An Interview with Sundress Author, Jill Khoury

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Jill Khoury is the author of Suites for the Modern Dancer, which was released this month from Sundress Publications.

Sundress: What is it about the body and disability that inspires your poetry?

Jill Khoury: From a young age my body was an object of the normalization efforts of others. At the same time, it was made clear that the body was a private thing. So I was told to be like the other kids, and be quiet while I was at it, and I internalized that message for a long time. So I do it because I was told not to. Nor are notions of normalization and privacy something that our society has moved beyond, so I guess I also write about these things because I want other people to tell their stories of difference and tell it loud.

Sundress: Did you ever read a work about either that really spoke to you? Anything you recommend?

Jill Khoury: So many! Here’s a brief list of books of poetry and memoir that have inspired me to think/re-think how I write about the body, in chronological order of when I discovered them:

    • Anne Sexton- Collected Works
    • Sharon Olds- Satan Says
    • Toi Derricotte- Captivity, also Tender
    • Stephen Kuusisto- Planet of the Blind, also Only Bread, Only Light
    • Georgina Kleege- Sight Unseen
    • Paul Guest- The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World
    • Tom Andrews- The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle
    • Jim Ferris- The Hospital Poems
    • Ed. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, Michael Northen, – Beauty Is A Verb: The New Poetics of Disability
    • Danielle Pafunda- The Dead Girls Speak in Unison 

Sundress: Your description of blindness throughout is very real. What’s your secret? How were you able to convey the experience of being blind in so few words?

Jill Khoury: My secret would be that I’m blind! Actually I’ve been trying to write elegantly about blindness for a long time, since college really, and I failed at it for many years. The (blind) memoirist and poet Stephen Kuusisto shaped a lot of my ability to write successfully about my own personal version of blindness. He taught creative nonfiction at Ohio State when I was pursuing my MFA there, and took several classes with him.

It turned out that I had to write about blindness in essay form first, before the poetry would come anywhere near to being how I wanted it. Although I don’t care for writing in prose too much, I needed a boundless space (which is usually what I don’t like about writing in prose) to give me enough room to explore the relationship with my blindness without the pressure to distill it into a poem. I really like the lyric essay. Steve introduced me to that form. It was just what I needed.

Sundress: In this book you write several poems about characters who are children or young adults. Do you think children have a special awareness of the body and the stigmas attached that older adults may miss?

Jill Khoury: Like I mentioned, I was taught in early childhood to not like my body and its differences. I spent most of my time after age 18 unlearning those things. I do think children are aware of their bodies with an innocence and a freedom that is so easily quashed by adults. The stigmas are learned very early, and internalized by all bodies. To say that I found the received stigmas about my body inhibiting would be an understatement.

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Sundress: Have you ever written a poem that you felt you just couldn’t get right? What’s your revision process like?

Jill Khoury: The title poem of the book, “Suites for the Modern Dancer,” was started in, I think, 2004. I wrote the final draft of it about two months before Suites-the-book was published. An earlier version of the poem appeared my 2009 chapbook, Borrowed Bodies, but it still was not complete, not nuanced enough to accurately convey the complex fluidity between blindness and seeing, and the consequences of, as mentioned in the previous question, received stigmas about the body.

My revision process is different depending on the poem. “Suites” was sparked by reading A. R. Ammons’ essay “A Poem Is A Walk,” in which he said:

“The motion may be lumbering, clipped, wavering, tripping, mechanical, dance-like, awkward, staggering, slow, etc. But the motion occurs only in the body of the walker or in the body of the words. . . . It can’t be translated into another body. There is only one way to know it and that is to enter into it.”

All my life I had struggled with walking. I went to a school for kids with cerebral palsy when I was very young to improve on some coordination issues that I was born with. As far as I know, I don’t have CP, but I do have issues with balance and motor control that seem similar to people with mild versions of CP.

I lived in one of those small towns where you go to elementary and middle school with the same kids that you graduate high school with. I would say I did not have a “normal” looking gait until I was somewhere in the elementary school years. That, along with my low vision, was grand fodder for childhood cruelty, and somewhat, for cruelty from teachers who really wanted to normalize me. Again, received stigmas.

It may have been the case that the professor who assigned the Ammons essay, also gave us an assignment to think or write about poetry and walking—I can’t remember now. But I thought a lot about the history of my walking and of my newly acquired walk, the one with the white cane I had recently learned how to use in order to forge across the wide midwestern streets of Columbus, Ohio. The cane gave me much better balance and bodily confidence, but I also felt like that girl who was learning how to walk being pointed at by all the mean kids, only everyone was grown.

Sundress: What’s interesting about these poems is that some have a more traditional format and structure while others don’t. Do you ever find yourself leaning toward one or the other or does it always depend on the poem?

Jill Khoury: The poem determines itself. They each emerge organically. I wish I had a more adroit answer for this question, but it really is based on an intuitive feeling of sound and breath and the emotional timbre of the subject matter.

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Sundress: What progress do you think still needs to be made for disability representation in poetry and literature?

Jill Khoury: A lot of progress still needs to be made. Last year I heard an editor of a young, vibrant press that publishes “edgy” work and has been inclusive of other work based in identity, a place that I might submit my work to otherwise, say “I hate hospital poems [or poems that dwell on the body and its illness] because they are such a downer.” I was stunned. It was a comment you might expect to hear from a traditional “old guard” sort of press that had very particular ideas about what poems should and shouldn’t be about, but that wasn’t this.

With that in mind:

  • More journals and presses should be open to examinations of disability and the body as another facet of identity, much like has (recently) been given to examinations of the complexities of gender and race, for example.
  • Space should be given to works that focus on intersections between facets of identity, such as race, sexuality, and disability.
  • The personal narrative should be emphasized–meaning: more space for disabled voices writing about disability and much less space being granted to disability used as a prop, trope, or conflict to give more “depth” to a nondisabled person’s narrative fiction.

 

Purchase your own copy of Suites for the Modern Dancer in the Sundress Store!


Jill Khoury is interested in the intersection of poetry, visual art, representations of gender, and disability. She is a Western Pennsylvania Writing Project fellow and has taught writing and literature in high school, university, and enrichment environments. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Arsenic Lobster, Copper Nickel, Inter|rupture, and Portland Review. She has also been anthologized in Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, Pudding House Press released her chapbook, Borrowed Bodies, in 2009. Her debut full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer was released by Sundress Publications this month.

Sundress Academy 2016 Poetry Retreat

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The Sundress Academy for the Arts is thrilled to announce its Summer Poetry Writing Retreat, which runs from Friday, May 27th to Sunday, May 29th, 2016. The three-day, two-night camping retreat will be held on SAFTA’s own Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee. This year’s retreat will focus on generative poetry writing and include break-out sessions on publishing, kicking writer’s block, and much more!

A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, transportation to and from the airport, and all on-site amenities for $200. Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent. Payment plans are also available!

The event will be open to writers of all backgrounds and provide an opportunity to work with many talented, published fiction writers from around the country, including Gerry LaFemina and Karyna McGlynn.

Gerry LaFemina
Gerry LaFemina

Gerry LaFemina is the author of nine collections of poetry and prose poetry, numerous chapbooks, two books of fiction, and Palpable Magic: Essays on Poetry and Prosody. A new collection, The Story of Ash, will be released in 2017. Among his awards and honors are a Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from the Irving Gilmore Emerging Artist Foundation and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. A distinguished literary arts activist, he directs the Frostburg Center for Literary Arts at Frostburg State University, where he is an associate professor of English. He also serves as a poetry mentor in the Carlow University low residency MFA Program.

