Sunday, December 1, 2013

Nicelle Davis: It's an Entirely Human Sort of Thing—Poetry

Lately, I have been breaking all my dishes. I’ve been inviting friends to break them with me. I even let my five-year old son toss a plate down some concrete stairs. I’m convinced this is poetry—that the sound of contact—of opening—is the music of being.

Like poetry, you have to do it (be it) to understand. So here, go ahead. Try it. Even if the throw happens entirely in your head—please!—try it:

Here is the plate, the cup, the bowl, you choose. Here. The implications of its blank surface—smooth in your hands—the meal that was and wasn’t—the story that was and never will be. Now release it. Your dish becomes a bird—it sings like a bell when it hits—the ground is scattered with shark-toothed fragments. You are dry underwater. You are what shouldn’t be. You are stepping between pieces of wholeness.

You feel ridiculous; it is so serious. You are laughing. You are crying. You are letting go.  Great poetry can't happen without some level of letting go. You must unclench your fists, your life, your eyes, your legs for a moment and let it swing out into the open air not really knowing how it all ends.  It's the lack of knowing that means you have—gasp—stepped away from the prescribed narrative. Your hand twinges slightly from the shallow cuts. You see how beneath the skin, a red garden is blooming. Between the internal and external—between release and shattering—is poetry.

Poetry, for me, is the art of carving out the betwixt of existence—it is the moment of conversion, that quick intake of breath when dreams enter into reality. It is never pretty. No. It is quite awkward; the product never matches the intention. But there is a magic in the effort—and by magic I mean a hope that we can pull our dreams into reality. The poem evokes an infinite vastness, the motions of raw potential, the possibility of transcendence. It is more than words on a page; it is the plate breaking.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Alex Cigale on Gennady Aygi

I should first say I’m a poet not an academic, and a poet-translator only as a product of my affinities. My goal here is to pay tribute to Gennady Aygi’s work and, in concert with his widow, Galina Aygi Kuborskaya, and his primary translator and friend, Peter France, to expand Aygi’s English readership.  Please join in the conversation, post your comment, and return often for daily-updated links. I would also like to invite critical attention, to stake a claim for Aygi’s place in the canon of world literature.

I’ll begin with the obvious, the immediate association of Aygi’s name with the word “difficult” because metaphysical and linguistic concerns predominate in his work. Yet his symbolic vocabulary, standing in for the numinous—field, tree, rose, light, fire, heart, snow, emptiness, whiteness, purity, silence—is simplicity itself. Conceptualism, minimalism, yes, but of a kind that may be qualified as nearly “sentimental,” as the thinking self is never dissociated from the feeling self in Aygi’s work. I read in it, existing as it does between cultures, the autobiography of the liminal, the construction of a semantic space as a sacred object, an object for meditation. Above all, his is a personal Voice.

Gennady Aygi began writing in his native Chuvash and only switched to Russian in 1960; thus his body of work may be viewed through the lens of post-colonial literature. Its “foreignness” (that glacially-paced resistance of the text, slippage between object and idea, ambiguous conjugation—as though, like speaking, the writing too is accented) presents a difficulty to the reader, perhaps even more so in the original Russian than in translation. For this reason, Aygi’s reception abroad has far outpaced acceptance of his poetry in Russia, where he is still primarily thought of as a “poet’s poet.”

Famously encouraged by Pasternak, whose verse (except the early, Futurist-inspired work) bore no resemblance to his, Aygi had to switch to writing in Russian to gain an audience. Among other Silver Age antecedents, Aygi shares with Velimir Khlebnikov a folk, ethnographic subtext expressed in a very different tradition. Perhaps one key to appreciating Aygi’s lyrical voice is its performative aspect, also an influence of folk song. What one hears in his verses is a shamanic practice, in praise of the naïve and natural world.

Aygi’s contact with French poetry (he’d translated an anthology into Chuvash) and with the West more generally was rare in his time. “Free” verse was until quite recently alien to Russian practice, which privileged rhyme and regular formal structures. Influenced by French post war WWII poets and Paul Celan, he incorporated into his work complex linguistic textures, the semantics of broken, ambiguous syntax and diction, and the expressive use of white space and typography, a nearly unique contribution in contemporary Russian poetry.

As a translator of Aygi, I am left groping to construct in English a poem that might suggest, through its diction, registers, textures, and resistances, most of the associations of the original. As for the challenges in doing so, I need only point to the simplest word, the very first one, in the poem whose title I have translated as “Calmly: precious little (book inscription)”: The Russian est (soft “t”) cannot be translated only as “there is,” containing as it does all the particular occasions for the act of speaking. Nor is the second word really “awakening,” with its prefix suggesting a duration; perhaps better “coming to consciousness.” Here, one may read some convergences with Russian conceptualist and minimalist contemporaries, one particularly relevant example being Vsevolod Nekrasov’s “Svoboda Est’ Svoboda,” “Freedom is Freedom,” a poem consisting entirely of the simple statement repeatedly intoned, wherein the meaning may be read variously depending on the placement of the pause.

Elsewhere, I have addressed the necessity of privileging truth in spirit over truth in word, the value of semantic instability more generally, as well as issues specific to the insurmountable differences one encounters in travelling between Russian and English. At nearly every step a translator is faced with contingency—what is differently possible in English. In “Calmly: precious little,” the adjective for snow may be read as “rare” and what I’ve translated as “inadvertent” is, literally, “step-in-step,” neither a satisfactory solution in English.

What comes to mind is Joseph Brodsky’s reaction to Paul Schmidt’s translations of Khlebnikov: “At his best, Khlebnikov is an extremely difficult, highly hermetic writer, even in Russian. The very process of comprehending him is in itself a simplification. Translation is only the next step in that direction." So for Aygi: any possible translation represents but a single reading. To return to my example: the word est, repeated four times in the first five lines of the original, appears in my English twice; the other instances are implied. At every step, the translator, like the reader, comes face to face with ambiguity, the ineffable being spoken.

It seems to me that, for Aygi particularly, such word by word analysis is akin to the translator taking off his underwear in public—naked and shameful. And so the following will have to suffice for now: due to the “simplicity” I have mentioned, nearly every word in Aygi seems to require special handling on the part of the translator, the whole always teetering uncomfortably between profundity and cliché. My hope is that the “finished” product will engage this sort of word-by-word attention on the part of the reader without interrupting the perception of the whole, what may be said to be Aygi’s singular theme.

I have said enough. Now, I would like to hear you speak.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

John A. Nieves on "Spin-the-Globe Charades"

The Stakes of the Game

“Spin-the-Globe Charades” began as a kind of willful hallucination one summer afternoon. I wondered about the potential for games to connect playful imagination and the historiographical impulse to selectively narrate that often ends in distorted romanticism. I thought back to my childhood, when my little sister and I would pore over atlases wondering what places with names we couldn’t even say right were like. What did the kids play there? What was their favorite dessert? Of course, we were naïve to think dessert was universal, or even could be. A few years later, this game morphed into globe spinning. I would give my junior high’s library globe a spin once a week, then look up everything I could about where my finger had landed. Much of the time, that was ocean and I had to spin again—once six times before I hit land. The truth of the matter is that I was not really looking up places as much as the people who lived and died in them.

