For my birthday, my roommate got me a personalized stamp that proclaims, “From the library of Marah Robyn Hoffman.” In the stamp’s center is a simple bee (I have been nicknamed Mother Nature for the magnetic pull I seem to have on small, winged creatures), and around it are leaves and petals. I gasped at the gift’s beauty. In its intricate me-ness, I saw how well my friend pays attention.
The stamp is a gift for the future. At twenty-two, I do not own a bookshelf, let alone a library. My books, like a child’s stuffed animals, often travel back and forth from various dwellings, mainly from my dorm room to my parents’ house but also to my boyfriend’s row home in Philadelphia, to the beach house we visit every summer, and to my grandfather’s hunting cabin in the deep mountains of Pennsylvania, far from cell service and suburbia.
Books are my constant companions. I have been known to, on occasion, bring three books to an outing, so I may read according to my mood. On one particularly uneventful trip to the mountains, I inhaled three-and-a-half books. I still reminisce about that vacation fondly.
“My bookshelf” or, in other words, the obnoxious stacks populating my room, is becoming increasingly obscure and diverse. On the lower rungs of these literary ladders used to climb to other worlds are The Box Car Children, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson. But the higher your eyes scan, you see how my interests have evolved beyond the domain of dominant pop culture. You may discover Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello, a collection of sixteen essays ruminating on famous animals, or Bluets by Maggie Nelson, a book full of pieces of varying genres each considering the color blue.
This Christmas, both my boyfriend and my sister complained that buying me presents was like playing a scavenger hunt. My Christmas list was 70% books, but many of them could not be easily found online or in the small, independent bookstores my sister frequents.
My liberal arts education in the humanities is the culprit. I used to know only fiction, but now, thanks to my professors and my position on my college’s literary magazine, I am acquainted with the existence of prose poems, flash fiction, micro fiction, creative nonfiction, personal essays, braided essays, and hybrid essays. I have become more voracious because I know the vast voices I have yet to hear.
When I consider my bookshelf, my brain becomes a chorus of these different voices making similar, resonant sounds.
I hear my dad reading my first favorite books to me as a child snuggled against him on our small couch. These storybooks no longer exist in a physical place; instead, they rest on the shelves of my mind. Current reads echo these old stories. The themes have not fully changed despite their placement in new genres.
My bookshelf exists in its full capacity only in my mind. Even when I find a true bookshelf for my room after graduation, and even when I someday, hopefully, have an office/library in my own home, my bookshelf will foremost stand in my imagination, holding stories whose names I may forget but whose contents inform future passion.
Marah Hoffman is a senior double major in English and creative writing at Lebanon Valley College in rural Pennsylvania. Within her campus’s lively literary community, she is a writing tutor, mentor for prospective and new students, co-poetry editor for their literary magazine, and president of her college’s International English Honors Society chapter. Marah enjoys reading classic and contemporary literature. She has written poetry since she was twelve but has lately found herself wandering the realm of creative nonfiction, particularly personal essays. Besides being a bookworm, Marah is an avid runner. She is a member of LVC’s cross country and track teams. When Marah graduates, she hopes to find a position that allows her to continue pursuing her passion for books.
Joy Jones is a trainer, performance poet, playwright and author of several books, including Private Lessons: A Book of Meditations for Teachers; Tambourine Moon; and Fearless Public Speaking. She has won awards for her writing from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, and the Colonial Players Promising Playwrights Competition. Her most recent book is Jayla Jumps In (Albert Whitman & Co, 2020).
Anna Leahy is the author of the poetry collections What Happened Was:, Aperture, and Constituents of Matter and the nonfiction book Tumor. Her work has appeared at Aeon, Atlanta Review, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Poetry, Scientific American, The Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her essays have won top awards from Mississippi Review, Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University and edits the international Tab Journal. More at https://amleahy.com.
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress 2021) and chapbooks The Optimist Shelters in Place (forthcoming Harbor Editions 2022), Still Life (PANK, 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass, 2020) and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP, 2018). Winner of the 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize from New American Press, her work has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Salamander, Slipstream, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Lunch Ticket, Borderland, etc. She is an Assistant Professor of First Year Writing at Michigan State University and serves as an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry. Find her work at kimberlyannpriest.com.
The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is a writers residency and arts collective that hosts workshops, retreats, and residencies for writers in all genres including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, journalism, academic writing, playwriting, and more. The land on which Sundress Publications operates is part of the traditional territory of the Tsalagi peoples (now Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians) and Tsoyaha peoples (Yuchi, Muscogee Creek).
Tamara J. Madison is a writer, poet, instructor, and editor. Her critical and creative works have been published in various journals and anthologies. Madison earned a BA from Purdue University and MFA from New England College. She also studied at the University of Strasbourg (France). She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Valencia College, Orlando, Florida and contributing editor for aaduna, an online adventure with words and images. Madison is the author of Kentucky Curdled(poetry and essay) and Collard County,(fiction). Her most recent poetry collection is Threed, This Road Not Damascus, published by Trio House Press.
