Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bruce Bond on Audubon

The story that sets the poem “Audubon” into motion is true: the night my father died I was miles away in Texas while he, who had suffered for so long in California, accepted the inevitable as it in turn accepted him. Unable to sleep, I set out to write a passage through the difficulty, my heart cast out of its usual place, exposed. It did not matter much to me if I had broken some decorum, if I made selfish use of suffering, his, mine, or that of future readers who knew the man. I was doing what a love of words had prepared me to do, to make something, to transfigure, as tragedies do, pain into meaning, heartbreak into the redemptive and confrontational pleasures of form. So much for emotions recollected in tranquility. I was in the thick of something that seemed not hostile to art, but rather at the core of the unspeakable from which art derives its language. To speak this place into being is both a form of supplication and a violation. It is to attempt the impossible, which seems to me still to be the function of art, to honor silence in its own tongue.

This is not to say I do not understand the objections some folks have to the unabashed and ready rendering of the tragic, though to see this as “exploitation” oddly suggests not only selfish motives but also an act at the expense of another’s well-being. I understand as well that the sudden creative transformation of grief may figure in some contexts as premature or an exercise in bad taste. But I also think a general denial of the paradoxical nature of art’s engagement with the horrible via the aesthetic is common. In her book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Hélène Cixious talks at length about how when your write about something, you kill it off. One interpretation I brought to this was the sense that representation is at once a negation and an affirmation, a barrier and a bridge to that elusive referent beyond our language for it. Thus whatever mastery we might sense in the act of creation is likewise mitigated by a certain helplessness, a knowledge that otherness can never announce itself as purely other.    

All this set the scene for my encounter with Audubon, who clearly loved birds but not enough to spare their lives in the service of his art. His particular form of aesthetic  murder, being literal, exploited his subject in a way that exaggerated the self-interest implicit in the act of creation. By way of his story, the troubling implications of the “detached attachment” of the artist’s gaze come into focus. I admit, I love Audubon’s paintings, and that love disturbs me when I think of the cruelty that made them possible. Part of what I admire is Audubon’s powers of attention, his near religious devotion to the designs of nature, not to mention the paint itself. As such his work, like all art, calls upon a simultaneous control and abandon, a ready hand, an open eye. Where the eye opens, the heart is soon to follow: such is our hope. In my poem “Audubon,” I wanted less to stand above Audubon in moral judgment than to make his tension my own. The only credible affection I know is through a hole in the self not the other direction entirely. I wanted the father now to participate in the writing act, to make of it less a declaration of feeling than an invocation to the unseen; less a testament of will than a collaboration with silence, the thing that dies the moment that it speaks.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Coffee with the Editor

In the absence of a good coffee shop where we can put our elbows on the table and talk away the morning, I'm making myself available on the blog this month to respond to your questions and comments about the journal and poetry at large. What do you value about the BPJ? What would you like to know about our editorial process? Is having a print journal to hold in your hand still important to you: (Don't worry--we're not abandoning the printed page.) What more might we do to sustain the community of readers and poets we serve?
Lee Sharkey, Co-editor

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Michael Broek on "The Logic of Yoo"

“The Logic of Yoo” was woven together from many different threads of my thinking. Since my mid-teens, I have been interested in philosophies of violence. I remember watching a spate of movies one teenage summer–Full Metal Jacket, Deerslayer, Platoon–trying to understand what seemed to be a masculine propensity for self hurt and destruction. This was also the summer of Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the school reading I had been assigned: A Farewell To Arms, The Stranger. This is only to say that these were the tragedies I grew up on artistically (not to mention Eliot and Conrad and Yeats), and the questions that they raised have never left me. In fact, they have colored everything.

Much more recently, while finishing my doctoral work, I read Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, and while I was moved by his sentences, I argued in my dissertation that the last few pages of the novel completely undermine its premise, illustrating the problem of political fiction and poetry–of unearned outrage, of naïve responses to the complex questions of human suffering. Nevertheless, the book again caused me to consider the “problem” of evil, or, as I prefer, the philosophies of violence. This was one thread.