 

 

Karyna McGlynn
Karyna McGlynn

Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande Books 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books 2009), and three chapbooks: Scorpionica (New Michigan Press 2007), Alabama Steve (Sundress Publications 2014), and The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution, forthcoming from Willow Springs Editions. Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, AGNI, Ninth Letter, Witness, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. Karyna’s honors include the Hopwood Award, the Verlaine Prize, and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, and recently earned her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston where she served as poetry editor and managing editor for Gulf Coast.  She is currently the Diane Middlebrook Fellow in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin where she serves as the senior poetry editor for Devil’s Lake.

 

 

Space at this workshop is limited to 15 writers, so reserve your place today at
http://mkt.com/sundress-publications/safta-poetry-retreat

 

Lyric Essentials: Donna Vorreyer Discusses William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

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Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Donna Vorreyer reads “Sonnet 116” by the bard of Stratford.

Indeed, a surprising choice. I don’t think I’ve read Shakespeare since high school! Not sure if that’s a thing I should be admitting or not. What is it about the ol’ bard that makes him so essential? Is revisiting Shakespeare something that all contemporary writers would be wise to do?

Donna Vorreyer: When I discovered Shakespeare in sixth grade, through a teacher who brought me Romeo and Juliet, I fell in love with the sound of it. I didn’t understand it all, but it didn’t matter. At that point, I was a goner. I went to the sonnets on my own, and then my father introduced me to his favorite, Twelfth Night, (still my favorite as well) and then high school brought me the usual slate of tragedies to seal the deal.

My ragged Riverside Shakespeare from college is one of my “save it in a fire” books – I have many emotional memories tied up in that copy of the complete works, but Sonnet 116 has always been a standout. The line “O no, it is an ever-fixéd mark” cast a spell on me the first time I read it and inspired me to memorize a poem for the first time. Years later, my husband gifted me with a mobius bracelet that has Sonnet 116 engraved around its curves. I wear it nearly every day.

I would say that everyone would be wise to revisit Shakespeare, but especially writers. His stories, emotions and conflicts are so universal that they still resonate after hundreds of years. This is why theaters around the country continue to reinvent and modernize the stories without changing the language. I’ve seen Macbeth staged with modern mercenary uniforms and weapons, Romeo and Juliet as gritty Matrix-style club kids. Love, class war, secrets, the art of the deal, death, betrayal, violence, gender identity/relations, humor, sex –every writer is essentially rewriting some element of life that Shakespeare has already explored. Most importantly for me, Shakespeare epitomizes the joy of language – the wordplay and the sheer music of it – in a way that no other writer does. And the music of a poem, for me, is not an element you can “leave out,” like nuts from a cookie. It MUST be there, and in Shakespeare it is. Always.

Chris: Do you perceive, and mourn, a loss of well employed meter in contemporary poetry?

Donna Vorreyer: I would say yes to perceive, but no to mourn. Encountering mostly free verse, today’s casual reader could be lulled into thinking that attention to meter does not exist.  But I think there are plenty of writers out there successfully using meter (and even – gasp! – rhyme) well in contemporary poetry. One that comes to mind immediately is Jessica Piazza who, in her book Interrobang!, works exclusively in sonnet form. Other writers like Stacey Lynn Brown and Patricia Smith, have gained recent attention for sonnet crowns. Writers like Kay Ryan work successfully in traditional meter, and the music of the poem is crucial in the work of contemporary writers like Melissa Stein and Katie Ford.

Meter provides the contemporary poet with a framework to use and then break, if desired. It is a part of our spoken language, so it cannot disappear if a poet is writing anything resembling speech. And, although exact end rhymes are out-of-fashion, they still show up subtly in some cases, and internal and slant rhymes are common in free verse. I would never mourn the “loss” of any element of poetry, as trends in publishing come and go. (For example, the ghazal has been EVERYWHERE at poetry readings I have attended over the last year.) So, meter will always be a valuable tool for any poet – no need to write it any elegies quite yet.

Chris: Shakespeare first states what love is not in the opening quatrain, and then segues into offering his own definition. What do you make of his choice to begin with negation?

Donna Vorreyer: Negation is a tool that Shakespeare uses quite a bit in the sonnets, most famously in Sonnet 130 – “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips red.” That poem negates until the last couplet, leaving the volta to the very end. Contemporary poets also use negation to highlight a persuasive position or to point out a disingenuous speaker “coming clean” and telling the real story.

In Sonnet 116, I think Shakespeare uses the negation as a tool of argument. The initial negation follows an imperative opening: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/admit impediments” – in other words, don’t give me any bullshit about true love having defects or bowing to obstacles. It is natural for a speaker to negate after that kind of pronouncement –You know that bullshit you were just talking? Hell, no, it is NOT that at all –so we get “Love is not love/ which alters when it alteration finds/or bends with the remover to remove.” And then he proceeds to lay out what love is, using the language of ships and storms and stars. He returns to the negation with “Love is not Time’s fool” and immediately rebuts by admitting that love can’t defy time, but won’t be changed by it, either, bearing “it out even to the edge of doom.” Since this is normally where the volta would come in, the negation is softer here than in the beginning, balanced with reason. Then he just drops the mic with the couplet. It’s a beautiful thing.

Chris: In addition to the interesting use of negation and masterful meter, what else made you decide that Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” is one of the most essential pieces of writing to your bookshelf?

Donna Vorreyer: For starters, it is bold without being sentimental. And, although at this point some of the images might seem like clichés (a guiding star, etc.), they weren’t in the 1600s! “Whose worth’s unknown although its height be taken” is to me the loveliest of metaphors about the value of what one carries on the inside. I don’t think there are enough love poems in contemporary poetry, and those who write them are often dismissed as sentimental or even amateurish. But what emotion is more universal than love? And the sonnets are models of all sorts of love poems: definitions, abstractions, affairs requited and unrequited, secret love, forbidden love –you name it, Will’s got it. There is much to learn from these poems. It might seem old school or formal to cite Shakespeare as an essential in my writing life, but my love for language and its music, sparked initially by my father reading aloud, was fueled by Shakespeare at a formative stage. And, being in a 35 year relationship with my husband in a world where relationships are often temporary, this particular sonnet speaks a truth to me.

Chris: Earlier you mentioned a lot of contemporary poets that write sonnets. Is the sonnet your favorite form of poetry? What do you make of quasi-form poetry—sonnets that are only sonnets because they’re called so, or are dubbed sonnets because they’re 14 lines?

Donna Vorreyer: I don’t know that I have a “favorite form” of poetry, but I do have a tendency to write and enjoy reading short poems. My early drafts often follow a sonnet-like arc, both in terms of length and where a volta comes in. (There is at least one formal sonnet in each of my books, so I am drawn to the form.) Sometimes, when I have a draft that seems clunky, I will force it into that fourteen line cage to see where the meter/language can be tighter. I don’t mind people calling their poems things like “modern sonnets” as I don’t believe in telling any writer what his/her poem is or isn’t. I’m not a purist, in that sense. But I do appreciate when I see a well-written formal sonnet that doesn’t announce itself as such, and the control and precision of diction that create a sonnet are qualities that I admire in a poem of any length.