Julie Marie Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. She has published 12 collections of poetry and prose, most recently the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E(VCFA/Hunger Mountain, 2020). A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Wade makes her home in Dania Beach with her spouse Angie Griffin and their two cats.
Robin Gowis a trans poet and young adult author from rural Pennsylvania. They are the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books) and the chapbook Honeysuckle (Finishing Line Press). Their first young adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions is forthcoming in 2022 with FSG. Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Washington Square Review. Gow received their MFA from Adelphi University where they were also an adjunct instructor. Gow is a managing editor at The Nasiona and MAYDAY magazine.
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 this conversation poet Teow Lim Goh and I discuss three poems from Ansel Elkins’ first book, Blue Yodel. We talk about how a life can change when it’s put into words, and Goh recalls how her life changed when she began writing. Goh also talks about her current project, and about how Blue Yodel served as a model for Goh’s interest in persona and writing from the archive. Thank you for joining us!
Teow Lim Goh reads “The Girl with Antlers” by Ansel Elkins:
Jessica Hudgins: “You are fearfully and wonderfully made” is a fantastic line. It’s sort of like describing a poem’s tone, rather than identifying it as a sonnet or an elegy. How has Ansel Elkins’ work influenced yours?
Teow Lim Goh: The first time I read Blue Yodel, I was between projects, trying to figure out the approach and tone that I wanted to bring to my work. This book just blew me away. I’m not sure if I can put a finger on it, but I shall try: I think I am most drawn to the ambiguity of her stories. And I think of these poems as short stories in verse. She creates a dream-like mood and at the same time, she touches on something visceral and corporeal.
It strikes me that many contemporary poets write autobiographical free verse. I don’t have a problem with it per se – I enjoy a quite a bit of it – but it sometimes feels like an expectation rather than just one of many modes of poetry. It’s not my place to say whether Blue Yodel draws from Elkins’ life, but it reminded me that I don’t have to write about myself to be a poet.
I tend to write persona poems and draw many of my characters from history. My first book Islanders imagines the lost voices of the Chinese women detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay – I joke that it is about current affairs. My second manuscript, which is currently in submissions hell, is based on the real story of a Chinese prostitute in Evanston, Wyoming.
I feel that I allowed more silence and ambiguity into China Mary than Islanders. I’m sure a part of it is the subconscious influence of Blue Yodel, but who knows.
Teow Lim Goh reads “Autobiography of Eve” by Ansel Elkins:
JH: What are some of your favorite moments in these poems?
TLG: “Autobiography of Eve” is one of my favorite poems, period. Elkins takes a well-known story – arguably, the creation story of Western civilization – gives Eve a voice, and turns the story on its head. She gives Eve her agency, and look how that changes everything:
I stood alone in terror at the threshold between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake – at once alive in a blaze of green fire.
Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.
“Devil’s Rope” is based on an old ballad, but here Elkins creates a sestina in the voice of the man who killed his girl Ruby. I like to challenge myself to write from unsympathetic perspectives, so I appreciate Elkins’ approach here, but more than that, she did it with an intricate fixed repeating form. I aspire to write a story in sestina form one day. Meanwhile, I reread lines like this:
In my own dreams I battle with the devil.
He and I could be blood brothers.
He leads me into the ground, down a pitch-black mine,
guides my hand over an earthern wall that spells your name, Ruby.
I touch the ember letters, leave my hand to bear the heat. Dawn
be damned, I will remain here, buried.
I have to say that Elkins’ stories are so intricately layered that it is difficult for me to pick selections from them. Her poems build on themselves:
The devil’s rosined bow begins to fiddle at dawn
as his brothers pick banjo. I carve your name in the stump below mine.
I’ll sing for you, Ruby, and lay you in the shade where the rooster’s buried.
Teow Lim Goh reads “Devil’s Rope” by Ansel Elkins:
JH: These poems each explore how a life can be changed by the words we use to describe it. The last two stanzas of “Autobiography of Eve” make a powerful point: change the speaker and a fall from grace becomes a leap to freedom. The mother figure in “The Girl with Antlers” says, “What you are I cannot say,” and lets the girl be uncategorized. Finally, “Devil’s Rope” is a song written for a woman, Ruby, by the man who has killed her. Was there a kind of watershed moment in your life when you realized the way that language can influence experience?
TLG: In some ways I think of my life as Before Writing and After Writing. I was a math major in college and began writing after I graduated and went into the workforce. Looking back, I was in a place where I felt powerless. I did not have the language to describe even simple everyday things, much less the complexities of my own experiences. It was survival instinct that led me to the glorious struggle of making language.
