Saturday, December 1, 2012

Chana Bloch, Between Parent and Child: The Uses of the Past

"Aperture" is a tale of two journals: one about the death of my father, the other about the death of my first marriage.

What do my adult children know about my life? What do they need to know? Trying to think my way to an answer raised other questions, equally unsettling: How much do I know about my parents' lives? What do I wish I knew, now that it's too late to ask?

My father rarely talked about the past. He came to this country as a teenager from a tiny shtetl in the Ukraine after a pogrom in which his father was killed. All his energies went toward becoming an American, which to him—I can see that now—meant not looking back. 

When he was dying, he didn't want to talk about the present or the future—the cancer that was rapidly spreading from his lungs to the rest of his body. The past was safer. So I began asking questions about what his life was like in the Old Country. It gave the two of us something to do: I was gathering information, "interviewing" him; he was taking part in an oral history project. I scribbled notes and made a clean copy in my notebook at night. Whatever I didn't manage to save would be lost.

Q. What did parents and children talk about in your family?             

A. Talk? There was no talk between generations. Children were given orders.
Q. What did you eat?
A. Soup, bread, potatoes. I went to sleep every night on an empty stomach.
Q. What do you remember about the pogrom?
A. Actually, there were three pogroms that I remember. In the last one, my brother Harry pulled off the burning thatch to save the house. Harry and I took our father's body out to the cemetery, dug a hole in the ground, and buried him. Then we left for America.  

"The words of the dying are subject / to the law of scarcity," I wrote in a recent poem. "Like fossil fuels they cannot be replaced." During my father's last days in the hospital, I was recording even his hallucinations: "Mama, Mama! There are men outside, and they want to kill us!" What I salvaged, all told, were bits and pieces of his story. If he had had more time, if he had been more open, if I had known how to ask, perhaps I might have learned something about his inner life, too. Which I've so often thought about. Which might have guided me when I faced difficult choices. Of which I know next to nothing.

                                          *               *               *

My own inner life is the subject of the later journal, written during the years when my husband, the father of my children, became clinically depressed and then, increasingly, mentally ill. I wrote about his breakdowns during our marriage—the first triggered by his mother's death, the second by my surgery for ovarian cancer, the third by the possibility of his early retirement from the University. Three pogroms.

The death of a beloved parent, painful though it is, belongs to the natural course of events; the mental illness of a beloved spouse is unexpected, surreal. Trying to preserve a semblance of normal family life, I revealed very little to the children ("Daddy's sad. Soon he'll be happy again"), and I hesitated to confide even in close friends. Only by reading the words I set down each day could I recognize what was happening.

The pages of the journal are filled with self-instruction ("Things are not going to be easy; I'd better get used to that right away") and self-castigation ("I ought to be happy; there's been some improvement"). More often than not, they reflect my confusion. It's not pretty, the mind in turmoil, grappling with difficulty, repeating itself, contradicting itself. I was by no means the all-powerful creature that my young children imagined. For sustenance, I turned to Adrienne Rich's work ("the wreck and not the story of the wreck"), teaching it in my classes, testing its truth in my life. Rich writes in "When We Dead Awaken": "you begin to write in your diaries / more honestly than ever." Yes, indeed.

The journal I kept, each year more honestly, was intended for my eyes alone, though I will probably not destroy it. My sons may choose not to read it, but I've decided—in the poem at least—to let that decision be theirs. We cannot have too much information about the past, I think: we need "the whole truth." But then I think: No, what we need, rather, is that which is both true and useful. Is it really necessary for my sons to see their father's scrawled suicide note, which I copied out in a state of shock, which even now I find excruciating to read? I told them about that suicide attempt only when they were older, after their father had survived another attempt. How much of the truth is useful?

We talk about the uses of the past as if we could in fact learn from "the lessons of history." And what about the uses of poetry? Now, there's a question I like; I know what poetry has meant in my life. I am drawn to poems that appear to be clear on the surface, with unexpected depths. I value clarity, an old-fashioned virtue, as well as complexity. What I look for is insight, deeper understanding, sustenance.

Some of my poems are based on material in my journals—in this instance, poems about my father's death and a book of poems, Mrs. Dumpty, about the price exacted from our marriage and family by my first husband's mental illness. But poems are very different from journal entries. In a poem the raw material is subjected to a rigorous process of selection and given form and resonance through metaphor, phrasing and precision of language. A poem can be faithful to the truth of what happened without being tied to literal fact. In Mrs. Dumpty, for example, I recast three breakdowns as one for the sake of the book's dramatic arc.  

A poem, finally, calls for an audience other than the self; it wants to be read and reckoned with. "Aperture" is addressed to my sons, but I hope it will find other readers as well, readers who will be provoked to ask themselves:"What do my children know about my life? What do they need to know? How much do I know about my parents' lives? What do I wish I knew, now that it may be too late to ask?"  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Writing White

In the Books in Brief review in the Fall 2012 issue of the BPJ,Writing White,” I drew readers’ attention to four recently published books that, from distinctly different vantage points, confront whiteness as lived experience and cultural/political construct: Martha Collins’ White Papers, Jake Adam York’s A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown, and Kevin Coval’s L-vis Lives!: Racemusic Poems. Because the intent of the review was to further an ongoing conversation about this issue among poets and readers of poetry, I invited the authors to do just that by moderating November’s Poet’s Forum. Martha Collins and Jake Adam York were kind enough to oblige. Now we’d like to open that conversation to you; please do weigh in.
                                                                                                              —Lee Sharkey

Martha Collins

When I began to explore my very white Iowa childhood in the poems that became White Papers, the first phrase that came to mind was “the colored section of town”—a place we white kids never even thought about going. Years later, Kevin  Coval entered the Black world of Chicago through music (“there was not a neighborhood to avoid”), and one day took the bus that actually crossed “to the other side of the city.” Reading his subsequent reflections on the emotional complexity of that crossing  through his composite character, “who uses and misuses Black cultural production . . . who blurs the line and crosses it carelessly,” I’m reminded how mistaken I was, back then, in assuming that I’d never crossed that line myself: the adored Elvis of my growing up years was an “original,” we thought, but what did we know? Blind to others, we were also blind to ourselves: invisible, white, blank, persons of no apparent race. I’ve tried to confront some of the cultural blanks in White Papers; I’m grateful to Kevin for helping me fill in others.