For the poem’s project, I imagined collapsing those steps as a kind of surrealistic game of charades. After the idea began to solidify, I went to my campus library and spun the globe until I hit land four times. The number four probably came from my seasonal mindset—I was working on a full moon sequence (one section of which, “Harvest Moon,” also appears in the new BPJ). Now I had material. I would research these four places then sketch them at specific moments in time. To assert the inexactitude of these vignettes (the amnesia of history about the details of the lives of those who lived it), I would withhold the identity of the places. I kept my eye peeled for both the beauty and the terror in each location I chose.

Then I began to tackle the problem of form. What shape would best deliver my hallucination, accenting both the rigidity of time/space and the mutability of historiography and memory? Again, I returned to the moon series. I decided that I would ground the poem in the dependability of the seasons. Each of the four sections (seasons) would have three stanzas, one for each of its full moons. I wanted regular stanzas to add a level of scaffolding to the quickly shifting images within them. The poem got unruly in drafts before I instituted that formal restriction. In the end, I settled on tercets for the unsettling effect they had; I did not want something as solid as quatrains or as reliably wispy as couplets. After I had found the shape of the poem, I created the image pool for each section, then laid the image pool on the frame of the game. It was difficult to strike the right balance between the game parlor time/space and the geo-historical time/spaces. I went through dozens of drafts before I felt sure I had reached the necessary balance.

At this point, it was four months after the idea struck me on that sweaty afternoon. I had a poem, but I did not have a title, and the asterisks separating the sections were not doing anything for the poem. I then began to understand that the poem’s premise was complex and that both the title and the headings should work to make it more apparent. In the end, the title introduced the idea of the game and the sections acted as touchstones for the reader to return to it. I also wanted a sense of progression, to mirror the march of history.

The last step (as much as there is ever a last step) in writing the poem was to rethink the soundscape of each section to make sure it closely approximated the content of its particular time/space. I paid close attention to sibilants, back and front vowels and the number of voiced stops in each section. I worked to make the sections as sonically distinct as they were lexically while also maintaining the poem’s voice. I’m not sure if I wholly succeed, but I gave it a solid go. I “finished” the poem just in time for winter.

I hope I captured side-by-side nonchalance and terror, play and display. I don’t fully know what it means, but I know it matters deeply to me to express it: that a globe is a story tied up in nostalgia for the wonders of a wide world, one which history hangs over in its selective recording and erasure. In the tiny moments I authored, I tried to speak to what has been forgotten insofar as any of us ever can. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fred Marchant: Common Grief: Notes on "Quang Tri Elegies"

Some Background

 Forty-five years ago on a day as blue-skied as today, I flew into Washington’s National Airport, and from there caught a bus to Quantico, VA, to begin Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. I had graduated from college a few months before and had spent the summer catching day jobs from Teamster’s Local 251 in East Providence, RI. My father, himself a longtime Teamster, had made some kind of arrangement that allowed me to wait every morning with a small group of guys outside the back door of the union hall. The door would open, a business agent would point to one of us and call that person over, give him a slip with a company’s name and address on it. The best jobs would last a week or more, the worst were short-term, usually unloading meat or produce at the railroad and trailer-truck docks. The worst of the worst was unloading watermelons from the South, as each crate would always have a rotten one, slimy, stinking, and fly-blown. The most difficult was handling sides of beef, the hinds and forelegs hanging in refrigerator cars. The job was to hook, lift, and transport the frozen meat to the dock, where an overhead rail with hooks let you slide the beef to the right lockers. But getting out to that rail was dangerous, as floors grew slippery with grease. If you slipped you were likely to end up under a heavy piece of a steer.

I thought all this physical labor, especially for a recent Brown graduate, was good real-life preparation for boot camp. Real life. That was also part of the appeal of enlisting in the military as the Vietnam War went into its fourth year. I am not sure how to describe how and why my mind was caught up in the romance of going to war. As I said to myself back then, I knew the war was wrong, but it was the war of my time, and it was my writer’s duty to bear witness to the moral emptiness of this enterprise. I can see now how many facets of that sentiment were just plain wrong, but it was an appealing enough thought to my twenty-one-year-old mind. A more adult and responsible version of that thought would have shunted me toward journalism, but it was “real-life” I craved, and I wanted to experience it as a soldier. Thus I would become an infantry officer and go straight to Vietnam.

Two years later, in September 1970, I left the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector. I did not go straight to Vietnam, not at all. I was probably the first Marine officer to be discharged honorably as a CO; I was certainly one of the first. In those two years that had passed I had done my training, became commissioned as a lieutenant, and received orders to the Third Battalion of the Ninth Marines in the Third Marine Division. The unit’s tactical area was the northernmost part of what was then South Vietnam, from the DMZ down to Quang Tri, and from that coastal city westward to the Laotian border. Route 9 stretches from Quang Tri City to Lao Bao at the border and passes the remnants of a number of American combat bases, most notably Khe Sanh, high up in the jungle mountains.

By sheer luck and perhaps with a little gift from Richard Nixon, I never did hook up with my unit in Vietnam. As I was boarding an airplane from Okinawa to the combat zone, I was informed that my unit was at that moment getting on boats in Vietnam and heading back to its Okinawan home base. I was summarily ordered to wait for the unit, which would arrive in two or three days. As it turned out, the Ninth Marine Regiment was the first to leave Vietnam as a unit, and it did so as a function of Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy. To compound what I saw as a delay in my getting to the war zone, I was soon re-assigned altogether, and woke up one morning to find myself the Deputy Provost Marshal (deputy chief of military police) for the Marines on Okinawa.
This job meant I would be on the island for at least six months. I remember being “reassured” by superior officers that I would still be able to get my time in Vietnam, that my “career” would not be harmed, but that I’d have to wait awhile more before I could go “down South.” Working in the Provost Marshal’s office, meanwhile, turned out to be a rather privileged and interesting job. Among many things, I reported directly to the base commander, and so I was a known commodity at headquarters. Our office also had subscriptions to stateside news magazines, something that became crucially important to me in early December 1969, when I opened one of those magazines and saw photos of what we know now as the My Lai massacre. Those photos were the beginning of my own conscientious objection, though that phrase was not in my mind, as I really did not know anything about the long tradition of conscientious objection. What I remember feeling was disgust at seeing corpses of women, children, old men. In particular I remember the bare bottom of a dead infant lying next to the corpse of his mother. I also remember looking up at the ceiling and declaring to no one but myself, “I am not a Nazi!”
What I meant was that such atrocities were not what I had signed up for. It was perhaps “real-life” in the Vietnam war, but I was not going to participate or lend myself to that version of reality. A slow, subtle growth in conscience was underway. Instead of being willing to countenance danger, etc., in order to convey the war in words, I began to realize that my participation enabled the very thing I deplored. I started to think also that I had been willing to harm or allow others to be harmed for the sake of some inchoate literary ambition. The disgust I felt also turned inward and became directed at myself.
The months that followed are another story for another time, but suffice it to say I learned very quickly about conscientious objection. I studied the Navy regulations governing it, and went through months of bureaucratic procedures, oral and written statements, testimonies. By 1970 the United States military leadership had itself lost faith in the war, and as a result I experienced very few real difficulties as my petition for CO status worked its way up the chain of command. In September 1970 I stepped out of a Marine Corps barracks for the last time. I had never made it to the war I thought I had needed to go to. It would be another twenty-five years before I first set foot in Vietnam.

