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.