“The Logic of Yoo” is very different from the poetry I had written previously. My wife, the poet Laura McCullough, helped me think about this when we talked in the shower about a contest she had just finished judging (The shower is a great place to work out these problems. It's the only meditative space in our house). There were literally dozens of manuscripts written by men like me–sincere, passionate, loving, not burdened by public scarring. This, I realized, was the problem of the White, heterosexual, middle-class male with feelings, or the WIMF. I was not manic-depressive or a womanizer—but one cannot be a Robert Lowell or a John Berryman anymore. I had not worked in a factory or gone off to war—I was not a Yusef Komunyakaa or a Brian Turner. In short, I had nothing going for me as a poet. I had to think about my speaker in some new way. This was another thread.

The actual writing of the work was, of necessity, accomplished quickly. As a part of a writing group that developed out of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, I had committed to writing a poem a day for a month, emailing a new draft every night to my poet colleagues, who would e-mail me their drafts as well. I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a “writer” who plagiarized papers, for a hefty fee, for college students. I had followed the issue of John Yoo and the “torture memos” throughout the Bush administration. And I had just finished my doctorate, so I was still in research mode. This was the final thread.

Returning to the problem of The Road, which is the problem of many political poems (including most of those in Sam Hamill's well-intentioned Poets Against the War project), I settled on a protagonist whose “job” it was to write about an ethically dubious person (John Yoo), who in the process was forced to examine the ethical implications of his own choices. Thus, the voices of the two ethically compromised writers would intermingle. The research occurred very quickly. There were many de-classified memos, and as I had entertained the idea of going to law school some years before, I enjoyed reading Yoo's arguments. As a poet, I was fascinated by the lawyer's use of language. From beginning to end, Yoo seemed depraved, and I don't use that word lightly. He seemed desperate to elucidate a logic to fit his pre-conceived notion of what had to be done. But then again, my protagonist had trod down the same path. This was the element of empathy that I wanted. It would be easy to scream and yell and say Yoo was absolutely wrong and shame on him, but that would be to ignore that Yoo was only writing what his bosses wanted to hear, what many voters wanted to hear–the evildoers would be punished; we would be safe.

The rest of the work was constructed quite organically. The language of the memos was so striking that I realized Yoo's actual words had to enter the poems. I found his comments in the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson especially illuminating because they represented the thinking of the young man, which was at once frightening and comic (One doesn't need to go to difficult lengths to inject a postmodern sensibility into one’s poetry). I wrote a poem a day. I decided to use actual footnotes, crossing the boundary between scholarly and poetic writing. After about two months of daily work, the work was 80% complete.

The circumstances of waterboarding led me back to Hannah Arendt and even further back to the guillotine and Hobbes. How does cruelty become institutionalized? How do we justify dictatorship? I didn't aspire to answer these questions directly. If there is any prescription in these poems, perhaps it is found in the hybrid form itself and in the struggle against the truth of aloneness, felt by the torture victim as well as, to a different degree, the protagonist.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tracy Zeman on "Grass for Bone"

Biologist Edward O. Wilson’s concept “biophilia” roughly means a natural or genetic affinity between human beings and other living systems resulting from the co-evolution of “us” with “other.” Wilson claims that “the unique operations of the brain are the result of natural selection operating through the filter of culture. They have suspended us between the two antipodal ideals of nature and machine, forest and city, the natural and artifactual.” “Grass for Bone” originated from these ideas and the inherent inseparability of human, land and culture—“stream carves into gully into dusk into / bodies boiled in lye then scraped clean / turning bones into rusted machinery / a stand of pale orchids no longer.”

Throughout the series three primary motifs overlap and meld into and out of one another: grass, burial, and animal. I grew up and still live in an area that once was prairie and, until recently, knew almost nothing about it. After reading about the North American grasslands (see a swath of land beginning just east of the Mississippi river and extending to the Rocky Mountains), and its fragmented history, I began to see how the grasslands are a place of origins. Many European settlers from forested lands, however, saw the American grassland as a vast nothingness, a sea of land with only a lone bur oak occasionally breaking the horizon. The grassland’s history is one of beauty, violence and change, of displaced peoples and animals, and environmental degradation.

In the series I often juxtapose grassland images with human burial rituals, as in:

water clinging to bluestem
grass clinging to wind & sun
an “ache in the bone” a litany in negative
we stand at the river’s edge to watch
the fish swallow what’s left
of you this keno a bathing place
for the after & the rest also

Burial practices coinciding with grass and animal images tie death to land. Historically, environmental conditions influenced methods of body disposal. At times in the series, a specific “you” is buried or mourned. This “you” surfaces now and again throughout the poems, making the sequence part-elegy. Lost landscape, lost practice, lost person.