This much I know: my memories are much sharper and deeper After Writing. I really don’t remember a lot of my life Before Writing. The verifiable facts I know; it is the texture of that life I find elusive. Last fall I spent a weekend in Nashville. It was my second time there – the first was Before Writing – and I felt as if I had never been to the city before. My husband, who was my boyfriend on that first visit, talked about the things we did and the places we went and the only thing I could remember was that we watched the Rockettes at the Opry.
Writing gives a shape to my thoughts and experiences. It has enabled me to reclaim my agency and take charge of my life. And I am beginning to reap these benefits.
JH: Have you adapted other texts, as Elkins does with “Devil’s Rope,” into your work?
TLG: As I have said, I often write from history, which means that on some level or another, I am adapting other texts. In Islanders, I drew on the poems the Chinese men wrote on their barrack walls. (There are no records of poems the women might have written, as their barracks was destroyed in a fire.) I did not even attempt to imitate the classical Chinese lyric form of the original wall poems, but I used some of their images and emotional moments.
I also dug into a trove of oral histories with former female detainees. Many of the most harrowing stories in my book are drawn from the records; I could not make them up even if I tried.
I am currently trying to write about the 1885 Chinese Massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I have a box of archival documents: speeches, newspaper articles, and even telegrams between Union Pacific officials and the Wyoming territorial government. I haven’t quite decided how I want to handle it, but I am leaning toward incorporating direct quotes into the verse. There is a bleak and ironic poetry in these source texts.
Teow Lim Goh is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), a volume of poems on the history of Chinese exclusion at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker. She lives in Denver.
Ansel Elkins is the 2014 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, judged by Carl Phillips. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Oxford American, and Boston Review, and has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Discovery/Boston Review Prize. Elkins currently serves as visiting assistant professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Elizabeth Metzger, student and devotee of Lucie Brock-Broido, writes here about discovering Brock-Broido’s work, studying in her graduate seminar, and remembering her after her death last year. Of Brock-Broido’s influence, Metzger says, “I found my self, my voice, my poems within and against and of hers.”
Jessica Hudgins: Can you talk about how you came to know Lucie Brock-Broido and her work?
Elizabeth Metzger: I was writing my undergraduate thesis on silence and the posthumous in Emily Dickinson when I came across Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, which is, to use Lucie’s own term, deeply in “Widerruf” with Dickinson’s Master Letters. The poems were incantatory, disorienting, uncannily déjà vu to me, and uncontainably pained. I wanted to know Lucie—as morbid as it sounds, to work with Lucie felt like the only way in life to know and live with the dead.
I ended up at Columbia a couple years later, too intimidated to even speak a word to Lucie. She was magical in long black gloves and red velvet when we met. Her earrings were silver talismans and she seemed untouchable, ensconced in smoke, almost dangerous. At the same time I was drawn to her the way one might instantly draw an evacuation map in their mind during a bomb scare. She seemed to always have one hand beckoning, pulling each poet in her sphere closer to her. We all gathered one of those first disorienting “orientation” nights in her small office, window cracked for whatever cold we could conjure. I believe she had a teacup pig on her desktop screen, a million trinkets, a lipsticked cigarette, and a roaring laugh.
I was sitting a few feet from where she sat at the head. “Come closer,” she said, “are you scared of me?” “Yes” I said awkwardly, not catching the wink of her. “See me after class” she said, in a faux-stern tone. Terrified, I entered her office after our long late class—Lucie was nocturnal, but more impressively given her carefully calculated seasonal writing schedule (writing only in the winter months and leaving 1,001 days ritualistically between books), she lived outside of time, in what we, her students, called Lucie Standard Time.
In my first experience of this phenomenon, Lucie took me around her dim office, standing shoulder to shoulder as she showed me various artifacts, looking up a word in her favorite edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, showing me a “portrait of her” by Thomas James, and last, full circle, a drawing of Emily Dickinson—given to her by Helen Vendler and Seamus Heaney—which now hangs on the wall behind my desk. I got to know Lucie on her red couch in the middle hours of the night for the three years I spent at Columbia, but in many ways even now after her death I feel I am still getting to know her, and I welcome more than ever the secrets her poems disclose, the agonies made amber, the mysticism, hilarity, and mammalian artery. A soul that spent her time on this earth offering asylum to the living, the dying, and the dead, Lucie lived a life of unimpeachable promises to seek out and protect the suffering, the odd ones out. She made me feel lucky to be one.
JH: There are so many things that jump out at me as I’m reading these poems. Her use of pronouns, her engagement with form, her sense of humor – What’s an example of something you’ve discovered in reading Brock-Broido’s poems, and have experimented with in yours? EM: Yes! Lucie’s poems are full of idiosyncrasy, shockingly pop archaism, and most important to me in terms of my own journey as a poet, irony. In a way it’s hard to talk about discovering Lucie’s work and the elements within it because to some extent I found my self, my voice, my poems within and against and of hers—a way of being a poet in between the poems.
