Museum's permanent collection that changed me, Frühe Stunde (Early Hour) by the German Expressionist Karl Hofer. This oil painting depicts two lovers in bed, and it seemed, at first, rather unremarkable. It looked to me like any one of numerous European paintings one might whisk by in a state of museum-fatigue while bounding toward marquee exhibits and brochured galleries.
Zora Neale Hurston is such a fascinating and wondrous character to me. Although she is most well known for her work as a fiction writer, she was also a trained anthropologist, and I think that the capacity for intense observation, cultural analysis, and keen questioning that are so important to that kind of work are traits that inform her work in other genres.
Maybe it's strange that Queen Elizabeth appears in this poem since I've never been incredibly interested in British royalty. But, years ago I saw a book review of a Queen Elizabeth biography while reading other sections of the paper. There was a description of Elizabeth hearing about her father's death while she was in a hotel in the trees, watching elephants.
Gaman is a Japanese word that can be translated as "endure," "persist," or "persevere," and is often used to describe how Japanese Americans reacted to the WWII incarceration. I don't speak Japanese, so I came to this word as many others do, through a history book. And yet, I understand enough about Japanese American culture to sense there is a lack in the terms "endure" or "persist." In this poem, I wanted to try to capture the word's essence through the experience of the poem.
"DP.f.30" is one of the first poems I wrote for the book called Double Portrait. All the things that I am going to tell you about this poem, and about all the Double Portraits, are things I didn't know as I was writing. The only thing I knew then was to do what I had always done: listen for the language, try to find the pattern, move toward whatever it was that was trying to reveal itself. But now I can see some things about the Double Portraits that I couldn't when I set out.
I was sober for three years between my overdose in The Bay Area and having my heart obliterated by an awful relationship in Texas. I found out the person I'd been seeing for half a year had another boyfriend… whom he lived with… & I started drinking. This poem grapples with some of the wreckage that followed, tries to order it—how I became dangerous by making my body do dangerous things.
When I first read about Reyhaneh Jabbari, her story completely broke me. The article that introduced me to her also included the text of her final message to her mother—to this day, that text remains among the most devastating documents I've ever encountered. There is something in the way Reyhaneh seeks to calm her mother, to relay gratitude, of all things, for her mother's love. The letter closes: "Dear soft-hearted Sholeh, in the other world it is you and me who are the accusers and others who are the accused. Let's see what God wants. I wanted to embrace you until I die. I love you."
You may remember the rapture of 2011. Sure, the threat of apocalypse comes and goes, but this one made national news. Harold Camper predicted that on May 21st, believers would be taken to heaven, and those left behind would face a cornucopia of horrors. Proselytizers took to their local channels with predictions and pleas. My friends and I quipped about not paying our student loans.
I write things down that are occasionally transactional and most always interested in relation. They address separation, connection, loneliness, and becoming.
I wrote the bulk of my book Meadow Slasher in Chicago, seven years ago, when I suffered what I'll call for the sake of simplicity a nervous breakdown. That's a sort of shitty, generic term, I realize. What it looked like was a lot of crying.
Several years ago my husband John and our friend Aaron decided to stage a small production of the play The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn. Without having read the play, I agreed to play the part of Judy; Aaron would play Jack, Judy's husband, and John would direct.
The trouble with talking about a poem is that what you say will repeat or replace or wreck the poem, when the reason you wrote it in the first place was that prose doesn't go far enough.
Most immediately, elsa is about a fictional 18th-century courtesan within Louis XV's court navigating domestic and international politics, which is never too far removed from personal ambition.
In each generation, poets try to explain anew what poetry does, using metaphors that reflect the technology of their age. In our internet era, Harryette Mullen writes: "If encyclopedia collects general knowledge, the recyclopedia salvages and finds imaginative uses for knowledge. That's what poetry does when it remakes and renews words, images, and ideas, transforming surplus cultural information into something unexpected."
I started writing "Dead Year" during a gray, bitter New England January without much more than a generative process in mind—a challenge to let myself write every day without constantly deleting the first line, staring into space, and giving up, which is too often my pattern.
The most accurate definition of a poem that I have ever heard is Theodor Adorno's: "a philosophical sundial telling the time of history." Employing a simile to describe what is difficult to articulate literally, Adorno captures the figurative nature of poetry, how lyric poems describe social reality through symbolic figuration.
A lot of my work deals with the mind or maybe memory, our access to it and how poetry as a medium can show us the ways our mind collapses periodicity, so sometimes (like in a poem) we are remembering everything all at once.
I have always valued what it means to write across different genres. So many of the literary figures I've long admired refused to situate themselves within a singular mode of writing. They were poets, they were playwrights, they were essayists, they were novelists. This literary dexterity enriched the scope of their work and often led to an interdisciplinary, creative output that could not easily be compartmentalized.
AU stands for "alternate universe." In fanfiction, AUs are ways of using established characters from a TV show, film, comic, or whatever to tell a different kind of story. What if the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine worked at a coffee shop. What if Teen Wolf was a western. And so on.
In October 2012, my grandfather's house got destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. My grandfather lived in Brigantine, New Jersey, a small island suburb of Atlantic City; he'd been in that house for over fifty years. My mom and her sisters grew up there, and when I was a baby, we lived around the block. I learned to swim off my grandparents' dock.
I wrote my first book of poems, Emergency Brake, entirely while I was in pharmacy school. The relationship between my work as a writer and my work as a healthcare provider is porous, and "Propofol" lives in that friction more than any other poem in the book.
When I was putting this book together in spring and summer of 2016, I described this poem as part ars poetica / part plan for the new world order. Maybe I couldn't see very well, maybe I am still waking up. Either way, I have stopped believing in this description. I mean, if this is my ars poetica, ok. But if this is my plan? I'm gonna need a better plan. Let me try again.
How do we define existence? When does it begin and when does it end? Humans have wrestled with these questions for millennia. When it came to the memory of the daughter I never had, these questions felt irrelevant.
In some of my new poems I've been playing with the idea of audience. Am I talking to myself or to strangers? Both. I'm talking to myself, but letting strangers listen, and I'm talking to strangers, though maybe also to my future self.
I am obsessed with maps. Their giving and withholding information. How, if one is to be a cartographer you must be able to say this road is here; this neighborhood is here; this train passes under your feet here. You travel and document. You travel again to confirm.
I live in Connecticut and saw an eastern cottontail crossing the road in the very early spring. It made me wonder about the thousands of bunnies hiding underground, in the shrubbery, and in line at the post office. In the spring anything is possible.
When I was a child, my grandparents owned a Chinese restaurant called Oriental Court inside of a shopping mall. Every Saturday night my entire paternal family—grandparents, all of their children and all of their children's children—would eat dinner after the mall's closing hours.
At the time that I was writing "I do not want to stay" I was in the midst of a relationship ending and leaving New York City. I was staying in my former apartment, empty of all furniture, until the lease ran out .
I forget how sad some of my poems are because people tend to point out the humor. And I like making people laugh. Writing about this poem, though, made me see the sadness. This poem came a little after realizing I had all these poems about a confrontation between mother and teenage son, a rupture that occurs because of the son's growing sense that he is not, at least not fully, straight.
This poem's origins go back to April 2008, when I was living in Paros, Greece, and had the privilege of being an artist-in-residence with a travel stipend at the Aegean Center for Fine Arts. Books I carried with me at that time included H.D.'s The Walls Do Not Fall, Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel and Louise Gluck's The Wild Iris.
As a quintessential 90's kid, born roughly in the middle of the first year of the decade, I spent my formative years in some of the blackest times (meaning a preeminence of Black people) America has had on record: a Black basketball player may have been the most famous man on the planet, a Black woman was redefining mass media with an unparalleled cachet across racial lines, and a countercultural Black musical genre was finding its commercial viability and spurring an influx of fresh, young Black faces into our popular-cultural consciousness―people you could hear on the radio, people you could see on television or in the movie theater, in some cases all of the above.
I found a muteness at the center of You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior. That muteness is not only silent, but turbulent and noisy and ineloquent. The word mute can refer to a loud pack of hounds, or a hawk's defecations, or a person that doesn't speak.
I wrote "Gust," the opening poem of my chapbook Makeshift Cathedral, while in a poetry workshop taught by Gregory Djanikian during my sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania. That semester was home to a simple yet invaluable epiphany, the notion that poems don't have to look or behave like "poems" to be poetry.
We invited about thirty-five poets to submit manuscripts for this year's chapbook box set. This is an annual ritual that we are committed to carrying until we arrive at the tenth year of publishing the chapbooks of a new generation of African poets. Each year, the task gets more and more difficult. The quality of the manuscripts is extremely impressive. The range of the work we are getting is equally striking, representing poets living in Africa and those of African heritage living in the recent African diaspora.
"Oh Little Fox" is an asterisk to the book it appears in, which mostly divides poems into Office or Essay poems. It has the same concerns, centered on the animal body, but it's a tiny lyric gesture in a field that exists formally outside of this "office" architecture: by which I was thinking about the stations human and non-human animals hold, how we come to occupy a particular space/what keeps us there.
These are natural exchanges in New York places, the currency we use to be ways unregular in our lives: vacating our Is while another temporarily stations a coating of injection.
Elise Partridge (1958–2015) was born in Philadelphia and grew up nearby. After graduating from Harvard in 1981, she received a second Bachelor of Arts from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a Marshall Scholar. She returned to Harvard for a Master of Arts and then took a degree in writing from Boston University. In 1992 she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she lived with her husband, for the rest of her life.
In 2012 my father went to a KISS concert and, I suspect, that is what killed him. No, it wasn't the band that killed him, or Gene Simmons, or the blisteringly loud music coming through that wall of Marshall "stacks" sitting behind the band on stage. It was the drive to the concert.