My first important crossing into racial territory was historical, when I discovered and explored a lynching my father witnessed in southern Illinois in Blue Front, and I’ve continued to try to fill in historical as well as cultural blanks in White Papers. But Jake Adam York has made repeated crossings into that territory, delving ever more deeply into the racial history that buttresses our assumptions of white privilege. Many of the “facts” he presents about civil rights martyrs are familiar (though some are not); but the implicating ways he inserts himself into his poems—using the future tense to describe the past, or positing a shadowy photographer or reporter (or “no one”) as witness, or creating a recurrent chorus of starlings in the 2008 book—are lessons to all of us in how far we have to go. I’m particularly moved by Jake’s actual revisiting of the places of martyrdom in the 2010 book, allowing him to momentarily “mistake myself / for the redneck at the end of a joke,” for example, and presenting his interactions with those places as “self-portraits.”
All three of us, I think, are attempting to write ourselves into racial history  through complex self-portraits that look beneath the surface of our often invisible assumptions about whiteness. Whether we’ve been drawn into Black culture, or lived in a region where race and racial history are inescapable, or grown up in a largely white environment, we are all part of the same troubled landscape. I hope this blog will allow others to join this exploration of our different but interwoven racial histories, since, as Jake says, “even memory can forget itself / and be written into another history / while everyone is looking at something else.”

Jake Adam York

Each of us—Martha, Kevin, and I—is trying to map the color line from the white side of the tracks, from inside whiteness, or from the edge of whiteness. We each want, I think, to disturb that line, to pluck it like a guitar string, and to disturb whiteness’s invisible ubiquity, its power or its phantom of power, by showing how it’s constructed, how it’s spoken, coded, and maintained.

In Persons Unknown, I have touched the color line by teasing the line between life and death in the nekuia, the attempt to speak to the dead. In many of these nekuia—“Homochitto,” “The Hands of Persons Unknown”—the dead don’t appear. The seeker doesn’t have the power or the place to call them back, so the speaker becomes the living and the dead: he haunts himself. These memorial poems—which are part of a long sequence I call Inscriptions for Air that was begun in Murder Ballads and has continued in A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown—meditate on the language of white power, of murder, of erasure and disappearance and are cousin to Martha’s White Papers inasmuch as the medium of the memorial is language. We work to say what could not be said, to make the silence speak.
Because my father said Yes
but not in our lifetimes
my mother said I know my daughter
would never want to marry…

Somewhere there is a name for this.
Someone could write it down.

I imagine Kevin Coval and I cannot be too many years apart. I spent my first lawn-mowing money to buy a 12" single of Afrikaa Bambataa’s Planet Rock (with the Bonus Beats, of course) sometime in 1984 and shortly after found myself the one white kid in the mall-fountain rap battles as the first wave of hip-hop hit Alabama. Some of the poems in my next book deal with this era, but I think Coval’s personae poems—whether about L-vis or Rick Rubin or even himself or some mashup of other personalities or impersonations—and the Self-Portrait poems in Persons are also brothers. A whiteboy or a white man stands at the line, looking at whiteness from within whiteness, or from the threshold of whiteness, and he haunts himself—whiteboy’s whiteness witnessing itself through the whiteboy who can hear and imagine what the whiteboy and the whiteness must look like from the other side of the line.

In “L-vis explains the white do-rag,” our hero describes the garment:
for a traife g-d. dunce cap
cool. lunch counter soda
jerk segregationist. pointless
beanie of a klansman. a 99¢
style rocker. a crown of burden
i can always leave behind.
This explains why one walks to the line, to leave the burden, but whiteness’s burden is not so easily slipped.
We’ll rise, the glass between us,
        one in the dusk, one inside,

close enough to feel the café’s warmth
        radiating into the town

and the cool March evening
        reaching into the room.

We’ll walk toward the door
        and become one

and slide off the glass,
        leaving only the window

with its inscription
        of moonlight and clouds

tomorrow will rub
        almost entirely away.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Philip Metres on "An Index"

For the past few years, I’ve been teaching Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s “The Diameter ofthe Bomb” because of the way it dramatizes how a single act of violence carries ripple effects that wreak havoc with whole societies. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been a daily havoc, sometimes mutely persisting, sometimes exploding. Wounds begetting wounds. Yet amid such violence, figures of witness, dialogue and peacebuilding have emerged from within these besieged communities. 

In the mid-2000s, after reading and extensively researching the history, politics and literature of Israel and Palestine, and spurred by a visit to Palestine and Israel for my sister’s wedding, I began to compose a series of poems that attempted to bring the voices of war and peacemaking in the contested land into a work that sheds light on the violence—its origins and ends—and how the communities that have suffered might emerge from it.