Birds, wolves, and bison, animals both extant and extinct are scattered throughout the lines as sound, or track, or bone: “define the treeline we share / with the rest carrion cardinal compass-flower / bringing a way of being with / not against.” I try to illustrate how we share and do not share our world, a world increasingly crowded, degraded, and warming. Aside from the more serious concerns, I also love playing with the language of this landscape and the beautiful vocabulary that grew from it, “bath of sedges,” “wild plum or peach leaf willow,” “copse of false / Solomon’s seal.”

Formally, I take Lorine Niedecker’s “condensary” to heart to tell this story of fragmentation in a fragmented, condensed form, with associative half-sentences and collaged half-stories. Moving through a text of broken narratives is different than reading a strictly narrative text; however, the same questions one would ask of any text are still relevant. Where and how do the images shift? What meaning is created by their juxtaposition? What is happening with sound and line? For instance, in the second section a sparrow in a minor place bumps up against a sewn sieve of redbud leaves, which is followed by the image of a noose and hoof-prints and a railroad. To me this is a stanza that explores marginalization. The field sparrow is declining due to a changing and fragmented habitat; i.e., the sparrow is only allowed a minor place. Railways are places where a number of prairie plants have been preserved but only in narrow strips. And death can be a form of marginalization, both for the dead and the bereaved.

Finally, a few of the voices and influences in the poems are Erik Seeman’s Death in the New World, Richard Manning’s Grassland, Emily Dickinson, Agnes Denes’ The Human Argument, and Joanna Newsom’s album Have One on Me.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Jenny Johnson on "Aria"

As a record collector and a fan of all sorts of music, I love thinking about the relationships between sounds and bodies. One way to think about “Aria” is as seven meditations on this theme. In a conversation about what we might call a “queer poetics,” poet and friend Gabrielle Calvocoressi asked me: “How many times have we wanted to use our body in a way that is just past the point of possibility?” When I drafted sections I-III, I was thinking about this question in relationship to the music that arises out of the body. I also thought hard about my use of plural pronouns when writing this poem, the turn towards a “you,” the use of “we” to capture what theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls “public feelings.” When I refer to “dance interludes” in sections VI and VII, I am interested in music’s ability to rattle bodies in public spaces, too. Specifically, I drew inspiration from Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, a book that opens with a personal experience of a Le Tigre concert, a space where Cvetkovich felt a vital queer and lesbian subculture had formed in response to trauma. Having seen this band live, I knew what she meant and tried to write into this sensation.

I also decided while working on this poem (and the crown as a whole) that metrically I did not want to prioritize unity over disjunction. Rather, what I was most interested in was playing with the sounds and restraints that emerge from a queer body, the sounds that emerge from a queer collective, a body or voice that has the potential to be unified by its disjunctions.

Admittedly, as a poet with queer and feminist sensibilities writing a blank verse sonnet, my impulses err on the side of disruption. I want to break a meter much more than I want to write within it. However valuable this impulse, I found that I had to first fool around with what’s “normal” before I could effectively trouble my metrics. So, when I drafted “Aria,” my first crown, I set the following limits: Irregular feet should not outnumber regular feet in a line. No more than two substitutions per line. [These limits did not hold in the final revision, but these guidelines were crucial to the poem’s genesis.]

My hope was that the first sonnet would foreground the crown’s tensions and establish its sonic texture. The desire to silence or disassociate from a high pitch or a curved body is a concern the speaker wrestles with throughout section 1. Later, the speaker reveals a chest that is bound. I wanted to create in the pitch, timbre, and quantity of sound specific moments where the music, too, is cut off or disrupted. Ultimately, these subtle variations and returns build to a visible psychic crisis and narrative shift in lines 8-11. The stanza break bifurcates the sonnet form, creating a visible chasm. The body is bound. Or is it? Sound is bound. Or is it?