This was the first poem I wrote after finishing UW's MFA program. My friend Cody Walker says you learn in two years of grad school what you'd otherwise learn in 20, and I agree. However, I'd been writing with a specific group of horrifyingly smart and talented people in mind for two years, and this was the first thing I'd written in a while that was just to please myself. That's where all poetry should come from—the discovery of treasure and desire to share it
In January 2011, on a cold winter day, a small package appeared in my post box, postmarked Debrecen. Packages often were exchanged between my address and that of the Borbélys: notes, presents for each other's children, letters, and cards. This one, like many others previously, arrived in a standard white envelope with bubble-wrap on the inside.
This poem was first published in Third Coast back in 2011. It is my one and only take-away from a 30/30 challenge, in which I attempted to write 30 poems in 30 days in the fall of 2010. Coincidentally, it was my first and last 30/30.
I wrote "In My Rush" during a two week residency at the Pocantico Center thanks to a partnership between the Rockefeller Brother's Fund and Cave Canem, an organization for black poets. One of the highlights of the Pocantico Center is the sculpture garden surrounding Kykuit, one of the Rockefeller family's homes.
When I wrote this poem, I wanted to use humor and absurdity to gesture toward a scary reality adjacent to our own. Since then, the world has sidled in.
I've been embarrassed about this poem for a long time. One of the poems I considered pulling from Take This Stallion when my publisher, Joe Pan, and I were deliberating over the manuscript, "The Room is Not Cold" struck me as juvenile. In a sense, it is. It deals with an encounter with my child-self.
To write a sonnet-a-day for a year and explore what the form allows. Traditionally a 14- line poem, a sonnet is a "little song" from the Italian sonetto and the Latin sonus "sound." In this series, an additional constraint was imposed on the sonnets by writing them in hendecasyllable lines (a deliberate move away from the traditional English sonnet's pentameter, or ten-syllable line, as a way of altering the rhythm (sound) of the poems)—the eleven-syllable line as mastered by Bernard Noël in his The Rest of the Voyage.
I began writing a series of poems in my mother's voice, during that year of her life. Through persona, I wanted to demystify her—to make her more vulnerable, more uncertain. This poem, "Twenty-Four," begins in Jersey—a place far away from where she grew up (in a small village near Taishan, China).
Jackson Mac Low was born in Chicago in 1922. He is best known as a poet, but he was also a seminal and influential figure in the avant-garde visual arts, performance, theater, film, dance, and music worlds beginning in the 1950s. He influenced and was associated with a wide range of movements, including the New York Fluxus movement, and he collaborated with artists, poets, and institutions throughout his career, most notably The Living Theater (Judith Malina and Julian Beck), Judson Dance Theater (Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham), David Antin, John Cage, Simone Forti, Allan Kaprow, Meredith Monk, Jerome Rothenberg, Tui St. George Tucker, Yoko Ono, Diane Wakoski, and La Monte Young.
This is from the opening few pages of Poem Without Suffering, and it has I guess one somewhat mysterious element: "To have it happen / but to have it not / be considered tragedy" - this "it," which is unexplained at first, but which not too much later clearly comes to reference the shooting death of a child.
"X" was one of the final poems to go into The Sobbing School, and is a reflection of any number of the book's central concerns: kinship and collectivity, violence, blackness and/as indeterminacy. My ongoing interest in the work of metaphor is inextricably linked not only to the idea that nothing is nothing—or at least, that there is an unfettered, untamable capacity built into what many of us are taught to call nothingness—but that everything and everyone we encounter is more or less opaque, legible only in flashes, or briefest windows of apprehension.
Love and language create community. During a term as poet laureate in Gloucester, MA, my commitment to community and civic poetry, a poetry of place and witness, grew stronger; Taking the Train of Singularity South from Midtown, a new collection out this January, reflects that commitment. There is little self-reference or confession in the book—or only when I couldn't help it. Set in Gloucester and New York and Paris, in Panama and Newtown, the poems draw from the same public well.
Just as a documentarian hasn't effaced a viewpoint just by having a pretense to "fly-on-the-wall" observation, so the poet hasn't effaced an "I," even if it never shows up in a poem. We all go home to the editing room. That doesn't mean one can't point or indicate, or even arrive at something like a fact.
I think I'm at my most focused when I'm writing serial poems. Things that are often invented, or with loosely-driven rules. There's a lot of these poems scattered throughout The Crown Ain't Worth Much. Poems in the voice of my barber, poems in the voice of my mother's ghost, poems prompted by sneaker purchases. I wrote the book trying to build this very touchable, livable world, but I didn't want to sacrifice my process.
I picture Charles K. Bliss, the inventor of a language, listening to Goebbels's speeches over loudspeakers in Dachau and then in Buchenwald. He heard this: how Goebbels drew from beloved poems and phrases inside German to tell lies to make his dream of Germany true. But then I turn the picture in my brain off. No matter how many books I read about the camps, how many photos I see, I know that imagining myself completely inside that particular horror is a lie.
I'm about to devote a host of words to this two-year old prismatic scrap—it's Nov. 12, 2016, and death is once again on my mind.
Check the date if you need to, future persons. Present persons, idling ghosts—
My poem "When it is Over, it Will be Over" takes its title from a pen-and-ink drawing by the artist Troy Passey of a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Endings." I came across Passey's drawing five years ago while in Boise, where the Boise Art Museum had a show up of Passey's art.
In early 2013, I was taking a class with Rachel Zucker at NYU in which one of the assignments was to visit the exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum—a show that included studies and drafts for what we've come to know as some of the artist's definitive paintings alongside those definitive works, often revealing changes in color, pose, small figurative elements, and even macro pictorial-compositional qualities.
"Wild" began with two deer fighting to breed. Sometimes, deer lock antlers during a fight and being stuck truly together, head to head, die of starvation.
I started writing A Poem for Record Keepers in February 2013. I found myself writing these seven line poems. I wish I could say from where they came, but they just happened. I wrote a couple. Then I wrote a couple more imitating myself. I started each line with a capital letter and ended each line with a period (it was liberating!). I was keeping a record.
My Ponge translation project began as it were inadvertently, on social media, where very occasionally an ephemeral suggestion sticks around long enough to become compost and feed something green. I said on Facebook that someone ought to do a new translation of Francis Ponge's first book, given all the interest lately grouped under such filiations as "the new materialism," "object-oriented ontology," "thing theory," "actor-network theory," "hyperobjets." Why not you?
"We are beings made for death…because the reasons each of us will die are always expressed in the most distant of languages, in an untranslatable language." These words were stated by Raúl Zurita in a talk he gave as part of a panel presentation with Anna Deeny, Valerie Mejer Caso and myself at the AWP in Boston 2013 (our talks were later published in Mandorla: New Writings of the Americas).
In the classical tradition, there is no more moving evidence of that than the three times Aeneas tries to hug his father's shade on a green bank in Hades. I panic at that moment, here cited in Seamus Heaney's enviable translation: "Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck. / Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped / Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings."
Iris, my asthmatic, elderly landlady, was standing crouched over in the doorway of the apartment I was living in when she said this. Wheezing between every few words, wearing a dress that hung off her thin frame like off a clothing rack, she was only talking about the sink leaking water behind the walls, but her wide and worried eyes underscored everything with a kind of desperate gravity.
"Pippins Pop Up All Over—and Some Are Genuine" reads an internet headline. In "Newly Discovered Portrait of America's First Black President by Horace H. Pippin (1888-1946)," I imagine the discovery of a new painting by Pippin, one clearly forged: a portrait of President Barack Obama.
Even though "The Sack Session" is one of a handful of previously translated poems from Life in the Folds, it still presented one of the greatest challenges for me, and remains one of my personal favorites. The violence, absurdism, shifting linguistic registers, and emphasis on gesture as image combine with Michaux's particularly dark, dry humor to present a reality dependent on the imagination.
It was the summer and I was reading The White Goddess by Robert Graves (mostly to get sleepy) and thinking a lot about my competing desires to go to the beach or the river or a rooftop, vs needing to be alone to write this book.
This poem, from my new book Receipt (Milkweed, 2016), has three patron saints. The first is Marianne Moore. I used my cash register receipts as the starting place for the poems, and Moore, I think, is best at capturing both the thrill and the ultimate flatness of buying stuff.
And do you hear my prayer, Lord? It is always to be less exuberant. I have always been too exuberant to artfully fry an egg.
Trespass is a book of places. Many of the poems begin in simple suburban settings—a city park, a kitchen, outside a church, a cemetery—but then, by virtue of the poem, become theatres to stage the scenes of an extended family drama.
"A Skull Sectioned," one of a series of poems in The Hideous Hidden written in response to Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings and notebooks, is in the second section of the book, "Midwinter the Cut-time." During the Renaissance, dissections or studies of cadavers were conducted during cold weather—and quickly. Without refrigeration a body decomposed almost faster than it could be cut into.
One of my ongoing projects has been the work of the late-Tang era Chinese poet Li Shangyin, and during this time I came upon a cache of poems by him on the subject of writing, of which the above are two. Like his other poems, these poems depict the twinning of grief and hope, wanting and loss, but more concretely they are about the disillusionment of being a poet.
This one's about fourteen poems from the back. I had to get the press to send me a copy. I only have books, and the notebook the poems were written in. This version is really just a version – the screen can't hack the form. The book can't really hack it either. It's a great form to write into, the-line-at-the-edge-of-the-page-that-goes-all-the-way-around – it leaves you with no end and no beginning, a loop with corners, an illusion of empty space inside, an immediate apparent velocity that doesn't have to be obeyed, and nothing for explanation to leech.
When he was young, René Magritte tried his hand at being an author, drafting detective novels as "Renghis", a pseudonym created through the combination of his first and middle names: "René" and "Ghislain".
When I'm not writing poems, as I am not currently, I have no idea how I once managed to create them. Most of the situations described—the wrong dress at the party, the drunk at the memorial service—are invented, though I'm positive they have happened to someone, somewhere, and possibly even to me in some place memory can't access.