Also quite literally Lucie and her poems taught me everything—her way of teaching was truly selfless in the sense that she gave her self, her “secrets” away. She broke it down into lessons, topics, techniques: the terrible not, the numinous, the feral, cutting out the elephant. And she provided us with the material she herself took to the writing table: the poems, the letters, the images, even sometimes the music or hot cocoa or perfume.
Her teaching was invaluable I think for so many poets with such differing voices because the lessons were metaphorical themselves, often mystical. Like a poem, the technique was one the spirit often had to tightrope to understand. She taught me that “the line is a station of the cross” and to let the poem have its way with you. She introduced me to the conscious and unconscious conversation between whittling bone and “letting birds.”
I think I discovered the important balance, maybe even the lack of distinction between disclosure and transformation. The poem “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to this World” ends on the image of a marmoset in an ape suit, the smallest primate exiting the largest. It’s absurd and so vulnerable, the self confronting the self.
Lucie taught me half-gently half-teasingly when I was too drunk on her, as many of us were, and how important it would be “to kill her off eventually” She told me I was withholding when I didn’t know I was—that like an anatomy textbook a poem needs every system of the body to overlap to build an understandable human. She made the concept of transparency tangible. I discovered in “baring my soul” I wasn’t letting my sense of humor onto the page. I also learned for every rule of Lucie’s (her dislike of ragged lines or the word blank) it was all about earning it–by which I mean being religious enough to ritualize doubt—and constantly raising the stakes. She claimed she didn’t believe in “intelligence” but it is in her poetry, each book of it, that I have come closest to inhabiting another’s intelligence, a dark neural stained glass only as ornate as it is abnegating.
Elizabeth Metzger reading “Am Moor” by Lucie Brock-Broido
JH: “Am Moor” is especially strange and kind of exhilarating to me, I think because Brock-Broido uses all these rare, archaic, or technical words with a sense of playfulness. What are some of your favorite words or lines from these poems?
EM: “Am Moor” is full of mystery and playfulness and a fascinating example of Lucie using another persona or perspective as a lens to the self. There’s connection in loneliness. A lover of Georg Trakl, Austrian World War I poet, Lucie takes his poem, titled in German “Am Moor,” which translates to “On the Marshy Pastures” and uses the sound as a trigger for the music of her own being, the repeating “am,” blurring the biographical reality of Trakl’s life with her own multilayered identity. I love the persistence and variation of the “am” and “was” phrases with the “I” deleted, how it lets the I be multiple and multiplying. And it thrills me that this is a sonic rather than semantic “translation” of a German place. The mind can’t help but associate music into sense.
My favorite moments in Lucie’s poems feel intuitive and irrevocable. Their sense begins within the ear—I trust them though they can be full of bite or bomb. What seems beautiful is the next moment grotesque. What is absurd is the next moment obliterating. Anything full-frontal is later slanted. Language has the soul on a leash. It can be bold or skittish but the soul is always the tethered guide. A few of my favorite phrases from “Am Moor” are:
“wind at withins”: the consonance of wind that surprisingly makes the preposition within into a plural noun, playing with the abandoned farmhouse from Wuthering Heights (Top Withins) as the landscape of the interior.
The build-up of archaic music to the generic simple Saxon of “Was Andalusian, ambsace,/Bird.” I love the mixing of registers and the warning song of it. Sometimes I find the need for a dictionary means a poem stumbles or I am pulled away from rhythm or sense. Here it is textural. Understanding precedes definition, not unlike the feeling of holding a Dickinson poem.
I love inversions like “Am kept./ Was keeper of…” and “furious done god,” the blunt godly done of it, and admire the horror image of “was hospice/ To their torso hall.” Trakl did in fact see war horrors as a triage nurse to wounded soldiers in a country barn. I love the swerve with internal consonance of the medical “Am anatomy” into the I dare you to get away with this pun bloody lamb of “Am the bleating thing.” The word “thing” ends this litany of exacting diction! There’s this mischief to Lucie’s poetics of getting away with things, emotion so intense and attuned it permits extravagant word play.
The lines that give me actual goosebumps when I read or even think them: “…Am numb./ Was shoulder & queer luck. Am among.” It’s the rhyme of numb and among, the total loss of sensation that brings one together with. In her poems and her classrooms, Lucie brought the haunted back together. The poem is a self, and shareable.
And since you picked it out below, my absolute favorite line from “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to this World” (and one of my favorites she ever wrote) is “For whom left am I first?”
JH: I really like the line “For whom left am I first,” in “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” because it uses that “am” to connect the people who remain to the person who will be gone. Has Brock-Broido’s work influenced how you think about death?
Elizabeth Metzger reading “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World,” by Lucie Brock-Broido
EM: Lucie wrote Stay, Illusion after being orphaned, losing her mother. It just totally devastates me to think that, for many of us there comes a point in losing others (and Lucie traveled to death’s door with so many dear ones), we may no longer be the most loved for anyone left living. People go on to have their own children, marry, etc. Lucie didn’t marry or have kids but she could love (sisters, friends, cats, and students) as strongly and loyally as anyone I’ve met on Earth. The line also calls up that connection between the ones who leave and the ones who remain as you point out—the ones who have left and the ones that are left. There’s the sense of first to go and first in terms of significance.