I began by investigating representations of violence, terror, and oppression in the Israeli/Palestinian context. I saw my poetry as “investigative,” following and highlighting the paper trails left in classified and unclassified documents and speeches, tuning its ear to the voices in YouTube videos that depict both despair and great courage. 

The project, “Along the Shrapnel Edge of Maps,” still very much a work-in-progress, has required me to confront the bedeviling politics of representation. The very frame I began with—exploring the ripples of a fictional suicide bombing (à la Amichai’s poem)—was tactical, as that story has dominated U.S. narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It was also personal. I had hoped, by confronting the most terrifying aspect of Palestinian resistance, to be able to face the abyss of hopelessness and the logic of revenge at the heart of the conflict. Some of the poems have forced me to look into that heart of darkness, as I explored videos of “martyrs,” at once chilling and absurd in their dispassionate anger.

But I’ve been unhappy with that frame. It is such a cliché of the official narrative, which emphasizes Palestinian violence (whether resulting from hateful anti-Semitism or from political resistance) as the starting point of the conflict. Much of my reading while writing this poem has explored the history of 1948; Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s polemical account of what occurred in 1948, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, argues that ethnic cleansing of Palestinians began prior to the founding of the state of Israel and the onset of the Arab-Israeli war of May 1948; Israeli novelist S. Yizhar’s autobiographical novel, Khirbet Khizeh (1949), tells the story of one such cleansing operation from the point of view of a Jewish soldier. These are but two examples of dissident Israeli accounts to the official narrative of a tiny Jewish nation beset by bloodthirsty Arabs. The actual history, as usual, is much more complicated and thus easily displaced by the false clarity of myth. 

I don’t pretend that I don’t have strong political views about the conflict and the fundamental power asymmetry between Israel and Palestine, and about the dangers of peacebuilding when issues of justice and law are still very much unresolved. Still, what appears ever more clear to me is that the conflict itself has had for some time a theatrical quality. It’s the theater of traumatic repetition, in which each new generation appears unable to decline the roles that have been already written for it. Even those suicide bomber videos have the surreal quality of being a genre, in which the future bomber acts the role of monstrous avenger.

For “An Index,” I employed the 14-line quasi-sonnet structure to create a frisson between the poem’s sonically taut form and the technical language of indexes, in this case for the methods and materials of suicide bombings. (There’s a growing tradition of indexical poems—they seem to pop up with increasing frequency in our age of conceptualism—but this may be the first sonnet index.)  I struggled mightily with the ending, perhaps partly because indexes don’t really end except with the end of the alphabet. BPJ editor Lee Sharkey and I passed revisions back and forth more than a few times.

A few notes on “An Index,” then. Some historians suggest that the first recorded suicide attack was by Samson, in the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah—hence the reference in the poem. Shrapnel was invented by an ingenious Brit named Henry Shrapnel; I’d like to believe that the Inferno is capacious enough to add a special circle for those who invent weapons specifically designed to maim. “C4” is plastic explosive. “Viz.” is short for the Latin videlicet, which means “that is to say,” but I’m intrigued by its chopped half-echo of “vizier,” from “wazir” (Arabic for porter) and “wazara,” one who bears a burden. “Mother of Satan” is the slang term for acetone peroxide, which apparently packs quite a bang. Beyond what I’ve already said I don’t want to produce a reading of the poem, for all the reasons that poets usually offer. It’s yours now, not mine.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Jaydn DeWald on "Nocturne (or, Landscape with Father)"

Nocturne (or, Landscape with Father)” is an elegy written in the first-person plural, a point of view largely reserved, at least in the case of elegies, for public figures. Still, I had a hunch that the use of the “we” to speak for the grieving siblings might allow the poem to travel more freely through time and place: “we” can be in Oregon in the present, near an anonymous wooden bridge in the past, in Poros, Greece, in the future, and so on, all in the same moment. (“There’s no way to just live in the present,” as Robert Pinsky said.) “We,” in other words, can be multitudinous, contrapuntal, even prismatic. In short, I was attempting to capture the lives of the speakers, in connection with the father, on multiple, simultaneous planes.

“The mirrors would do well to reflect further” (Jean Cocteau, from Orphée).

The death of the father is itself a time-shattering, rug-swept-out-from-under-you experience. When I wrote, “we can no longer even believe in time,” I felt I had to shoot for the illusion of simultaneity—although I could’ve taken, in retrospect, a different route—so as not to deny perceived reality (“Our father is dying— / Nothing stopping it”) or the speakers’ emotional stake in it. I too am drawn, like Kazim Ali, “toward plural thought and multiplicity.” In the end, I hope this experiment with time and place strengthens, rather than dilutes, the poem’s sense of loss.

But point of view alone, of course, cannot create the illusion of simultaneity. Like many cubist paintings—consider Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar, for instance—the poem had to fuse various images, various points in time, into a single image. In my view, this occurs all too rarely in poetry, but it occurs nonetheless, and then often with startling, awkwardly charming results:

We are afloat
On our dreams as on a barge made of ice,
Shot through with questions and fissures of starlight
That keep us awake, thinking about the dreams
As they are happening.
                        —John Ashbery, from “The Erotic Double”

A man thinks lilacs against white houses, having seen them in the farm country south of Tacoma in April, and can’t find his way to a sentence, a brushstroke carrying the energy of brush and stroke . . .
—Robert Hass, from “Spring Drawing”

I still have this pain that falls through the entire night sky
in my shoulder, where, when the thunder has stopped,
your head has lain on my arm for twenty-five years.
            —Marvin Bell, from “Song for a Little Bit of Breath”