Chris: A few months ago a theatre group here in Fairbanks put on Star Verse. I think it was supposed to be a retelling of Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, but with Shakespeare as the author so everything was put into iambic pentameter, bits of free verse, and well-timed R2D2 beeps and blaster noises. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. What’s your favorite reproduction or adaptation of Shakespeare that you’ve seen? Have you ever seen a production of Shakespeare that was just plain strange?

Donna Vorreyer: I’m a Star Wars fan, so I wonder if that play was based on the Ian Droescher book that reimagined Star Wars in Shakespearean language. I have seen productions at the RST, high school productions, and numerous plays here at Chicago Shakespeare Theater where we attend nearly every show. On film, my favorite is Trevor Nunn’s version of Twelfth Night.

Onstage, two of the most unique and special were CST productions of The Tempest. This year’s version featured magic/production effects designed by Teller (of Penn & Teller) and a Caliban performed by two actors who were gymnastically-entwined through the entire play. We were in the front row, a foot from the actors, and could not figure out the magic happening. It was a truly one-of-a-kind night.

Also, a production from a few years ago only used three human actors. Two were Prospero and Caliban- every other part of the play was performed by the third cast member using marionettes and elaborate wooden masks. Staged in their small upstairs theater, it was a disconcerting and intimate theater experience. I can honestly say I have never seen a performance of Shakespeare’s plays that didn’t move me in some way—perhaps that is why he is an essential for me.
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Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013) as well as seven chapbooks, most recently Encantado, a collaboration with artist Matt Kish from Redbird Chapbooks. She works as a middle school teacher in the Chicago suburbs. That’s it. Brevity is, after all, the soul of wit.

Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation PressStill: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.

Lyric Essentials: Blas Falconer on “Infidelity” by Stanley Plumly

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Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Blas Falconer reads “Infidelity” by Stanley Plumly.

Chris: Blas, this poem strikes me as “confessional.” Am I wrong in thinking that? What can you tell us about Stanley Plumly’s writing? Is he the type of person to be offended by the confessional mode?

Blas Falconer: You know, Stanley was my professor back in the day at the University of Maryland, and if he had not helped me to break out of a terrible rut, I would have stopped writing twenty years ago. So I committed to memory as much of what he said as possible and often hear his voice when I am working through a poetry problem.

When I read your question this morning, I remembered him say, “Every poem I’ve ever written is somehow about my father.” I can’t remember the context, but it was probably an offhanded comment in workshop in response to someone else’s poem, something about poetic obsessions. This wasn’t terribly surprising, I suppose, but it left an impression because of what he said soon after: “Every poet eventually has to learn how to not write about himself.” I think that these comments come to mind because, after all of these years, I’ve never thought of this poem, any of his poems, come to think of it, as confessional, though it’s easy to see why someone would. When I imagine the speaker of the poem, I don’t think of Stan.  Nonetheless, I don’t think that he’d be offended.

Chris: So much depends upon that single letter, “I.” It must be a tiresome role. It’s interesting that he doesn’t come to mind as the narrator. Do you think the poem suffers in anyway if it is read with Plumly as the speaker? What does the poem gain if it isn’t him?

Blas Falconer: No, I don’t think that the poem suffers or gains anything either way.

Chris: I really like the idea of “poetic obsessions.” Are there other obsessions that inhabit Plumly’s poetry? Do you have any poetic obsessions yourself?

Blas Falconer:  As for Stanley, I don’t know, maybe birds.

As for me, I often return to the landscape of Puerto Rico, my mother’s homeland, and to my mother, and to exile. I return to these subjects even when I’m not writing about them explicitly, which was Stanley Plumly’s point, I think.
Chris: I also enjoy this idea that poets have to learn how not to write about themselves. To me, that sounds like a thing easier said than done. Was not writing about yourself something you were already practicing when you were at Maryland? Or did that come with experience?

Blas Falconer: I think that Stanley meant to suggest that eventually we had to move beyond our own stories to address our obsessions. We needed to find alternative approaches, other devices. I don’t think that he wanted us to do away with narrative altogether.

For some of us, it was a thing much easier said than done. At the time, I was, for the most part, writing poems inspired by personal experience, and I still often have to challenge myself to move beyond some version of my own story.

Chris: Do you think Plumly was attempting to get students to write universality into their poetry? For instance, in order to write about our obsession accurately we have to consider and understand them both subjectively and objectively?

Blas Falconer: I’m sure that he was, Chris, and I think that he was also encouraging us to find multiple methods of approaching a recurring theme so that we didn’t write the same poem (or same kind of poem) over and over again.

Chris: This may be a bit of an odd question, and it’s definitely the wannabe critical geographer in me talking, but given how you return to the landscape and your mother in your writing, I’m curious, what does “place” mean to you? How do you perceive and understand the landscape?

Blas Falconer: The Puerto Rico of my childhood was somewhat Edenic, and so in my mind, rendering the landscape became a way of infusing my poems with a sense of wonder and loss. I guess that I often use landscape as a means of conveying a sense exile. For example, my first book, A Question of Gravity and Light, often juxtaposed imagery of the island with the imagery of Tennessee to express this sentiment.

Chris: Blas, sorry for the strange detour from Plumly’s poem. We’ll get back to it now. What characteristics of “Infidelity” make it essential to your bookshelf?

Blas Falconer: It’s been fun, Chris, and this question is perfect because it helps me to better articulate my first point. When I read “Infidelity,” I’m drawn into it the way that I’m drawn into a compelling film. Watching a good movie, I don’t think about the actors or the screenwriter or the director. I’m not wondering if the trees in the background are real. (They probably aren’t.) I just give myself over to the experience. Only after the magic is over will I wonder how the movie was made.

Similarly, after reading “Infidelity,” I begin to see how hard everything is working to create the experience: the title, how it speaks to both to the parent and the child in the open-ended final lines, the narrative with all its pauses, the descriptions, the lines, the line breaks, the turns, the repetition, even the comma in the middle of the thirteenth line, for crying out loud. Everything works together to draw me into the world of the poem, not the world of the poet, and it happens every time. For me, this is why it’s essential for my bookshelf, because it’s a model for the kind of poems that I like to read and the poems that I aim to write.
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Blas Falconer is the author of two poetry collections, The Foundling Wheel and A Question of Gravity and Light, and a coeditor of two essay collections, The Other Latino: Writing Against a Singular Identity and Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. The recipient of an NEA Fellowship, the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange, and a Tennessee Individual Artist Grant, his poems have appeared in various literary journals, including Poetry, Poetry Northwest, and Puerto del Sol. He is the Poetry Editor for The Los Angeles Review and teaches in the low-residency MFA at Murray State University. His third poetry collection, Forgive the Body This Failure, is forthcoming through Four Way Books in 2018.

Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation PressStill: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.

Lyric Essentials: Natalie Easton Reads “Sex Without Love” by Sharon Olds

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Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Natalie Easton reads “Sex Without Love” by Sharon Olds.

I’m such a Sharon Olds fan, I’m excited you picked her. Before we get into the great poem you recorded for us, can you tell us a little about your first Olds experience?

Natalie Easton: Picking her was almost unavoidable, for me. She’s always the first to spring to mind when I think about whose work I’ve enjoyed wholeheartedly. I knew of her, of course, but my first real introduction to her came after you visited my house in May 2014 and left Satan Says behind. (I still have it–sorry, you’ll get it back, promise.) I loved her accessibility, her lack of frivolity, her poetic narrative full of truth and completely lacking in pretense. I loved the way her poetry made me cringe; her descriptions of our bodies, of her sense of family, of conflicting emotions so tightly entwined that betrayal and love become almost indistinguishable. She makes it easy to believe that this dynamic is the norm. She implies–more than explains–how these feelings came to mesh in her mind, but manages to completely avoid sentimentality.

