In this conversation, Niki Herd talks about how Layli Long Soldier’s work exposes the link between difficult language and obscured meaning; how it feels, especially for minorities in the United States, to have that language used in something that resembles an apology; and why it is important to keep writing. Only Long Solider could have written WHEREAS, Herd says, and, when she brings it into the classroom, “It’s great to share that awe of craft with students.” Thank you for joining us!
Jessica Hudgins: I’m often conflicted about this series, because when a poet reads, we get to hear their voice but we don’t get to see the poem on the page. So, to start, can you describe what this poem looks like? How are the lines and stanzas arranged?
Niki Herd: The poem is the tenth of twenty-one WHEREAS statements. There is no title and the poem is comprised of three stanzas. The text in the first stanza is fully justified and begins with “WHEREAS I shy. Away from the cliché….” The stanza presents itself visually in the form and language of the document—in this case The Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. A quick Google search online illustrates the form Long Soldier has reframed. The second stanza remains in this form, but functions more like a block quote as the stanza is centered and smaller than the previous. Breaking from the formal constraints of legislative form, the final stanza is made up of phrases broken up by large caesuras that enact through text what Long Soldier calls the “pigeonhole.”
JH: Long Soldier also experiments with the sentence. She breaks the verb phrase “I shy away,” with a period every time it appears in the poem, and the line, “Where I must be firmly positioned to receive an apology the spot from which to answer,” seems to contain two sentences, “Where I must be firmly positioned to receive an apology,” and, “Where I must be the spot from which to answer.” What was this like when you were recording the poem? Did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poem would sound like, or did you try out different intonations and pausing at different places?
NH: Yes, Long Soldier breaks sentences within lines at “I shy. Away…” and other places as well. Her use of unconventional syntax illustrates the difficulty of language, but also conveys the difficulty of narrative; meaning becomes less transparent as disruptive syntax forces the reader to stop and begin again in unexpected ways. The US Government has lacked transparency in their relationship to Native Americans. Long Soldier uses the syntax of the line/sentence to illustrate this—and does so powerfully. In recording it, I wanted the pauses to stand in for the punctuation, but not dramatically so. The poem was recorded several times and eventually I chose the one that sounded the most organic.
JH: I want to stick with that last sentence I quoted. Being in the position to receive an apology is a central concern of this poem and of Whereas in general. Just by standing in front of the person who wronged them, a person offers, “Do you have something you want to say to me?” This position also requires knowing how to respond to an apology, if it were to come. But what the poet says she’s working with is “that stained refusal to come clean.”
NH: That “stained refusal to come clean” is a position many of us minorities understand all too well. bell hooks says that “[s]tandard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination.” If this is what standard English represents, then how is this violence further masked behind the formal and legalese nature of a Congressional document that no attention was brought to? It’s a duplicitous endeavor. As Long Soldier notes earlier in the collection, Native Americans “were offered” this document, but no legal claims can be brought against the American government. The collection highlights the position of the one holding the power to apologize, but is unable to do so justly.
JH: I’m having trouble phrasing a question about this that isn’t just, “Why write?” So, instead, how has Layli Long Soldier’s work influenced your own?
NH: Rukeyser said that “poetry can extend the document,” but I see Long Soldier inhabiting and repurposing the document in such a way that it seems no other poet but Long Soldier could have written WHEREAS—it’s this level of inventiveness, but also this individuality of poetic identity I admire. Long Soldier’s ability to use syntax to create new and complex meaning reminds me of other poets who have done the same with documentary work—poets such as Solmaz Sharif and Juliana Spahr, for whom I share a deep respect. Last semester, I taught three collections, and WHEREAS opened up the most possibility for my students in terms of what a poem can do. It’s great to share that awe of craft with students. There’s also a certain amount of direct fearlessness in this project I’m drawn to. The whole collection implicates Obama, but there’s that line in the poem where Long Soldier specifically signals the former president’s famous campaign slogan, saying “yes I can shake my head wag my finger too….” The Congressional Apology took place on Obama’s watch and there aren’t many poetry collections that call him out. And though I was an Obama supporter— it’s refreshing to see a whole book go against the grain.
Why do this work? Because the forces that be are counting on our silence. Every time we write, we choose not to acquiesce; we choose not to make the work of violence and subjugation any easier.
Niki Herd’s poems have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Obsidian, The Rumpus, and North American Review, among other journals and anthologies. Herd is the author of a collection of poems, The Language of Shedding Skin, and she recently finished co-editing, along with poet Meg Day, the latest Unsung Masters volume featuring the poetry of disability activist Laura Hershey. She is at work on a meditative essay about memory, gender, and the act of speaking, as well as a collection of poems about violence in America. Herd currently lives in Texas where she is completing her Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
Layli Long Soldier is the author of Chromosomory (2010), a chapbook, and of WHEREAS (2017), the full length collection where you can find the poem Niki Herd read for this interview. WHEREAS won the National Book Critics Circle award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
In the this interview, Timothy Ogene reads a poem by Lenrie Peters, a Gambian poet and surgeon. The poem begins with the line “The first rose of the season,” and is the eighteenth in Peters’ 1967 collection Satellites. In this conversation, Ogene discusses how Peters’ work shows us that moments of silence can be moments of growth, and how Peters’ work offers us a model for writing that is at once optimistic and realistic about what Ogene calls “the violence of subjugation.” Thank you for joining us!
Timothy Ogene reading a poem by Lenrie Peters:
Jessica Hudgins: This poem feels really resolute to me. The heavy beats in each line, and those last two lines, especially. What draws you to this poem?
Timothy Ogene: Maybe he intended it. Maybe not. But the number assigned to the poem, 18, and what the poem suggests, ‘Of that which is to come/ In the power/ Of subdued fragrance,’ makes me think of Time and Maturation, how the later, no matter how delayed, is birthed by the former.
I’m drawn to the force and power of that promised ‘first rose of the season’, how it is revealed ‘layer by layer’ through the mechanism of concealment ( ‘Like the foetal head/ Inside an egg’). It is a poem that manages to stay optimistic while speaking to the violence of subjugation; that raises the imagery of birth and promise, calling on the reader to hold that image, but also drawing attention to the enigma of waiting.
JH: The poem makes me think of time, those beats like a ticking clock, and the easy way Peters moves forward — there’s nothing confusing about it, no word I don’t understand, but I feel like I haven’t fully grasped each moment, and then the next is here. That “subdued power” comes from saying exactly what you mean, and doing only exactly what you do: the rose will bloom because it’s a rose. Is this a political poem?
TO: Yes, Time is at the core of this poem. The time of maturation and the time of liberation, the time of waiting and of silence, and the time of bursting forth and glowing in full colors. Lenrie was writing at the point when the fire of Independence was sweeping across Africa, when young writers and intellectuals saw themselves as voices of freedom and promise, voices whose ‘subdued power’ lie waiting to release their ‘fragrance.’ Read in that context, of pan-Africanist thought and nationalist sentiments, it is political. But it is also a poem that allows itself room for extraction and transplantation, to be read outside its pan-Africanist frame and significance, to be read merely as a song of hope, an ode (if you may) to the power of waiting, a warning that waiting and silence are not sites of emptiness. That they are, contained in their essence, sites of gestation. Silence, the poem seems to say, does not imply erasure. Growth happens even in silence, and it is Time that eventually gives force to voice.
JH: And I also read a lesson about poetry in the last two lines — how has Lenrie Peters influenced you work?
TO: You’re right. There’s something about those two lines. A gentle reminder that it’s all about the process, the act of waiting, of honing, of patience, of keeping watch for the right time and season, of knowing that one’s ‘fragrance,’ closed off or ‘subdued,’ will find expression somehow. That’s the way I see and read it. But there’s something more about Peters’ work that I find interesting. It is his ability to simultaneously approach and detach from the political, to perform what I call a poetics of extraction, where a single poem or line offers itself as a political cry but also self-standing work of beauty.
Timothy Ogene is a poet and novelist. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a visiting research fellow at Brown University.
Visit Timothy Ogene’s website Read three poems by Timothy Ogene at Numero Cinq Purchase Timothy Ogene’s book Descent & Other Poems at Deerbrook Editions
Lenrie Peters(1932-2009) is a Gambian poet, novelist, and surgeon. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Satellites, which includes the poem discussed in this interview, and a novel, The Second Round. Peters worked for the BBC from 1955-1968, chairing its Africa Forum and broadcasting on several programs. He had a surgical practice in Banjul, and from 1979 to 1987 served as the president of the board of directors of the National Library of the Gambia and Gambia College.