The Joiner Center

Tipping Point, my first book of poetry, was published in 1994. My first reading from the book was at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass-Boston. Ever since that reading, in addition to my full time teaching position at Suffolk University in Boston, I have been a teaching and research affiliate of the Joiner Center (recently renamed as the Joiner Institute). I’ve taught in the Center’s summer writers’ conference and been involved in its larger effort at cross-cultural exchange with writers from various conflict zones, especially Vietnam. Thus I first met writers from Vietnam, and first engaged in a project of co-translation of Vietnamese poetry. It was for literary reasons that I first visited the country, and I have made four more visits in the past dozen years, the most recent being in the spring of 2012. In that visit I was part of a delegation of writers sponsored by the Joiner Center and sent to a conference in Hue, a city in central Vietnam with a great educational and cultural tradition. Our delegation included Kevin Bowen, poet and translator and the director of the Joiner Center, as well as Nguyen Ba Chung, poet and the Joiner Center’s primary translator and liaison to Vietnamese writers. The delegation also included the poet and translator Bruce Weigl and the novelist Larry Heinemann, combat veterans of the Vietnam War who have been central presences throughout the history of the Joiner Center. Carolyn Forche and Sam Hamill, both renowned poet/translators, rounded out the delegation.          

In Hue, we spent a day giving conference papers, followed by a reading that night from a bilingual book consisting of our poems and those of other American poets translated into Vietnamese. The next morning we were up bright and early to begin a two-day road trip with Vietnamese writers north to Quang Tri City and then west along Route 9. The trip was organized by Hu’u Thinh, the director of the Vietnam Writers’ Association, and Nguyen Quang Thieu, a poet, journalist, and publisher. Our goal was to visit the national cemeteries along our route and stop at the remnants of the American combat base at Khe Sanh. We were to spend the night at Lao Bao at the Laotian border and return the next day.  

The Poem

The higher Route 9 climbed into the mountains, the colder wind and rain became, and the more it sank in that this was the place where my original orders way back when had been sending me. It was sobering to think of all the dying that had happened along this road. I also started to think the road itself knew what had happened here; in a factual, ecological way there was some truth to the thought. There were, for instance, many long rows of rubber tree plantings—all leafless and not yet mature. The very deliberate planting of them told us something about Agent Orange defoliation, and later efforts to restore the land. Route 9 also passes The Truong Son National Cemetery, a set of forest glens populated by row upon row of gravestones, some ten thousand of them.

And so it was that “Quang Tri Elegies,” when I was came to write it, began with a reflection on mortal danger and killing. As with the other stanzas, the first is intended to sound a relatively formal note. The verse is irregular, but the lines are consistently longish, five and six beats per. The indents provide a kind of formal regularity as well. And as with each section/stanza that follows, “Route 9” consists of one sentence with a relatively complicated syntactical arrangement. What I hoped for in sound and feeling was slow formality; I did not want to rush through this poem. Halfway through the stanza “Route 9” shifts from “I could have died here” to “I might have killed here.” In the most compressed way I could think of, that shift marks the shift in my own mind from when I joined to when I left the Marine Corps. The stanza is burdened, underneath it all, by the sense that there was so much to mourn here on this road. The stanzas that follow try to sort out some of those far reaches of that mourning.

For example, in the next stanza let us pause, for a minute, at the national cemetery, where each of us placed joss sticks in a sandy-bottomed holder and bowed three times before the grave of the Vietnamese soldiers buried there. “Joss”: the word is pidgin English. It developed in perhaps the 18th century via the Asian encounter with Portuguese sailors and other colonialists. The Portuguese word for God, deos, sounded more or less like joss, which by metonymic association became the name of the incense stick and the smoke that rises from it. In the section titled “Joss,” I tried to create a grammar of smoke curling and the body bending over to suggest both ephemerality and physicality in the act of praying with a joss stick
In each of the stanzas that follow the two opening ones I hoped to move beyond travelogue and little by little arrive at a sense of intimacy and privacy, a place where the dead and the living might meet. It only now occurs to me that Odysseus’ effort to talk to the dead via a hole dug on a sandy beach is a cousin to what I was striving for in this poem—not so much a literal conversation with the dead as something else I find hard to name yet know is there. From my camera batteries dying to my wondering about nights where so many had died to my mulling over the items under glass in the Khe Sanh museum, the poem tries to create spaces in which both the dead and the living can signal each other.

The Quang Tri River

In the last section of the poem, we are returning to Hue via Route 9, and for a while running parallel to the river. Initially a narration in the third person, this stanza contained one anomalous use of a second person pronoun, which eventually pointed me in the direction of revising it as a direct address to an unnamed “you.” The direct address here casts a backward glance at what came before, and I hoped it would make the reader sense that any or all of these sections could easily have been addressed to that “you.” I also felt there was some rightness in the sudden appearance of another person to whom I speak. The shift reminded me a bit of the way the last section of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” surprisingly indicates he has been speaking to his sister, perhaps from the beginning of the poem. In “Quang Tri Elegies,” though, I really don’t know if there is a single person whom I address. I think perhaps I am speaking to an aggregate of several people, each of them present in an overlay of feeling, a set of figures and faces all simultaneously present.

The first “you” that came to mind was my friend Kevin Bowen, who as I said earlier was an American combat veteran of the war. I should add now that during his time in Vietnam he traveled on Route 9, then a rutted dirt road where everything that moved over it kicked up dust. I imagined Kevin swimming in the nearby river, cleaning his body of the dust and fear-sweat. I imagined him seeing his own flesh, and knowing the gift that was his own life. I thought too of our mutual friend Nguyen Ba Chung, my co-translator, who was born in the North, whose family fled to the South in the mid-fifties. I thought of him coming to study at Brandeis while the American war was ongoing, and of his extraordinary translation effort on behalf of the Joiner Center, some thirty years of his life’s work bringing Vietnamese poetry into English and vice-versa. I imagined him swimming in that river of poetry, renewed and restored by it. I thought of my friend the poet and singer Vo Que. I remembered the time we were on a boat heading up to a temple along the Perfume River in Hue, when Vo Que reached down into the water, cupped a handful brought it to his mouth, and drank. “This, my mother,” he said. I knew what he meant. I knew that in the ancient folk traditions of Vietnam, the country was referred to simply as “the mountains and rivers.” It was a way of imagining that bowed corner of Southeast Asia as the existential source of the nation and its people. I thought too of Tran Dang Khoa, a poetic child prodigy of the war years, whose work Chung and I had translated. I thought of the village where Khoa grew up, adjacent to the Kinh Tay river, and the nearby crossing that was bombed regularly during the years of the American war. I thought too of other veteran friends, Vietnamese and American, and of veterans of the peace movement as well, and the many ways a war inevitably harms us. Most of all, I thought of the many war deaths along this road, where those bodies went, where those spirits went, and how each flowed into that river in one way or another.
My friend and colleague, the poet Jenny Barber, suggested that the title of this poem be in the plural. Perhaps she was thinking of the various discrete units that comprise it, but perhaps too she had intuited that that this was an elegy for the many different people I have mentioned. The poet Tess Gallagher calls the elegy a reservoir of language that can hold the inchoate, inarticulate dimensions of grief. I don’t know if this poem does that, but it was written in the attempt to find words for a grief that has always been there and stays with me. It is not the grief of a combat veteran, nor is it the grief of someone who lost a family member in the war. I think of it now—perhaps as a result of writing this poem—as something we might call a “common grief.”