My love cemented further in June of that same year when I devoured Strike Sparks on a camping trip, her book in one hand and a drink in the other.

Sundress: I think what strikes me most about “Sex Without Love” is how she first compares two people having sex without love as “beautiful as dancers” and “gliding over each other like ice skaters,” then as pros, “the great runners, alone with the road surface” and how these ideas feel so contradictory, and yet, both are imbued with a sense of wonderment and admiration by Olds. What strikes you most?

Natalie Easton: What strikes me most about the acts you mentioned is obvious, of course: the physicality involved. These are sports she’s talking about, where there are goals achieved and medals given. Of course, those things can just be done for pleasure, but nonetheless there is a competitive nature there.

 What grabs me in general about the poem is her desperation to separate herself emotionally from the act, and how she even subtly hints at the pain involved when one cannot do that: “wet as the / children at birth whose mothers are going to / give them away.” She envies these lovers, but never has to state it; we come to conclusions about her emotional state of mind through what she doesn’t say.

Sundress: I agree, it is a lot about “What she doesn’t say.” Okay, for a minute, let’s say “Sex Without Love” is a lesson—what does it teach?

Natalie Easton: In terms of interpretation, I think perhaps it could teach us to look closer at how even the supposedly pleasurable is something to be worked toward. (Her work always teaches us about the failings of our humanity.) Common, everyday occurrences get parsed endlessly by people with high emotional intelligence, which I think certainly describes Olds. One person may experience something and walk away feeling strangely discontent, but an artist like Olds brings those muddled feelings to light and identifies them.

In terms of formatting, when I read this poem aloud I tried my best to capture the breathlessness of it–the running, the gasping for air: the passion in those line breaks. I’m not sure how well I got that across, but that was one thing that, for me, reading the poem aloud revealed. The other thing I notice in this poem is the imagery: first we have ice skaters, but then red steak and wine and wet babies and runners. Mixing images like this is something I’m wary of doing in my own poetry because it can easily become distracting and inefficient, but she makes it flow; there is a logic in her associations.

Also: no stanza breaks. She shows us with these poems that they aren’t always necessary, but again, this poem is all about breath; in this instance, the reader should feel close to running out.

Sundress: Having read the entirety of Strike Sparks, how would you say “Sex Without Love,” from her second book, compares to her newer work? What is essential Olds?

Natalie Easton: What the poems of Strike Sparks, her collected works, have in common is the gut punch. This is something she has always been capable of, but I feel that her more recent work has seen her style become more polished, her descriptions more keen. There’s that constant kernel of truth that makes you want to barrel on ahead recklessly, sucking in your breath the whole time. Of course, there is no questioning that she’s always been pretty fantastic.

Essential Olds is, I would say, about getting to the uncomfortable, and then living there so comfortably that we all squirm to read it but are unable to look away; who would want to, when what she has to say is so human and interesting? I marvel at her ability to discuss intimacy in the way she does, and how her own fractured relationships have led her to long for things in a way that never seems requited. Sadly. Maybe that’s partly the temperament of artists in general–a driving factor.

Sundress: How has Olds influenced your own writing?

Natalie Easton: I don’t know that my answer to this question will be anything but banal. I think what every artist does, in the face of work they admire, is try to learn by osmosis. There’s a certain helplessness there, as well: the idea that I will never do this. But we try to take elements of what we love so much, and then put our own spin on it. For me it’s the way Olds describes things…I feel the same way when reading Ted Hughes’ work: “How did she/he get to this description, to this thing I feel all the time, and put it into words?” Everything is so clear; even what we haven’t experienced feels like truth in their experienced hands. They make it all look so easy. It’s anything but. That’s the level I’d love to reach one day.

Sundress: Who else “makes it all look so easy?” Other than Olds, who would you recommend?

Natalie Easton: I love Mark Doty, always, though I can’t say he always makes it look easy; at times he gets quite cerebral. I enjoy it, but can’t emulate that. Ellen Bryant Voigt is fantastic; I particularly enjoyed her book Shadow of Heaven. I frequently recommend C.D. Wright’s “Deepstep Come Shining,” which was suggested to me by the poet Russel Swensen, who reminds me of a poetic Bret Easton Ellis. He’s a Black Lawrence Press poet, and they always put out good stuff, so give him a go. Michael Bazzett is another one; You Must Remember This is worth a read. I also have a slew of books I acquired while at Bread Loaf that I haven’t managed to get through yet, so when I’m done with those I’ll have a lot more to recommend, no doubt.

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Natalie Easton’s
 poems have appeared in such publications as Jet Fuel Review, Superstition Review, and Sweet. She was nominated for a Pushcart in 2014, and was a contributor at Bread Loaf in 2015. Later that year she went to Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a week-long SAFTA residency.

Rhiannon Thorne‘s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Midwest Quarterly, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others. She is the Managing Editor of cahoodaloodaling and an associate interviewer and a book reviewer at Up the Staircase Quarterly.

Lyric Essentials: Lydia Havens Reads “The Story” by Hieu Minh Nguyen

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Lydia Havens reads “The Story” by Hieu Minh Nguyen.

Before we get into the great poem you recorded for us, what can you tell us about Hieu Minh Nguyen? And how did you first come across his work?

Lydia Havens: What I can tell you about Hieu Minh Nguyen is that a lot of his work has made me feel so much less alone. Before I read This Way to the Sugar, I was 16 and starting to remember pieces of a sexual trauma I didn’t know how to piece together. Later that year, I saw him perform at the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam. He actually performed the poem I chose to record for you, and I remember just crying in the audience and thinking, Wow, he gets it. Later, he made it to the finals stage, and he performed a poem called “Haunt Me”, which is about the repression of traumatic memories, and again, I was left bawling and feeling like someone had put it all into words. That’s when I truly fell in love with poetry, I think. That’s when I gained my voice as a poet.

To answer your second question, I think I stumbled upon his work on Button Poetry, right before his book was published. The video was called “It Was the Winter…”, and I remember just being mesmerized by it.

Sundress: This is a heavy poem and I think it does some important work. What do you think makes “The Story” so effective?

Lydia Havens: “The Story” is real. That’s pretty much the only word I can use to describe it. There are no frills, no sugar in this poem, as it should be with a poem about childhood sexual violence. I know when I first started writing about my own trauma I was so scared to just flat out say, I was lured into a child pornography ring. My parents didn’t even know for years. So when I heard Hieu say at iWPS, I never told my mother I was molested, that was what got me to take a step back and just exhale, because like I said for the first question, that was the moment when I realized somebody gets it. I think, as poets and as readers, we all have that poem that hits home on an huge level. Well, this is that poem for me, and I’m sure it’s many other CSA survivors’ poem. But even if you’re not a survivor, even if you just realize that this should not happen to anybody, it’s effective because you can realize that these “stories” follow us everywhere. To school, to work, to the grocery store, to our favorite restaurants, and all the way back home. That’s when people, the lucky ones who have never experienced this, stop and think about what they can do.