From the start, my attraction to Lucie’s work and to Lucie’s mind has involved death. There’s a morbidity and terror that I recognized in her work. I think she found a way of including it visually in her lines, in the shapes of the poems in Stay, Illusion, but it’s all over all the books. Even in surviving loss, the speaker’s strength is in demanding everything of herself in language when language is impossible, when she lives near and within the unspeakable. This blurring of grief and death—surviving and dying—is also Dickinsonian: “Tell all the truth I told me when I couldn’t speak.” The following “Sorrow’s a barbaric art” makes that chaotic grief beautiful and cruel, composed and reckless.
Lucie’s art is made from sorrow obviously and I think I learned from Lucie that the moments and sensations when we are most deeply wrecked or wounded are the ones we must run toward, steep ourselves in, speak from, be transformed by. There is both fate and will in it.
Another line I love in “Stay, Illusion” comes from the first poem of the book: “The rims of wounds have wounds as well.” It is not optimism or healing that poetry brings but the wound made everlasting, boundless fear and pain made containable, sometimes even coy. More than once she described the form of the poem as an “alabaster chamber,” a coffin.
My relationship with Lucie was as much about death in the end as it was about poetry. I was losing my best friend, her astonishing student Max Ritvo, and then of course it was not long before Lucie herself had to face death. Lucie believed in heaven and it’s through this lens that her fear and fascination with death makes the most sense of her poetics: It is always worth decorating the darkness, laughing or tearing one’s hair into it, while cutting away any unsharpened excess, any aspect of living that doesn’t remember it will end. Lucie’s work teaches me that poetry and death are both omniscient and unknowable. I am no less afraid, and gladly.
Elizabeth Metzger is the author of The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the chapbook The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Horsethief Books, 2017). Her poems have recently appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, and The Nation among other places. Her essays have recently appeared in Lit Hub, Guernica, Boston Review, and PN Review. She is a poetry editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal.
Lucie Brock-Broido was an American poet and author of four collections: A Hunger (1988), The Master Letters (1995), Trouble in Mind (2004), and Stay, Illusion (2013). She taught at several universities and served as the director of poetry in the writing division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her work received recognition from the Academy of American Arts and Letters, American Poetry Review, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Stay Illusion was a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Books Critics Circle Award.
Sundress Holler Salon presents Ruth Awad, Ian T. Hall, and Jim Warner
The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to host a new Holler Salon with a poetry reading and dinner at Firefly Farms. An extension of our award-winning Sundress Reading Series, Holler Salon aims to encourage conversation and collaboration between creative individuals in a variety of disciplines. The event, to be held Saturday, February 9th from 6-10 p.m., will be free and open to the public and will feature poets Ruth Awad, Ian T. Hall, and Jim Warner.
Ruth Awad is a Lebanese-American poet whose debut poetry collection Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press 2017) won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize and the 2018 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is the recipient of a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Rumpus, The Missouri Review Poem of the Week, Sixth Finch, Crab Orchard Review, CALYX, Diode, Southern Indiana Review, The Adroit Journal, Vinyl Poetry, Epiphany, BOAAT Journal, and in the anthologies Bettering American Poetry Volume 2 (Bettering Books, 2017), The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), New Poetry from the Midwest 2014 (New American Press, 2015), and Poets on Growth (Math Paper Press, 2015). She won the 2012 and 2013 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest, and she was a finalist for the 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. She has an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, she copy edits for Button Poetry, and she lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her Pomeranians.
Ian T. Hall was born and reared in Raven, Kentucky. He is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Tennessee, where he serves as an assistant poetry editor for Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts. He has published poetry and fiction in Kentucky Monthly Magazine, The Louisville Review, Broad River Review, Gravel, Bluestem, and Modern Mountain Magazine, among others.
Jim Warner’s poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, RHINO Poetry, New South, and is the author of two collections (PaperKite Press). His third collection actual miles was released in 2018 by Sundress Publications. Jim is the host of the literary podcast Citizen Lit and is a faculty member of Arcadia University’s MFA program.
While dinner is provided, attendees are invited to BYOB.
The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is an artists’ residency that hosts workshops, retreats, and residencies for writers, actors, filmmakers, and visual artists. All are guided by experienced, professional instructors from a variety of creative disciplines who are dedicated to cultivating the arts in East Tennessee.
When Clodagh Beresford Dunne sent me these poems, I found “The Kindness” right away, but couldn’t find “T-shirts.” None of Jan Beatty’s books were at my library, and I couldn’t figure out which book the poem was in, anyway. I emailed Clodagh to ask if she could send me a picture of the poem. She replied, “I’m afraid I don’t have a book excerpt of T-shirts, and I can’t seem to find the name of the collection it comes from, either. All I know is that it was sent to me by my friend Thomas McCarthy just following my own father’s death. A poem I sent him, about finding my father’s spectacles a month after he died, prompted Thomas to send me the Beatty poem.”