The last line of the first sonnet offers a final turn when the “off-pitch soprano steals through” the flattened “frame.” What does it mean to be “off”— to be unsatisfactory? to be strange? to be separate from? I’m not sure. Are the voices in this poem “off-pitch”? Do they satisfy or dissatisfy the ear? And if so, whose ears? Your ears? According to which standard of musical measure? I do know that there is in line 14 an imbalance of vowel pitches; three high frequency “i” and “e” sounds in “this,” “pitch,” and “steal” clash against the low frequency “o” sounds in “soprano”. On the other hand, the line is not necessarily metrically irregular. So, even if the writer/speaker/body lacks control of one aspect of the sonnet’s music, another aspect of the music is regulated. The one metrical irregularity in line 14 is that the line is truncated to nine syllables. The intent here was to give “steals through” extra-emphasis, space to stretch. And the phrase does stretch—the long-voweled diphthongs in “steals” and “through” take forever to say.

I’ll stop here. There’s much more that I am happy to talk about with regard to the making and thinking behind this poem. Also, in order to give credit where credit is due here are a few liner notes.

Notes for “Aria” (see hyperlinks on right):

In section 2, the italicized lyrics are from “Kimberly,” written and performed by Patti Smith. Section 3 alludes to Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato to sing in the Sistine Chapel Choir and the only castrato to make a recording of his voice. Section 4 invokes jazz flautist Eric Dolphy; bird songs often inspired his compositions. Section 5 makes reference to a BBC recording of nightingales in 1942 in England. Intending only to broadcast the birds in song, engineers in Surrey incidentally recorded the nightingales alongside the drone of bombers flying overhead en route to Manheim. In section 6, the italicized lines are from the Le Tigre song “Fake French.” In section 7, “Danse Russe” is the title of a poem by William Carlos Williams. The italicized lines are lyrics from “[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman,” first released by Aretha Franklin and co-written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and “She-Bop,” written and performed by Cyndi Lauper.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jeff Crandall, Garth Greenwell, Peter Pereira, and Brian Teare on “Gay Poetry, Politics, Poetics”

The Summer 2011 issue of the BPJ features a symposium on “Gay Poetry, Politics, Poetics.” The four poets who took part in the symposium and the editors all felt that what the journal was able to fit within the eight pages at the "back of the book” opens up an important conversation, one that needed to continue in a more capacious venue—and with voices beyond the original discussants’. And so, for the month of June, we have migrated the conversation to the Poet’s Forum, hoping you and others will join in.

You will find a brief excerpt from the opening of the print symposium below, and a link to the text of the entire symposium both in the blog post title above and under BPJ Links to your right.

JC: Clearly a gay sensibility exists in poetry. There are nuances, references, and shared experiences which can be expressed in poetry that straight people will never glean, but that a gay man or woman would recognize instantly. The hetero world is so very man/woman oriented that everything it looks upon is seen through that filter. When a gay male poet writes, “We met in the park / at dusk” it means something very different than if a straight man or woman wrote it. . . . But the intense, raw pain of Paul Monette’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, to cite just one example, is simply human. There is nothing gay about the experience of losing someone you utterly love. Why is a line being drawn across human experience because that love is man/man vs. man/other?

BT: Jeff, I think you go right to the heart of the matter with ardent clarity, the matter being the question of gay poetry: What is it? Does it exist? If it does, how so? If it doesn’t, then why do people act as though it does? At the heart of your response, I see you potentially arguing for a universal humanism that both trumps historical context and posits an implicit scale of value: “human” > “gay.” If I choose to play devil’s advocate in response to your question, please know that I don’t intend to single you out. I think you’re articulating a powerful question about art’s relationship to political experience—a question I almost daily ask of myself and my work as a poet and critic. But I wouldn’t myself say that there is “nothing gay about the experience of losing someone you utterly love” to AIDS, in the U.S., in the ’80s.

Reading Monette for me now is not just to revisit my own memories of losing my partner to AIDS-related complexes in 1999—which was, to be historical about it, a very different death than it would have been had he died in the ’80s. For me to read Monette in 2011 is also to be immersed in recent history that is finally just far enough away to be history: a specific era whose politics, activist actions, and emotional atmosphere were dictated and circumscribed by the very particular cultural and economic leadership of the U.S. government, moralizing and panic-driven public attitudes toward gay male sexual¬ity, limited medical knowledge of AIDS itself, and a paucity of ways of treating it. So while I totally understand what you mean about the universality of the loss of the beloved, the cultural and historical context at work in Monette’s autobiographical poems not only leads me to read them as representative of gay experience of a certain time—it insists that I do. I think that this is Monette’s particular form of literary activism: he refuses altogether the binary between “human” and “gay,” but not by erasing the particulars of gay experience or the specifics of gay history. He insists that though there is no difference between “human” and “gay,” the record nonetheless must stand.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Christopher Munde on “Entomology of Exhaustion” and “What Was Gentle Has Turned Careful”

“Entomology of Exhaustion” and “What Was Gentle Has Turned Careful” are my attempts to articulate a father's transformation from victim of circumstance and unfocused aggression to aggressor against order and focused love.