Watch a 2006 interview with Lenrie Peters Read several poems by Lenrie Peters (this link leads to a blog, there may be mistakes in the transcriptions) Purchase Lenrie Peters’ book Satellites at Bolerium Books
Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Georgia.
In this conversation, Wendy Chin-Tanner talks about how reading Vera Pavlova‘s work gave her a model to follow in writing short poems about romantic love and about how Pavlovas’ writing disallows sentimentality and by engaging with the past. Pavlova’s poems are sincere, terse, and often also deal in ars poetica. Chin-Tanner puts them in context with Rilke’s Liebeslied, and identifies them as a “call to see things as they are.”
Jessica Hudgins: How has Pavlova’s work influenced yours?
Wendy Chin-Tanner: Vera Pavlova’s work speaks to me about relationality, its contradictions, conflicts, and nuances, especially in the context of romantic relationships. Her poems are imbued with a masterful compositional musicality that stems from her background as a trained classical musician and are delivered with the absolute greatest possible economy of words. I discovered her when I was working on the poems in my first collection Turn through my best friend, Russian-born anthropologist Veronica Davidov whose father, writer Mark Davidov, had worked with Pavlova. Short form poetry was already of great interest to me, but I was having trouble wrapping my head around how to write a love poem and Pavlova showed me the way. She quickly became both a poetic and personal touchstone, as she writes with urgency, immediacy, unsentimental sincerity, and mechanical precision about the emotional dynamics that underlie romantic love, how they necessarily replicate traumatic and triggering patterns of partners’ families of origin and how they are then called upon to make a choice between reproducing those wounding patterns and doing it differently, a choice between “rehashing” and creating. Not only is this an apt description of emotional processes in relationships, but it’s also a metaphor for the artistic process, and on a meta-level, the conflicts and layers expressed in this concept supply the necessary dramatic tension of the poetry. When I began developing the trisyllabic tercets that make up the majority of the poems in my second collection Anyone Will Tell You, I returned to Pavlova whose short lines and confidence in claiming blank space on the page emboldened me to do it, too. Reading her has not only informed my understanding of craft, but also the difference between sentiment and sentimentality.
Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova
JH: In both of these poems, Pavlova brings two actions in relation to one another in order to clarify what each word means. So, when I read, “Enough painkilling, heal,” I get worried, and ask myself, “When have I tried to remove something painful instead of trying to heal?” And, when Pavlova writes “to sing or howl,” the difference between singing and howling emerges, just because the words are next to one another. Do you respond the same way to these poems?
WCT: Poem 22 takes a Rilkean preoccupation, as we see in his poem Liebeslied, with the relationship between the self and the other, and the negotiation of the space between engulfment and abandonment, and gives it a fresh twenty-first century psychoanalytic feminist perspective. I read the opening line, “Enough painkilling, heal,” as a call to see things as they are, to face the truth about ourselves and others, and our situations, the good and the bad, in order to affect positive change.
In poem 62, my interpretation of the line, “to sing or howl,” is that it speaks to the gendered performances of masculinity and femininity as the poet addresses her partner as “a wall of stone,” behind which she is both protected (so that she is free to sing on the other side of the gender binary) and unheard (or stonewalled). Our lived experiences cannot occur, regardless of our politics or wokeness, in a cultural vacuum, and the many contradictions of heterosexual love in an unequal society are played out in this poem in both its pleasures and frustrations.
Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova
JH: What are you working on now?
WCT: Right now, I’m working on the second draft of King of the Armadillos, a novel based on a true story that takes place in New York City and Carville, Louisiana in the mid-1950s that explores the ways in which power, bio-ethics, race, gender, sexuality, stigma, community, illness, recovery, immigration, intergenerational trauma, loss, love, and redemption come to bear on families, relationships, and human experience.
Vera Pavolova Vera Pavlova is a Russian writer whose books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She is author of several poetry collections, including The Heavenly Beast, translated into English by Derek Walcott and Steven Seymour; Letters to the Room Next Door, a collection of 1,001 hand-written poems with illustrations by Pavlova’s daughter; and If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems, Pavlova’s first collection in English.
Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collections “Turn” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards, and “Anyone Will Tell You,” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019). She is a poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, and co-founder of A Wave Blue World, an independent publishing company for graphic novels. Some of her poems can be found at RHINO Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, The Collagist, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. A trained sociologist specializing in race, identity, discourse analysis, and cultural studies, Wendy was born and raised in NYC and educated at Cambridge University, UK. She is the mother of two daughters and the proud daughter of immigrants.
I’ve been reading Rosebud Ben-Oni’s work for a few years now, especially her writing at the Kenyon Review blog. Her reflections on Hikmet’s poem “On Living” are, like the poem, instructive. Rather than emphasizing the connection between one’s personal and political life, Ben-Oni writes, “As a Jew, I go back and forth with the power of living versus how we contribute to the larger living.” Instead of using “sentimental” as a catch-all phrase and moving on, she describes what she means, writing, “Hikmet understood the poet has to reach both the heart and the mind of people without falling into sentimentality, or merely appealing to human sympathies.” Thank you for joining us.
Rosebud Ben-Oni Reads “On Living” by Nazim Hikmet:
Jessica Hudgins: In our emails, you said that you’ve known this poem for a long time, and that you’ve been coming to it a lot recently. What do you think has made “On Living” stick with you? And what draws you to it now, specifically?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: Well, recently I’ve been in physical therapy for some problems with my spine. I’ve been in chronic pain for the last six years, and 2018 was an especially challenging year, health-wise; sometimes the pain was so bad I’d pass out. I’d turn to this poem in the past when I was at various low points in my life, but last year, there were many times I could not return to it because I felt like I was not strong enough to “live up” to whatever promise and faith the poem had always endowed within me. Then I had surgery. Under anesthesia, I had some really weird dreams that I’m not yet ready to share. But a few days after, when I was more lucid, I returned to this poem, particularly the lines:
with the four seasons and all time,
with insects, grass and stars,
and with the most honest people on earth—
I mean, affectionate like violins,
pitiless and brave
like children who can’t talk yet,
ready to die as easily as birds
or live a thousand years.
The poem itself is filled haunting images like “women sitting doubled over,/their fists pressed to their flat bellies, or running barefooted before the wind.” Here the speaker makes the journey “with the dead;/with those forgotten on battlefields and barricades.”
Hikmet was a journalist, and you can see that in his work, that he is trying to leave a record of both the horrors and wonders of what he’s seen. A lot of his poetry is very political, but none of it is a rant. None of it is, to use a word I dislike, “spin.” Hikmet does not lose the heart and grit when he leaves us his poetic records, his lyrical commentary. He shows us that despite “brand new buildings” where “hope shone bight green like a young pine” there are too “lamps blazed on foreheads/a thousand meters underground.” He’s showing you what’s really behind the surface, what would otherwise be invisible, without losing the art of poetry.
As a still somewhat practicing Jew, and a tinkerer in string theory, I too have tried to get beneath the surface of things. Recently, Poetry magazine published my string theory poem “Poet Wrestling with Her Empire of Dirt,” in which the speaker and her father have lost faith in both Judaism and science, in the act of living and what is left as legacy.
JH: “On Living” is a didactic poem, but it also has an element of openness, or flexibility. I love especially how Hikmet uses that “I mean,” and the series of hypotheticals, “Let’s say you’re at the front,” and so on. The poet seems both very sure about what he is trying to tell us, and worried that we might misunderstand. Can you take a minute to describe his tone? How do you think Hikmet understood the role of the poet?
RB: Oh, I’m so glad you noticed this about his tone because that’s in part what first attracted me so to this poem. I like the “speaking to you” element of this poem. There’s both an urgency and patience to his tone. Like he’s trying to work it out in his head to say exactly what he means while feeling and knowing exactly what he means.
I believe all poets are trying to do this, no? That we sometimes, if not often, feel a knowledge, deep down, of exactly what we say, and are trying to write and position that best on the page. To me, Hikmet understood the poet has to reach both the heart and the mind of people without falling into sentimentality, or merely appealing to human sympathies. He was talking about fighting for the much larger things which is fighting for the much smaller things—that we plant olive trees and not just for our children, to paraphrase another line from “On Living.”
JH: What moments in “On Living” do you particularly admire?
RB: All of them? But I’m serious. The third section in particular cements the whole deal you are making with him as a reader. That not only is life here on earth short, but earth’s life itself is short. Perhaps our larger impact on the cosmos will only be felt in ways that exclude our particular contributions if humanity is ever gone. That is to say, there will be something that we leave behind, but perhaps it won’t be able to be traced back to us. It does make me sad, in a way. It’s very Jewish of me, I suppose. The whole name being inscribed in the Book of Life by God during the High Holy days. As a Jew, I go back and forth with the power of living versus how we contribute to the larger living. They are two very, very different things. “On Living” doesn’t make navigating this perilous channel any easier, but it does shed light on why we should both live and more importantly, why we should live as part of the human race.