Jessica Hudgins: Both of these poems begin with a physical object—the elk, the bag—that gives Jan Beatty a starting point. She describes where these things are, and where she is as she looks at them, and then why she’s looking at them. It’s a really simple, really expansive way of approaching a poem. When you write, do you begin in a similar way? How has Beatty’s work influenced yours?
Clodagh Beresford Dunne: This is a really good observation, and you’re right, it’s a wonderfully expansive way of entering a poem. I believe it stems from the brilliance and sincerity of Beatty’s grounded narrative.
This entrance mechanism is beautifully filmic if you think about it—it instantly creates a sense of place, of truth, of measured step – the essential components of the perfect poem. With Beatty’s poetry there’s always a sort of reassurance that she’s a poet who has properly experienced life—that she’s been in a familiar place, that she has taken the time and care to accurately record its dimensions, that she can constantly triangulate the what, the where, and the why if you like.
There’s a brilliance in the clarity of her imagery, in all of her work. The precision and concision of her language generates a real and physical force.
In terms of my own approach to writing, I suppose, yes, I sometimes begin in a similar way – not that it’s ever a conscious decision, of course. I think the storyteller in each of us will always take the same beaten path. Sometimes, the clarity of the narrative won’t be straightforward, to begin with, though—I’ll notice, after a few drafts perhaps, that the strongest entry point might be hidden in the middle of the poem. I have a habit of “throat clearing” when I begin to write a poem and it’s almost a given that I’ll scrap early lines or stanzas as I begin to edit. I find it really helpful to leave poems for weeks or months or even years and go back to them when I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say. Your inner ruthless critic is great at locating the cleanest line from A to B.
In terms of how Beatty’s work has influenced mine, I would say that it’s her fearlessness and the breadth of her voice that I’ve been inspired by the most. She’s given me the confidence to write with courage—to say what I feel, to avoid my self-censor, to write from my heart, and, at all times to be authentic and human. She’s taught me that to write is to be engaged in a warfare of sorts – that you must endure through the pain, and make it to the other side – that there will be momentary peace, that there will be full-on battles, and that it’s perpetual.
The poems I’ve chosen to record for you, are tender poems—two poems that mean a lot to me, but Beatty is probably best known for her kick-ass poetry (I’m thinking of her work in The Switching/Yard, in particular—poems like Dear American Poetry, Letter to a Young Rilke, Why I don’t Fuck Intellectuals, for example). I’ve been privileged enough to hear her read to packed audiences in the U.S.—to witness her, in her own inimitable, gentle way, instill a crowd with a fire and energy like I’ve never seen before. And that’s what I love about Beatty and her work – that she addresses subjects like suicide, abortion, misogyny, kindness, love, grief all with the same precise and balanced pen. Her lyric is so wonderful, too, of course, and, for me, she symbolises the excellence that women writers should continually strive for—the courage to speak up.
The dedication in Beatty’s most recent book, Jackknife reads like this:
“For women everywhere
who are told to be nice
and to shut up.”
JH: These poems are gentle with their subjects. Especially in “The Kindness,” when the poet describes the calves, “as they bend to eat grass / look up / at the mother at the same time.” Can you point out a few other moments that you admire in these poems, and describe what you admire about them?
CBD: I admire so many moments in both poems. They’re both so intricate and work on a multitude of levels, yet both have this wonderful accessible ordinariness about them, too.
Clodagh Beresford Dunne reads “The Kindness” by Jan Beatty:
In “The Kindness,” what I might admire most is that one might think that Beatty has been gentle with her subject, yet, the reader has, in fact, unwittingly, been taken on a terrifying, physical, reverse-journey with Beatty, and, by the end of the poem, they end up being equal beneficiary of the small act of historic kindness, that Beatty has been shown.
This physical pull is created in lots of very clever moments in the poem. For example, Beatty instantly places her juxtapositions on common ground, if you like: calf and mother, city dweller and rural dweller, fragility and strength, looking up, looking down, liberty and preclusion … so, with the mere mention of football fields, we’re off! And the poem becomes a rapid and physical episode.
The language used creates moments of beautiful unification with the scene and the movement: e.g. “run into each other” “hold” “steal” “bumping” and I love the moments of false peace that emerge in the poem—e.g., the gentleness of the title and the bucolic opening scene of “The mother elk & 2 babies” that is quickly toughened up and cancelled out by “sniffing / the metal handle of the bear-proof trash bin.” and again when the poet dwells on the elk babies’ beauty, only to be jarred into the realisation that she’s still not at a safe enough distance from the elks.
There’s remarkable effectiveness in the three indented sections of the poem, too – where the kindness actually occurs—and where Beatty captures the physical pushing-in of the door, within the poem’s architecture.