“Entomology . . .”'s narrative premise, which is laid out in the first stanza, was drawn from my own father's experience of having to excavate through the residuum of the World Trade Center to get to his job across the street. In a very physical sense the return path from horror to the boredom of his job was obstructed by the desks and walls and bodies of thousands of his peers. In the poem, this unexpected work sets in motion a psychological change, wherein the father attempts to block out the white-noise political “sense” of the attack by aligning it with his feelings of drowning amid a family and its needs.

I wanted to bear out this progression in the form, with thought's lolling lines repeatedly enjambed to mimic both the systematic repetition of the work and the character's precarious logical leaps. Lines edge forward and draw back in light of the terrible implications leaching into his consciousness, yet the work he is aware of performing (both physical and mental) only distracts him while his values are slowly deformed. The insect similes thread the scene thematically and serve as biological precedents for the gestating ideas.

This biological theme is echoed and further solidified by the body farm scene in “What Was Gentle Has Turned Careful.” The term “body farm,” in my somewhat simplified understanding of the process, refers to land where donated bodies are cast as stand-ins for suspected crime victims by forensic scientists, who track their decomposition with the hope it will reveal clues to a crime. The elements, faceless aggressors, weather the bodies while a detached scientist merely records the decomposition process and its lifelike attributes. By interweaving the parallel narratives of the father acting out his version of a forensic pathologist (clearly a dream) and performing a lonely familial duty (possibly real), I tried to make clear the clinical perspective overtaking all aspects of his life. As the similarities between the threads pile up, distinctions become vaguer, until the father is left as an observer, seated in an auditorium at a work site that is unambiguously real.

Initially, I struggled with the presence of the two narratives in “What Was Gentle . . . ,” and briefly, with my own impulse toward using narrative at all. There followed a shorter version in which the home life thread was excised and the forensic narrative was cyclical and evasive, yet I ultimately chose to go back to the original form, since I feel the details of both scenes are what compel the reader to temporarily share the father's mindset. While the father is only “someone's” in “Entomology . . . ,” here he gains a particular family and enacts the process of willful disassociation. Only after the two threads culminate in the father’s analyzing all bodies as art on a stage did I want the rift between my character and the reader to open.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Daneen Wardrop on "Mozart's Starling" and "Counterpoint"

One of my guilty pleasures is reading books about animals. It’s a joy, for instance, to read that dogs and humans may well have joined up in prehistory, during the time of gargantuan predatory mammals, to forge an alliance that increased each species’ chances for survival:dogs were fed on a regular basis by humans and humans were protected and shown useful hunting grounds by dogs. Either group might have perished without the other. All in all, humans may not have had much going for them otherwise.

“Mozart’s Starling” and “Counterpoint” tap into species collaboration of sorts, though I wasn’t really conscious of that until I started writing this rumination. It doesn’t seem so farfetched to me that humans and animals try to communicate with each other. I talked to a trainer once at Shedd’s Aquarium in Chicago who told me that dolphins understand sentences. They put together subject, verb, object; in fact, most of the dolphins at Shedd’s know hundreds of sentences. And this was just in the case of dolphins learning human syntax—imagine what might happen if humans tried to learn dolphin. It seems to me one of the purviews of the arts to allow us to imagine what it would feel like to be another consciousness. Hence the persona poem—or in this particular case, the animal-being poem.

Before I started writing “Mozart’s Starling” I looked up the sounds a starling makes (there are many instances online) and found myself astonished at the vocal range, including clicks, chirrs, conspiring whispers, melismas, dive-bomb musical scales, voices with uncannily precise accents, and incredibly manic delivery. At some point it didn't feel presumptuous to imagine myself speaking starling. To capture all these facets of voice on the page I felt I needed to do what writers are usually cautioned not to do—use excessive capitalization, exclamation points, even superscript. I wanted to convey the bird's preternatural liveliness.