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 CantoMundo Fellowship. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, POETS.org, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, among others. Her poem “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, and published by The Kenyon Review Online. Her second collection of poems, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE, and will be published in 2019. She writes for The Kenyon Review blog. Find her at 7TrainLove.org
Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) was a poet, novelist, and playwright born in Salonika, Ottoman Empire, (now Thessaloníki, Greece). He lived in prison and exile for many years due to his revolutionary politics; in 1950, five days after Hikmet ended a month’s-long hunger strike which received international attention, the newly-elected Turkish government adopted general amnesty law, and he was released. Later that year, he received the International Peace Prize. His works translated into English include Human Landscapes from My Country: An Epic Novel in Verse (2009), Things I Didn’t Know I Loved (1975), The Day Before Tomorrow (1972), The Moscow Symphony (1970), and Selected Poems (1967).
Cait and I met a few years ago. I was a prospective MFA candidate at the Ohio State University, and she was a current graduate student. While I didn’t end up attending OSU, I stayed in touch with Cait. In this interview, we talk about how the playfulness in Natalie Shapero’s poems is at once particular to the poet’s sense of humor and inviting to her readers. We talk also about lists in poems, and about life in universities. I was really happy to have this opportunity to reconnect with Cait, and to read a poem of hers I didn’t know, which is printed at the end of this interview. Thanks for joining us!
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Hard Child” by Natalie Shapero
Jessica Hudgins: OK so to start I’ve got to say that I was nervous when I saw you’d chosen to read Natalie Shapero, and then relieved and surprised when I heard your recordings. I think I thought that, because her sense of humor is such an important part of her poems, she would have to be the person reading them. Did you think about this while you were recording these? I haven’t been nervous with poems by May Swenson, even though her poems are interested in sound, or with an elegy by Philip Levine. Why would I think that poems with jokes seem more private, or more limited to the person who “told” them, than other poems?
Cait Weiss Orcutt: I am in awe of Natalie Shapero’s aura—and when I say “aura,” I mean “aura” as Walter Benjamin envisions it: an essence, a near-otherworldly power rooted in sharing space with something sublime. Natalie’s readings live in the sweet spot between stand-up comedy and performance poetry, and hardly anyone in the audience wants to breathe lest they break the magic. What Natalie as a living force brings to the page and stage is impossible to recreate. So, yes, now that you mention it, choosing to read her poems was a bold move. But life is for living and so here we are.
As I see it, when you ask about joking in poetry, you’re at least in part asking, “What makes a poem private?” That’s a fascinating question to me. I love that you’re connecting that sense of privacy with a sense of humor, since our senses of humor are so finely calibrated, so minutely shaped and sharpened by the way we grew up, whom we listen to now, how we choose (or don’t choose) to understand the world. I love poems with a sense of humor—not only for the chance to laugh but also because, to me, the best poems are the ones in which I get to see a mind at work. Someone can have a feeling, write it down and then, years later, a whole other human can pick up those words, read them, and have a similar feeling. I was raised atheist and maintain a crystal-embracing agnosticism, but even as a semi-skeptic, I see poetry’s ability to replicate feelings across bodies over time and space as god-like. What is divine if not unfettered connection?
So again, what poems are private? What feelings are? The right words in the right order will out anything you have tucked away inside. Poetry allows one’s isolated privacies to become a shared public on the page—what is more magical than that?
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “Not Horses” by Natalie Shapero
JH: I really appreciate the, like, negative/positive attitude in these poems. The line in “Not Horses” that goes, “Everybody’s/busy, so distraught they forget to kill me,/and even that won’t keep me alive,” is the best example, but also how, in “What Will She Go As,” the past in which an infant may have died turns into a present where the same child is okay. What drew you to these poems? Why did you choose to read this group in particular?
CWO: As much as I am a reader and a writer, I am also a teacher, working with students at the University of Houston, at HISD high schools, charter middle schools, art museums, the Jewish Community Center and the Salvation Army (for senior citizens and homeless young adults, respectively), local arts non profits and, every now again, community board meetings looking to try something new. Having taught every age from six years old to ninety, I need lessons that will open any reader up to the possibilities and play poetry offers.
“Not Horses” is one of my favorite poems to bring into a workshop. The speaker aligns themselves with “a bug that lives only one day” and the “little dog / who sees poorly at night and menaces stumps.” Who cannot relate to these creatures, lost but lovable, broken but brave all the same? I believe poetry exists to make living easier, or at least to make living a lot more interesting. I want my students to see how poems offer a framework for survival, like the speaker’s voice coming out of the poem to our ears, small bumbling pets that we are, saying “don’t be afraid— / our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.” Only perhaps not quite as morbid. A poem, just in existing, in telling its story or conjuring its associations, says: “You will survive this like I did. You are not alone.”
As for “What Will She Go As,” ambivalence around childbirth will always catch my attention. This specific poem does so much: 1. anticipates a baby’s arrival; 2. mocks society’s consumerist, gendered obsessions; 3. references the most famous baby kidnaping crime with tinges of pro-Fascism around its edges; 4. hints at the future absence of the baby in a defiantly daring way that surprises anyone familiar with miscarriages, stillbirths and infant mortality. This poem takes the topic of Halloween Costumes and launches off into a multitude of conflicting feelings, connections, threats, promises and resentments. What better way to welcome a baby into a world than with a poem that rockets around the human experience with such wit and vinegar?
JH: In these poems there are lists of traditions, of costumes, and of terrible things that might happen on any given day. These lists are really entertaining moments in the poems, because each item in the list surprises us with how obviously it belongs, even while it’s unlikely for the poet to have chosen that exact thing. Do you use lists in your poems? How do you see Natalie Shapero’s work influencing your own?
CWO: I have always enjoyed a good list, how the tension mounts in a poem as items are added, how one can sense a specificity beginning to show itself out of the block of marble that is Language with each new addition to the chain.
Right now I’m working on a series of poems that, in short, bring women back from the dead. When I started writing these poems, I didn’t set out to make them especially baroque, but as I put them together, I realized that, in each one, I’d layered detail upon detail to build environments both shimmeringly beyond the veil and earthy enough for someone who’s seen it all—these survivors step out of lush green glades, move through in-patient rehabs painted infinite shades of pink, skate on Roller Derby teams populated with defiant femme-punned names. List after list appeared in these new poems, always shadowed by the lists of those murdered through partner violence, gender violence, transphobia, homophobia, patriarchal white supremacy. Lists are powerful incantations. Sometimes I wonder if all poems (or at least all lineated poems) aren’t in some way lists—every line giving new solutions to the same overarching problem, different routes to a single destination.
In terms of Natalie’s work’s influence on me, I have been trying to crawl inside Hard Child ever since I finished my book VALLEYSPEAK, a first-person collection of poems built around a coming-of-age storyline. After VALEYSPEAK, I was searching for ways to write beyond my own family mythos. I admire how Natalie is able to create tension, stakes, personality and (inside, outside, borderline) jokes without actually giving us all that much about her personal life, past issues, or childhood history. Her poems create warmth and inclusion beyond or at least beside the autobiographical narrative mode. Natalie’s work, to me, achieves that perfect balance between the poet casually saying “This wild thing happened, let me tell you about it” and the reader noticing, “Damn, that’s a masterly poem.”
Cait Weiss Orcutt reads “What Will She Go As” by Natalie Shapero
JH: You both attended Ohio State University’s MFA program — did your time there overlap? And you’re in a PHD program now. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in universities?
CWO: Even though we’re about the same age, I wasn’t at OSU until a few years after Natalie graduated. She was still living in Columbus, though, and taught an afternoon intensive poetry workshop one day my first year there. I think the world of her as a human, a writer and a reader.
Not to be too infomercial about it, but The Ohio State University’s MFA changed my life. I learned to think of myself as poet, a teacher and a member of the literary community. I met mentors that changed my understanding of poems and peers whose books I will be buying and reading for the rest of my life. I also wrote a thesis that eventually became my first book and met my husband, so I really have few complaints.
Right now, I’m in the middle of my third year at University of Houston, and again, I’m amazed by the compassion and intelligence of my cohort.
Still, I would be amiss to omit a few caveats. Universities are deeply flawed in how they allocate funds, how they alter (or don’t alter) curriculum requirements, how they treat adjuncts and Graduate Teaching Assistants, how they devalue, minimalize or wholly deny the experiences of BIPOC and non-male students, faculty and employees. The school I am currently at is forced to allow (hidden) guns in the classroom under Texas’s “Concealed Carry” state law. OSU had its problems too. All universities do.