Visiting museums in Rome a few years ago, I was surprised by how much of the post-Renaissance art—because there was just such an amazing quantity of it—was bad. Piles of awful eighteenth-century portraits, lots of minor paintings from major periods. But seeing this kind of work was strangely stimulating (giving glimpses of creative activity you don't see at, say, the Metropolitan Museum), and when I came across Benvenuto Tisi's scene of an obscure classical episode I stopped short and stared at it for a long time and returned to it over several visits.
When I was in the final stages of editing Why We Live in the Dark Ages, a collection of poems about how we talk about science, history, and culture, Jeffrey Schultz, among other dear friends, had a look at the book.
This poem used to have an epigraph: "Exploring the solar system as a united humanity will bring us all closer together."
This comes from the mission statement of Mars One, a non-profit foundation that aims to establish the first human colony on Mars by the mid-2020's. When I first became aware of the Mars One marketing campaign, my emotional response included incredulous wonder, to be sure, but also anger and fear.
For me, "writing" is mostly scowling at what'll be left on the threshing-room floor: failed attempts to smooth out the insurrection. It's not cathartic or even particularly pleasurable. When it's going well, the scraps are about to coalesce into comprehensible piles.
The appearance in print of the selected poems of Donald Britton is an affront to cynicism and a triumph over fate. When Donald died, in 1994, it was sadly reasonable to assume that the influence of his poetry would be confined to the few who had preserved a copy of his single book, the slender, deceptively titled Italy, published thirteen years earlier. As the few became fewer it seemed all but certain the audience for his poems would disappear.
Today before sitting down to write about the poems in Work & Days I was out in the garden, by which I mean basically the whole space around our house. We have tomatoes and kale and fennel and favas in garden boxes out front, artichokes on the sidewalk median strip, lemons, potatoes, rhubarb and figs in the back. It is California, says my husband. The landscape should be edible.
In this political climate, I've notice how easy it is to define oneself in opposition to another, and "Grown to Covet," dips into my ambivalence toward the relationship between politics and ego. I want to remain human in my politics, and not get lazy by taking on simple popular rhetoric or preconceived sets of beliefs.
A few years ago, my partner and I spent a month volunteering at Hospital San Carlos, a rural hospital in Chiapas, Mexico. A medical student at the time, my partner saw patients both in the hospital and in the indigenous communities in the surrounding jungle that were reachable only by foot. I spent my time helping Lupita, one of the elderly nuns who ran the hospital, write grants for new hospital beds, stethoscopes, ultrasound Dopplers, and other medical equipment.
This is one of my favorite Hai Zi poems. Its folkloric simplicity, startling imagery, its fine balance between mystery and clarity, emotional openness and restraint are among the qualities that compelled me to translate Hai Zi's work in the first place.
A year ago I fell in love with the poems of Peggy Freydberg and quite immediately afterwards, I fell in love with Peggy. Peggy was 106-years-old when I met her in the fall of 2014 on Martha's Vineyard.
SEPTIMA is interested in names, and she has changed her own a few times. At first, of course, a poem has no name—but when it finally acquires that object of language to signify an individual identity—that's when it really starts to become a poem. So for me, names and titles are an important part of the writing process: they help get to know a poem, a book, or a series, to let it grow into a real thing.
The African Poetry Book Fund is a project that seeks to undermine the easy ways of reducing Africa to notions that do not recognize the complexity and variety of experiences and practices that constitute poetry written by Africans. In many ways, it would be tempting to try to offer some definitive statement about what African poetry is, but this would be a silly thing to attempt, and, at the end of the day, such exercises belong to our colleagues in academia and not to us in our capacity as editors.
The 2014 mass kidnapping and murder of 43 teachers' college students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico brought renewed international attention to the ongoing precariousness of life under the country's dirty war, its "narco-politics." Sadly, many of us in the United States usually know very little about what's happening in other countries, even though our tax dollars are often directly connected. Money, the quiet fascia of state violences. How easy it can be to be gently seduced by USAmerican comfort and privilege.
As I mention in the author's note for Honest Engine, I wrote this book while wading through a torrent of bereavement that started with my grandmother's passing and ending with my college roommate being negligently run over by vehicles involved in a police chase.
When I was a young kid, I had to take a school physical. My mother came in with me, and the errand was supposed to be quick, but I refused to undress. The doctor and my mother didn't force me to do anything, but I remember them both asking me why I wasn't doing it, and what was wrong, and I remember not being able to answer
The title comes from teaching a poetry workshop at UC Berkeley during the Occupy movement. The class met late on Tuesday afternoons and its beginning coincided with the arrival of media helicopters circling and re-circling overhead, hosing the campus in spotlights to be televised on the nightly news.
1. I don't normally close read my skin.
2. My first impulse is to close read the poem.
This poem was written with some anger, during a time when all my poems were rebuttals to anticipated put-downs and critiques, especially the ones scaffolded by racism and misogyny. I was getting frustrated with my writing and my voice, feeling suffocated by an ingested, self-reproducing colonization in my bloodstream.
There are poems that answer questions, and there are poems that take you further into the question without any hope for an exit, an exhale, a reckoning. This is a poem without hope of finding its way out.
Born and raised in the Central Valley of California, I spent many sweltering summers picking vegetables with my parents; for years it had been one of the main sources of income for our family. We'd go to other people's farms (mostly relatives) and pick green beans or Thai chilies, hauling buckets and boxes from dawn to dusk.
I'm always drawn to contemplating extreme states—of being and mind—and the post-apocalyptic world offers instant access to extremity. For those of us on Earth who don't already know poverty, hunger and habitual discomfort, an apocalypse could mean a complete overthrow of the comfortable life we know now, one that reduces us to our most basic skills and instincts
"Ars Poetica: After a Dog" is a parable about sound. I imagine there are many readers who miss the primary prosodic constraint of this poem—the strict decasyllabic line. Let me come back to this.
I am forever mishearing and misreading surroundings, it's how I edit (others and myself), it's how I practice living and tell jokes and in this small suite I let the method be clearer, I showed my work. Humor is that tracking. Palimpsests are proof of that work.
"To Body What's Around Me" is a love poem with a problem: it does not clarify who the You of its address is. At moments it feels like a beloved other: "These are the days in which you come to me…"
During my stay in Antarctica, I met a woman who'd spent several years teaching Yup'ik children in Alaska. Joolee told me how baffling the Common Core curriculum had been for the elementary school kids: they had no reference point for a cow, a lawn mower, a grandfather clock.
This poem began as an ars poetica. A glorified play on words. I wanted to riff about words and how they haunt us in our sleep. Or, better yet, when a poem writes you. What is the responsibility of the both-eyes-wide-open poet? How do we access freedom in language in discussing topics many audiences would rather not hear about, such as racialized violence?
When I wrote this poem, I lived in a narrow house perched at the top of a hill in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. I was a newlywed, and it was an extraordinarily hopeful place to live.
The following essay is the Translator's Note from My Ogre Book, Shadow Theater, Midnight (Siglio, 2016) and is reprinted here with permission. You can read a selection of Broodthaers's poetry here.
The artist and poet Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976) is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 11 – May 15, 2016, the artist's first museum retrospective in New York. Coinciding with this retrospective Siglio press has recently published a stunning volume containing two of Broodthaers's books of poetry translated from the French by Elizabeth Zuba and Maria Gilissen Broodthaers.
Broodthaers's interest and writing of poetry began early in his late teens. He was deeply influenced by French Symbolists Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as the painter René Magritte, who gifted him a copy of Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés in 1945 and which Broodthaers would later transform into an artist's book that replaced the scored typographical text of the poem with black bars, further highlighting the junction of language and image. Over the course of his career, Broodthaers continued to fashion new forms of language through writing, sculpture, painting, printmaking and film.
"The things you think of to link are not in your own control. It's just who you are, bumping into the world. But how you link them is what shows the nature of your mind. Individuality resides in the way links are made." Anne Carson said this. I'm interested in the relationship between language and the mind. And so the mind's relationship to meaning.
This section is the turning point of Osip Mandelstam's long poem Voronezh Notebooks, the Continental Divide from which the waters of the poem descend, imperceptibly at first, but ineluctably, in opposed directions. On the one side a reflexive, desperate assertion of his old prerogatives as a poet, now impossible; on the other a sort of acceptance, and an eerie contemplation of the future.
"Mountain and River on the Kiso Road" is based on the woodblock print of the same name by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). The poem is from Swallows and Waves, which is comprised of sixty poems, each inspired by a different Japanese Edo-period artwork.
"Blaxploitation" begins with an episode of Taxicab Confessions. Visiting home from college, I caught this particular episode one sleepless night: two black gay men talking about fraught and humiliating sexual encounters they'd had with white men.
I have always been intrigued by ancient Greek cosmological views, in particular the apeiron. In a cosmic infinity, what exists at random and what survives by error? Is the idea of a cosmic infinity still relevant to a human sense of self—can it help us to confront our present-day violence?
Poetry is a losing context.
The shooting at my college was in 2007. I tried to write about it for years after in a subjective, direct way, and failed. In 2011 my workplace held a workshop—Active Shooting Training. Making notes, reminding myself how to survive, on a campus in a lecture room at a much different place and time, hearing the sort of matter of fact instruction that confronted a new gruesome reality was the only slant, cold, way I could approach the topic, so I just transcribed it. That language indicates more about the experience than any more direct attempts I had been making.
In April 2010, I write and exchange a daily poem with Adam Clay. Often the poems are quick and sent before the day's responsibilities; other days are fits and starts, culminating in an email sent minutes before midnight. Weeks are no luxury, nor the shaping of multiple drafts. April spills forward and poetry becomes a serious addiction.
I'm going to start outside this poem, outside the book it comes from, and begin with that book's cover. My oldest and best friend, the artist Stacy Jo Scott, had been doing these strange spectral line drawings for a year or so before I asked her if I could use one for M.
It was the time of the fiercest battles in Iraq, the early days of the forever war. All around us, there was a new language— "homeland," "Operation Iraqi Freedom," an argot of fear pouring out of television anchors and sometimes even our public intellectuals, turned overnight into macho men on death drive.