This is just to say that “Nocturne (or, Landscape with Father)” doesn’t experiment with anything new; it merely attempts to densify and sustain the illusion of simultaneity—of the father, in this case, continuing to live in the face of imminent death. I should also admit that the elegy is in private contention with Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”—I have a fond memory of my own father reciting this poem to me (I could have been five years old) as we drove through some little desolate downtown—particularly Auden’s ominous, mood-shifting lines, “But all the clocks in the city / Began to whirr and chime: / ‘O let not time deceive you / You cannot conquer time.’” Indeed, one might say that this elegy attempts, and in the end fails (“our father: he is gone”), to conquer time and to exist in any tense.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hayden Saunier on "Wooden Bowl of Spangled Fruit"

Wooden Bowl of Spangled Fruit” came about through the intersection of a writing exercise, an acting exercise, a snow day, and dusting. The snow day offered up an unexpected morning to write, as well as the quiet erasure of the outside world that would become the background of the poem. I was also happily under the influence of Mark Doty’s wonderful book about objects and looking, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, and so decided to really look at a still life in my own world to see what drew me in and what looked back.

Years ago, I had been given a collection of beaded, bejeweled fruit in a hand-hewn wooden bowl. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the two and how the primitive container gave gravitas to the gaudy, useless fruit. I plunked it down in front of me and looked. And looked. I remained outside, observing. I began to handle the pieces, then, being a multitasker, decided that as long as I wasn’t writing, I might as well dust and clean them up.

I am an actor— a term I use rather than actress in the same way I say poet, not poetess, but that’s another topic—and I often apply skills developed as an actor to writing. Many actors learn to practice what we call sense memory: how to recollect and recreate physical objects and sensations by focusing on texture, form, sound, smell, on any and all of the physical senses. This is precisely what I did as I held each apple, pear, plum. I stopped thinking about fruit and juxtaposition in favor of sharp, silver, fractured, gleam, and allowed the real conversation between observer and observed to begin. I found the first door into the poem through the cheap green plastic stem; it opened directly into childhood’s first world and my older brother’s army men. The poem was off—with its exploration of violence and savagery, real, imaginary, sublimated; surface beauty, shine, and shimmer; piercing, torture, and the gloriousness of bling with its sexiness and dazzle. I wrote about the bowl too, in its absolute plainness, but it didn’t make the final cut, and for that I have BPJ to thank. The spangled fruit had taken front and center stage.

I framed the poem with waiting, specifically with awaiting test results and the implication of bad news. The slightest bit of narrative gives me footing in a poem, another lesson I learned from theatre. So many thoughts, memories, and imaginings had trafficked between me and the objects before me that I felt time expand in the way it does when circumstances force us to face our mortality. While I was revising, two friends telephoned, each awaiting calls with potentially devastating news, so I allowed that to directly enter the poem. Still life is also called nature morte. A moment in time held, captured, even as time rushes past us while we look. Even as we glimpse how much each moment holds. Even as snow falling outside erases everything. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Benjamin S. Grossberg on "A Thought"

I’m most comfortable writing in a narrative mode, but when I started “A Thought,” I was clear that I didn’t want to describe the event that brought me to the page—or even to discuss how I was changed as a result of that event. I wanted only to meditate on the process of change, and the moment of recognizing it.

Why didn’t I want to tell this particular story? Probably because it injured my pride—or at least my vanity. But also because there wasn’t much to it, certainly not enough to build a poem around. And why didn’t I wish to talk explicitly about the change that the narrative occasioned in me, what I learned? Because it felt too personal, even self-indulgent. What material do we put into our poems, what material do we leave out—what limits do we place on ourselves? Just once in “A Thought,” do I glance at the event that gave rise to the poem: “A word, a look / from a man that wasn’t— / you realized a moment too late— / directed at you.” In some ways, these lines are the poem’s center, gesturing toward a quiet but productive embarrassment.

The work of Carl Phillips helped me through all this reticence. I didn’t sit down to write with Phillips’ poems in mind, but early in the composition process, I recalled “Native” from his collection Riding Westward, and it offered me a way forward. “Native” is a challenging text. I have read it dozens of times, and although I can speak with some confidence about the poem’s occasion and emotion, it contains more than one passage that remains opaque to me. And yet, despite this difficulty, “Native” is vibrant, moving sinuously from image to image. The music is beautiful, even if the meaning can be hard to pin down. As far as narrative goes, “Native” references its “story” only elliptically—giving a hint or two about a beloved and a troubled relationship. The poem modeled for me how a single motion, a continuous arc of mind, can carry a reader through a chain of images—and offer satisfaction, a full experience, even if the meaning isn’t fully clear. Also from Phillips I took the stance of “A Thought”: a speaker addressing himself in a knowing, intimate manner.

I suspect my poem is, finally, more accessible than “Native,” and I don’t think my similes range with the freedom and surprise that Phillips’ do. I also wonder if others, reading the two poems side-by-side, would feel as much kinship as I suggest here. But in any case, I feel indebted to Phillips for helping me say what I needed to, despite the barriers I had put up to my own utterance. As poets, we sometimes build mazes around ourselves—great hedge walls of inhibition or propriety, or of our own estimation of our skills. But occasionally we get lucky and another poet comes along to take us by the hand, lead us out. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Tanya Olson on the making of "flower of the mountain"

“flower of the mountain” originated in a visit to the exhibit Beyond the Headlines, by two photographers, Jeremy Lange and Derek Lee Anderson. I’ve long been a fan of Derek’s work from the Independent Weekly and was interested to see it hanging in large format. It was a beautiful exhibit highlighted by two stunning portraits, one of a teenage girl, the other of an older African American couple. I spent a long time with both and jotted down the names of the couple—Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher—and the fact that they lived in North Carolina and currently held the Guinness world record for being the longest married living couple. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the information right then, but I knew I wanted it. I had been writing poems about North Carolina residents and I love names, especially Southern names. Zelmyra was a keeper.