Ultimately I am grateful to be given the opportunity to study, write and teach with a university’s backing and a brilliant, engaging set of colleagues. I value my students and deeply respect how hard they work to balance their family responsibilities, their jobs, their health, and their studies all in fairly uncertain times. I love and admire my professors for the time and care they pour into us. And, as a member of the university myself, I hope to help instigate change where we’re not quite living up to our potential yet.
JH: I feel like we can’t ignore the moment in “Not Horses” where a pet dog appears. Have you ever included a pet in a poem? If so, can we please end with an excerpt?
CWO: In fact, I have! I just finished a draft of a poem about my cats and poor love choices, and a few years ago I wrote an ode to the two black pugs I grew up with back in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley in the 1990s. The cat poem is still stretching its limbs, but the pug poem, “Ode to the Small Black” was published by The Chattahoochee Review, Volume 36.I. Here is a reprint:
ODE TO THE SMALL BLACK
pugs huddled by heating vents. California cold, no one believes it who hasn’t lived here. Temperature is relative, so the family forages scarves & sweaters, mittens, earmuffs. The daughters unbury beanies, but the mother craves the cool wind, lets it caresses her ears, scalp, neck. The family’s pugs cuddle each other, wait for the youngest daughter to slip & spill her sausage on floorboards. She does. She always does. Little creatures, they can’t translate the tantrum that comes after the fall, just the sausage sliding between 4 or 5 snaggled pug teeth. A pet’s joy is a pure joy, a joy more autonomous animals cannot reach. A grandmother visits, calls them bloated ticks. O, everyone has a trash & a treasure. When summer comes, the 2 will gorge themselves on loquat fruit, sweet tumbled meat, but now, they sleep. Dark dog orbs lodged near air ducts. A paradise of squat life: heat, meat & curling up beside another’s feet.
Cait Weiss Orcutt’s work has appeared in Boston Review, Chautauqua, FIELD, and more. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. Her manuscript VALLEYSPEAK (Zone 3, 2017) won Zone 3 Press’ First Book Award, judged by Douglas Kearney. Cait has an MFA from The Ohio State and is currently getting her Ph.D. in Poetry from the University of Houston. She teaches creative writing at University of Houston, Grackle and Grackle, Inprint, WITS, the Salvation Army, the Menil Collection, and the Jewish Community Center. She is the graduate advisor for Glass Mountain literary magazine and the recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship.
Natalie Shapero is the author of two poetry collections. The first, No Object (Saturnalia 2013), received the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and the second, Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press 2017), was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Shapero has earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, and the University of Chicago. She is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University, and an editor at large of the Kenyon Review. Her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Kenyon Review Fellowship.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson. We consider how reading a poem aloud — deciding which syllables to stress, and when to pause — can express ideas the poem suggests. We take a very close look at phonetics , and discuss how the study of linguistics informs Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s reading of May Swenson’s work. Thank you for joining us!
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Question” by May Swenson:
Jessica Hudgins: OK so obviously the first thing I have to ask in our conversation about these poems is sound – how long did it take you to record them? In “Question,” for example, there are some lines that you stress exactly as I expected you to, “How will it be/to lie in the sky,” and others, “bright dog is dead,” surprised me. Were there any lines that, while you were recording them for us, you had to stop and think about?
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer: Thank you for starting with sound! Warning: if you aren’t much interested in meter and sound, perhaps skip to the next question, because I am about to geek out with great enthusiasm.
So much of what draws me to May Swenson’s work is her musicality, her rhythmic play, her pleasure in the way lines chime. Both “Question” and “Four-Word Lines” are poems I memorized long ago (like two decades ago?), in part because they move me, and in part because in learning them by heart, I’ve been able to challenge and deepen my understanding of Swenson’s poetry.
I should mention, however, that I read both poems on the page when I recorded them for you, in case I’d taken liberties with Swenson’s language over the years (which, it turns out, I had). I recorded each poem two times.
With “Question,” the poem literally gallops. It’s based on two-beat lines, often iambic. However, I choose to recite it as if some of the lines are a spondee followed by an iamb. This basically crams three beats into a two-beat line, perhaps like the way some of us try to cram more “beats” of life into the limited time we’re given. Check out this first stanza:
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
I suppose the first line could be a trochee and an iamb, though that would have less of a charge. And I suppose you could read the third line as two iambs, but that would produce such a sing song effect, and I intuit Swenson wants to evoke a wild ride, a quickening, instead of a predictable Hallmark ditty. The poem is driven, driven with question, driven by mystery, driven with curiosity, and I love the way her metrics strengthen this drive. The poem’s pulse is our pulse, both in its insistence and in its subtleties.
I love, too, that she ends the stanza with an amphibrach (unstressed, stressed, unstressed). So that the stress of the word “fallen” falls off at the end of the line. This mirroring of sound and meaning thrills me. I don’t just hear the fallenness, I feel it physically.
And then, once the two-beat pattern is established in the first two stanzas, Swenson breaks the iambic tendencies in stanza three, adding even more syllables to the lines in a sprung-rhythm way, allowing more movement inside the imposed form.
But now let’s consider these lines:
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead
You noted in your question how I read the last line of this stanza as four separate beats, five really, including “good” from the line before. Well, it’s a line about death, a literal stopping of the gallop of life. And it seems to me that by giving each single-syllabic word an emphasis, Swenson is, in effect, hammering nails into a coffin. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. Sound. Stop. It’s allowing the silence between the sounds to come to prominence, a preface to the eternal silence that follows that last word, “dead.” By giving each word its own beat, the poem aurally brings home the finality of that line.
Also curious to me: the only question mark in the poem is at the end. The poem thrusts through where any punctuation might try to tame it. As if question is the new statement. When that question mark finally arrives at the end, we can paradoxically rest there in its rising uncertainty.
As for recording “Four-Word Lines:” this poem is the most haunting, surprising erotic poem I know. Though it is startlingly graphic inside its bee/flower metaphor (“I’d let you wade/ in me and seize/ … a sweet/ glistening at my core), it is delightful and playful and even a bit goofy with its insistence of all those sibilants, voiced and unvoiced, creating an audible swarming of bees. Swenson even gives us the odd plural possessive word “bees’,” which to me invites a buzz-heavy doubling of the “z.” Oh the ecstasy humming in the air! This poem makes me simultaneously blush-ish and breathless and foolish.
Once, while walking through a modern art museum, I came to a large blue bowl on the wall that created an echo effect, so I recited the poem into the bowl—the resonance of all those zzzzz’s was deliriously hypnotic.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer reads “Four-Word Lines” by May Swenson:
JH: In “Question” May Swenson approaches metaphor in a couple different ways. In the first stanza she uses direct address to compare the poet’s body to a house, while in the third stanza she refers to the body by name to introduce a metaphor of the body as a dog. In “Four-Word Lines” Swenson is more focused on repetition and sound. Say a little about why you chose these poems, and about Swenson’s influence on your work.
RWT: Swenson’s use of metaphor is my other most favorite part of her work. In “Question,” she leaps between body as house, horse and hound. Pleasing how she’s chosen three five-letter words that begin with h. Random, but not random. As house, the body literally contains us, “hides” us, keeps us safe, though eventually it will “fall.” As horse, our “mount,” it helps us “ride” and move through the world. As hound, it is our soul’s companion, it “hunts” our food, it sniffs out “danger or treasure.”
She interchanges the metaphors as the poem speeds along, not handling them one at a time, but all at once, so very true to the experience of having a body. And also, as you note, the speaker seems to be both in the body and also witness to the body. She is, at the same time, whatever it is that will die and whatever it is that will live on.
I often use this poem in workshops about the body. It is easy to pick almost any three nouns and explore them metaphorically. “Body my slug, my sloth, my soil.” Or “Body my wall, my woods, my wine.” And it is easy, in a way, to imitate her form here, basically a litany of questions.
It is not easy, however, to do what Swenson has done, which is to create a masterful envisioning of the transition from life to death. After the word “dead,” the speaker takes us to the beyond imaginable realm of body-less-ness, offering us only questions, which is the only real answer available to most of us.
I love that pun in the third-to-the-last line, “wind for an eye.” Though the eye still might see, the “I” is unseen, becomes wind, becomes spirit, becomes invisible, powerful and still somehow animate. With its puns and rhymes, this poem is a playground, despite its serious content.
We can find Swenson punning again in the title of “Four-Word Lines.” It is, of course, a nod to the poem’s self-imposed form. The poem is also forward in its sexual thrust. And as the first poem in “The Love Poems of May Swenson,” I think some editor was having fun by making the poem, in effect, the book’s foreword.