I borrow the idea of “common grief” from my friend Kaethe Weingarten, a therapist whose several books include one titled Common Shock. In it she explores the experience of trauma in our everyday life, especially the kind of trauma we experience in being witness to violence. Common grief, as I imagine it, is similar to the “shock” that Weingarten writes about. One lives with it, most often without being fully aware of its dimensions or implications. But to face into it, to embrace it, and to know it for what it is—this can be deeply restorative. The grief I am thinking of is common not only in the sense of being familiar, but also in the sense of being shared. It is a grief we might hold and keep in common with one another. It was that sort of common grief I arrived at in “Quang Tri Elegies.” It was a grief shared with my fellow travelers, both Vietnamese and American, as we made our way down Route 9 and back. It had been a pilgrimage of sorts, at whose end I could imagine each of us in that living stream the river conjured in my mind. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Mario Chard on "Round" and "Caballero"

In “Round” a man wakes to the sound of an avalanche cannon—one familiar, perhaps, to those who live in that part of the West where the Forest Service is allowed to fire howitzer shells into the mountainsides. The goal I believe is to trigger a small avalanche before larger, more dangerous avalanches can form. In the poem, the sound of the cannon sends snow barreling from the speaker’s roof, triggering the “smallest avalanche / it had not meant to,” so close to the paradox he then repeats: “We inoculate our son. In the needle, / the same virus we hope / his body will defeat.”

I took that image from an ordinary vaccination of my son, but for a moment in that small hospital room I also saw the needle as the man-made violence, the virus as nature’s violence; how we use both to pierce our children in order to prepare them for healing. I thought it a gift that we also use (or used to use) inoculate for vaccination: inoculate, meaning to engraft an eye (oculus) of one plant into another—eye, of course, the stand in for bud, the new leaf forming. Thus, through the act of inoculation we figuratively give sight to our children. We graft in the new eye.

If that’s true, then couldn’t it also, at least sometimes, mean the opposite, the inoculation a kind of blinding? The only way to graft in the new eye is to blind the other. For me, the less figurative example of this possibility is tied to a childhood based on religion and prayer: the old way of occlusion. We closed our eyes to pray. Some are taught to close their eyes to see no evil, no violence. And yet we are bound to commit acts of violence against ourselves and others almost every day.
“Round” is an expression of this paradox and fear. It gained its musical form from a personal obsession with cycles and repetition. For me the round is eternal: it begins with the parent inserting the needle; it always ends with the child finding the bomb, still unexploded, in the pine needles, running his own destruction back to those who put it in his hands.  


I was raised in a dual-cultural home of immigrants, my mother chief among them, but the house always seemed full of many kinds: relatives, friends, strangers, some of them Argentine like my mother, most from Mexico. And yet I still found it difficult to fully enter the world of “Caballero,” a poem I struggled to write from the moment I read the story of the crash that acts as its impetus.

I had great ambition for the poem and its political underpinnings, a naïve desire to speak despite my citizenship for those who die miserably trying to become citizens, and yet the poem kept floundering. It was then I found the article that mentioned the horse, how the driver lost control after swerving to miss it, how the surviving passengers saw only the driver’s attempt to fondle the female passenger and never saw the horse. It was then I tried to teach my son the word for horse in Spanish and remembered how I had often mistaken it for the word for hair. Almost immediately the poem lost what had been its documentary scaffolding and became instead a dialog of mistake and disagreement, of those who speak and those who are silenced, of a father and son speaking from their own dim borders of understanding.

Only near the end of writing “Caballero” did I remember that the horse was itself an immigrant, brought over by the Europeans in their age of conquest. Some records suggest that the natives were initially confused and thought the man and horse were a single body, that this confusion allowed the riders to establish dominion. For a moment the conquerors were caballeros: literal horsemen. But now the word has come to mean gentleman. The word has become one “we have learned / Not to look at” (after Oppen), stripped of its history of violence, speechless like the horse and the nameless, buried immigrant.   

Monday, July 1, 2013

Maggie Schwed on “Pollen Season”

It was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma that made me feel, eight years ago, that my love of farms didn’t have to starve itself by merely driving past the silos, beautiful patterned fields, broad barns, and rusting tractors of the Midwest, the West, and the Northeast. I’m not young. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and will never have a farm. I do have a farmer friend, though, who let me work one summer fetching his cows from pasture, milking them, mucking his barn, feeding urns of whey to his pigs, and acquiring a beginner’s knowledge of how to make cheese. The commute to his farm was long and when I heard about another farm, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, only forty minutes north of the city, I began to work there, first in the fields and greenhouse, then with livestock. 

I keep a journal of my labor. I chronicle the pleasures of working outdoors in all weather, for long hours, often in awkward positions, using my eyes and hands. At the same time, a long practice of writing nature poems was making me wonder about the direction of my work. Farming was deepening my experience of the green world. But how could the writing of yet another nature poem, a genre often scorned as obvious, rear guard, and tepid, be progressive, at least for me? I knew the nature poem could still bring news (that is to say, we’ve forgotten a lot about grasses, animals, wind, insects). But all along, the venerable pastoral tradition notwithstanding, I felt the pressure of having to justify myself. 

Pollen Season” is one of a small group of poems in Driving to the Bees (Black Lawrence Press, June, 2014), that tries another approach to nature writing. Formally, it has almost the look of prose, with paragraph-like blocks for stanzas but, working extensively out loud, I found that I did want to preserve line breaks. Direct address brought warmth, a chance to speak intimately and colloquially (I’ve always loved Whitman for this). A semi-epistolary form appeared almost immediately; my journals and letters carried some of the voice I wanted, and I mined them. The voice needed to be pushy, urgent, trying to make contact, jumping from one thing to the next.

“Pollen Season” dictated its own order. The first stanza, moving through a kind of report on family matters, undergoes a shift with the first question: “Do you share with me. . . ?” Asking questions felt like a way to swerve the poem in close—What do you think? Don’t you agree? It increased my feeling that I was talking with someone and made it easier to keep talking. The writing of the poem began to feel like the movement of my own mind, the voice holding more of my personality than I was accustomed to. And that seemed oddly redemptive.

I have felt strongly how unable I am to write a political poem and with equal strength the imperative to do so. By asking about our decade-long, largely hidden war, I had begun to find a way to extend my reach. I could perhaps be in league with another farmer’s struggle to make something grow from destroyed ground, though watering a seed or tending a hive looks very different when done in the presence of war.