Sundress: I agree, this poem acts as a big stop sign to get people to really listen to a real problem in our society. For me, I found the second listen extremely chilling. “We all know this story,” had a more ominous current knowing now what was coming. Because, although this is true, we do all know this story, it wasn’t the story I was picturing. Nguyen played on those expectations. Listening a second time, I realized how quickly I, too, was willing to allow the narrative to end at being just a ‘phase’ or a family joke; how unaware we are sometimes of the untold stories.

How does “The Story” compare to the rest of This Way to the Sugar?

Lydia Havens: This Way to the Sugar is one of my favorite books in general. “The Story” is one of many poems in the book about childhood sexual abuse. There’s a series of poems, which are all titled “Teacher’s Pet”, which talks more in depth about his own trauma. The book also talks about racism, homophobia, and a few other topics which for some reason I’m having a hard time describing. The final poem of the book is called “Nostophobia”, which leaves me sobbing every time. It’s about how he’s not afraid of losing his mother, but rather “of no longer being a son // to have to attend a funeral // without her”. Something about that strikes every chord inside me with something incredibly heavy. It just leaves me grief-stricken.

Sundress: What about Nyugen’s treatment of language do you think makes his writing such a powerful vehicle to tell these stories?

Lydia Havens: I’ve heard lots of writers (even poets!) call metaphors “frills” or “sugarcoats”, and I just don’t agree with that at all (most of the time). Metaphors can not only enhance a poem, but also become a fluid part of it. Nguyen does this so easily. There’s a line from another one of his poems, “I’m the one who buried everything that had a face” (from “Dear Friend (for JD)”, which is in This Way to the Sugar). It is such a gut-punch of an ending for the poem, but it’s also (for lack of a much better word) effortless. I really admire how whenever I read one of his poems, I think to myself, That’s a REALLY good way to put that! Why didn’t I think of that?

Sundress: Please share your favorite Nguyen performance with us.

Lydia Havens: My favorite is actually another I’ve seen live, and is also about childhood sexual abuse. It’s called “Haunt Me”. This is from the Individual World Poetry Slam Finals in 2014 (I’m one of those cheering voices at the end):

Sundress: For those who enjoy Nguyen, which other spoken word poets would you recommend?

Lydia Havens: Oh gosh, so many! Danez Smith, Ariana Brown, Sara Brickman, Rhiannon McGavin, Tonya Ingram, and Olivia Gatwood. They’re all amazing.


Lydia HavensLydia Havens is a 17-year-old poet and performer from Tucson, AZ. Their work has previously been published in Words Dance, Persephone’s Daughters, The Fem, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and The Harpoon Review, among other places. They are the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam Youth Champion, and the author of the forthcoming chapbook GIRLS INVENT GODS. Lydia currently works for Wicked Banshee Press. They have been winging their eyeliner for over two years now, and still can’t get it even. You can find out more about them at their website, www.lydiahavens.com.

Lyric Essentials: Lauren Camp Reads “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Lauren Camp reads “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert.

What was your first ‘Jack Gilbert’ experience? And can you tell us a little about him?

Lauren Camp: I remember reading a Jack Gilbert poem, “By Small and Small: Midnight to 4 A.M.,” in The New Yorker more than a decade ago. I doubt that was my first experience of him, but it was the most potent. I was on an elliptical machine at the gym and nearly fell off, it was that good. He wrote about love so well, so potently. That poem, all heartbreaking nine lines about his wife Michiko, ended up in the book Refusing Heaven.

After a late start in writing and publishing poetry, Jack Gilbert won a lot of acclaim quickly, nabbing a Yale Younger Poets Prize, and within two years of that, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He wasn’t up for such fame and attention, though, and pulled back from the public eye. He lived in Europe for a time. He loved deeply, and from all I’ve read of him, he lived each day and experience fully. He wrote of the women he loved and the relationships with great honesty. Ultimately, he only published a handful of collections.

Sundress: What most struck you about this particular Gilbert poem?

Lauren Camp: “Failing and Flying” wows me. I am drawn in from its start in ancient Greek mythology, which I’ve loved since I was a girl. In that first line, it offers a position of ability, success rather than failure. Gilbert twists from legend to human in the second line…and to many humans. “The marriage fails,” he writes, and that marriage is any number of marriages we know of or have lived within. “Love comes to an end.” We know this too. This is human.

I love those throwaway words “like” and “that” — as in “Like being there by that summer ocean…” — which we writers might otherwise remove. Used in this way, those words become strong. They allow Gilbert to jump to the middle; they unbalance us just enough.

The poem moves from grand and ancient to familiar and communal to individual. After this narrowing, the poet returns again to a human perspective on the legend of Icarus: “…not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end…” That statement is attentive, generous, reasonable. It allows for all our failures.

Sundress: The ending to me seems both deeply personal and to express a particular truth—that Icarus is the fall each of us risks when in love, and that the flight should be celebrated even if it ends in heartache. Or, less eloquently, it is better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all. What a cliché. Icharus, even, is a cliché. And yet it works.

Lauren Camp: I agree that the ending could well express a particular and important truth. I think this is especially so for Gilbert. Perhaps, too, “everyone” in line one is mostly him. How many times did he live that last line in his relationships? Of course that line, and all it holds, could be accurate for all of us, but poets seem to most fully take on subjects they know intimately.

Sundress: In fact, most of the lines and language is simple and straight-forward. I think my favorite lines is “the gentleness in her/like antelope standing in the dawn mist,” itself with a ‘throwaway word’. Perhaps the magic of Gilbert’s poem is in how he makes much out of the ordinary.

If you had to pick one line, which would you say is most inspiring?

Lauren Camp: I’ve been torn about which line is most inspiring, and finally have come around to the first. The arrangement of it wows me. It is not an easy entrance. Who is the everyone? Is he talking to me? Is there an implied judgment of us? (Yes, of course.) And that “also” … so powerful. It means there is something else he did, something we know or will be led to know. Six words and we’re hooked.

Sundress: It’s a great hook. Gilbert actually had me at the title of the poem. “Failing and Flying” is such a strong title, especially as the poem opens up and you realize it’s about a failed relationship. The words are completely reversed from what I’d expect of an Icarus poem, or a poem about divorce. In the first part of the poem, he seems to be playing with the expectations of several off-hand comments that are often said when a marriage fails, before beginning to rewrite his narrative; “but anything worth doing is worth doing badly”—I think that’s my favorite part, where he begins to celebrate the journey of love.

There’s an amazing amount to unpack from this poem, so maybe that was unfair, asking just for one line. Go ahead an pick a second one.

Lauren Camp: I don’t think I can pick more favorites. To my mind, the poem has 25 critical lines. Take any one out, and the poem lacks a center and confirmation of its purpose.

Gilbert is deft in bringing ancient Greece and contemporary society together in this poem. He reminds us that what happens now has occurred before. Jack Gilbert believed in delving into life, and this poem shows that. Does the sorrow of failing sting? Not as much as it would have if Icarus (or the narrator) hadn’t also soared. Icarus (and the narrator) saw the heaven of the experience before they smashed to the ground.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the adverb “just.” The editor in me wants to take it out of my work, but Gilbert proves, as I’ve been re-discovering, that sometimes seemingly inconsequential words hold power. “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.” Including that adverb softens the fall. In this instance, “just” means “simply, only, no more than.” It is not full failure, but the result of taking the journey.

Sundress: How has Gilbert’s work influenced you as a writer?

Lauren Camp: Gilbert’s language seems pure and direct. Look at this line: “Like the people who / came back from Provence (when it was Provence) / and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.” It expresses a) a certain sort of privilege, b) a statement on a changing society and c) an awareness of how judgmental people are, or maybe better put, how little people truly experience what’s around them.