Here’s something else I love about Swenson’s writing—she creates simple forms, in this case four-word lines, and then uses this small limitation as something to push against and fuel creativity. Here, she charges the poem with alliteration and assonance. The similarities of sound resonate within single lines, but also reach into the next lines, creating a complex of connections beneath all that constant buzzing. It’s like the two lovers in the poem managing to connect despite the overriding “swarm of other eyes.” Let’s take a look at the inner assonances/alliterations in the first five lines:
Your eyes are just
like bees, and I
feel like a flower.
Their brown power makes
a breeze go over
In line one, we have the /r/ in “your/are,” which carries through in line three with “flower” line four with “brown” and “power” and line five with “breeze” and “over.” In line two, “feel like a flower,” has such strong interplay between the /f/ and /l/, and then the /ow/ sound of line three with “flower” is pulled into line four with “brown” and “power.” There’s the vocalic rhyme of “bees” in line two with “feel” in line three and “breeze” in line five … there’s more, but you get the idea. It’s splendidly woven!
Many years ago, I wrote out the poem in the phonetic alphabet so I could better see the patterns. What thrilled me then, and thrills me still, is the way Swenson seems to let sounds lead her through the poem, allowing her to arrive in unexpected places.
In my own practice, one major inspiration I take from her poems is to let myself be led by rhythm and rhyme in playful, insistent, unpredictable ways. After years of practicing this approach, I still appreciate how sound helps lead me into surprise and revelation/anti-revelation.
By the way, I earned my master’s degree in English language and linguistics because I wanted to understand how phonetics and syntax could inform poems. Swenson, Hopkins, Cummings—these were some of the poets who inspired me to explore this way.
JH: The verbs in “Question” are: do, sleep, ride, hunt, go, know, lie, hide. These are interesting to me, especially the last. No longer having a body should make hiding easy, but we get a sense of what Swenson means. I think I hear you gesturing toward this paradox in your recording. Why would Swenson ask where she’ll sleep after she’s dead? I don’t exactly mean that, but I’m curious how you might answer the question.
RWT: Right … what a curious ending. I have puzzled around this for years. Here’s where I land with it now. I think the speaker is suggesting that the I is the most essential part of us. It is not the body. It is, perhaps, the soul, what animates the body. And, to some extent, the I “hides” in the body. And then, when the body is dead, the I is exposed. The “shift” in the penultimate line is not only a garment, it’s the transformation from body and soul to simply soul.
This poem often makes me think of the Ramana Maharshi quote, “The reason to ask ‘Who am I?’ is not to arrive at an answer, but to dissolve the questioner.” And here, the questioner is still not quite dissolved at the poem’s end. How can it imagine what happens after its own dissolution?
I’m curious what you think about why she asks where the I will hide when the body is dead.
JH: These poems are so disarming. Their tone could be described as innocent, but the speaker is knowledgeable and calm in a way that makes us rethink that as we read on. What do you make of their titles?
RWT: I spoke already about the multiple puns in “Four-Word Lines.” I am embarrassed to say it was years before I found them, but I was so delighted when I did!
As for “Question,” here she rolls many questions into one. It seems to me there is some suggestion that all questions are really parts of the same ultimate question, “Who am I?” Just as all poems are, in some way, trying to answer that one question, though perhaps in a more plural sense, “Who are we? What are we doing here?”
As you say, there’s an up-front innocence that can make the poems feel quite simple. On the surface, “Four-Word Lines” is a modest story of bee meets flower. But there’s daring and pluck in the lines as they limn desire.
I also think that part of the reason the poems are ultimately disarming, as you say, is because they don’t include moral judgement. They don’t tell us how to feel. Swenson’s writing style is observational, terse, permissive. One poem takes us out of the body. The other leads us more intimately into the body. And after reading and re-reading, these poems continue to open, like the “flower breathing bare,” and we see just how richly crafted they are, how they allow us to wade in layers of both meaning and form.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer lives in Placerville, Colorado, on the banks of the San Miguel River. She served as San Miguel County’s first poet laureate and as Western Slope Poet Laureate. She teaches poetry for 12-step recovery programs, hospice, mindfulness retreats, women’s retreats, teachers and more. An avid trail runner and Nordic skier, she believes in the power of practice and has been writing a poem a day since 2006. She has 11 collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in O Magazine and on A Prairie Home Companion. Her most recent collection, Naked for Tea, was a finalist for the Able Music Book Award. One-word mantra: Adjust. www.wordwoman.com
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s poem-a-day blog
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer on Rattle
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s Tedx Talk on the Art of Changing Metaphors
May Swenson (1913-1989) wrote several books of poetry, including A Cage of Spines, Iconographs, and More Poems to Solve. Swenson received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She served as a chancellor on the board of the Academy of American Poets in addition to teaching at several universities including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University.
When Helena Mesa wrote to tell me which poem she chose to read for Lyric Essentials, she said, “When I think about formative poets for me, Levis always comes to mind. I still remember reading Winter Stars in my kitchen in Houston, and awakening from the thrall, still in my kitchen, sitting on the floor, my lunch cold in the toaster oven.” Here we’ll look at Larry Levis’s control of the line, and think about how that control gives him more freedom to address loss and regret. We’ll also consider how Levis’s attention to specific moments in the past deepen the emotions he describes as happening now. Thank you for reading.
Jessica Hudgins: It was really moving to me, after learning that you first read this poem in your kitchen, to read the poem myself and see that it takes place in another domestic space—the poet’s backyard. You say that this poem and the book Winter Stars shaped you. Can you say a little more about that? How has Levis’ work influenced you?
Helena Mesa: As a young poet first reading Winter Stars, I was struck by the meditative quality of Levis’ poems. I never knew where he would go, how he would arrive there, and I was awed by the way his poems came together. Take the opening narrative of “My father once broke a man’s hand / Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor.” I never imagined that narrative would move to the statement of misunderstanding to the mind-as-city metaphor to the beautiful, intimate arrival: “Cold enough to reconcile / Even a father, even a son.” As a young female Cuban-American poet, I feared sentimentality, so much so that I buried sentiment under layers of imagery and detachment. Reading Levis was invigorating—he allowed readers to meditate on a small moment with him, and through his meditation, he risked revealing emotion as he discovered meaning.
Levis also challenged me to embrace the free verse line. When writing, I’d hear my teachers repeat, “Think in a 10-syllable line.” It was good advice for me at the time—the syllable count gave me a structure to work within and against as I learned what the line could do. And, while I loved poets whose lines weren’t traditionally shaped by syllabics (poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Lynda Hull, Lucille Clifton), I didn’t yet understand how they constructed their lines so each possessed integrity, each resonated. In fact, when I first read “Winter Stars,” I foolishly thought the lines weren’t controlled. Look at some of those early lines:
With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, & with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand…
The line breaks are super unexpected. The hard enjambments on “held” and “first” push forward, but Levis’s caesuras within the lines—versus the ends of lines—create tension that mirrors the poem’s opening narrative. When I read “first / two fingers” aloud, the internal rhyme and hard stresses emphasize each syllable, which slows the pacing, which lets me further visualize the image before I reach “so it could slash.” The “sharpened fruit knife”—a dangerous object—is being “held,” and the pacing slows down as Levis zooms in on the image of how Rubén Vásquez held that knife “horizontally”—pause—“& with surprising grace”—slightly longer pause—“Across a throat.” So dangerous. The lines tug between speeding forward and pausing with punctuation, musicality, and end-stopped line breaks. And then, Levis balances the most dramatic detail—“Across a throat”—pause—on the same line with “It was like a glinting beak in a hand”—something potentially beautiful that, of course, isn’t beautiful. It’s such a delicate balance between contrasting elements, and Levis’s craft—his control—both evokes sentiment and undercuts sentimentality at the same time.
Helena Mesa reading “Winter Stars”
JH: The extended metaphor that begins, “If you can think of the mind as a place continually/visited…” is particularly striking to me, and of course the way that Levis’s attention keeps coming back to the stars. Can you point to a moment in the poem that you admire and describe what you admire about it?
HM: Yes, exactly! How those stars become a mechanism for meditating on his father and his looming death. There are so many things to admire. The beauty of the turn “I got it all wrong,” stated in plain vernacular speech. Or, the poignant direct address to his father. Or, the sincerity of “where a small wind.…wakes the cold again— / Which may be all that’s left of you & me.” But, today, looking at the poem again, I find myself focusing on Levis’ repetition of “now” in that almost-surreal fourth stanza. Three times he says “now”—it’s insistent. In its most simplistic function, the repetition grounds the reader by locating us in the present time; but more importantly, the repetition of “now” allows Levis to both move through time and pay attention to time. The present moment—in its limitations and imperfection and sorrow—is merely the present moment, and even this moment will be lost, like the California light, the place in their lives, his father’s speech, his father’s life, their relationship.