When I think of the soul, I think of furniture. The two occupy a similar place in life, so domestic as to be mostly ignored and thereby capable of seeming totally surprising and alien when looked at closely.
It's funny: now that I look at Honest James, and imagine myself back into the poems' different inceptions, I have trouble separating fact from fiction. Or: is it all fiction? Could I tell many plausible-sounding stories about the composition of each?
Edward Estlin Cummings was born into a family that celebrated poetry, and both his parents nurtured his artistic impulse from a young age. His mother, Rebecca, dreamed that her baby boy would grow up to become a poet, and she recorded his earliest attempts in a notebook titled "Estlin's Original Poems." In my new picture book biography of the poet, Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings(illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo), I included his first known poem, spoken at the age three.
The poems in my new collection It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful share a common way of entering the world: most were struck into being by a charged phrase or moment, a zap of understanding—and the desire to leave the "I" behind as much as possible and to be on stage only very briefly.
This poem is about a bourgeois woman caught between two men: one, the uneducated mechanic she is having an affair with and the other, the educated father of her children. This poem is about a woman who wants to find a man who would make her feel anonymous, outside of her personal history, outside of her education, outside of her marriage and profession.
The following poems are the first two sections from Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz's 9-part 1967 long poem, El frío, as translated from the Spanish by Kit Schluter under the title of The Cold, and recently published by Poor Claudia. The subsequent prose excerpt is the final two paragraphs of Schluter's afterword to the translation, written in direct and intimate address of Saenz himself, over thresholds of distance, language, and mortality.
Jaime Saenz was born in 1921 in La Paz, Bolivia, the city where he was to spend his days until his passing in 1986. Poète Maudit in letters and life, Saenz was rumored to have stolen a limb from a corpse at the university morgue, and to have brought a panther home to his wife on their wedding day. It was around his now notorious, magical Krupp Workshops that a generation of young La Pazian poets burgeoned, and his body of work was the first Bolivian, and among the first Latin American, to openly explore bisexual experience. He lived nocturnally, excoriating the false divisions of body and language, debauchery and exaltation, and life and death in his many novels, plays and volumes of poetry, including El Escalpelo, Los papeles de Narciso Lima-Achá, and Muerte por el tacto.
I am a poet; I am a translator. It is something else entirely to be both of those things at once, which is why I initially (and forcefully) resisted translating poetry. When I look at my English-language version of "Mudras" from Carlos Pintado's wonderful book, Nine Coins, it's hard to see past the music of the original and the imperfections of my own.
The National Youth Poet Laureate initiative (YPL) is a program of Urban Word, an award-winning youth literary arts and youth development organization, that strives to elevate the voices of teens while promoting civic engagement and social justice. Through building visible and deep-seated partnerships with city agencies and government, the YPL program situates youth voices in spaces of power and attempts to equip young people with opportunities to creatively respond to the litany of social and political factors that impact their cities and their lives. To be recognized as a city or region's Youth Poet Laureate, young people undergo a comprehensive and rigorous application process that considers not only the artistic merit and subject matter of their writing, but also their commitment to servicing their communities in a number of extracurricular ways. The first and only of its kind in the nation, the NYPL program strives to provide a platform for youth to assume central roles in the cultural and political climates of their communities.
There is so much missing here. First, it might be important to tell you that this poem was once a novel. The novel is now missing, of course, and the missing novel begins with this missing quote by Hannah Arendt: "the freedom to call something into being, which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which, therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known."
The plan is simple, as publishing plans go. Publish seven to ten chapbooks by African poets each year. Promote said chapbooks. In ten years there will be seventy to one hundred chapbooks by African poets that might not have existed before. Oh, and make sure the work is first-rate, representative, and new. This plan only works if there are seven to ten really gifted African poets who have not yet had a major publication.
I'm fascinated by the idea of "new old" and the consumerist mentality that underpins it, the belief that everything is disposable and replaceable, that anything old can be recreated. What about old growth forests? How shall we remake those? It will certainly require a great deal of planning, and that must begin with infrastructure.
When I first started thinking of what to write about this poem, attempting to formulate cogent thoughts—usually while jogging in the June heat—that would theorize and illuminate this poem of memory clots and digressions and non-sequiturs that, as the title poem of the book, promises to hold the major themes together, I became really stressed out. Like really stressed
I wrote this section in my final year of work on We Are Nothing and So Can You, around the time of the first wave of riots in Ferguson (August 2014). I was hugely inspired by the determination and consistency of the people out in the streets there. Whereas other popular eruptions in response to anti-black police murder would often dissipate after a few days, the people in Ferguson kept coming out, night after night, for weeks.
The word was first introduced to me in a workshop by the brilliant poet, Dawn Marie Knopf, and it means a spoken curse. It was irresistible as a conceit, but I didn't touch it for years. Imprecation. I grew up sealed shut, ashamed of my body, ashamed to speak. From imprecari, to invoke, call down upon.
"It is not sad, or I would laugh," writes Laura (Riding) Jackson in "It Is Not Sad," a poem that struck me with its will and clarity a couple of years before I wrote the one above. Looking back, I see why this line, in one broad stroke, moved me. I am subject to the swerve—when presenting something difficult or heavy—toward a kind of ecstatic resignation, toward laughter.
I love the elegance and music of ghazals and wanted the inventiveness of language that a ghazal's rhyme scheme demands. But not only do I suffer from the need to rebel against rules—even the ones I set for myself—I also found that the lilting rhythm of the ghazal was at loggerheads with my sense of indignation.
In the past, we traveled to unknown cities, loaded our cameras with a roll of film, smiled and said "cheese," hoping a set of 24 photographs would expose a beautiful journey. Time and time again, I returned home from such trips eager to see what images I had captured, and upon developing my photos was surprised to find I had taken significantly more pictures of unknown pieces of art from inside a museum than of the usual landmarks and landscapes.
This poem started when a friend challenged me to write something "elegant." On G-chat, I followed his suggestion with a "lol." Elegance is something my poems never aspire to. I write about disappointing one night stands, peeing on street corners at night, getting too drunk to hide how I feel. As a woman, I almost cringe at the idea of being elegant, weary from men on the street telling me to smile and averse to anything that insists I "behave" or be "lady-like."
I wrote "Fable" before Trickster had a title, even before the title poem was written. "Fable" was a crucial poem for me because it was a literal drama of double binds between art and nature that was resolved paradoxically.
The central concern of Rag is violence against women and girls as it surfaces in film, fairy tale, daily life, the news. Against that, I wanted to record intimacies of all kinds, but especially between children and parents and between friends, as a response, maybe an answer, to such threat.
The Murty Classical Library of India aims to make available the great literary works of India from the past two millennia. The series provides modern translations of classical works, many for the first time, across an array of Indian languages, including Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Pal Panjabi, Persian, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu.
The poem—more dirge or chant—I composed less to conjure an encounter than to become rich with the echoes of its absence. What we do when we are helpless against our losing. The utter dread of loss. Our anxiety to circumvent grief simultaneously propelling us toward its void, as though we are concentrically orbiting that inevitable point of departure—so dense nothing we do can escape its pull.
The best way I can think of to write about writing, my writing, is to write about "Community," since I had a lot of trouble writing it / since it took me a lot longer to write than most of my poems / since I had never before, and have never since, written another poem in quite the same way.
In my new book, I explore the theme of migration in a multitude of ways, including its relation to colonial land takings, military enlistment, education, debt, tourism, memory, citizenship, food, and extinction. The poem above, however, looks at migration in relation to time zones and telephone calls.
The poems in Void and Compensation feel like rehearsals for and engagements with both loss and connection…I guess the two go hand-in-hand. The lyric, then, can serve to distill experience…it offers a chance to find compensation in singing, in finding a presence within our circumstances and our thinking and our feeling.
Blue Yodel is populated by the strange, the outcast, the bizarre, the different, the so-called "freaks" who live on the social outskirts. The Girl with Antlers is seen as an abomination of nature simply because she defies easy categorization. People fear the unknown and are often made uncomfortable when confronting someone who upsets their fixed definitions of personhood and notions of being in the world.
Once after a poetry reading, someone from the audience asked whether I am a person of faith. "Judging by your poems," he said, "you either hate God or you love God."
The poem is a derivation of Diane Di Prima's "Revolutionary Letter #19" ("if what you want is jobs / for everyone, you are still the enemy,/ you have not thought thru, clearly / what that means…"). It's the last poem written for the book. Red Epic tracks the world following on the global collapse of 2007, trying to grasp it both systemically and at the level of local textures of life.
I was once a little black girl writing poems, and one of the standard gifts for birthdays and holidays, from those relatives who wanted to encourage me in my literary pursuits, was a book of verse – Shakespeare sonnets or the more cherished Phillis Wheatley collection. At the time, hers was the name they knew. The first black published poet. She became my measure.
This poem like many poems was born from the zygotes of other poems. In Torrington, CT I had a room at the Yankee Peddler Inn. The room was ugly but the housekeeping made an effort to fold your toilet paper into a V every afternoon. Something about the tub made me uneasy. The whole place made me uneasy. The Inn was built in 1891, the original owner died in a room on the third floor. There were ghost rumors and I think the decor tried to play that up. I thought I'd get some writing done away from New York and I did.
At this moment when neuroscience is able to map so much of the brain's activity, what's interesting is that in spite of all that mapping, and countless theories spanning centuries, the construct of the self, both one's self-perception and how one behaves in any given situation, seems to defy understanding. Perhaps because it's not possible to tease apart all of the elements that contribute to it: genetics, education, history, nutrition, viruses, bacteria, the air one breathes, the enormity of culture—all of which morphs continuously over a lifetime.
I have learned so many times in my life that no one is beyond reproach. This was true at the 2010 Cave Canem Retreat where this poem was written, approximately a year after my father's death. After the first workshop, I was called out by friend and poet, Aricka Foreman, because I was avoiding "going there," or "going deep enough," or going to any other place that poets and poetry had taught me to seek when writing a poem.