“a hand on the door,
I was walking in”
“a hand on the door
from around my body”
“a hand on the door
& the bottom of me
Beatty also has brilliant pacing and distancing in this poem and she guides the slide and reversal into memory with her use of movement:
“I’m backing up slowly/”
“The sloping line of their small snouts & /”
“…backing /into the woods past the lodgepole pines”
“The bottom of me
I read recently that Solzhenitsyn once said that courage and kindness were the greatest virtues. It’s as if “The Kindness” is a lesson in both. It’s a very real and very beautiful poem.
In “T-Shirts” I really admire the moments where Beatty offers her reader the specifics of what she’s retained and what she’s given away. It creates a heightened sense that although the subject matter is universal, this is a unique and individual experience. We’re told exactly how and where the T-Shirts are stored in her apartment, their size, the slogans they carry, how they’re speckled, stained etc. We’re given precise colours, fabrics etc. of the items she’s given away, too.
“I keep my father’s T-Shirts
in a brown bag in the hall
in between the bathroom and the bedroom.”
“They are big, extra large”
“One says ‘The Best Beer Drinkers Are From Whitehall’”
This sort of detail is so brave and honest and we’re given a calm and composed, yet deeply sad, explanation as to why the poet is keeping the T-Shirts, how they were a huge part of her relationship with her father, how her engagement with them or attention to them, since he has died, is much the same as the way in which one encounters grief: a mere glance or a fixed stare, depending on the day.
What’s particularly lovely is how Beatty so simply gets a hold on one of the most difficult aspects of grief—that part of loss which is so personal to the bereaved; the texture and touch of the loved one, their smell.
“Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep,
I go to the bag and sort through them,
hold them to my face
and say hello”
Clodagh Beresford Dunne reads “T-Shirts” by Jan Beatty:
JH: “The Kindness” is such an interesting title because it at once points to the specific gesture in the poem, and elevates it by referring to it more generally as kindness. We would expect “Kindness,” or “The Act of Kindness.” Obviously, the one Beatty chose is a better title. With “T-Shirts” it’s the opposite. The poem is about grief—why title it “T-Shirts”?
CBD: It’s an indelibly perfect title, isn’t it? The simplicity of what Beatty chooses as the tangible in order to illustrate the intangible is what makes the title so effective, I think.
T-Shirts are such universal and light items of clothing—they’re garments we’d normally wear on sunnier days, in casual, home-life, relaxed settings and this instantly suggests the familiar, something with which the reader can immediately connect and feel at ease, and the grief becomes so painfully understandable, almost unbearable, as a result. There is no longer any use for the T-Shirts here—there are no more T-Shirts to be purchased, to be worn, to be speckled with paint, “There is no place for them since he has died.”
There’s nothing extraordinary about a simple speckled, sloganed T-Shirt, yet when its owner dies it becomes an irreplaceable item connecting this daughter with her father, the only remaining evidence of the love that existed between the two, a holdable item that carries the essence of the departed, in every sense of that word.
The T-Shirts are suddenly rendered surplus, defunct, useless after death. If one thinks about the word T-Shirts, they’re so-called because of the shape they make when laid out flat—(t-shirts would be incorrect) and there’s a poignancy in that, too—a surrendering to death, and to grief, in a way.
Clodagh Beresford Dunne is an Irish poet, living in Dungarvan, Co Waterford in the southeast of the country. Her poems have appeared or are upcoming in Irish and international publications including Poetry (Chicago), The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, and The Stinging Fly. Her work has also been recorded for broadcast in Ireland and the USA. She was the recipient of the Arts Council of Ireland Emerging Writer Award, in 2016, and her poem “Seven Sugar Cubes” was voted Irish Poem of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. A former lawyer and award-winning public speaker, she is currently working towards publication of her first full collection.
The poet Thomas Mccarthy has said of Beresford Dunne: “She is a writer of immense seriousness and purpose. Her poems announce a new vision to us, a new vortex of energy that localises human experience and domesticates genius.”
Jan Beatty is an American poet. Her books include The Switching/Yard (2013), Red Sugar (2008), Boneshaker (2002), and Mad River (1995), published by University of Pittsburgh Press. She is a recipient of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and the Creative Achievement Award in Literature. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Writer’s block is like constipation. Writers know they have ideas and thoughts up in their brains, but they won’t come out onto the page. A search on the Walgreen’s website for a cure gave me no help. CVS was a little better but only because it changed “writers” to “whiten” and suggested a deodorant pen. Writers do use pens, and sometimes their writing stinks, but I don’t think this tool would help. I’m not sure it would even help stinky armpits. I wouldn’t want a pen tip going across the sensitive skin of my armpit. And how effective can something so thin and defined be? Anyway, I usually don’t have issues with writer’s block, as one can tell from my copious thoughts on deodorant pens. However, my students do, and I know other writers do too. Luckily, I have the brain laxative, or solution, to help.