JH: Do you consider “Winter Stars” an elegy? Like, of course it is, but it also seems less concerned with grief than reconciliation and the way that memory connects us to one another. What do you think?
HM: I’m strangely fascinated by elegies that are non-traditional elegies, which might be another reason why I’m drawn to Larry Levis. When asked about being an elegiac poet, Levis once said, “I often feel that that’s what I am as a human.”
I think of “Winter Stars” as having an elegiac eye or positioning—we see him mourn as his father “is beginning to die”—losing language and, presumably, memory. The grief is present, but it isn’t that raw grief we associate with the death of a loved one. To me, that grief points toward a different kind of loss—Levis mourning the relationship he could have had with his father, and realizing it might be too late. If Levis portrays his father as “ashamed” for “a lost syllable as if it might / Solve everything,” Levis may also feel shame for getting “it all wrong.” And, because the poem focuses so much on the father-son relationship, and even ends on those two clauses, yoked in one line—“Even a father, even a son”—it’s hard for me to detach one from the other. To think of his father’s approaching death means Levis is also aware of his own mortality, without saying so.
True to “Winter Stars” as a whole, however, Levis unites contrasting emotions, or perhaps, turns toward complex emotions. The mourning and elegiac eye end on reconciliation. The sky might be a wide expanse, but within it is starlight, which Levis twice alludes to as something that persists. And, in the final stanza, Levis describes a “pale haze of stars goes on & on.” Starlight endures, in contrast to the temporality of the moment (the meditation), in contrast to the tension between the speaker and his father (the past).
Larry Levis (1946-1996) was an American poet. He published several books for which he received recognition from the International Poetry Forum, The American Academy of Poets, and the National Poetry Series. Levis taught at the University of Missouri and Virginia Commonwealth University and directed the writing program at the University of Utah.
Helena Mesa is the author of Horse Dance Underwater and a co-editor for Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner,Puerto del Sol, and Sou’wester. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and she has attended Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshop and Napa Valley Writers’ Workshop. She teaches creative writing at Albion College and lives in Oakland, California.
A note from Anna Black: It has been my great pleasure to be a part of the trajectory of this series. Through it, I have met many new friends and come to learn about a number of poets that had heretofore been unknown to me. This has been a tremendous pleasure and I am grateful for having had the opportunity. As I am now handling new roles for Sundress, I am handing over the series to the capable and deft hands of Jessica Hudgins, our former intern, and I’m excited to read the new voices that she will bring to the table, too. As for me, you can find me as the host over at Poets in Pajamas, and I’m also now serving as the staff director for Sundress. So I didn’t go far. I hope you’ll welcome Jessica and make her feel at home as you all did me. -Anna
Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.
Kierstin Bridger came to Lyric Essentials to discuss the work of Lynn Emanuel and really delivered. Here, we see deeply into Emanuel’s work as Bridger highlights her own discovery of Emanuel and the resulting love-affair with her poems. From Emanuel’s uniquely Western aesthetic to Bridger’s dawning understanding of persona, Bridger invites a deep-read and then goes further with an exemplary set of discussion points. And in there too, a 2018 Pandora as Bridger offers “permission to go astray.”
Black: Why did you select Lynn Emanuel? In our earlier emails, you spoke about her inventiveness and her language. Can you elaborate on these, too
Bridger: Lynn Emanuel is magic. She is all mood and slunk. The sound of her “k” is a clunk, a pistol set on a hardwood table. There is something decidedly western about her, an aesthetic she has been known to say evolved from noir, a “light and grime.”
She grew up in the city of my birth, Denver, Colorado which definitely has a grit and blue sky sensibility. Her poems elicit a racy and wry wit that jump starts my imagination, “I am so tired,” she writes in The Dig, “I could lie down among these trees. . . / and let the earth take one slow liberty / After another.” Oh God, don’t these lines just exude a perfectly sex-ragged cool with a subversively American tang?! When I grow up I want to be her.
I first discovered Lynn Emanuel in grad school. I remember reading Hotel Fiesta and The Dig, feeling so aligned with her character but not knowing it was a character. Meaning, I knew poets sometimes employed the use of a poetic mask i.e. “the speaker” but I also knew the persona of “speaker” was usually only inches from the author, an autobiographic self if you will.
I remember I flew through my copy of The Dig like it was some kind of hybrid, a memoir/thriller only to realize that the story was not her story. Lynn Emanuel did not grow up in Ely, Nevada. This was not a memoir disguised as a chapbook, this was invention! It was like a big flash of lightning struck. The thought occurred to me that she was giving me permission. I too could write, not just frame my own narrative with artful cuts and lens changes. She is like the Cindy Sherman of poets. In various collections, she embodies the reader, other humans, versions of herself and even dogs—“The Mongrelogues.” I love these lines from “Homage to Sharon Stone” from her 1999 collection Then Suddenly:
I have always wanted to be a car, even though most of the time I have to be the “I,” or the woman hanging wash; I am a woman, one minute, then I am a man, I am a carnival of Lynn Emanuels: Lynn in the red dress; Lynn sulking behind the big nose of my erection; then I am the train pulling into the station when what I would really love to be is Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone at six in the morning.
In “Persona” she enters a dead man, makes the embodiment “meta”, then follows up by showing us how she enters “the other.” All the while she balances this without ever forgetting a poem’s musicality, the necessity of sensory details, and her fresh, vibrant language—“I throbbed in the big fog of his shirt.”
But it is her humor, her ability to render a poem, to make it turn the corners of a reader’s mouth in a smile while simultaneously leveling something devastating about death, about liminality or about the cycle of abuse.
She uses her mastery of the language in deft, subtle strokes. There is an intimacy with the reader, like she’s taking us behind the curtain to whisper secrets, secrets of craft, of language of humanity but then we close the book and realize she isn’t really there when only seconds ago she made us skip past time and space—I know I sound crazy, but her poems mesmerize me. She casts a very real spell.I have the distinct feeling she is listening hard to voices that are inaudible to the rest of us mortals. She is a conduit and a witness, and yet … and yet there is a master at work who diligently pushes and crafts her poems into multifaceted gems.
I was especially fascinated with the method she used for her latest book. The Nerve of it, New and Selected Poems. Shunning conventional chronology, she recast the poems and arranged them next to each other in harmony, she allowed one poem to “talk” to the next one. I admire her willingness to see the poems as finished works, objects so removed from her own life, or her publishing timeline that they could be arranged as a painter hangs work in a gallery, related by theme or image. I love how she can let go like that, let the poetic order reassemble into new meaning.
Kierstin Bridger Reads “The Book’s Speech”
Black: I think at one point when trying to decide, you said, “Pivot, Pivot, Pivot!” Tell us about your selection process? Why did you select these three poems?
Bridger: I think I was referring to my “monkey mind” jumping with possible poets to record and talk about. My brain is restless and it can hardly settle on any sort of favorite. Reading one poet leaps to another, one poem to another. Initially, I was worried that if I chose a friend or a former teacher, inevitably someone would feel left out. So I decided to trace all my favorites back to a source, not origin (as in lineage) but a creative source.
When I finally chose Lynn Emanuel I had a hard time choosing poems—I re-read dozens of them. I became transfixed again. She has a long piece called “The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet,” oh! I love it so. It’s long and funny and prose-like just as it’s dissing the prose form. The inherent irony and fun she must have had making it has made me a devoted reader forever.
Kierstin Bridger Reads “Flying Trout While Drunk”
Black: Let’s talk about Flying Trout while Drunk. What’s your take on this poem? What would you teach about this poem?
Bridger: The possibilities are endless! The swagger and tone of the piece stop my heart.
Here are a few starting points for lessons:
1. Character and Persona (If we read this poem as autobiography the poet would be four years old in 1953 so it must be said that this experience has been rendered with another lens, perhaps a compression or amalgamation that do not make it less “factual” ie. less accurate but, instead, more real and true in a deeper sense—(those buttons falling, can’t you just hear and see them? “buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.”)