"Third Standoff," which appears near the end of The Wynona Stone Poems, is the last of the "Standoffs" between various people in Wynona's life. First, she tries and fails to confront her boss, Lois; later a horde of Wynona's former lovers takes on her latest squeeze, the Channel 5 weatherman. But "Third Standoff" is unique in that it addresses Wynona directly.
Un Coup de Dés [A Roll of the Dice] has never before been designed and typeset properly. The closest version is the Michel Pierson & Ptyx limited French edition of 2002; this edition, however, slavishly attempts to match the last round of proofs for the never-materialized Vollard edition of 1897, which Mallarmé was correcting at the time of his death. In our edition I've done my best, in the design and setting of the original French version of the poem, to match the typography of those proofs but also improve their typographic infelicities; the result is basically what Mallarmé had approved and was actually seeing and working on, but with tightened and corrected typography.
Jennifer Tamayo's poetry is one of interruption, outspokenness, lawlessness. The first time that I encountered her work, was during a reading in Oakland. Tamayo was singing her own rendition of Rihanna, then talking about consumption disorders, then pouring a gallon of milk over her head and chest.
I had many reservations about joining OKCupid. Half of my brain thought: 1.) I'd say I'm arguably attractive, and therefore a little arrogant. Surely I'm above this meat gallery of human loneliness. 2.) When my friends find out that I'm on the site, won't they come up to me and say, "So, how does it feel to be both a customer and a piece of merchandise in the Goodwill of romantic love?"
Hustle by David Tomas Martinez is raw and unpretentious. This debut collection of poems speaks of the realities lived by so many young latin@s (such as myself) who have been waiting to see their lives more accurately portrayed. In Hustle, Martinez uses the summer of '94 as a backdrop to discuss the intersections of latinidad, masculinity, sex, love, family, violence, gang life, and more. This debut collection is a ray of California sun- it warms you, then it burns.
It's a strange thing to look back at DANCE. I have to do this reconstruction, this remembering—which I, personally, have always found difficult. I am not good at remembering why I did what I did or how it felt to me. How could I be? I'm a different person
The inspiration for this poem, "The White-haired Girl", grew out of my fascination with tales about wayward women. The poem is named after a Chinese opera and film based on real-life stories from the 1920s and 1930s—it's about a girl, Xi'er,who was forced into marriage with her father's vindictive landlord and flees her captor by escaping into the mountain.
I wanted to explore what an unconventional love looks like. To most of the outside world, this kind of love would seem abnormal. I worked within the freedom and constraint of the couplet form, going for the duality of thought within the speaker's mind.
I'd been thinking about mythology and archetypes. I'd been thinking about that Persephone's being carried off by Hades felt analogous to my experiences of being sexually violated as a child. The experience of being taken again and again into an Underworld.
It began in failure. Perhaps most poems do, but this was an especially staunch case: the lines went nowhere.
I suppose I needed to figure out just what they meant, or where they "went," but I was in no great position to know then. It had been an especially fraught winter. My mother, whose home was half a continent away, was sick and was suffering and had already suffered. My family was in disarray, and the relationship I had been kindling for two years had sagged to ash without an ember
Once upon an April, I forced myself to sit down and write the too late love poems for a few boys who came into my life brief, but grand seasons. I was thinking about the many loves that were never lovers—how intimacy and romance can occupy a room without taking hold of the body.
A letter to the poet and critic Thomas MacGreevy establishes the date of composition as early July 1936 (immediately after the completion of Murphy, which contains the phrase 'a slow cascando of pellucid yellows' in the penultimate paragraph of chapter 12), at which point Beckett seems to have thought of 'Cascando' as two poems (a follow-up letter twice refers to 'poems', and the two-poem idea gives extra foundation for the phrase 'saying again' at the head of the second section of the poem), sections one and two as published.
This poem is a contrapuntal, which means it can be read three different ways. Musically speaking, a contrapuntal imposes two or more distinct melodies upon each other simultaneously, and in doing so, creates a brand new harmonic relationship.
"Nectarines" really started when Melissa asked me if I'd write a poem for a track off Siamese Dream. She used to host this reading series called Polestar in the basement of Cake Shop, and the idea was you take a record like Doolittle or Super Fly and you assign each poet a track. Give them a little head start, maybe a month to write a poem that approaches their song in some way, and when everyone meets in the basement they read their poems in the same order as the track listing.
The first line of this poem, "Snow would have been breaking the drifts that day, on a mild mood," persisted in my mind long before I set down this poem to paper. It makes sense to me now that a poem that thinks about the tensions between the world outside us and the strange ones inside us would begin in an image of gesture and atmosphere.
When I was writing "Plaisir Minus +/-," I was thinking about meaning as a process of addition and subtraction—the isolation of a word that leads to a new fusion in a line or sentence or stanza. The way words are companions to each other. The way the word is companion to the mind. The way context infuses. Language as simultaneously remedy and refusal.
I thought love had failed me. Probably I had failed love. I was, as they say, going through a hard time. In attempt to restore myself, recreate myself, I looked to the poetry of the Elizabethans. I reread my Sidney & Spenser, my Donne & Marvell. Because isn't art supposed to assuage the crushing pain of existence? to save us? It did not help.
Being in an aftermath is difficult. One wants to argue with it. One wants to make it into an order. Being inside it is also difficult. One might be able to organize it but is there another way? One wants to bring something up. One wants to change it. One wants to exist. One wants to do one thing. To "rise above it." But there is no way to "rise above it." You are "in," not "above," and through this "within" you can determine, can "figure out" your way.
If I had a rock band, I might call it Haunted by Mothers or, maybe more aptly, Haunted by Babies. My poems can't seem to be rid of either one, even though I'm neither.
I imposed all that came after onto this.
The narrative accompaniment originally written to appear here bore no actual relationship to the poem's inception. The futility, the wherelessness, the overarching visuospatial dysgnosia of the poem, in conjunction with the task of tethering its construction to a particular temporal episode, convinced me that it had been written in the aftermath (or in the midst) of a series of traumas from which it took me nearly four years to emerge.
One of the interesting things about the poem--to me, anyway--is that it was semi-planned. Although I worked through many drafts, from the start I had a sense of what its structure would be and what I wanted it to contain. To be specific, I knew that I wanted to write a long poem in couplets that was organized around if/then statements. I love the mysterious causality that such statements can imply.
Several years ago I read Thomas MacEvilley's Structure of Ancient Thought. A book a friend gave me for Christmas. Not sure but think MacEvilley mentions there Hippocrates's "On Airs, Waters and Places." The title struck my ear, but got compressed. "Airs Waters Places." Eventually I did a "tracing" of it, a translation, sort of, all its simple, lovely pieces pared down, arranged with an occasional aside.
The poems are largely about love, and destroying the past experiences of love in order to arrive at a clean slate and a new hope to embrace love. It's baby clean love, it's baby no, I've never loved/been loved this way before. "The crescendo of love being arrival," we arrive at a clearer point of existence on the spectrum of our lives in order to love anew.
As some may recall, February 2013 was marked in Los Angeles by the "manhunt" for an ex-LAPD officer named Christopher Dorner. Dorner, unable to find justice for what he saw as his unfair dismissal from the force for filing an allegedly false report accusing another officer of brutality, had taken up arms against his erstwhile comrades and their kin.
I started the "Allerton in Winter" poems during the first semester of my MFA program and continued tinkering with them while taking Brenda Hillman's class on the Arcades Project. Walter Benjamin's unfinished work – an assemblage of aphoristic observations and quotations – would irrevocably shape my writing and thought.
How do we approach the seemingly unspeakable through language? As a writer, there are things that are easier for me to write about, and feelings or experiences that are so difficult to articulate that they become long stretches of silence.
I didn't think prank at first. I didn't really think anything beyond the image—a baby grand piano resting on a sandbar in Biscayne Bay. Sixteen-year-old Nicholas Harrington said it wasn't a prank. He said it was "more of a movement." I thought then, on January 25, 2011, youth. I thought of being fearless and reckless and so full of ideas.
Translating these poems is an act of archaeology. I work with co-translators, unearthing with raw strikes of the shovel until I can see the lines of the poem and switch to gentle brushes. When I first saw the shape of this poem, the shape of its idea, my mind began to echo with its nothingness.
Troy, Michigan is a collection of sonnets inspired by the city map of my hometown—I wanted to represent the rectangle shapes repeated throughout of the city plan. I chose the sonnet form because younger writers often use it when they attempt to become a poet. Even though I no longer qualify as a younger poet, this book was also about bringing to life a version of myself from the past to try to make sense of the landscape that had shaped my understanding of both safety and danger.
"Continuous Acts" comes near the end of O, Heart a verse-drama rooted in the utterance of an omniscient or all knowing narrator, never named, who speaks on behalf of the woman, the main character in the book. All of the poems posit and argue the main questions in the piece, i.e. what comprises what we call the human heart, how can we know our "heart's truths," and how the answers to those questions by women and men provide differences in kind historically to the question of sincerity. The main "drama" is the dialogue—between what we call the humanities and what we call science, and the inconclusive answers provided from both disciplines.
I started writing this poem on a Columbus Day. At the time, I was working for the federal government as a contractor. I had the day off because Columbus Day is a federal holiday and our building was closed, but I didn't get paid because the contractor did not recognize that holiday. It's a screwed up situation.
"The City State" is something of an homage to Guy Davenport. In "The Trees at Lystra," the opening story in his collection, Eclogues, Davenport recasts from a Greek adolescent's perspective the New Testament story in the Book of Acts in which Paul and his companion come portentously to the lively village to inveigh against polytheism and are mistaken ironically for Zeus and Hermes.
The poem is what I call a "transliteration" —a meaningful sound-alike—of William Blake's classic poem, "The Tyger." I was in the middle of writing Who Said, my third book of poems, which is full of poems in direct conversation with an iconic poem. Many of them are also transliterations, or are other kinds of odd translations.
Aside from this poem having the most boring title ever, I've grown increasingly fond of this quiet, formally simple poem after sharing it aloud at recent poetry readings.