The second stanza I think of as an answer to my mother’s distress about killing (“What are you doing?”).  I wanted to make evisceration palpable, and to impress in the reader’s mind the beauty and interest of what I discovered inside of the bird. It was a taking of responsibility: this is my share in death. It’s a strange thing to claim slaughter as a skill. But it is one. The purpose of cultivation is harvest. Death is as robust as life. Again, asking questions helps me here to stay close to “you,” my “dear friend.”  

The fine editorial hand of Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald helped me lift away a few bits that I thought expanded the world of the poem but that they helped me see restricted it, or moved it toward political rhetoric. The other risk of a more talked poem is a lack of economy, and again, they helped me avoid the hazard of blabbing.

So, is “Pollen Season” a nature poem? Not only, but that second stanza lets me know I’m still exploring the genre. Embracing a plurality of subjects is helping me pursue the nature poem with renewed confidence.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heather Dobbins on "In the Low Houses"

“No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,/ no one incants our dust./ No one.” 
—Paul Celan

I started “In the Low Houses” in Bennington, Vermont. I had just visited Robert Frost’s grave, and when I added my penny, I made sure it touched another penny. It seemed right, as Frost’s headstone is not his alone. This is why I wrote this poem in couplets, to provide an instant “us,” to allow for contradictions and the slips between meaning, context, and time. I had also just met with Major Jackson, who told me I should write a long poem with a conceit to bind my manuscript together. One of Major’s gifts is to push poets toward what they resist.

“In the Low Houses” is my reckoning with closeness: how close I can get to answers from the dead, lovers, and language; it demonstrates a pervading sense that even though I try, I can’t get it “right,” get the seconds or beats back—all that cannot be held. What I can hold is a poem in my hands, a rhyme in my mouth. A low house is a term for a literal grave, but it represents the domestic sphere, too, where everything seems to be carried: bodies, boxes, houses, language itself. I hope the poem’s antiphonies show how we try to talk to each other, how interiority, with its over-thinking and over-feeling, is so often louder than speech.

I read over a hundred books of elegies in the year before I wrote “In the Low Houses.” Going back to the ancient Greeks, the professional mourners have been poets. My use of repetition refers to formal elements of ritual, ceremony, and refrain dating back to Theocritus. I included so many questions because I had in mind Demeter speaking to Persephone, the muses at Achilles’ funeral, Sacks’s The English Elegy, Vendler’s Last Looks, Last Books, and Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, but also contemporary poetry: Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “It never ends, this dire need to know,  / This need to see a diagram unfold / In silent angles,” Katie Ford’s “Who sees us plead? I can’t stop looking at the two houses // lit off shore,” Mary Jo Bang’s “The outside comes in / The window, or I go out the door,” and Kevin Young’s The Art of Losing. I find solace in knowing that my questions are the ones that have always been asked, that I keep company with fellow poets in this reckoning.

I have spent years tracking common metaphors across the English elegiac tradition: earth, clocks, seasons (especially winter), light, sand, shore, boats, oars, water, farewells, and the act of watching. I love that we share our metaphors as well as our mourning. Architectural terms are especially important in the poem: I had the pictures I had taken of Frost’s grave, which made me think of framing images, hanging a painting, the house itself as a frame, the frame of the body, the coffin. I included these, as well as flowers—remember Shelley’s broken lily, Whitman’s lilacs, Celan’s rose, Hall’s peonies. I chose irises, Tennessee’s state flower (I’m from Memphis), because when they are spent they look like dead skin.

Spenser writes in 1595: “To you alone I sing this mournful Verse.” What if he was writing to future poets, to say we are never alone? What if Paul Celan got it wrong in his “Psalm”? Other poets incant our dust. Writing poetry is a way to love like Rilke wanted us to love: “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Alpay Ulku on "Compensation," "Garage Sale," and "The Orange Sonata"

All of these poems are true, all of them really happened. One of them takes place a brisk walk from my condo here in Chicago, one of them takes place across the street. One of them takes place in another time line, that will merge with ours.  Which is which isn't obvious, isn't the one you'd think of first. I write this on my virtual keyboard, using finger swipes and predictive text, on my Kindle Fire. (My fingers fly, and I can type with two cats on my lap, so we all think this is cool.) Printing books is already becoming a thing of the past. You know that kills trees, don't you?  Think of the enormous savings to corporations if no one prints out documents anymore. You see the trend.

That incident a couple of years ago (July 2009) where Orwell's dystopian novels 1984 and  Animal Farm disappeared from people's Kindles, was of course a one time removal of an unauthorized edition, and not a "Proof of Concept," not a trial run of what could be done.

In 1984, the dictionary is constantly being revised so that there are fewer and fewer words, as Orwell believed that it was impossible to think a concept without the word for it. Orwell wasn't much of a poet, though, and he didn't give enough credence to the idea that knowing and vocalizing aren't the same, that people make up words to name the things they know already. But wouldn't it be interesting, in an Orwellian world, if predictive text simply didn't allow you to use certain words, was programmed to change them out from under your fingertips? If the Chinese government didn't like the character sequence "protest meeting planned." If typing the phrase "home-made bomb" triggered a script that sent a file to Homeland Security, or typing "Homeland Security" did, there are people who'd be ok with that. Just sayin'.

In Orwell' s world resistance is futile and is always utterly crushed, yet people resist. The rekindling of sexual passion between one man and one woman was an existential threat not only to the super state of Oceania, but to the entire dystopian world order, even though that possibility had been planned and accounted for. There are different resistances, even in the form of a token the oppressors themselves will let you have, or nostalgia, or a veiled comment about  "good flying weather," or anger, fear, or even, in a super surveillance super state, violence, bombs. We are one part "angel," one part monkey too clever for its own good.

Flattened affect is a form of resistance too. It's about survival, and survival is resistance. Ride the El at night, or even in broad daylight. Look and see. Other resistances: bonds spoken and unspoken between a nephew and his uncle, husband and wife, father and son. Expectations, written and unwritten. And trust. When a poem drops us into the unfamiliar turf of its landscape, how do we get oriented, where do we get our bearings? A poem that doesn't trust will fail, won't earn the reader's trust; the reader who never trusts will get nothing out of reading. Maybe that's why writing, art, has always been a form of resistance, a threat to tyrants, because it's built on trust, earning it and keeping it, and sharing a wild fragile hope for the human being in us and the humanity of which we're a part. What a shame to sell that for a bag of cashews, or whatever momentary gain you may earn by indulging your worst self instead of becoming your best. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Long Poem

In conjunction with the Spring 2013 long-poem issue of the BPJ, we invited the six contributors to the issue to write short reflections on their poems and, if they liked, on the long poem in contemporary poetry.  Not surprisingly, these turned out to be as engaging and varied as the poems themselves.  We invite you to contribute your thoughts as well.