It only makes sense that in their day-to-day lives, composer and pet would have heard each other’s riffs resounding in their heads. It seems altogether plausible that Mozart’s starling would have reproduced some of the sound effects of his keeper. But when you hear the virtuosity of the starling it also seems altogether possible that Mozart might have cribbed some of his musical phrases from the bird, which is what I want the poem to suggest. Clearly Mozart himself believed that he and his companion communicated. (He cared enough about the bird that, upon its decease, he organized a funeral, during the same week as the death of his father.)

The layerings of voice here are important to me. The German comes mostly from remembered vocabulary after a time of living in Bonn when I was in junior high—hence my degraded preteen diction including Scheiss, etc., which made it easier for me to enter Mozart’s infamous love of scatological talk. The poem mediates formal and informal German, folk music, classical music, and bird music—all languages speaking in concert with each other. I guess the crux of the poem might lie in these polyphonic strands, and in the understanding that the process of creative inspiration has trouble distinguishing origins, that a composition echoes and reechoes in involvement with others. A work of art builds itself in the context of relationship, depending upon the point and counterpoint inherent in interaction.

Which brings me to “Counterpoint,” another poem of creative collaboration. Temple Grandin makes the beautiful suggestion that our ability to make and hear music may well arise out of another relationship in prehistory when humans tried to mimic birds in their wondrous capacity as song makers. We may have creatures besides ourselves to thank for one of the most poignant parts of being human: the ability to sing.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Anna George Meek on "Self-Possession"

A lifetime ago, along the rocky, desert cliffs on the west bank of the Jordan River, a shepherd boy fell into a deep hole. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he found himself in a cave, surrounded by ancient clay pots; groping inside, the boy pulled out a crumbling roll of parchment, the first of 900 pieces to be discovered in the caves. Although he did not know it then, he held in his hands the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I’ve always loved this bit of history: the accident, the important texts buried deeply with us for thousands of years. The words that tell stories about who we’ve been in the past, and inform who we might be now.

“Self-Possession” opens with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is the last poem in a sequence of five poems called “The Genome Rhapsodies,” which returns often to the scrolls. I began the sequence in 2000, when my imagination was captured by another discovery: the news that scientists had nearly finished deciphering the entire human genome, a microscopic blueprint of the human creature, which we all carry within our cells. Newly discovered text!—or rather, old text.

Here was the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls again. How do we read and write ourselves? And what of that—the reading, the writing, ourselves—do we own?

Ownership has a lot at stake. As scientists argue about who owns the information in the human genome, Jordan and Israel continue to tussle over ownership of the scrolls, and the land itself remains a site of bloody contest. Even the idea that we own ourselves seems muddy. When I wrote “Self-Possession,” I had just given birth to my first child—my body, not my body—and my father was diagnosed with a dementia, most likely genetic, which killed him four years later. I myself have a painful neurological disease that my daughter may inherit. I’m darkly aware of the genome that my father, my daughter, and I share. At the same time, I belong to my father, my daughter belongs to me, and both of us, to her.

My belief is that, like the body, identity is hardly singular; it exists as a manifold of overlapping, conflicting, and unclearly bounded parts. Thus it matters directly how we treat one another, how we write ourselves, and how we read (or misread) one another. The monolithic, autobiographical “I” that much American poetry is fond of (and insistent upon) seems inadequate to the task of speaking such an identity. The formal aspects of “Self-Possession” are in part my attempt to expand an “I” so that it can, in Whitman’s words, “contain multitudes” (though I hardly mean to compare my writing to Whitman’s!).

I’ve tried “we,” of course, a pronoun that makes its way into “Self-Possession.” And some of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop among them, use a “we” I’ve fallen head over heels in love with. But the danger of “we” is appropriation, an assumption that the poet speaks for others. I struggle with this. The pronouns tussle a bit in “Self-Possession” for this reason.

Nevertheless, “Self-Possession” was the most effortless section of “The Genome Rhapsodies” to write. The lines kept twisting and spinning out. Like DNA strands, each line in the poem has its generation in the lines before it. My imagination functions like this too, highly caffeinated, whirling forward through a synthesis of material already richly in mind. At times, the poem felt out of control, and the best lines were ones I stumbled upon, like—dare I say it?—like old scrolls.

And you? What poems best enact your sense of what identity or self-possession is? What pronouns do these poems use? Can American poetry open up “I”? Can American poetry reclaim “we”?