This was written in Brooklyn in 1996 and 1997, shortly after getting my MFA from Columbia. As it took shape, I was seeking some kind of employment; teaching jobs were impossible to come by and I eventually took a position as an administrator for a financial services company on Water Street, very close to the bottommost point on the island of Manhattan. I had a small portrait of T.S. Eliot smoking a cigarette on my desk, framed in mauve, taken when he was with Lloyds Bank and doing the most important writing of his life. A lot of the brokers thought this 80 year old photograph was actually me, or my father. My boss hired me at first because he thought I had an MBA from Columbia.
I don't think that I will ever get over the feeling of looking out the window of a flying airplane. It isn't so much that it's shocking—which of course it is, if you think about it. It's that it's so interesting. Part ant colony, part lit-up window of a stranger's house, the earth, arrayed and displayed 30,000 feet below, scintillates. It rivets.
In many ways, my collection Easy Math is about how hard basic communication can be, and this poem, the first in the book, examines that idea. It also examines the absurdity of our daily lives, the excitement that we can reap from the weirdest cultural prizes (Three strikes! Turkey!), and the disconnect between what we are living and what we are feeling.
"Rainy Afternoons of the Soul" is a poem that surprised me. After my previous books, featuring poems that included everything (even one kitchen sink), I'd been trying to write shorter, slightly more focused if still meditative, poems. However, what I'd come up with—poems I thought of as "single-gestured," most of which were under fifteen lines long—seemed too tidy, at best, and in any case unsatisfying.
Liu Xia (b. 1961) is a Chinese poet and artist, born and raised in Beijing. She worked as an editor and then a civil servant for the Beijing tax bureau until she quit the job in 1992. Liu Xia started writing poetry in 1982 and has continued to this day.
As wife of the imprisoned Noble Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (b. 1955), some of Liu Xia's work needs to be read from the context of the political situation in China and her personal experiences. She met Liu Xiaobo in the 1980s at a literary gathering and married him when he was imprisoned in 1996 (so that she could visit him in prison legally as she explained). Liu Xiaobo was first put in jail from June 1989 to January 1991 due to his involvement with the June 4th student movement. He was detained without trial from May 1995 to February 1996, then sentenced to three-year imprisonment from October 1996 to October 1999, and finally given an eleven-year term in December 2008. Liu Xia herself has been under house arrest since 2010.
Probably "Single page drawing" began in 2005, when an acquaintance introduced me to Cy Twombly's paintings and prints. That introduction marked a shift in my ability to identify things as language, and in my tendency to think of language as something to be seen as much as read, to be felt as much as known—to be felt as a way of knowing. Not that I began writing the poem then. But every time since then when I have stood in a room with Cy Twombly's work, I have felt two impulses: to largeness and to inclusion.
I began to draft this poem when I lived in New York, after one of many times someone stopped me and asked for directions.
The draft began as a conversation between me and an "offstage" character. Almost a monologue, but not quite. What drove me to the page is that I felt helplessly pleasant when asked for assistance. The sensation was awful on some level. I look like a nice, unthreatening person. And I am. Yet something about that is slightly intolerable. I kept writing to try to understand why. It has to do with power—power is at play in this poem. I am far from being a power-hungry person, but where is the line between helpfulness and manipulation? That question seemed the burning center of the writing.
For "poems" read, too, insurrections, from insurgere, "rise up." The word "Foxconn" was once the word "morning."
In the meantime I returned again and again, on my then-girlfriend's yoga mat I wasn't using for yoga, to images of the webbed netting to stop suicide at Foxconn. At the same time I learned gray foxes sleep in trees, in dens as much as 30 feet from the ground. I remembered hearing at 16 Beaver of treehouses connected by netting, occupied through the summer of 2011 in Puerta del Sol.
I wrote most of For Another Writing Back during the first year of my son's life. Motherhood created an urgent narrative situation in me: I had to write about my life. I wrote fast—it felt fast—and under the ardent sign of motherhood I chased subjects I'd glossed or abstracted or left out of previous poems. My sentence was the sizzling rope connected to the stick of dynamite under the door in a cartoon—out of time, out of time. Write it! detonating in my ear during my son's naps.
My dad is not a poetry reader. He reads nonfiction mostly. He's a Timothy Egan and Malcolm Gladwell fan, to name two. But when he came for a visit to Tucson this month, right after my new book, The Courier's Archive & Hymnal, had come out, he read it one morning before I awoke.
When I was an adolescent, I wanted to become a ballerina. I practiced with more dedication than I knew I possessed. Some nights I dream I can still dance the way I could at my best.
"Self- Portrait in the Body of a Whale" is telling the truth only in the first line, the rest is imagination. I did "come upon the body of a whale" on a trip to Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island in the middle of winter. There is nothing I love more than an island in winter. It is the only time you can have a whole beach to yourself. To me it is heaven. I grew up on an island, so perhaps that is why I feel so strongly about this.
I got obsessed with China. I used to live in Beijing, population 21 million. When I arrived I didn't speak Chinese, didn't understand it, and the city was alarmingly, indigestibly verbal. If not for a small group of expats who welcomed me into their world and gave me some sense of regularity I wouldn't have lasted long.
I work at a big state university: cement parking structures, orange construction mesh, scuffed stairwells that lead to halls where the clocks tell different times. Near campus there's a bubble tea place run by a friendly Asian couple. One day someone taped a piece of college-ruled paper to the wall with the question, "How Do You Feel?" written in ballpoint pen across the top.
When I think of this poem, I think of Math. I mean "Math uab Mathonwy," the fourth branch of the collection of Middle Welsh prose stories known as the Mabinogion. I wrote this poem after reading it.
I wrote "[taking away taking everything away]" in response to an assignment I gave my graduate students at NYU. I was teaching a course I called "Terms of Engagement." In this workshop the students wrote new poems every week in response to various modes of engagement including: ekphrastic, kinetic, narrative, collaborative, textual, hypnopoetic, historical, social, political. The first mode we considered was ekphrastic.
This poem is one of three in The Cloud That Contained the Lightning that share the title "Hibakusha," which is a Japanese word translating to explosion-affected people. It is used in Japan to refer to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I began this series of poems later into my writing of this collection, which centers around J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb.
A translation, whatever else it might be, is an attempt to recreate an experience. The tricky question is, whose experience? The German of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies would have sounded very different to one of his contemporaries than it does to a modern German's ear, just as we recognize, say, Keats's language as being from an earlier period. Do you try to make Rilke sound slightly archaic to reproduce the experience that a modern German might have of the original, or do you try to find an equivalent for the experience that a German-speaking contemporary of Rilke might have had?
I wrote "The Descent of Man" after a long layoff from writing—or, to be more accurate, from trying to write, which is largely what I do. Poems written after a long layoff in my case usually turn out baroque, or more baroque than ones that are the result of working habitually. Not writing can be writing, too, but if it isn't the internal pressure that builds up in a real layoff, the fancy ideas that come from reading too much, and the overreaching resulting from all the built-up energies spilling over can create artifacts that are supersaturated, conceptually overdetermined.
We undertook this translation because we feel that interest in Mallarmé, among younger poets in particular, is dead. Our primary aim was to create translations that sound like his poems—that bring his music into harmony with the 21st century.
My childhood was built atop an apple orchard. Or rather, my childhood home was constructed on what used to be a former orchard. A single crab apple tree in our backyard remains. My friend Katie and I (both of us six years old) were digging in the backyard when we discovered a buried trash heap that must have been quite old.
I wrote the first draft of this poem in a third floor studio apartment in Mexico City. An aging architect owned the building, and his office stood adjacent to the three-story home, an office comprised of glass. His own Philip Johnson's glass house.
This poem contains one of my favorite ways to think and talk about poetry: "a game called all of this is hypothetical."
It also happens to be the very first poem in my first book You Are Not Dead—first firsts seem particularly pleasurable. In the summer of 2011, when I wrote this poem, I had moved across the country to Western Massachusetts for poetry school. Living in the midst of relentless new was both overwhelming and productive—I'd never before so consciously watched other people, inhabiting all manner of physical space, for seemingly no reason at all.
My friend was at work when a visitor to the building began to cough up blood. Medical help came quickly with no heroic measures needed, but the whole situation prompted a what if conversation among my friend's colleagues about deficiencies in their office emergency kit, which failed to contain a particular kind of transparent mask.
Usually it goes like this: Able-bodied poet evokes disabled veteran, or friend in some accident/illness, or figurative language thereof. We recognize these poems and we feel bad. We have been reading these poems since the Bible. It has gotten a little ridiculous, lately, with poems that use amputation as metaphor for Fragmentation or the Dead Father or Pick-Your-Sadness.
"On Dissonance" is a sequence of prose poems from the second section of my second book, Equivalents, the title of which I borrowed from a series of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz. His Equivalents—all several hundred of them shot between 1922 and 1935—are wallet-sized, black-and-white silver gelatin prints of the sky that are now considered the first abstract photography.
At readings, I usually introduce this poem as 'my love letter to New York City.' And while there's certainly a vein of sarcasm that runs through that comment, there is also a real earnestness that drives the poem. I think both represent the broad catalogue of emotions one can tangle with during a simple stroll in New York City on any given afternoon.
My mother died on Easter morning of 2007 when I was 22-years-old. Just weeks prior to this event, I'd been accepted to Saint Mary's MFA program in poetry. I spent the summer in Omaha, Nebraska cleaning out our family's house, which felt like closing a wound that kept reopening. Many nights I'd end up sitting on a closet floor reading her books, trying on her jewelry, or just living in the smell her clothes. Ultimately, I ended up donating almost everything.
Mario Santiago Papasquiaro is the pseudonym of José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda, the poet immortalized as Ulises Lima in Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives. Born in Mexico City in 1953, Santiago came of age during a period of acute political repression, artistic censorship, and violations of academic autonomy that culminated in the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, in which hundreds of student protesters and bystanders were killed and injured, and over a thousand were arrested. The literary society Santiago encountered when he began writing poems in 1974 was stultifying and conservative. Turning for inspiration to Surrealism, Stridentism, the Beats, and Latin American avant-gardes such as the Peruvian group, Zero Hour, Santiago and a handful of friends—among them Bolaño—founded the revolutionary poetry movement, Infrarrealism.