Margaree Little:  All Day Long

In a 2007 interview with blackbird, Ellen Bryant Voigt describes working on a poem that had “two elements in it [she] couldn’t reconcile.” “At an earlier time in my writing life,” Voigt says, “I would have divided that into two poems.” But in 1978, she tells the interviewer:

I was lucky enough to have a Guggenheim fellowship…I used the money for childcare and to finish off this…empty room over the garage…Because I had this grant, because I had this room, I had all day long.  And so I thought, I should just really see if I can get these two things in the same poem.

The poem was “Talking the Fire Out,” a sequence in six parts that appears in her 1983 book The Forces of Plenty. Voigt is careful to distinguish between the sequence as a form and other kinds of long poems, including poems in sections (“A poem in sections,” she says, “. . . is ongoing; it’s a single unit”).  Yet several aspects of Voigt’s remarks stand out to me as relevant to the writing of any long poem, and maybe to the writing of any kind of poem at all: she had, because of the money and the room, “all day long”; she had elements that resisted reconciliation.

I came to write “Thanksgiving,” which is part of a longer, book-length sequence, because I had a version (there must be many versions) of “all day long”—the ability to work part time, the structure of an MFA Program, freedom from family obligations.  And I had a variety of disparate images and narrative threads—of Arizona and of Maine, of childhood, of different kinds of relationships— that I thought might be more connected than they initially seemed, maybe by what seemed to me their shared quality of incompleteness.

The primary challenge for me in working on “Thanksgiving” was a problem of structure, or, as Voigt defines it in The Flexible Lyric, the order in which information is released to the reader.  I tried to use the narrative thread of the walk through the desert as a frame, hoping that this could provide a kind of grounding point from which the speaker could remember and imagine the other threads that are woven into the poem.     

Since I was trying, in part, to convey the ways the past can inflect and permeate the present, I wanted to find a structure that could make room for experience that is not exactly linear.  I am interested in how a long poem or a sequence can be used to suggest the ways in which we don’t always experience things one at a time, the ways different kinds of intimacy can bleed into each other, the ways memory happens even while you’re living the rest of your life. The long poem form isn’t the only way to account for this simultaneity, what Marianne Boruch has called “all-at-onceness,” but I think it might be one way. 

A. E. Stallings: Recitative

Poe famously observed that the phrase “long poem” is “a flat contradiction in terms.” Of course, if you go back into his essay, “The Poetic Principle,” it turns out he is talking about poems longer than a half hour. (Interesting that he thinks of poems in terms of performance length, not number of lines.) By that reckoning, my poem in the spring issue of the BPJ is only long-ish; although there was a time in the not too-distant past when I considered any poem of mine over twenty lines as “long.”

You can spin Poe’s argument in a slightly different way, though. What he means is that there is no such thing as a long lyric, and there I think I am with him. As my friend Turner Cassity used to say, the thing about long poems is you need recitatives as well as arias. Lyrics are arias, but a whole opera of nothing but would lack any emotional momentum.

While up till now I have written short lyrics (a tautology?) almost exclusively, I have always been fascinated with long poems and how they work. My graduate thesis was on Virgil’s Georgics (“the best poem by the best poet,” according to Dryden). That coincided with a fascination with the Aeneid, and via Virgil, I developed an interest in Lucretius, whose 7,000 line epic-didactic poem, De Rerum Natura, I translated in its entirety, publishing it with Penguin Classics under the name The Nature of Things. Long didactic poems are, in fact, my particular fascination. (I’m currently translating Hesiod’s Works and Days.)  I’d love to write one eventually.

I began to realize as I was translating Lucretius that the examples from the physical world the poet used to illustrate the atomic theory functioned the way epic similes do: they provided little lyric interludes, poems within poems, that suddenly opened windows from dry philosophy onto stormy seas, or colorful theaters, or starry reflections in rain puddles, or picnics in the countryside with friends. I compare this to epic similes because, likewise, epic similes provide interludes of, say, peaceful snow-scapes in the midst of bloody battles. A long poem partly means having a structure, a narrative, an argument, to hang these lyric moments from.

Herodotus says of his History that, “Digressions are part of my plan.” Digressions can be seen as part of the plan, and the pleasure, of a long poem.   

I have also always had a fascination with descents into the Underworld, from Homer to Dante and beyond, and narratives of this sort have found their way into my earliest work. But it was actually as I was perusing Ariosto and his marvelous section on the search for Orlando’s lost wits on the moon in the Valley of Lost Things, that I realized I could combine a number of different interests in one poem—Ariosto also suggested the ottava rima, though Byron is in the background too—the continual and frustrating search for lost objects that seems a big portion of motherhood, drifting into other, more metaphorical, “lost” things, and a descent into a didactic underworld with a guide, invoking one trope after another, although in this case the underworld was an overworld, or an otherworld.

Practically speaking, though, the decision to embark on a longer poem, and the ability to complete it, may have been encouraged by the renting of an office, the first “room of my own” I have had in twenty years, and the exhilarating and alien sensation of having entire hours of uninterrupted (being asked, say, to locate a missing Polly Pocket shoe) time in which to work.

Susan Tichy: A Shared Discourse

The modern long poem: a structure that includes both voice and pause, eye and ear, black ink but also the white spaces under and around it, what Mallarmé called “the surrounding silence.” Movement among movements. Transitions that require a long leap, or just an in-taken breath. A contest between amplitude and concision.

As a reader I am grateful for a wealth of variation, but my own work in long forms has been nearly synonymous with collage.

I mean collage in two senses. First, composition by quotation, creating a poem from its linguistic environment, and thereby demonstrating what its environment is. This origin in a shared discourse, from which the poem’s material identity never entirely separates, alters the claims of imagination away from metaphors of birth and creation, toward acts of perception and collection, which are, at least potentially, available to everyone. I first took this lesson from Marianne Moore, one of Modernism’s great democratizers. I am also fond of Gaston Bachelard’s famous bird’s nest, as metaphor for creativity: though the nest is particular to the species that builds it, its parts are gathered rather than birthed, they had other uses before the poem, and will one day return to the surrounding flux. Or, you might say, they arrive trailing other auras, other contexts, acting, as camouflage does, to confuse the categories AND and OR.

And second, collage as a method of juxtaposition, regardless of quotation or its absence, because (as James Longenbach has phrased it) this allows images to become a way of thinking, of creating abstraction, by allowing ideas to form metonymically in a reader’s mind. The reader’s freedom is part of the politics; it keeps the act of representation open—of special importance to me because so much of my writing is concerned with public events and political discourse, already over-determined and over-represented long before I put pen to paper.

My last two books—Bone Pagoda and Gallowglass—investigate representation/re-representation in relations among lyric, narrative, and documentary impulses. For a reader, I sought a doubled experience: one conventionally lyrical and one distractingly paratactic, a linguistic and historical environment from which the solo voice emerges and to which it returns. This simultaneity would not be achievable in short forms, at least not by me.

“That the Earth Is Not Only Supported by Their Strength but Fed by Their Ruin” has a different architecture, a persevering syntax arranging quotations along itself like beads on a steel string. As a visual/verbal form, mesostic is both arbitrary and organic, capable of infinite variation so long as its structure continues to be generated by or inscribed within the unfolding language. Though I’ve sucked Ruskin quotes into other poems, this form has seemed closest to an embodiment of what I cleave to in his thought. It requires careful seeing. And there is something melancholic, something of pity, in the fluctuations of lines left and right, long and short, all pinned to the unyielding axis of his name.