Gilbert is smart and clear. The reader doesn’t have to disassemble the meaning. He gives it to us, poem after poem, in easy morsels. He’s put each bite in front of us. By delivering his poems with such brevity and clarity, we have no choice but to taste it all, exactly. We swallow.


photo credit: Anna Yarrow
photo credit: Anna Yarrow

Lauren Camp is the author of two collections. Her third book, One Hundred Hungers, won the Dorset Prize and will be published by Tupelo Press in 2016. Her poems appear in Poetry International, Slice, The Seattle Review, World Literature Today, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Other literary honors include the National Federation of Press Women Poetry Prize, the Margaret Randall Poetry Prize, an Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award, and a Black Earth Institute Fellowship. She produces and hosts “Audio Saucepan”—a global music program interwoven with contemporary poetry—on Santa Fe Public Radio. Find her at LaurenCamp.com.

Lyric Essentials: Kristin LaTour reads “Teaching Experience” by Marge Piercy

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kristin LaTour, whose full-length collection What Keeps Us Alive was released from Sundress this fall, reads “Teaching Experience” by Marge Piercy.

Kristin, before we dive into “Teaching Experience,” can you tell us a little about Marge Piercy? Where did you first come across her work?

Kristin LaTour: I first read a couple of Marge Piercy’s novels in a contemporary lit class in college in the early 1990s. Then I found her poetry when I was browsing a bookstore. I loved it. It was lyrical free-verse, something I hadn’t encountered in much of my reading or education up to that point. It spoke to me, my values of feminism, religion (even though we are not of the same religion) and finding meaning in daily life. I went to the local bookstore and bought every book of hers that was out at the time, and then every book after that.

Sundress: Are religion and feminism prominent themes in Piercy’s work? And, I’m assuming she taught at some point, is education also a reoccurring theme?

Kristin LaTour: Religion and feminism are pervasive in Piercy’s work. Her Judaism and concerns for women also come into her novels, although the feminism more so. She also writes about the environment, science and the intersection of politics with all of these. Her writing reminds me of Margaret Atwood, another feminist/environmentalist/humanist writer.

Education does come up now and again in her poems. It is usually brutally honest. She has a poem about how awful it is to go to colleges to give readings and stay in dismal dorms and have few people attend her readings. I can’t recall the title of that poem. She has another about the pointlessness of MFA programs, and that was long before the explosion of low-res programs. It’s titled “For the Young Who Want To” and includes the line: “The real writer is the one who really writes.” I thought a lot about that poem before applying to an MFA program, and it made me remember that a degree wasn’t going to turn me into a poet, and really, I’d have to be aware to stay true to my own voice and not become just like my mentors there. Piercy isn’t a formal academic, but she has lectured and given workshops at hundreds of colleges and conferences. She teaches in the best way, without all the trappings of a bureaucracy. I envy that.

Sundress: Being able to teach without the trappings of bureaucracy is certainly a privilege, or at the very least, extremely lucky. How do you feel about “Teaching Experience” as an educator?

Kristin LaTour: From the teacher side of me, especially when I teach developmental writing classes, the first part of this poem makes so much sense. The students don’t want to be there. I do everything I can to engage them, but usually all is for naught with the majority. And the second half, yes, that too makes me nod my head. When I have a student one-on-one we get more done, and the energy levels off in both directions. I can relax, and the student opens up. Also, teaching something like roasting a goose is much more fun than teaching writing, at least the fundamentals. Plus, we get to eat the goose. Commas, not so much.

From the student side of me, I get it too. Sometimes the things we are supposed to learn aren’t exciting. We go in with bad attitudes and shut down our receptors. I listen better in small groups than in large ones, like classrooms. Being a student who taken many poetry classes and workshops, there’s also the point that you can’t write poems from nothing. One has to have lived life to get all the nuances of it. We can’t expect high schoolers to write the same poems as people in their 50s. Both can be great poets, but they are different based on their experiences.

From me as a fan of Marge Piercy, I want to shake the students who wouldn’t give her every ounce of their attention. And I want to go on a nature hike with her. I also know I have students who have loved taking class with me and would say the same thing to students who get bored in my classes. “Pay attention! Open up!” And those few who gotten to know me outside of class know that teaching goes on outside of my classroom. So does laughter. And sometimes tears. Hopefully for good reason.

Sundress: I remember helping out in secondary classrooms during my undergrad, it made me laugh to hear her list her students, especially the one“pricing my clothing piece by piece”—I’ve met that student, the one staring intently at you but obviously not listening to a word you’re saying. And yet, the poem overall, is moving and inspirational; while listening to this, I picture this speech being given to poetry grad students. Stylistically, how does “Teaching Experience” compare to Piercy’s other work?

Kristin LaTour: This poem is much like her other poems as far as style and form go. Like I said, her work showed me how free verse narrative poems could work.

I like how this poem starts out with a command a metaphor. This is what teachers are told to do, and how a lot of teachers feel, at least once in a while. After the first two stanzas of metaphor and imagery, the poem gets more narrative, but by the third stanza, I trust that this is a poem, not just a story. I also like the line breaks in the 6th stanza. “I could show you how,” sets up a little mystery, makes me curious to know what she can teach me. The break that ends with “bones” is creepy. Then the last image brings in an element of environmentalism, another passion of mine as well.

The last three lines inspire me as a poet. Since Piercy’s poems were my first big inspiration for writing, having her teach me about poetry. And there’s the irony, that she can be in a classroom and not get through to students, face-to-face, but little me in Ashland, Wisconsin, is learning from her.

Sundress: If you could tell her students to read Piercy, to take that time to sit and read and learn from her, other than this poem, which ones would you recommend?

Kristin LaTour: I’m going to stick to Piercy’s older work since we’ve been focusing on that. In her 1992 book, Mars and Her Children, I’d like to look at “Softly During the Night” for a lesson on the environment. The poem is a simple one about an overnight rain that gives way to a cloudless morning, but the last two lines strike me. The leaves on roadside bushes hold drops of water that “bear witness to what came and left/ furtive as if it took instead of giving.” Our relationship with the natural world is complex. We take from it, and it gives to us, but there’s something more here. There’s a symbiosis that we don’t always understand. And Piercy leaves us wondering with her just what it takes from us.

Going back even further to her 1977 book The Moon is Always Female, which was the second of her books I read, there are two poems I think teach lessons. For a protest poem with some lessons on grassroots action, I like “The Low Road.” The poem starts with how “they” can take a person and torture her, and how there’s nothing the solitary person can do to stop “them.” But the rest of the poem grows to a couple fighting their way out of a mob, three people forming a “wedge,” a “dozen make a demonstration,” and finally ten million can make a nation. Together, as a group, we can make a lot of progress in the world.

The last poem is “For Strong Women.” Obviously this is a feminist poem, but it’s message is rousing and moving. The first five stanzas start with the phrase “A strong woman” and then develops what she does. She works, takes abuse and keeps going, doesn’t let others tell her she can’t accomplish a task. She deals with physical pain. The last stanza starts with the idea that a strong woman is comforted by those who love her for her strength and her weakness. The last three lines are a raising of fists and a kick to the chest at the same time. “Strong is what we make/ each other. Until we are strong together,/ a strong woman is strongly afraid.” I don’t know if Piercy meant the “we” to be just women, or both women and men. I like to think of it as both. Pierce was writing in the time when Roe vs Wade was new, and here, almost 40 years later, we are dealing with women’s health clinics closing, being attacked by men with guns, rape culture, and a continuing struggle for equality in many aspects of society. We all need to learn to come together and be strong for women and other marginalized groups.