All of the poems in the I Live Here Now section of Aphoria (which first appeared as a chapbook from Lame House Press) are untitled and appear with only a symbol of ( ) at the beginning of each poem. They appear this way because they are all a part of a quasi-linear thought process, or thought movement, with a focused concern on physical and emotional orientation, the way the body and mind moves through the world and how it relates (or doesn't) to its surrounding.
"They used to call him 'Blood and Guts Al,'" my father says about the newscaster who haunted my Cincinnati childhood, Al Schottelkotte. We're in my parents' living room, the day after my poetry reading at the University of Cincinnati. My father tells me this bit of information, though, after my first book, Hemming the Water, has been published, after my mother asks why I wrote this poem.
The same poem can serve several purposes. At my most single-minded, I began to understand this, against my will, in the years after my mother left the earth on May 22nd, 2008. For a time (and I'm not sure whether this time has actually ended, or will ever end) everything that felt like poetry also naturally resembled mourning.
"We Laid It Down. We Got Tired." was my attempt to be Rodeferian. Written long hand in a Xanax-and-alcohol stupor on a plane that seemed to be slowly crashing toward Memphis.
This poem began with its title, which emerged for me in the last few moments of a dream. The whole sentence surfaced at once, like a seashell revealed at low tide. My dream, as I remember, was an anxious one. I had to assemble an object composed of tiny, elaborate parts—screws and gaskets, a loose pile of flat washers that, maliciously, began to disappear when I grasped them.
I think that this might be the best place to say that I got a 5 on my American History AP test. Sometimes I think about sending WALKING ACROSS A FIELD WE ARE FOCUSED ON AT THIS TIME NOW to my high school history teachers—but I don't know if they would like it.
Had you driven over the bridge that night, you would not have seen the body in the bed. You would have seen the lighthouse. You may have seen the beacon flash. You may have, because it was late, seen the lighthouse as more of a shadow than a white, peaked structure. It would have been surrounded by snow.
Like Auden, I believe a poem should be more interesting than anything that might be said about it.
Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, was one of the greatest mythmakers of the early 20th century. His skill in the ring and personality out of it were so outsized that almost anything he claimed seemed possible. When he said he hoboed from Galveston to New York City alone at age 12, everyone believed him. When he said he fought a 25-foot shark with nothing but his fists, no one questioned it.
The nuts that make up this poem were what I wrote on postcards to my friend the poet Genine Lentine. She was living at the San Francisco Zen Center, which has its sister temple, Tassajara, in Carmel Valley, CA, where I was going to live for the summer of 2010.
For a few years, I've been writing poems in which I use the natural environment as a force field and I try to receive frequencies, intuitions, from natural beauty to fuel and form a poem, in the same way radio waves and microwaves and light waves in the atmosphere carry content and meaning.
"After All These Years You Know They Were Wrong about the Sadness of Men Who Love Men" was written after a weekend in Palm Springs with my friend Matt. He lives in Los Angeles and invited me to join him and a group of his friends, most of whom I didn't know, to celebrate his birthday.
Comedians do more than make us laugh; they woo crowds into the world of a joke. With facial tics and anaphora and alligator shoes, they often sit us down in neighborhoods we distrust or are not privy to. They make us feel safe, activate the car alarm then crowbar the window for the knock off satchel sunning in the passenger seat.
This poem is the postscript to the 70-page title piece from my book The Year of the Rooster, which I spent most of a year or two writing, wrestling with the artifice of character. I was trying to figure out who this Roo was and why s/he kept bothering me, cutting a furrow at the outer-most edge of my thoughts by pacing back and forth there, exactly along the newly-forged neural pathway from too much thinking about Alice Notley's wonderfully vitriolic, fearless, mammoth, and terrific Disobedience.
As a teenager, yearning to leave my small hometown in the South and hungry for literature, I managed to get myself to New York City's Upper West Side. Without any money, lonely and out of my depth, whatever that could have been, I spent most of my time digging around for books of poetry to read in the dark innards of Columbia University's Butler Library. I'd studied Spanish in high school, and was on the prowl. Well, in no time, I found poems by Miguel Hernández.
Much of the work in my book, The Youngest Butcher in Illinois, was driven by a need to make sense of things from my life and, more specifically, family history. This poem is one of the oldest in the collection (I wrote it seven years ago). I included it because I thought it set up some of the book's concerns, and as such, it feels like the grandparent to others.
Inception: I found myself writing "The Contagious Knives" in a fury of contagion; a corrosive tide of rage and frustration at the state of the world, its steady state of exploitation, coercion, misery, metals, charisma. Everything comes out in the river, as Steve Jobs, now dead, said at TED: first time as industrial waste, second time as carcinogen. This is why the language of this play (as in life!) is itself toxic, tidal, runs headlong in riptides, loops in eddies, and piles up in scurfy little pools, reversing and resaying itself in the space of a single line or run of lines, rising in little violent crests.
As a poet I've become increasingly interested in sound: how it works on the surface of a poem to disturb the image reservoirs below it, how morphemes and phonemes carry semantics, how slight disruptions in each bend meaning, in clang association and oneirologic. I've become more and more involved in music, blues in particular, over the past several years, so I think that informs my poetry.
When I was in high school men started hitting on me and I wasn't sure what to do. Most of my life I'd been trying to be a less assertive presence in the world (the general opinion of my elders and peers was that I needed to exercise humility, be less bossy, be less of a know-it-all, start fewer fights). I wanted to be a good daughter/ sister/ Sunday school student/ girl-scout/ slumber party guest and I suffered embarrassment and even grief whenever anyone indicated to me that I'd been, for example, a combative goody-goody attention-hog.
"Hand-Me-Down Halloween" was almost the title poem of my first book. It has no epigraph, but if it did, it would have one of the following:
Some research recently revealed that it is not too much information that is stressful or overwhelming, it's too much information that seems to be meaningful. For example a walk in the woods is full of enormous input: animal sounds, plant and dirt smells, textures, air moving, piles upon piles of elaborate visual details, and yet a walk in the woods is considered relaxing.
"My syntax shift" is both at the heart of Desiring Map and an outlier in the book. It is the only poem that uses the sentence as unit of composition, hence its title—so, in that way it certainly works within a different cadence, a different logic from the other poems. The poem also marks a shift in the book—away from the dreamy renderings of place in the sequence that it concludes and into the more concrete spatiality of the Kansas plains.
The truth is I had gotten obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Why are these considered girls' books? People are building log cabins! They're digging wells! They're getting chased by panthers and dying of starvation and eating the curliest part of the pig, the tail! They're sucking horehound, the most lawless candy! Territories are declaring statehood. People are waking up in the Dakotas at last.
I don't remember exactly how I wrote this poem. I remember that it occurred quickly and required only a little revision. It is my personal favorite poem in a collection I wrote calledHider Roser, but I'm not sure why. I like reading it aloud and always include it in my set list when reading to an audience.
After I'd written "Flemish," I realized that it contained many unresolved and insoluble puzzles, and that was fine with me. Belgium, Flanders, Benelux, Low Country—so many words associated with this tiny and stunningly gifted land. It speaks Dutch, French, German, and its own dialects.
May Be! was conceived of while I was in the throes of a poetic-critical double bind as the Occupy movement was surging in the Fall of 2011. At the outset of that momentous event, the first "bind" / subjective impulse I had to confront was the go! go! go! of the immediate moment.
Dutch is not my mother tongue, but it is my mother's tongue. Though my brother and I were not raised bilingually, we've heard it all our lives. The sound of the language first and always precedes its meanings to me (Frost's "the sound of sense"). In the past two years, I have been studying a small group of Dutch poets and writers, mostly reading them aloud. It's not a proper study, and the list is eclectic, guided by other people's bookshelves.
I'm disappointed when writers, in discussing their work, interpret it for their readership. This seems a violation of the literary contract between author and reader. That in mind, here I'll lay bare the ideas that undergird "Violet for Your Furs" without doing you the disservice of deciphering individual images. Cataloguing these ideas will require some name-dropping. Bear with and forgive me.
Many poems in my book The Frame Called Ruin (New Issues, 2012) investigate the intersection of beauty and destruction, of creation and devastation. "Blur" was inspired by the four people who died on January 29, 2007 when a suicide bomber blew up a bakery in Eilat, Israel.
Here are the first twenty strophes of our translation of Aimé Césaire's 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. This 725 line poem is a work of immense cultural significance and beauty. To date commentary on it has focused on its Cold War and anticolonialist rhetoric, material that Césaire only added to the revised 1956 text which turns out to be the fourth, and until now, primarily known version of the work.
When I was finishing up my book, my editor suggested I write a few new poems for the final section, poems that would perhaps move closer toward the idea of hope that sits in the book's title. This is one of three poems I wrote in that frenzied couple of weeks (I've never written so quickly in my life!) and, like most of my poems, I don't really know how it came to move from my head to the page to making any kind of sense.
When I was young, the penis crop was plentiful. Every year, a bountiful harvest. Then came hot flashes, mood swings, sleeplessness, and a long—very long—penis famine. Thus the first two sentences, which floated into my head one day. I remember being immediately pleased with my simile.
I began Partially Kept in dialogue with the great 17th century essayist, Sir Thomas Browne while reading The Garden of Cyrus. My career-long practice has been to link my own writing to the writing of others and often to those I have taught (Shakespeare for Why/Why Not, W.G. Sebald forVertigo), so that intellectual inquiry and creative inquiry inform one another, so that I find myself in the magnetic field of someone else's range and diction, so that I am moved out beyond mere self-reflection.