Dawn Potter: A Storytelling Urgency

“Mr. Kowalski” was ignited by, of all things, Wikipedia, after I stumbled across an entry for Henryk Kowalski, who had once been my violin teacher and who died when I was seventeen. I had not to this point written much about my upbringing as a serious and competitive child violinist, a regimen that controlled and defined me in ways that I usually avoid articulating. Moreover, for the past year or so, I had been writing almost nothing autobiographical but was immersing myself in a series of historical persona poems that required considerable research and self-separation. In the midst of this tidy project “Mr. Kowalski” attacked without warning, tossing everything else in my working life to the wolves. I wrote the first draft in four delusional days. It was like having the flu.

Writing a long poem makes me feel  supremely vulnerable: I’m the drunk in the aisle seat who can’t keep my mouth shut; I’m the obnoxious great-aunt with yet another blathery anecdote. These poems seems to leap from my split skull, a private headache suddenly transformed into an adversary—bossy, opinionated, bristling with weapons. Although all of my long poems have been stylistically different from one another, all have shared, in their composition, a storytelling urgency, as if some insatiable listener is prodding me, “And then what happened? And then what? And then what?”

In the case of “Mr. Kowalski,” the Wikipedia article apparently flipped a switch in my imagination, and all of a sudden a thousand disparate themes seemed to meld into a single tale. I do remember, as I was writing, that I suddenly said to myself, “So that’s how Henry James does it!” This feverish braggadocio is embarrassing to repeat in the cool light of not writing the poem, especially when I consider how much revision the piece eventually required. Yet recalling my Jamesian hallucination reminds me of how often I’ve contemplated the language, image, and storytelling links between narrative poets such as Coleridge, Chaucer, and Milton and twentieth-century novelists such as Bowen, Green, and Woolf. In poetry I’ve always been drawn to the old. But I find myself influenced just as much by these modern novelists, a conundrum that puzzles and intrigues me. I wonder if other writers of long poems also glimpse a similar hybridized parentage. Perhaps part of the impetus behind certain contemporary long poems might be the need to wrestle with prose’s ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives while also reclaiming poetry’s ancient role as a teller of stories.

Philip Metres: Serial Narrative

As long as I’ve been reading poetry, I’ve been intrigued with poetry that sprawls, poetry that spills over the lyric urn and the taut design of a single page, into the wilderness. Was it with the rise of the novel, that the sense arose that narrative had fled to richer pastures,  hence no more Iliads, Odysseys, Divine Comedies, Paradises Lost?  Or was it with the institutionalization of verse that the lyric in isolation was established as the measurable unit of the poem, hence fewer Preludes, Waste Lands, Cantos, Books of the Dead

Two thoughts, then, to open a space for the “long poem.” First, might narrative not be still a viable matrix through which to birth poetry? This will not appeal to hip experimentalists, for whom narrative is something like last year’s model. Yet the narrative impulse keeps returning to poetry, an instinctive migration. Doubtless, new technologies of fiction and film produce narrative in enormously compelling ways, but I and other poets aren’t willing to cede one of the great primal powers of language just because other modes do it well. Poetry has often played a critical role as a medium of the subaltern. One thinks of Sappho’s forbidden love, Whitman’s Song (“through me many long dumb voices . . .”), Rukeyser’s voices of miners, Neruda’s Canto General, Walcott’s Omeros, Darwish’s epic laments for Palestine, Rich’s Atlas of the Difficult World, Nowak’s documentary and social poetics, among many others. There are still stories that need telling in poetry, which will always tell them in its own way.

The second thought: the modern mechanism of seriality, visible in all the arts (musical, visual, linguistic), has created a mechanism for adapting the voice of the single instrument to a wider orchestral interpretation. In the serial poem, not story per se but repetitions, motifs, and various formal devices become the way to sustain the dreamsound of the poem. 

Of course, it appears that every poet (myself included) now has a “project”—not poems, but a project. We’ve moved from “poet as shaman” to “poet as project manager,” as befits the professionalization of poetry. There are gains and losses to every social development, I suppose. The important thing remains the language. The point is to find the means to fall into the seethe of language, to create language events worthy of falling into, ears over heels.    

“A Concordance of Leaves” began as a notebook written during my sister’s wedding in a small village in Palestine. Last summer, a full seven years after the fact, I suddenly found myself able to write about that mythic and surreal and eye-opening and lovely couple of weeks. Once I found a form (ten-line poems in couplets, employing slashes as a kind of unit of sub-measure), the words began to slide like iron filings toward the magnetic attraction. The poem draws in and upon fact and a little fiction, YouTube video and citation, but it’s finally an epithalamium, a wish for blessed union. I’m grateful that Diode Editions will be releasing the full-length version as a chapbook in March.

Bruce Bond: Friending the Absence

I am not on Facebook myself, reluctant as I am to steal time from other things, but I am not immune to the hunt for old friends on the internet, to see what has become of the faces, if the ones I knew are in there somewhere, buried as mine is in the one I wear.

I love the web, and yes, I recognize it articulates something quite ancient, biological even—that is, an ambivalence about boundaries, the longing to be connected and yet free to move about, to see and be seen though not necessarily at the same time.  But beyond the internet’s voyeuristic and exhibitionist allure, it also figures as an endless repository for culture, for history conceived as ravenous for the marginal and diverse.  It is a world library so unfathomable, its occupies a space in us akin to an ocean—what we surf—or a noosphere, a god, a totality that remains invisible as such, a kind of heaven before which we argue some case or other, into which we upload our spirits.  No doubt this thing, this monster, this nervous system with a billion eyes, conjures archetypes of fathers and mothers, holy or otherwise, who spy the tiny dots of our lives and somehow connect them.  So yes, the web empowers us—through it we enjoy Mercury’s sense of alacrity and access—but so too it makes us small.  It is the new face of the sublime, made as it is of numberless faces, so that what we search-engines know of infinity is an infinite desire to know. 

I wrote this poem upon hearing about a friend who took a certain pride in racking up a high friendship rating on Facebook while not caring much about a good number of the so-called friends.  Thus my allusion to Dickinson’s poem where “The soul selects her own society,” or later, where the soul closes “the valves of her attention/ Like stone.”  I love the word “valves” as an evocation of both eyelids and heart-valves, how it makes corporeal a hard truth about devotion as a selective activity in the social sphere.  While the web has no doubt had its effect on the human brain, we are kidding ourselves if we think our hearts, let alone our brains, have developed new, unprecedented multitasking powers.  What is our limit in terms of emails or Facebook comments that we can reasonably give our full attention?  What can we manage that warrants a friend’s reply?  Obviously there is something delusional and narcissistic in cultivating the appearance of a vast social sphere that does not claim something equally vast from us.  If the measure of our love has something to do with what we are willing to sacrifice, then friendship implies some measure of difficulty that the voyeuristic dynamic, the “screening” of the world, cannot model. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Patrick Whitfill—It's Nothing, Really

                                                                   And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.                                                          —Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"                                                                    

I grew up in Plainview, down the road from Brownfield, which sits about twenty miles east of Levelland. The county I grew up in is Hale County. The town in the center of Hale County is Hale Center. Move in any direction in the Texas Panhandle, and the names of cities and towns reflect the predominant culture, which is another way of saying that the predominant culture in Plainview doesn’t exist. It’s important to invent one, and to do it as soon as possible.