Sundress: How do Piercy’s novels compare to her poetry? Which novel would you first recommend to those who like her poetry?

Kristin LaTour: Piercy’s novels are also very feminist, environmentalist, and she also varies from historical fiction to sci-fi/speculative fiction. The first novel I read was Braided Lives. While I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s when abortions were legal, I felt deeply moved by her writing about young women’s sexual lives and the freedom and danger that came with having relationships with men. I had never read anything so explicit and honest about young women’s sexual lives and it resonated with me like someone had turned on a light in a dark room. I loved He, She, and It a sci-fi novel that blends feminism, the pros and cons of artificial intelligence and religion. She’s never a one or two-dimensional writer. Everything comes to a full life. While I haven’t read either of the novels in years, I can bring the characters and settings up in mind easily.

Comparing the two based more on content isn’t as easy. Her imagery in both is vivid. Her wit and opinions come through in both. She’s honest, not holding anything back. I really admire that quality. I hope in my own poems I do the same. I can’t even say what novels I’d recommend based on her poetry. All of them, really. If you are a fiction reader and want to get into her poetry, I’d start with Mars and Her Children. It’s a good overall starting point. If someone wants to explore a more linear set of poems, Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing moves through the seasons, but also has a foot in Judaism, the image in the title coming from the story of Ezekiel. Her newest book, Made in Detroit, touches on much of Piercy’s life, and readers will find a lot there to enjoy, from friendships between women to gardens to cats. Well, you’ll find cats in all her books of poetry. Lots of cats.


Kristin-LaTour-polka-dot-author-photo-255x300Kristin LaTour’s first full-length collection, What Will Keep Us Alive, is available from Sundress Publications. Her most recent chapbook is Agoraphobia, from Dancing Girl Press (2013). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Fifth Wednesday, Cider Press Review, Escape into Life, and Massachusetts Review and in the anthology Obsession: Sestinas in the 21st Century. She teaches at Joliet Jr. College and lives in Aurora, IL with her writer husband. Readers can find more information at KristinLaTour.com.

Lyric Essentials: Donna-Marie Riley Reads “I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair” by Pablo Neruda

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Donna-Marie Riley reads “I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair” by Pablo Neruda.

We generally start by acquiring some background information on the poet or writer chosen; however, Neruda is one of those rare poets loved by poets and non-poets alike and needs little introduction. Instead, why don’t you share some of your favorite facts about Neruda and, if you can remember it, your first encounter with his work?

Donna-Marie Riley: My favourite fact about Neruda is that he was so politically involved. I think writers, and poets especially, are often perceived as these one-dimensional characters with little interest in anything outside of their craft. Or else that we are hermits who do not wish to engage with the world. But Neruda was actually a well-known diplomat and even served as Senator for the Chilean Communist Party. Neruda seems to be globally most well known for his love sonnets (I’ll admit that’s true for me), but he often wrote political poems as well. I think this is important because I think art should be political. And to use art as a means of addressing societal issues impresses me. It’s not something for which I have the skills myself.

My first encounter with Neruda’s work came via a lover. She directed me to read his poem Sonnet XLV (better known as “Don’t Go Far Off”) and it was a poem that we returned to and exchanged between one another countless times over the duration of our relationship. “Will you come back? Will you leave me here dying?”

It took me a long time to decide upon a piece to read for this because I kept trying to think of which poets had made a poet of me and I couldn’t identify who that had been, if anyone at all. I can’t say I have been deeply influenced by Neruda’s writing style. Neruda was never about improving myself as a poet, but about discovering myself as a lover. Perhaps it was circumstantial, but Neruda’s poetry had a profound effect on the way I love and the way I communicate love. Colourful and rhythmic, always half-sad. He grew me into a lover that, above all, promises tenderness, even in moments where great harm has been done, even in moments of panic.

Sundress: I didn’t grow up in a household with poetry, but I remember my mother’s copy of The Captain’s Verses on her bedside table. Neruda’s love poems have grand appeal, and seem to be relatable in so many different ways. You told me the story behind “Don’t Go Far Off”—what made you choose “I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair”?

Donna-Marie Riley: “Don’t Go Far Off” is during the love, “I Crave Your Mouth” is the aftermath, or possible even the before. A poem of hunger. I love the restlessness of the poem, the movement of it. “I prowl through the streets… I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps… I pace around hungry… like a puma.” I feel akin to that nervous agitation, the inability to stay still. I like poems that disrupt me and this one’s very good at it.

Sundress: Although it’s a pretty straight-forward poem, taken in context with the rest of his love poems, this one could be labeled as “less tender” than others. What particular truth about love do you think Neruda was getting at in “I Crave Your Mouth”?

Donna-Marie Riley: I think the truth that “I crave your mouth…” addresses is exactly the one you mentioned in your answer – love is not always tender. Love is not all passive pining. It’s a heavy yearning. An overwhelming need. Having said that, I don’t know that “I crave your mouth…” is necessarily a love poem. It doesn’t read love to me. It reads hunger. Closer to lust than love, maybe. And closer to loss than lust. A blind fumbling for something that’s long been gone, or was never yours to begin with, never will be.

Sundress: You mentioned earlier that you’re also a fan of Neruda’s political poetry. You gave us a love/lust poem which ‘disrupts’ you; can you tell us a political poem of Neruda’s which similarly ‘disrupts’ you?

Donna-Marie Riley: I’ve tried since your last question to find a specifically political poem of Neruda’s that resonates with me, but I’m afraid to say I’ve failed. I don’t know that I claimed to be a fan of Neruda’s political poetry. More that I find it impressive and intriguing that he was able to bring his work to a political platform even as an artist, as a creative type, and as a poet most renowned for his “love poems”. I even admitted it was true for me that I am most familiar with his love poems. And yet, is it cheating to say I think the two are not mutually exclusive? That his love poems are also political poems and vice versa. I think love is a political act. Even moreso when made public.

There is a man called Tim Freke, who is an authority on world spirituality, who decreed that, “Love is the answer.” He pointed out that, “For millennia saints and sages, poets and pop stars have been telling us that harnessing the transformative power of love is the secret to creating the world we want to live in. Is this just well-meaning naiveté or could it actually be true? Love can be seen as simply fluffy and sweet, but it is also deep and strong. Love is not only a wonderful feeling of connection; it is a powerful force for social transformation.”

And so while I respect Neruda’s involvement in what people might consider more conventional “politics”, it doesn’t stop me viewing his love poems as any less socially active. In fact, I also said that Neruda had a direct effect on the ways in which I choose to love and display love, and I think that speaks to this as well. People perhaps tire of love, how it tinges everything, especially the arts. It’s every poem, story, photograph, film. But there’s a reason for that. It takes precedence over everything. It is the singular emotion from which all other emotions stem. And when not from love, from the lack of it. And so again, maybe his political poems were separate from his love poems, but this does not mean his love poems were not also political.


Donna-Marie RileyDonna-Marie Riley is a young poet currently residing in the South West of England. She is author of the poetry collection Love and Other Small Wars, published by Words Dance, and her work was also featured in Red Paint Hill’s Between Sentiment and Sensation: Women’s Writing Project, Vol. I. She acts as a contributor and social media assistant for Words Dance Publishing and as Senior Poetry Editor for the lit magazine Persephone’s Daughters. When she is not writing, you can find her watching cartoons, adding to her rapidly expanding postcard collection, or quietly wringing her hands. You can find her work on her personal Tumblr: five–a–day.tumblr.com.