I should say, first, that this "The landscape" poem is one of a series of eight all titled "The landscape." In this series, and in the other series in In the ice house, the everywhere and the nowhere—the everything and the nothing—are prominent features, which for me presents an interesting problem in writing poetry. We are often told to avoid general or vague language in poems, the "heart" that is always about to become a clichéd symbol of love.
I began work on "The Maud Poems" several years before my mother died. I wasn't interested in autobiography but I wasinterested in my mother's particular vernacular and vocal imprint. She was an older mother for the time, she'd grown up in Topeka, Kansas, after the first world war; her father had left, her mother Olive ran a boarding house, and her uncle Meldrum owned a funeral parlor
This earlier version of the poem had the same basic stanzaic shape, action, and deployment of images as "Mappa Mundi" does now but its tempo and temperament were much different: the imagination was less musical and there was far less torque between what was being seen, felt and spoken.
Writing about Mary Jo Bang's new translation of Dante's Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) in Vanity Fair, Elissa Schappell declares, "readers who once considered Dante's terza rima rhyme scheme and allusions to 14th-century Florentine politics as their own circle of pain will find Bang's free-verse approach, wit, and poetic pyrotechnics heavenly."
Below we present Bang's translation of the first Canto, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher (all of which can be enlarged with a click). The book party will be Friday, September 7, at 7:30 PM, at A Public Space (323 Dean Street, Brooklyn).
This poem originally stood on its own under the title "Collapse." It was one of the first pieces I wrote in what became the title series of my book. I was intent on writing seriously about death. The Iraq war was just beginning and was very much on my mind. I was thinking about my own lack of power and courage in that context.
It's funny how poems tend to get generated in my mind. They never begin with what, in my teaching days, students called "ideas." Rather, they begin with some sensory recall, more often than not auditory. This can be the sound, say, of a certain woodpecker on a very still spring morning; a snatch from an old Monk tune; or, as in this case, a small chunk of conversation that has lodged itself in mind, whether or not I knew it had.
"De Forest Station" is a poem from my collection, Meat Heart, that explores learning to live somewhat peacefully in the body through the help of a map. The map is channeled by other people's voices. Once you have the map you get to keep it, but only if you share it with others.
When I was younger I was really into horror movies. Back then I read a lot of articles in Fangoria in order to find different horror movies to seek out, and there was a write up about a rerelease of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond. I found it at this local hole in the wall video store (Video Village, long since closed) where tapes were fifty cents to rent for five days.
Mostly, for me, writing is a feral act. Mostly I am consumed by a hunch, irritated, harassed or made uncomfortable by something I can only clumsily accuse. I approach images and words as though they are a criminal or maybe just a far-flung snarl, and maybe that snarl is coming from me—I don't always know, though mostly I am the only one in the room.
Xi Chuan (pronounced Sshee Chwahn, not to be confused with Sichuan, the province), one of contemporary China's most celebrated poets, was born in Jiangsu in 1963 with the name Liu Jun, which means "army," reflecting the ethos of the era.
"Northern Baroque" emerged out of my thinking about visual art, and wondering how certain highly formal still lifes achieve their potency, their sense of urgency and intimacy. I also actually did have a vase of flowers before me when I wrote the first draft, and I couldn't tell if the flowers were dead or alive—but there they were, nonetheless, upright.
Now approaching ninety, Yves Bonnefoy is often acclaimed as France's greatest contemporary author. In selecting and translating the pieces for Second Simplicity, an anthology of his recent verse and poetic prose, I have been profoundly impressed by his enduring freshness of vision, his unabated will to set out anew.
For a number of years—and I suppose still—I've felt somewhat helplessly concerned with the figure of the Greek Chorus. I'd written a number of poems revolving around the Chorus before this one: a sonnet once, and another poem based on Eurpides's Herakles.
I almost never write a poem with a sense of what it will be about. I don't use preexisting forms (traditional or otherwise), writing exercises, or poetic formal devices to generate material. At this point in my writing life, I do tend to think about a whole manuscript while I'm composing individual poems, so I might begin a poem in relation to a manuscript with the thought that it should be a longer poem, or a shorter one, or perhaps lighter in tone, or maybe more fierce. But overall, I prefer to keep the parameters loose.
The world of this poem grew from a simple wish to play on the word "felt." I like the fact that the word houses both the material and the act of feeling (or the act of having felt). Also, at the time I wrote the poem, I was very interested in Joseph Beuys's work and was learning about his symbolic interest in materials like felt and wax.
"Bliss Street" was written in and about Beirut, where I lived for about a year, in faculty housing of the American University. My husband was teaching law, and I was tending to our two young sons. My first-grader was in the American school, which abuts the university campus; I was able to see a fragment of it from my balcony.
A few years ago I was in a writing group with some amazing poets—Noelle Kocot, Dorothea Lasky, Anthony McCann, Damian Rogers, Matthew Rohrer, Richard Siken, and Matthew Zapruder. The idea was we'd each write a poem every day for a month, and we'd take turns giving writing prompts.
This is a "distranslation" of the first poem in Alcools, by Guillaume Apollinaire. To say that I wrote it is less an offense than to say I translated it. Though it has everything to do with its correspondent text, the purpose of writing through "Zone" was not to reproduce it but to create an original work—the only real impediments put on the piece being its influences, which are many.
"The Figure" is an attempt to capture this mysterious, mercurial process. As a child, I remember painting in the art room, my favorite room at my elementary school. When my son went to kindergarten and we were given a tour of the art room all those memories of art class came forth. I was both compelled and terrified. What would I produce?
This poem was written over the course of several months, during which fear vied with hope and the idea of "trying" anything at all became almost laughably fraught. The poem became, in a sense, a meditation on effort, in which the suspension of effort was the aim of my efforts.
This is the first poem in Mean Free Path. I wanted the dedication to be integral to the book, not something set apart on a prefatory page. Because the poems are largely concerned with the possibility of writing and being for, with finding a mode of address capable of something other than ironic detachment or expressing prefabricated structures of feeling, it seemed like cheating to have a prose dedication external to the poems and their pressures resolving all of these issues as if by fiat.
In the summer of the year 2008, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to Berlin, where, in consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language: "Fauconnier and Turner argue that conceptualizing a situation in which the single monk becomes two monks, and then meets himself as the two of him walk in opposite directions involves a blending of mental spaces."
"Army Cats" is the title poem of a book that will appear next spring. It comes out of a trip I took in the summer of 2007 when I went to Lebanon and Syria to do some journalism about Palestinian refugee camps, and the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanese Israeli War. I arrived just at the moment that the worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 Lebanese War broke out.
This poem was one of 32 "recipes" commissioned from various writers by the visual artist Suzanne Bocanegra (the project was published in the June 2010 issue of Esopus magazine).
There was a small neighborhood park in Carroll Gardens where I would sit almost every day after the weather turned warm. Most of the people who stopped in the park were there to simply be: two-year-olds with their fatigue-ecstatic mothers, quorums of older news-bearing women, a guy staring at the grass, patients from a nearby hospital who had been wheeled into scraps of shade for an hour. I came to love this place.
This poem is a direct response to the introduction of Coleridge's "Xanadu-Kubla Khan" in which he explains thata most unwelcome visitor from Porlock disturbed his "anodyne" vision and ruined his inspiration for his poem.I was always fascinated with this poem: who was this friend? What business was Coleridge called to?
How did I come to write this poem? Well the oddest thing started me off.
A friend told me that when she was in Chennai in the summer she had trouble with her computer. It wouldn't work. So she got a tech guy in, and guess what—there were insects in her keyboard. I had never heard of such a thing before but later, asking around I did hear similar stories from others. In any case what my friend told me stayed in my head.
At first the poem "The Cup" came in response to an assignment I gave myself: try for 14 lines and a single domestic image. Obviously I didn't make it! But focusing on the cup let me channel the narrative drive of the poem. Originally it was only about how the cup smashed, the pieces of the event all squashed into 14 lines.
I wrote "Lunaria" almost by accident, while working on another poem, which was about Judas and was not going well. In my poem, Judas was an ordinary man. Everyone knew Jesus had to die, including Jesus himself. Somebody had to make it happen, though, so that the story could unfold, and in that arbitrary way He has, God had chosen him. My Judas was like a character in a novel, who appears to be free, although in reality the writer controls him completely, only the Judas of my poem had the consciousness of a real person, and was completely bewildered to find himself standing on the street with that bag of money in his hand. It was as if Anna Karenina suddenly found herself on that train platform and thought, What am I doing here? Actually, I have alternatives!
My poem grew out of my thinking about a new dishwashing soap that I had discovered in a supermarket, a nicely colored liquid in a curvy bottle with an unusually abstract name—Method—which I associated with Descartes' Discourse on Method.
"Hollywood & God" is the title poem of my recent collection of poems, a book that combines poetry and prose, and coming late in the sequence distills and reflects back on the issues of the entire proceeding. From the outset, I viewed the alliance in the title as the intersection of two streets – Hollywood & Vine, Hollywood & Gower, and Hollywood & God. The book, as well as this poem particularly, tracks a continuum along what traditionally you might style transcendence and what we've today come to call celebrity culture.
This poem arose from a coincidence: the phonetic and visual (but not, as far as I can tell, etymological) sameness between the word for a small dun-colored game bird and the verb, often used in reference to the heart, that means to wither or falter or give way to decline.
I wrote this poem as part of a collaboration I did in spring of 2008 with the painter Chris Uphues. Chris and I met at a bar after a reading I had given, and he told me he was a painter. I had a feeling he would be good. He sent me photos of ten paintings via email and I was blown away by his work, so I took his titles and wrote ten corresponding poems.
"The notion that wants do not become less urgent the more amply the individual is supplied is broadly repugnant to common sense. It is something to be believed only by those who wish to believe. Yet the conventional wisdom must be tackled on its own terrain. Intemporal comparisons of an individual's state of mind do rest on technically vulnerable ground. Who can say for sure that the deprivation which afflicts him with hunger is more painful than the deprivation which afflicts him with envy of his neighbor's new car? In the time that has passed since he was poor, his soul may have become subject to a new and deeper searing."