2. Mood (noir sensibility. “Dark slung across the porch”)
3. Efficiency and spare, and precise language
4. Muscular verbs
5. Ridiculously fresh metaphor and simile—“a man of lechery so solid you could build a table on it” or “the trout with a belly white as my wrist”
6. The camera lens approach i.e. going long and tight in focus
7. Sensory details for beginners as well as practiced poets, (the bacon and the trout!)
8. How to approach mystery, i.e. how to intrigue reader without baffling the reader: We think we know where we are in this poem even though time telescopes and turns mobius because of her startling first line. She puts us smack dab in the middle of the scene. That her mother’s knees glowed in the green light was a memory imparted to the daughter as opposed to direct knowledge—so already the poem’s veracity is purposely off kilter.To ground us, the speaker puts herself in, gives us her first-hand account … suddenly we are dragged into the drama just as the child is drug into a drama which will become her own, a history that repeats, “When I drink I am too much like her.”
9. How to juggle time and space in ways fiction can’t do as well or efficiently.
10. The space a poet gives the reader to bring in our own understanding and experience, the essential work a reader must do to connect. In the last third of the poem, we are asked to find meaning, to fill in the blanks. For example, when I was in high school my drama teacher asked us to pantomime sneaking into the house while drunk. Many people overdid it, big pratfalls, and belches, loud steps, and exaggerated movements but the performance she liked best was the sneaky but slightly sloppy precision of the actor who tiptoed in. That last bit:
I have loved you all my life
she told him and it was true
in the same way that all her life
she drank, dedicated to the act itself,
she stood at this stove
and with the care of the very drunk
handed him the plate.
When I read those lines I am in that class, I am also in my house at seventeen sneaking in, at the same time I am imagining this mother intoxicated not just momentarily but chronically, thereby rendering her decisions clouded by the disease. I think of the people I have known like that, the trout from the first part of the poem, the smell, my own Colorado childhood … it’s incantatory, positively spellbinding.
Kierstin Bridger Reads “Persona”
Black: Do these connect to your own work in some way? And if so, how?
Bridger: My contemporary work often has a dark tone, especially when I write about growing up in the rural west.My poems yearn to be as spare and rich as Emanuel’s but I’m still working!
I’ve had fairly good luck with persona poems. My book, Demimonde, has lead me on many fine adventures since its publication. It has won a few awards and I havebeen able to reassemble my turn-of-the-century research of contraceptives, suicide, yellow journalism and medicinals into a few historical lectures and tours. The book concerns 19th-century prostitutes in small western mining towns. In researching it, I turned into a history nerd overnight.
When I began the book, I was in the midst of completing my thesis manuscript.I was overwhelmed by talking about myself so much in both my critical essay and in organizing poems that were incredibly personal. I needed a break.
A project about women who really did not have a voice, women who became, over the course of history, caricatures rather than characters became a bit of a side hustle for me.I was grateful for the permission my Pacific advisor Sandra Alcosser gave me. She encouraged me to dive in deep to the humanity and lives of these women. Sometimes we all need a strong dose of encouragement and permission to go astray.
The smaller project had no expectations or personal weight. It seemed to have a life of its own. Doing the research lead me to poets like Natasha Trethewey, and her book Belloq’s Ophelia. Though I deeply admired the way she wrote about prostitutes in Storyville, I knew my take on persona poems would have to look completely different—no letters for one thing.
I wanted to conjure women who were, by and large, illiterate. I began like most writers, writing about them using a narrator’s voice but the poems didn’t have a pulse until I changed perspective. I had to use persona in a first-person voice to make them come alive. I had to listen hard for their voice in the aspen and in the cool rivers near my home. It was a time of deep imagining but also a kind of enchantment. It revived me and turned into a book I love. My publisher, Lithic Press, did a gorgeous job with the presentation. We layered the poems with vellum printed antique photographs.
Black: What are you working on now?
Bridger: I’m excited about reinventing a project I’ve been working on for a while, a historical project that may turn into collaboration. I enjoy working with people. I recently completed a back and forth piece with Irish Poet Clodagh Beresford about a Colorado/Ireland donor eye transplant. We traded stanzas in a see-saw fashion. It was incredible. We did a Skype reading of it not too long ago—she was in Ireland while I was in my car in a parking lot outside of a hospital. Isn’t technology grand?
I’m always working on at least ten different projects at a time. I’m re-designing a house we want to buy, organizing the poets for our reading series, planning a trip, but in terms of my writing life? I feel I am finally at a place I can encounter my biography and push harder on what I once saw as periphery.
Perhaps I used to think “going deeper” meant getting more confessional, more in touch with how I felt as a child or a teen, exploring my culpability, or my adult perspective thrust upon a long ago occurrence, but recently I have discovered I need to ask more questions.
When I was sixteen, I was involved in a fatal car accident. It surfaces in my writing because, thirty years later, I still grapple with it, the survivor’s guilt, the loss of life and innocence, but in the wake of the “me too” movement, I’ve begun to question the circumstances of the life of the girl who died that night.
I want to get beyond my personal stake in the narrative and ask bigger questions. Why was she so estranged from her family? What were the circumstances around the intimate, on-and-off relationship she had with our much older boss? Why did we not question it at the time?
Sometimes I think I have a memoir in me and sometimes I can’t imagine the amount of plot and storyline that would require. Though I flirt and publish short-memoir and flash fiction, I can easily lose hours in a poem with 37 lines.
I ask myself, how would I possibly manage chapter after chapter of a full-blown memoir? Mary Karr did it, Patti Smith did it, Nick Flynn … the list goes on and on I say. In some ways, my full collection All Ember (Urban Farmhouse Press) was a memoir.But if I’ve learned nothing else from Lynn Emanuel, it isthat time and practice reframe events with new understanding as well as new levels of artistic design.
Here in Telluride, literary burlesque has been a big annual event for the past 5 years at the Telluride Literary Festival. Every year I swear I’ll never do it again because of the time involved and the difficulty of shepherding extremely busy, really talented women together to rehearse. Every year it’s a different theme. Last year, it was my turn to direct a huge performance we called “Uncorseted.” We made unsung heroines of the world war era come alive. Our point of entry was “where did the suffragettes go? We became Margaret Sanger, Anna Akhmatova, Margaret (Molly) Brown, Inez Milholland Boissevain, Mata Hari, and Marie Marvingt. It was incredible. I may or may not have some ideas brewing about 2019! Wink.
Something brand new: I’ve taught in workshop settings, guest lectured and stoked the fires of a small literary community but I have never taught a full course at the University level. In January, I will begin teaching online poetry at Adams State University. Preparing curriculum, researching poems and poets is a rabbit hole I thoroughly enjoy exploring, even if I get lost sometimes. In fact, as I answer these questions, I am at the same time researching the perfect political poem to read at a talk I’m giving with our Colorado State Laureate, Joseph Hutchison.
I have noticed I rarely tread the same stone twice—endless combinations thrill me. My daughter came home recently and asked us to guess how many combinations existed in her upcoming class trip matrix. She said there were three trip options and twenty-three kids. Each trip needed at least seven kids. This kind of story problem usually gives me a headache and I tap out immediately but what I loved was the idea of calculations which could endeavor to account for all the possibilities, calledcombinatorics.
I think the continued conversation with my students and peers will open up paths I’ve never tread before. I rarely cook the same meal twice. I know I will never teach a class the same way twice, either. Reinventing the wheel is where it’s at. I’m eager to begin something new.
Lynn Emanuel has twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Emanuel also won the 1992 National Poetry Series for her book, The Dig. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, Oxford American Poetry, and many more. Emanuel teaches at the University of Pittsburgh where she directs the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers’ Series which she also founded. Emanuel is the author of five books.
Kierstin Bridger is a Colorado writer. She is the author of two books: All Ember (Urban Farmhouse Press) and Demimonde (Lithic Press) which won the Women Writing The West’s 2017 WILLA Award for poetry. She is a winner of the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize, the 2015 ACC Writer’s Studio award, a silver Charter Oak Best Historical Award, and an Anne LaBastille Poetry Residency. Bridger was also short-listed for the Manchester Poetry Competition in the UK. She is editor of Ridgway Alley Poems, co-director of Open Bard Poetry Series, co-creator of the Podcast, Poetry Voice with Kierstin Bridger and Uche Ogbuji and director of the 2018 literary Burlesque at The Telluride Literary Festival. She earned her MFA at Pacific University.
Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.
Poet Emma Trelles, author of Tropicalia (Notre Dame, 2011), came to chat about the extraordinary work of Ada Limón. We talked about horses, chaos, and the importance of Latinx poetry.
Black: Limón’s work impacts a lot of people and as a result, she enjoys well-earned success. What is in her work that you are particularly drawn to?