I kept thinking about that portrait all weekend, especially what it had been like for Derek to take it. Derek’s taken my picture before and he’s good at both talking to the subject before he starts shooting and giving directions during the shoot. I wondered what he and the Fishers talked about—what they thought about this young, hip white boy who showed up to take their picture, and whether they cared that they were now the longest living married couple. I loved the way Mrs. Fisher is smiling and isn’t looking directly at the camera; I loved that they got dressed up and the way she’s holding his hand. She’s thinking something but we’re not to know what it is.

Ulysses is my favorite novel and I often borrow bits and styles from Joyce for my work. I’ve written poems as letters between him and Lucia, his institutionalized daughter, and a poem that uses the ending of The Dead to tell how Lisa Marie Presley and I had to break our engagement when I wouldn’t convert to Scientology. In connection with Mrs. Fisher, I kept thinking about Penelope and Molly and what women do to stay in touch with love and other vulnerable feelings. What had it cost Mrs. Fisher to be in an 86-year marriage? Molly mulls over the gains and losses of love before sleep; I wanted Zelmyra to do the same.

Clearly, I stole the stream-of-consciousness, mumbly, associative brain roar of night from Joyce, as well as the lack of punctuation and the repetition of yes at the end. I also plucked the title—Bloom calls Molly his flower of the mountain. I don’t think any of the “facts” about the poem’s Zelmyra and her husband are true of the real Zelmyra and Herbert. I didn’t do any research on the Fishers. I did read about Seabreeze, a real town on the coast founded and run by blacks and the only N.C. beach resort open to blacks during segregation, and Chang and Eng Bunker (also  N.C. residents), who died in 1874. But I never get too boxed in by research; the world of the poem echoes the world in which I live though it isn’t bound by it. For instance, I’ve never been engaged to Lisa Marie.

I hope you enjoy listening to me reading the poem. Share what you think or your questions about the content, the process, or anything else. I’ll read and respond throughout the month.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Marilyn Nelson on "Called Up," "Your Own," and "Making History"

These three little unrhymed sonnets are part of a sequence of fifty sonnets about my childhood as the daughter of an African American officer in the U.S. Air Force during the 1950s. I’m a Baby Boomer, born in 1946; the sequence begins with my childish understanding of the reasons my dad, who had graduated from air cadet school at Tuskegee Institute toward the end of WWII, been discharged at the end of the war, and was enrolled in law school, was called back to military service during the Korean Conflict. These poems are embedded in the Red Scare and in the first rumblings of the ground-swell Civil Rights Movement. Yet they offer a young child’s limited understanding.

The project began as a desire to imitate a delightful little book I read several years ago, Love, Loss, and What I Wore , by Ilene Beckerman, in which a woman’s wardrobe serves as a time capsule of her life. That book has since been used as the basis for a wildly successful play written by Nora and Delia Ephron. But when I started writing my project, I was still in love with the relation between clothing and memory, and I spent some time researching the project by paging through bound volumes of popular magazines from the Fifties, taking notes about what was happening, and about the clothes worn in the ads.

Another source of these poems is a book by one of my friends, Inge Pedersen, a Danish poet and fiction writer. Inge’s most recent book, Til Amerika, is a collection of short fiction pieces about her girlhood during the years Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. At one point when we were together recently, either in her home or in mine, Inge told me that the stories in this collection work because they are in the voice of a young child; that each of the stories is built around a gap in the child’s understanding. She said they were a joy to write, and suggested I try to do something similar.

One aspect of the world my poems describe is the pervasiveness of the military hierarchy, which extends to the children. None of my childhood friends were the children of non-commissioned personnel. We were all children of officers. This meant that, since so few commissioned officers were African American, almost all of my playmates were white. My mother was a very race-proud woman; she was passionate about Negro history; she came from a very proud family of individuals who knew they were making history. She wanted us to know that pride. That’s in the background of the poem called “Your Own.” A little note about “Making History”: my mother was born and raised in one of the few all-Negro towns in the country, and she was quite proud of the fact that her sister, Miss Charlie Boyd Mitchell, was the first Negro telephone switchboard operator in the country.

This collection, called Blue Footsies, will be illustrated and marketed as a young adult book to be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2014.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Douglas Kearney on "Thank You But Don't Buy My Babies Clothes with Monkeys on Them"

MONKEYS! Tried and tried but the monkey got in. On a bib slung over the booster seat where it beep-beeps toward me in a car with a city in the background. The monkey leans out the window, waving, his tail curled like a question mark. Asking me what? Curious George matching cards are scattered, loose tiles on our ceramic floor. Match the monkey to the monkey. No, the monkey doesn’t match the little girl. No, the monkey doesn’t match the little boy.

But the monkey goes with kids, say the clothes and bibs, the high chairs and toys. This marketplace monkey is an adorable almost-person, a hairy little mirror, often brown. As Sianne Ngai says of the aesthetic category “cute”, it performs a harmlessness yet infantilizes itself and the onlooker. Cuh-yoot.

Monkeys go guerrilla though! Martial monkeys. Cuh-yoot? The lady with the pet chimp? Ate her face off! And Caesar? Filthy handed, dirty ape’ded. King Kong? A century of snatching up white women and ruining the city. They wreck everything those irate primates.