Lyric Essentials: David Ishaya Osu reads excerpts from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today David Ishaya Osu reads three excerpts from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

I doubt Whitman needs much of an introduction—an American poet, journalist, and essayist, and often credited as the father of free verse, Whitman is a staple of the American canon—but can you tell us about Whitman’s importance to Nigerian poetry and writing? How did you discover Whitman? Does he have a large readership in Nigeria?

David Ishaya Osu: I have no idea on what Whitman’s importance there might be to Nigerian poetry and writing. I am also not aware of Whitman’s readership statistics in Nigeria. What I am aware of is that I feel a connection to Whitman, humanly. I first saw Whitman in Microsoft Encarta in 2010 or so; and when I came across Leaves of Grass at AMAB Bookshop, I had no option but to grab it.

Sundress: I love that you sent in 3 recordings for Leaves of Grass—the first two are pulled from “Song of Myself” and the third from “Burial Poem”. I have to ask, which edition are you reading from, and do you have any preference of one edition over another?

David Ishaya Osu: Mine is the Dover (2007) unabridged republication of the first edition published in 1855. I’ve not bothered to look up other editions. Maybe when I’m tired of drawing lines in this copy, I will get others.

Sundress: This excerpt from “Song of Myself”—written, and made mainstream so many years before American women were able to vote—is one of my favorite feminist poetic bits. What does this particular section mean to you?

David Ishaya Osu: I see this section as an intriguing record of the humanity humanity is. It means to me, for living sake, that being a member of the universe is enough right to be treated with equal worth – no bias in favour of gender, wealth, race or social class. On the other hand, history and ongoing events have so shattered our senses, tolerance and empathy. “And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man / And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.” I think you should listen to this song by ASA: “Sometimes I Wonder.”

It’s time we took deeply to heart that we all are our mothers.

Sundress: I don’t want to detour too much here, but I love the connection you made between Whitman’s century-and-a-half-old poem and a contemporary singer from halfway across the globe. I particularly like Asa’s lines, “Didn’t nobody tell you, no man’s ever made it higher by bringing other people down. You tried and you could lose the ground.” Can you tell us more briefly about Asa?

David Ishaya Osu: I had to wait till today, September 17, 2015, to reply this part of the interview. The reason is simple: it’s Asa’s birthday today. In the spirit of the moment, she’s the only one on my playlist today. Maybe Onyeka Nwelue would be the right person to talk about Asa more, since he’s had countless moments with her at her concerts and elsewhere. However, my encounter with Asa is via telepathy – her songs, reading her interviews, and just running my mind on her fantastic videos. Asa is an endless poem. Asa is one Nigerian songstress whose voice enters you but never to leave. For instance, in “The Way I Feel,” I see the persona as all of us – the world. And this world is actually on its shoulder – from environmental threats to emotional blackmails to the Chibok girls that are still missing to the legacy of white supremacy to the system of miseducations to the complete waste of myths, to man’s refusal to find friendship in water, birds, in the flowers of ourselves. The other things I know about Asa are that: she lives in Paris, she seems highly bohemian –no wonder she rises above the status quo– and, most importantly, she’s added Yoruba to my tongue even when I may not exactly know what it is – but then, the heart knows. Bukola Elemide is simply the goddess.

Sundress: “Leaves of Grass” is my personal favorite work of Whitman. I’m very interested to hear why you picked these particular five lines. What spoke to you here?

David Ishaya Osu: A large part of our humanness has been cultured on the prejudice against pain and people whose parts do not entirely fit in the play of society. This girl will end in hell, that boy is for heaven, we seem to prove. What this has caused is that we behave both in favour and in fear of people and their performances. Heaven is here, hell is there, we say and seek. How contradictory that the more we run away from hell, the more of heaven we do not get. This sophistry has compounded our despair. And this, to me, is what Walt Whitman is painting; hence the need for “the poet of the woman the same as the man.” We live in a dire reality where our cases are prejudged by our gender and class; less interest is paid to understanding the urgency and the cruciality of the situation at hand. What then shall we do?: Humanity is humanity’s responsibility, boy or girl or rich or poor or cross or crescent, humanity is humanity’s responsibility. Compassion ought to re-become our currency. Who is this poet? Well, the poet is you, the poet is me, the poet is her, the poet is him. The poet is all of us. The poet is the world. The world of woman the same as the world of man. Some people call it egalitarian, I call it poetrilitarian (laughs).

Sundress: I’m not as familiar with “Burial Poem” as I am with your other two Whitman choices. Can you walk us through the poem and highlight why these two lines, “I cannot define my satisfaction..yet it is so,/I cannot define my life..yet it is so.” resonate with you?

David Ishaya Osu: One major way of being alive for man has been the hobby to hypothesize every particle that happens within and outside his portion of space. Definitions here, definitions there; yet these definitions have seemed to continually elude their definers. What have followed after this attitude, obviously, are records of prejudice, records of post-judice, guilt, ostracism. This is the truth, that is falsehood; and the ideas keep conventionalizing and keep clashing with each other, simultaneously. Somewhere, somebody blames a school; another person elsewhere suffers a rape heritage. What is this? What is that? Questions upon questions upon thousands of responses. With and without the foregoing, much of what we are aware of is that we are present at our various ends and means of living. For an explanation, I would this is how the lines resonate with me. Millions and millions of millions have remained ‘something’ – something in that song, something in a lover, something in that apple, something in that moon, something about a dress, something about something. Something about something, yet it is so. I personally feel it’s time we edited the dictionary and other books of meanings; not in the sense of throwing them away, but in a way of appreciating other perspectives and narratives that are unlike our expectations – and this is what the humanities and arts in general embody. And by the way, everything is art, everything is writing itself in our very eyes.

Sundress: How has Whitman inspired your own writing? Do you find yourself becoming a “poetrilitarian”?

David Ishaya Osu: I treat my reading of Walt Whitman (and other people) as both psychic and corporeal. Both intra-action and interaction. Without feeling bigheaded, Whitman is to me a sibling the same way a dream works with sleep, the same way I respond to good news, the same way somebody says of your fine dress, of a dancer doing her magic, like that like that. There, lips touch lips and we term it kiss. Just connections. Like I earlier said: everything is writing itself in our very eyes. Everything is inspiring everything – an itch under the scrotum would inspire either a body movement or a bath, a body somewhere will cause a head there to turn 360. I was watching a movie one day, and when a character in the movie yawned, I instantly yawned too. You know, when I thought it quietly, I said to myself that life is a reply. Something is inspiring something somewhere somehow, and vice versa. And nothing.

On the poetrilitarian, yes; or, no, I am that I am (laughs).

~

What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.


David Ishaya Osu (b. 1991) is a Nigerian poet. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Atlas Poetica: A Journal of World Tanka, Birmingham Arts Journal, Off the Coast, The Kalahari Review, Vinyl Poetry, RædLeaf Poetry: The African Diaspora Folio, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, among others. David is a board member of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, and he is currently polishing his debut poetry book. David is a street photography enthusiast.

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Walt Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist born in 1819. Whitman, often called “The Father of Free Verse,” was controversial in his time but is now among the most influential poets in the American canon.