Literalness and nothingness are the two most common traits of life in West Texas, with its endless vistas of flatlands, its repetitions of the same extended corn field, cotton field, corn field. This sameness breeds restlessness, boredom. Some nights, maybe after a basketball game, I’d look up and find myself parked on a turnrow between two cotton fields, burning ditch brush, trying to smoke a cigarette and drink a beer the way they do in bad movies. I watched a lot of bad movies.


We’re literal back home because we have to be. We keep things in the realm of the real because it helps us to believe we have some grasp of the country we inhabit and attempt to tame. Live there for a year, though, or even just a few months, and you’ll see how quickly West Texas starts a fight. The landscape makes the rules, and we pretend we have control. When that doesn’t work—and it never does—we throw up tents and beg, calling it a revival.


In poetry, I’m drawn to limits, boundaries and rules. Maybe I have an odd relationship toward hegemony, but I think that was passed down to me, almost genetically, like the need to talk to myself to figure things out. Form, for me—especially closed, received forms—gives me enough structure to make me feel comfortable. Write a stanza of a sestina, and you’ve set the rules. Once you have the rules, you get to cheat.


ForPlainview, TX: A Double-Take” began as a crown that simpered away and died at the fourth sonnet. Once I realized I didn’t have another sonnet left on the topic, I started to go into the earlier sonnets and steal my own lines and language. I moved the point of view from first person plural to second person. Originally, I had four “takes” on Plainview, and, as it stood then, each take digressed into syntactical confusion and odd amalgamations. I stopped then, looked again, and found that I had started to write the way I perceive the landscape back home, with a mixture of repeated images coupled with sudden, unexpected variety. That felt like home to me, that variation of the repeatable norm. I cleaned out the middle two “takes,” combined the parts I thought were strongest, and turned into a “double-take.”


Go out at night in Plainview, in Pampa, in Canyon, maybe after the rodeo, when the cowboys and bull riders are in town, and you’ll get a sense of the surreal, the ten-gallon hats, the horses trotting up 5th Street at midnight. Unless you’ve lived there long enough to understand that what we call normal isn’t a constant, it may strike you as odd, or, maybe antiquated. But isn’t normal just an agreement, a cultural contract?  In these poems, I wanted to mimic that sense of the acceptably odd, to show how different normal can get.


Sestinas fascinate me much the same way rodeo clowns do. In some ways, they have the same issues. Read Donald Justice’s “A Dream,” Carrie Jerrell’s “The Country-Western Singer’s Ex-Wife, Sober in Mendocino County, California,” any of the sestinas in Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox, or Derrick Austin’s “Blaxploitation,” and you’ll see poets playing with variation, bending the rules while stringing a narrative through the formal requirements. When a good sestina dodges that impossibly huge beast, boredom, it has me on my feet, cheering. Do it wrong, and something’s going to show up on your blindside and gore you with its horn.


ForPlainview, TX: A Double Take,” “Song for the Rodeo,” and “Curry” are a testament to living most of my life in a landscape composed in equal parts of the nothing that is there and the nothing that is not. Form separates the two, points down the line and says this one can cross over, this one cannot. On occasion, though, some impulse sneaks over. You fall in love with it a little, give it a name. You buy it something pretty. Carry it with you all the way home.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

G. C. Waldrep on "The Wilder Shores of Love"

The title comes from Lesley Blanch (her 1954 book of the same name) by way of two eponymous Cy Twombly paintings from 1984-85, one of which I viewed at MoMA in December 2011. Twombly is a poet’s artist, by which I mean a visual practitioner who convokes a poet’s sense of constellation and intuitive gesture. It’s not an accident that he, like Joseph Cornell—that other consummate poet’s artist—often included texts in his artworks, phrases, names, bits of ambient myth. I was taken by surprise by Twombly’s midsummer death a few months before, in spite of his advanced age; we shared a home state and landscape, and somehow I always thoughts our paths would cross in person.

Most of my poetic practice is intuitive, and this poem is no exception: I simply sat down on the evening of 12/5/11 (having recently seen the artwork and been thinking about Twombly) and typed it out, almost as you now read it. Some poems are gifts. Revision, for me, is largely a process of re-vision, of trying to understand what such first drafts are doing, or trying to do, and nudging them more securely in those directions. What follows, then, is retrospective, although all these thoughts were in my mind as I reread and tweaked the poem over the past year:

The poem began as a straightforwardly ekphrastic response to Twombly’s work and universe, especially his large-scale, mid-career paintings. But the turn began, as it so often does, with that “you”—Twombly, presumably, in line 6, but then in line 7 we discover it’s the polis that is speaking, addressing . . . who, exactly? Twombly? The poet? The reader? The dead?  By line 13 the “you” has shifted into the register of the contemporary demotic, has even donned the glad rags of the “I”; capitalism has intruded into the intimate space of the speaker and his foil, which is also the space between the poem and the reader. What “felt like a giant / radio . . . ascending / and descending”? Capitalism? History? Art? Death? All of the above?

When they first read the poem, BPJ editors Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald had questions about the syntactical slippage in the closing lines, which I confessed was intentional, if (I hoped) gentle. Yes, hands full of "strontium, iridium" as well as "little fossil patterns." It's not grammatically clear whether "reciting Keats" refers to something the "we" has its hands full (of), or something the "we" is doing while having its hands full (of other stuff), or even that it's actually the little fossil patterns that are doing the reciting. I wanted that last bit of slippage in particular, because it subtly links the "we" back to being "little fossil patterns." Since the "we" is in fact in the past tense, a relationship that has slipped away in time, this seemed elegiac and appropriate.

Both strontium and iridium can be radioactive or non-radioactive. I intended the radioactive allusion, as well as the pun on iridium vis-à-vis the visual faculty. Both are ingredients in so-called "dirty bombs." Some minerals kill us; some don't. And some minerals are in fact the bodies of the dead: fossil patterns do form in the shale patterns amid coal seams, as well as within coal seams themselves (anthracite or bituminous). "Anthracite" is the reference here not only for the sound and the pun on "anthro-" but also to Emily Dickinson’s 422.

I think Keats is meant here as a palliative or antidote, perhaps ineffective; the poem ends before establishing whether Keats cures anything (as do, alas, our lives: see Twombly, Cy).

Finally, I intended the extra-grammatical moves in the closing lines to echo the extra-grammatical moves of the first sentence (disguised within the "sometimes . . . sometimes" parallelism). This is a slippery, friable landscape—a confirming disquiet, which is also what I feel when I meditate on Twombly’s enormous, myth-driven canvases. The idea that Keats could exist without us, after we are dead, is terrifying—and the certainty of it even more so.