The marketplace and martial monkeys intersect to generate the negro as monkey image, the racist representation that rides shotgun in a poem driven by a father worried about his children, their bodies and their selfhoods. Drives a poem called “Thank You But    Don’t Buy My Babies Clothes with Monkeys on Them” from its sonnet like start; through its anxious hear-no/see-no/speak-no; its historically-traumatized perseverations; its overwhelmed terror; to its shell-shocked calm.

Why does it drive to these places? Because in order to enact the fear I have I have to try to present the complex ambivalent cultural (political) components that aid and abet the fear. Beyond presenting them, my desire to work through (as in both via proxy and vain hope to resolve) the staged predicaments requires different coping strategies, disguised here as a poetics. Or is that the other way ‘round? Bananas.

And just to show I ain’t paranoid, that I’m not imagining things, Mary Gustoff, CEO of Brasskey Keepsakes shows up poem-side to hie off “Lil Monkey,” a black doll sold at Costco until those irate protestors wrecked everything. A reverse Elizabeth Eckford moment? Also bananas.

The child(ren) in danger. A particular terror for the parent(s). The black child(ren) in danger? The terror is enhanced by racism’s ability to turn children into adults and adults into children into monkeys into gorillas. There is a moment coming when my toddler twins, cuh-yoot now, will become, to a spectator, monsters. Kongs. Their monstrosity may be argued on TV by GROWN UPS with considerable resources marshaled to confirm it. It has nothing to do with who my children are. Nothing. And NOTHING. It has everything to do with what that nice lady remarking on my daughter’s eyelashes (how they curl!) might feel some Tuesday in twelve years. What some guy with a gun decides about my son. Ask Trayvon’s parents, Emmet’s, Elizabeth’s, Latasha’s. Who cries over a dead monkey? Who listens to a living one? How do you write about your children (personal) when their innocence can be easily rendered immaterial (political) by the culture they live in?

To see the personal in its continuity with the political is to see the infrastructure of our social interaction, the social interactions that lead to the “private” lyrical moment. In other words, it’s to “see.” The introspective is in the mind, in the individual who is in the society. Run! Try! But the poem you write and post on that site, in that journal, in that book is a part of the exchange. The political.

This poem makes no effort to separate the political from the personal. Because hearing no/seeing no/speaking no evil (I know, bananas!) is no charm, no way toward transcending them, just a deafness, blindness, muteness. Why be senseless as the racism? Well, it could make it easier for my wife and me to buy sock monkeys at Costco. “Yoo-hoo-oo. I wanna be like. . . ."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Minnie Bruce Pratt on The Unfinished Work of Poetry

As part of my continuing self-education as a political poet who is learning and working on my art within currents of the U.S. Left, I’ve been reading Cary Nelson’s Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (Rutgers, 2003).

Nelson uncovers, shares, and comments on Left poets who wrote about the U.S. Depression and economic crisis in the 1920s and 30s, about the anti-fascist struggle in Spain in the 30s, about the right-wing attacks of McCarthyism in the U.S. in the 50s.

I’m hoping that the following anecdote from Nelson—and some thoughts on my own practice of poetry—could encourage readers of the Beloit Poetry Journal to share important insights from your own lives as writers and readers .

Here is an excerpt from an October 1937 letter by Fred Lutz, a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a U.S. fighting unit in the International Brigades that came to Spain to defend the elected government against Franco’s fascist military campaign:

Heard Langston Hughes last night; he spoke at one of our nearby units—the Autoparque, which means the place where our Brigade trucks and cars are kept and repaired. It was a most astonishing meeting; he read a number of his poems; explained what he had in mind when he wrote each particular poem and asked for criticism. I thought to myself before the thing started “Good God how will anything like poetry go off with these hard-boiled chauffeurs and mechanics, and what sort of criticism can they offer”? Well it astonished me as I said. The most remarkable speeches on the subject of poetry were made by the comrades. And some said that they had never liked poetry before and had scorned the people who read it and wrote it but they had been moved by Hughes’s reading. There was talk of “Love” and “Hate” and “Tears”; everyone was deeply affected and seemed to bare his heart at the meeting, and the most reticent . . . spoke of their innermost feelings. I suppose it was because the life of a soldier in wartime is so unnatural and emotionally starved that they were moved the way they were. (Nelson, 197)

Nelson says particularly of the poets who wrote to build support for the anti-fascist Spanish Republic that “they were not responding to the war; they were part of it.” (190)
[You can see Hughes’ translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Romancero Gitano in the fall 1951 issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal. Garcia Lorca, a Spanish poet sympathetic to the Popular Front, who was also gay, was murdered, presumably by fascist militia, in 1936.