Trelles: There’s so much I admire about her work. She is a master of cadence in that she knows precisely where to expand and contract her lines to create a voice that reads to me instead of the other way around. I think it might be easy to miss this aspect of craft in her poems because the sound of them is deeply engaging, like having a conversation with a confidante. But it takes a lot of effort to create that ease and she renders this armature invisible. I’m also drawn to how her poems are both joyous and melancholy at once as if she is celebrating the experience of life instead of simply its victories.“In the Country of Resurrection” comes to mind; she begins with the mercy killing of a possum on a dark road and ends with a gush of morning light in the kitchen. In seven couplets, a shape that echoes this duality, she moves us through despair, and in the final two she speaks to the decisiveness, the choice, it takes to move forward. Her poems are survivors, and the ability to endure inspires me as an artist and a human every time I’m bludgeoned with another slab of bad news. We must continue.
Black: Horses are a recurring theme throughout the book, and we see it again here in “Downhearted.” This theme really hit home for many readers. Do you connect with it, also? And if so, why? Where does it take you?
Trelles: That’s interesting—I hadn’t thought about horses as a theme but more of how they fit into the prominence of the natural world in these poems. A terrible accident kills six horses in the first line of “Downhearted,” and this tragedy sets off a meditation about how we manage or manufacture sorrow even as we long for “the blood to return…the thrill and wind of the ride.” From beginning to end, this book houses creatures, landscapes, flora, the pleasures and failures of the body—they all are themselves, of course, but they also serve as fleshy signposts that point her, and us, toward ourselves and something bigger than ourselves. Namely, how we try and find meaning in chaos and how that process sustains us.
Black: Limón moves into prose poems off and on throughout the collection and we see it here in “The Quiet Machine.” What do you see as the purpose for this movement? How does this play with the other forms in the collection?
Trelles: I’ve thought a lot about how “The Quiet Machine” feels like an ars poetica to me and, now, looking at the other prose poems, I’m starting to suspect they all address writing in a way, or at least the feeling of making, and how that arrives through whir or stillness or somewhere in between. To me these poems serve as a deep pause; they slow down the hearty gallop of the book (which is astonishing for a collection of poems!) in a way that amplifies intimacy. Some of these poems felt like reading the pages of a secret notebook …
Black: Do these connect in some way to or intersect with your own work?
Trelles: Oh yeah; my own writing also teems with trees and birds, sky and water. I’ve always been a great watcher of the natural world and my first book, Tropicalia, explores how the subtropics intersect with the built environments of South Florida and what it means to live in the midst of that thicket of concrete and lushness. I also connect to Ada Limón’s work because we are both Latinx writers who do not necessarily address our heritage in the ways that have come to be expected of us, such as through the lenses of ancestry or immigration, for example. I love reading those poems and greatly value the work of poets who write within this framework.
Perhaps now more than ever, Latinx poems are crucial to humanizing a population who is currently being criminalized in our country for no other reason than where we come from. With 57 million of us in the US, I’d also like to think there are lots of different ways to live and write as a Latinx poet, and these poems are important too because they show how we are not a monolith; our experiences are nuanced and singular and so is our creative work.
Black: Will you tell us about your work both completed and any current projects you’re working on?
Trelles: Well, it’s been a while since Tropicalia, won the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and was put out by the good folks at the University of Notre Dame Press. Since then, I moved to California and now program the Mission Poetry Series here in Santa Barbara. I’ve worked on a number of projects with Letras Latinas, most recently as an editor for its contribution to the Poetry Coalition, a national coalition of more than 20 organizations that promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities. I’ve been writing and publishing poems and hope to finish a working draft of my next manuscript by the end of this summer. There—’ve said it in print and now I’m beholden! I’ve also been collaborating with Alexandra Lytton Regalado on a series of poems inspired in part by the work and lives of women artists. In fact, I owe her an envoi and that’s the very next thing I’ll write.
Black: Thank you, Emma, for sitting down with me. And I’ll be hoping for that next collection, I can’t believe you committed to that in writing!
Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky. Her new collection, The Carrying, will be released by Milkweed Editions in August of 2018. (Bio is from the author’s website.)
Emma Trelles is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and the author of Tropicalia (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, a finalist for Foreword/Indies poetry book of the year, and a recommended read by The Rumpus. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry, Best of the Net, Verse Daily, Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity and others. Recent poems appear in The Miami Rail, Zócalo Public Square,and SWWIM. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, she lives with her husband in California, where she teaches at Santa Barbara City College and programs the Mission Poetry Series.
Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, SWWIM, and New Mobility among others. She was awarded her MFA at Arizona State University and has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.
Trish Murphy’s book, Hemming Flames is a deft exploration of trauma and incredibly difficult topics with a rich topography of image and language. Pretty much, I consider her a true adept at wielding her words. And this is exactly what she had to say about why she admires Terrance Hayes as a poet as well as loving his work. We got to talk about the surprise of his lines, and the way his stance makes the poem completely trustworthy.
Black: What draws you to Terrence Hayes as a poet?
Murphy: Terrance is a brilliant, generous, and funny human being. I love how many times his poems surprise me with unique phrases, strong images, but also deeply personal touches. In a reading he gave here in Phoenix in 2016 he said something that really moved me. He said that when he writes poems he keeps, “one foot in reality and one foot in imagination.” That is the way I like to posture myself as a poet as well.
His poems are full of musicality, masculinity, sensuality, whimsy, insight, AND moments of profound tenderness. How does he do it? He is a poet I read and wonder, how does his mind work? A line like, “Has your memory ever been / an unfenced country?” or “I know decent lies in the word descent.” There are so many moments in his work that I am thankful for. I picture him sitting at a desk—do these lines fall from the sky? How does he access them!?
Black: What is it about these poems that draw you to them? Do you connect with them personally, professionally, both? And in what ways?
Murphy: I’ll start with “Fire.” Now let’s be honest. I love dropping what I call the “M” bomb. There is no word quite like “mother” to stir emotion in the reader. It’s a cheat word in some ways because it’s so heavily weighted. I write about the mother a lot.
But I love the way the mother appears in Terrance’s work. In “Fire,” she is part of the landscape, but she is also a mythic savior. The way he reaches the mother as a topic is subtle and quiet and natural.
I do connect with this poem personally and professionally. When I’m reading submissions for my magazine [Superstition Review], or even when I am teaching writing of late, I talk about the 3 C’s: content, craft, and composition. In this poem there is a mastery across the board—the poem paints an image of a dream scene that allows the poet to portray the mother as a mythical hero. The poem is full of sensory detail and image and metaphor. And the writing at the word level is stunning. I love the line, “There was the calm & discretion / of giving up.”
In “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals” we get even more evidence of craft—the language here takes on more sophistication and playfulness. I love the line “I will remember my / brief career as an infant.” I love how socially aware this poem is without being self-conscious or self-important. These poems are so deeply personal that the reader is drawn into the experience on an intimate level. In this particular poem, I am attracted to the use of repetition, the play with words, the imagery, the refrains. I have tried to write a poem like this.
Black: Do you see connections from “Fire” or “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals” with your own poetry? And if so, how so?
Murphy: I can only say that I wish I could write like this. Maybe I have succeeded a few times with a few lines here and there.
Black: What are your feelings about the use of the first person in a poem?
Murphy: I write mostly in first person, though I do have several epistolatory poems. When I talk to students about first person in poetry, I talk about the main problem as I see it: that overuse of the “I blank” construction becomes repetitive and it also can indicate a level of self-centeredness. So in revision (or in editing even), I also recommend a ctrl-F for “I.” A lot of times sentences can be reworded so that they are simply more interesting.
What I like about these two poems and the way they use first person is that I feel so connected with the speaker. I believe the I. I believe the poet.
Black: What else would you like to point out about these poems? The language, the use of imagery? I’m interested in knowing what else moves you about his craft? What do you want students to take note of?
Murphy: It strikes me that the poets I admire most are the ones who take the time to imagine through to image. Perhaps that’s why I feel that these poems are so generous and thoughtful. The poet works through concept, “For house pets being American / is a cinch.” But also through image, “what I have eaten of you tastes like mint and damp clay, tastes exactly like the soil / I ate in my grandmother’s yard as a boy.” I really appreciate work that feels intentional and genuine, and Terrence Hayes is a poet who delivers every time.
Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press) won the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award judged by Stephen Dunn, and the 2017 Milt Kessler Poetry Award. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, and most recently in Copper Nickel, Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Smartish Pace, Burnside Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Hobart, decomP, Midway Journal, Armchair/Shotgun, and Natural Bridge. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.
Terrance Hayes is a MacArthur fellow, a National Book Award winner, and the author of six poetry collections including his newest, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assasin. Hayes has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, won the National Poetry Series in 2001, and has achieved many other landmark accolades. In 2017 he was made a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
Anna Lys Black is the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is a Virginia G. Piper global fellow, a graduate excellence awardee, and mere weeks from completion of her MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others.