Poetry as an active force

Under what circumstances, with which audiences, as a result of what conversations, with what languages, in relation to what political events—do we write a poetry that is not simply a response to liberation, but instead is an active force in the process of liberation?
I began to write seriously as a poet after I came out and began to live openly as a lesbian, in North Carolina in 1975. This was a time in that state when the right-wing was violently racist, often under the aegis of the state, a de facto continuation of the fascism of segregation.
In 1979, the Klan shot and killed five white and Black communists, who were demonstrating against racism, in broad daylight in Greensboro—and were acquitted in a jury trial. My Black students had direct experience of Klan assaults on their homes and families. A coalition of left, community, and women’s liberation groups organized successfully to free Joann Little, who had killed her white jailer in self-defense when he attempted to rape her.
As a white woman committed to anti-racist action, I struggled to create poems that would do that anti-racist work in the world—poems like “The Segregated Heart” in my first chapbook, The Sound of One Fork.
The right-wing—and the mainstream where I lived—was also virulently homophobic. This was the state where I lost custody of my children simply because I was a lesbian. Much of my work at that time was about my sexuality, and I read the poetry, sometimes alone, sometimes with other women, in women’s bookstores, coffee houses and cultural centers; at regional and national women’s studies conferences; at a conference on violence against women, at a lesbian writers’ conference, at an abortion clinic, at a rally against rape; at a MCC church and in an Odd Fellows Hall; in the homes of lesbians, and many, many other places.
I was making and reading my poetry in the middle of a historic fight for sex, gender and sexual liberation, where the outcome was a matter of life and death for many, if not all, of us. 
These readings were taking place during a time when it was still a felony crime to physically love another person of the “same sex”—and many of us lost our children, our jobs, our birth families, our friends, our homes, and sometimes our lives, because of the hatred and bigotry toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
The readings were often crowded, sometimes standing room only; they were attended by working-class women, mostly white women, who were factory workers, social workers, taxi drivers, stay-at-home mothers. These were movement events, organized by and for local lesbian and women’s liberation communities in Tennessee or Florida or Oregon or upstate New York.
Often at the end of a reading, women would come up to me and say they’d never been to a poetry reading before, but they’d enjoyed this one. And then sometimes they told me their stories. One poem I made from these conversations is “All the Women Caught in Flaring Light.” (Crime Against Nature, 1989)
Poetry as the “language of history”
Nelson says of the poetry of the revolutionary U.S. Left that “Poetry was the language of history and the story of ordinary lives” (243). During the 1970s and 80s I tried to craft a poetry that could wield the stories of ordinary lives as the language of history, as an active force in history.
Over the last ten years, I have worked on a different series of poems, which culminated in a book, Inside the Money Machine (Carolina Wren, 2011). The “machine,” of course, is 21st-century capitalism. My intention was to create poems that revealed that complex economic structure, its implications, and the possibility for resistance and change, and to do so through the stories and observed details of working-class lives.
I wrote the poems for  the “immense majority”—of which I am a part—by going out into my neighborhood and its streets and storefronts and 24/7 delis and beauty salons, and listening and noticing other working people. I wrote the poems about the economic realities of their lives—and my own life—being laid off, trying to find work, holding temporary jobs, living away from my home and my loved partner.
I wrote during an intensification of class war—the war waged by the owning class on working people. I wrote during the worst economic bust the U.S. has experienced since the 1930s—an economic catastrophe that has been world-wide. I started writing these poems at the same time I was reading the poetic prose of the Communist Manifesto for the first time. I said to myself: If the economists can write poetry, what would happen if a poet wrote economics?
This is one of the poems from Inside the Money Machine:
“The Street of Broken Dreams”

The dog lunged at me and choked on its chain,
guarding a house on the street of broken dreams.
What does it take to be safe? A sun-porch window
barred shut with a wood-spooled bed frame. Fradon
lock store down the block, a giant curlicue key
advertising sleep all night, sweet dreams. A bumble-
bee in the clover fumbling to find its damp-dirt home.

No way to tell who owns my neighborhood homes
until the for-sale-by-bank signs grow overnight,
and of course there’s the bank at James and Lodi
with the blue light, CHASE, that stays on 24/7.
On my street some people harrow a vacant lot,
green turned under into small rows, they harvest
weathered rocks and pile those up in the corner.
In another city, some foreclosed  people got so angry
the big finance company has to hide its sign, AIG.
The people were so angry. That makes me feel more
safe. The people come out of their houses to shout:

We demand. Not rabble or rabid, not shadow, not terror,
the neighbors stand and say: The world is ours, ours, ours.
Poetry and the current historical moment
I was writing to make a poetry that could take its place in the struggle that is always there. In 2011 the Occupy movement surged and called the “1%” to account—the 1% that claims as private property the productive mechanisms of the world.
Now the Occupies have been attacked, brutally, with teargas, mace, rubber bullets and truncheons, by the state. The movement has not yet been able to hold onto continuous public space as a place for mass organizing and discussion about how to struggle against and replace an economic system that is mounting endless imperialist wars and environmental catastrophes, that is killing us and the planet.
But, despite these attacks, the organizing initiated by the Occupies continues vigorously, in the U.S. and worldwide, and is linking up with other movements that were already in motion.
While the uninterrupted Occupy space was open, we know that poetry as “the language of history” was at the heart of the struggle—the witty and pithy slogans on hand-held signs, the poetry shouted at police as they moved in, seized, and trashed the 5000 books in the OWS Library.
Even now, the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library continues the fighting work of poetry with an ongoing, ever-expanding poetry anthology.
The OWS Library, together with Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, the May 1st Coalition for Immigrant Rights and many other groups, are sponsoring a LibroTraficante solidarity action to resist the racist Arizona ban on Latin@ and Chican@ culture in the state public schools. Banned books include Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and left feminist Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez’s 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures.
The LibroTraficante caravan will carry copies of the banned books from Texas across the Arizona border to set up Underground Libraries.

Poetry and the unfinished work of liberation
Now, in this month’s forum, the Beloit Poetry Journal gives us the space and the chance to have a conversation about the actions of poetry in our lives.
I’m hoping that you as readers and poets will share some of your experiences:
Would you write to share with readers of BPJ about times when you felt poetry—yours or that of others—was be an active force in the process of liberation?
Is there a moment when you’ve experienced poetry connecting you and others to the progressive struggles closest to your heart?
What are the gatherings, translations, caravans, anthologies, political actions, web sites that you want to make known to other poets—places where poetry is in motion toward a better world?
Would you describe the places where you have held and handed poetry on to others—as a tool, a weapon, a force, in the struggle against oppression and for justice?
Would you write to us about when poetry has not just spoken, but acted, in the unfinished work of a moment in your history?
I look forward hopefully to our conversation.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Brittany Cavallaro on "The Girl in Question"

I wrote “The Girl in Question” in early summer, a time of year that’s historically been creatively fallow for me. June 2011 was especially so; I was busily packing to leave town, and I can’t even really tell you what poetry I was reading at the time. The job I was running off to was at an academic camp for high schoolers, one I’d attended myself as a teenager. I’d be living and working with creative writing students. At that age, in my writing, I’d been particularly interested in magic and how it was performed—spells in Latin, or faux-Latin;  animal familiars; circles and quarter-candles, one for each cardinal direction; talismans made from newts’ eyes and crow feathers. In the books I read, there was obvious metaphor in the magicians’ attempts to control their surroundings and relationships through spell-casting, especially when the magicians were young girls—my favorite to read and write about at that time. My reading interests are broader now, but as I packed, I felt as if I was about to inhabit an old, familiar version of myself. Before I left, I reread some of my favorite books from my teenage years. This poem came from that reading.

 “The Girl in Question” was intended to be the final poem in a longer series that weaves through a manuscript I am working on. The poems constitute a myth whose central figure is a girl at once bandit and monarch, delicate and truculent, victim and aggressor. Through the indirect lens of her character, I wanted to explore some of the binaries of adolescence, particularly female adolescence. In this poem, I gave my character a doppelganger, a not atypical move in fantasy, particularly when the protagonist is a teenager. At that age, you try on personalities the way Marie Antoinette tried on ball gowns; you can feel that you’re many people simultaneously and that none of them have anything in common, not even a name. That there’s no point when the gaps between your “yous” will be stitched back together. The theme of mending, buttoning, and fastening appears throughout “The Girl in Question,” and its impetus is very much in the idea of pulling together into a single self.

Of course, none of this is remotely new territory. The poem owes as much of a debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does to Lucie Brock-Broido’s A Hunger and Alison Stine’s Ohio Violence, and it owes more than that to my students from last summer. As it turned out (Harry Potter notwithstanding), they were considerably more grounded in the trappings of this world than I was at that age, though they were still awash in the same stew of becoming and all its attendant mysteries—magical or non-magical. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Pattabi Seshadri on "Desert Grass"

What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me . . . . I stand indifferent,
My gait is no faultfinder's or rejecter's gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

The context of “Desert Grass” is the Iraq war and specifically Abu Ghraib. The speaker is a godlike figure, perhaps the God of Abraham, perhaps someone else. The quotations are fragments of speech overheard by this figure from various players in the drama of the war—a tortured insurgent, the mother of a future jihadi, Lynndie England. They were sampled from or inspired by several texts, including the testimony of Abu Ghraib prisoner Ali Shalal to the Malaysian War Crimes Commission and newspaper articles. My process of composition can generally be described as rewritten collage. I combine samples from multiple texts, write over and between them, and repeat.

The poem's most conspicuous borrowing is from Walt Whitman. He can be found in several places, including the title. Why Whitman? I imagine that the godlike speaker might have been the source of Whitman's prophecies. I wanted the poem to have something of that omnivorous, roving attitude, an opening loose enough that I could fold all of the poem’s materials into it: not only voices and bodies, but petroleum deposits and phosphorescent light sticks, dried grass and barbed wire, satellites and surveillance recordings.

More significantly, “Desert Grass” was my attempt to get the America of Walt Whitman to reckon with the America of Abu Ghraib. I wanted to ask what it would look like through Whitman’s lens, in which every soul is infinitely valuable and everything has its place in the cosmos, even violence and criminality. I also wanted to explore one of Whitman's most particularly American self-contradictions: that fierce belief in the dignity of the individual, combined with a strangely passive fatalism in the face of human suffering (re: “manifest destiny,” “the invisible hand of the market,” “collateral damage”). 

I wanted to ask: has Whitman's America died, or can it still be seen in Abu Ghraib?  Have we lost the capacity for the empathy that compels Whitman (or at least the character named “Whitman”) to take in the runaway slave, dress his wounds, and invite him to dinner? Are we incapable of granting the same dignity to the prisoners of Abu Ghraib that he gives to the slave at auction, when he takes the auctioneer stand and declares him too valuable for the highest bidder? 

Or are we more like Whitman than we realize? We know from his newspaper editorials that while he opposed the spread of slavery, he was no abolitionist, arguing at one point that “slavery is not at all without its redeeming points.” When we condemn Abu Ghraib but write it off as the exception that proves the rule of American decency, are we lost in the same utopian complacency of Whitman’s “The universe is duly in order . . . . every thing is in its place /. . . / The call of the slave is one with the master's call . .  and the master salutes the slave?” When he announces that “The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited . . . . the heavy-lipped slave is invited. . . . the venerealee is invited” to his dinner table, what is he saying about his opinion of the slave? In other words, are we just smoothing things over with Whitmanesque gestures of love and brotherhood? 

Necessarily then, I am also asking: What is the proper role of the poet in the face of something like Abu Ghraib? Is Whitman right that it is not her place to call evil to account? Should she save a place for both the hooded prisoners and the smiling guards at her table? Even if I managed to do that, would I be able to respond with anything other than outrage? And if so, would I be aestheticizing a crime?