I should start with some things not to try. Like being constipated, any health care professional will tell someone not to sit on the toilet and try to force the situation. In the case of writer’s block, the toilet is a blank computer screen or journal page. While the brain won’t get hemorrhoids, it’s as frustrating and unproductive as sitting on the pot for over an hour. Waiting for something to happen by ignoring the problem and doing other tasks will also not help. Again, the repercussions in the health arena are much more serious. Please do not wait days or weeks to poop. This will lead to a hospital visit and very unpleasant treatments. In the writer’s world, it just leads to nothing being written, which wasn’t the goal. One who is not trying to write doesn’t get writer’s block, the same way people who don’t eat don’t get constipated. But the latter will die. The writer will just be a sad sack who is a bore at parties full of other writers.
Now for some concrete solutions. Read. Reading is the laxative of the writer’s brain. Read work that is inspiring. Read work that is frustrating. In the case of the former, you might be inspired by the writer’s style, word choice, or tone. In the case of the latter, you will likely be frustrated and think you can do better. Then do it. Make that person’s ideas even better. Don’t publish this, and don’t share it with that writer. It’s best left in the journal on computer file unless you’ve made it uniquely your own or unless you’re into making other writers sad.
Mimic and steal. If you’re claiming you have no ideas (which isn’t true if you’ve been reading or you are a thinking human being), then take someone’s writing and mimic it. Write a poem using the same theme, line length, and rhyme scheme. Take a short story’s first line and, use it as your own first sentence.
Get a prompt. I know some writers poo-poo prompts. “Real creative writers don’t use prompts,” I’ve heard at least one fellow writer say. Fuck that. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein after being prompted by Lord Byron that she and he, along with Percy Shelly, should each write gothic ghost stories. Also, creative writers use current events all the time in their writing. I Googled books on Hurricane Katrina, and the first five results are “best book” lists. On a side note, I can’t say “fuck that” to my students. Also, all my students are assigned prompts. This is mainly because if I let them write about anything they wanted, I’d be inundated with essays on legalizing pot and students so overwhelmed with their choices they’d have writer’s block.
Remember two important things: you are writing a draft, and you can’t revise what you haven’t written. I tell my students this all the time. “I can’t write my ideas well,” they say, or, “I’m afraid what I write will be awful.” Therefore, they write nothing. I had a student once who had this problem through the whole semester and ended up failing because he never wrote a word. This is a psychological problem. I am not a therapist, but I can tell writers that you have to write the shit down to make it no longer shit. I can’t say “shit” to my students, so I call it the “crappy draft.” This aptly fits my metaphor of constipation and writer’s block.
Banish the thought that you have nothing to add to what is being written. I just went to GoogleScholar and searched for Shakespeare. Over 1.4 million entries came up. You can add to what is being written about anything. You can also assume that a lot of what is written isn’t good, in your opinion or someone else’s. Then you get a chance to write it better. You get to write it in your style, in your words. Someone will love it. Someone will hate it. Who cares? You got it out of you. That’s what’s important.
With all that said, banish the thought that no one will ever read it anyway. Poets, with the exception of Maya Angelou and Billy Collins, all know that hardly anyone in the large scheme of things will ever read our work. Most novelists will never reach the sales of Stephen King. Still not convinced? According to Wikipedia, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sold 107,000,000 copies. It seems like EVERYONE read that book, right? Not even close. The world population had grown by about 2 billion people from 1995 (Harry was published in 1997) to 2017.* So roughly, 5% of the whole world has read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Write for yourself. If you decide to share it, that’s great, but unless you are doing it for a living, it’s not what’s important.
Don’t label yourself. Here is a list of things I’ve heard writers say about themselves that keeps them from writing:
I don’t write poetry/essays/stories.
I only write in _______ style/genre.
I’m a reader, not a writer.
I’m an ideas person, not a writer.
I stink at writing.
I am not smart enough to write.
I have been through many years of cognitive behavioral therapy for my depression and anxiety. When a therapist told me to practice “positive self-talk,” I laughed. I didn’t believe I could just say things to myself and overcome years of believing I was unattractive, unworthy, and unintelligent. My therapist asked me what I would tell a friend who said things like that about herself. She asked me to imagine my best friend sitting next to me, saying those things about herself. What would I say to her? Of course, I’d say none of those things were true! What would she say to me if I were saying those things about myself to her? She’d say the same. So I started, slowly, telling myself nice things about myself or correcting my negative thoughts. When I thought I wasn’t looking my best, I’d picture my friend in my head saying I looked great. When I felt dumb about something, I’d remind myself I am educated and have experience but I’m still learning new things all the time. It started working.
If you tell yourself you’re not a novelist/poet/writer, then you won’t be. If you tell yourself you can’t write because all your teachers said so, you had awful teachers. Terrible human beings. And they don’t know you now. People change. I used to be pretty weak in math skills, but as I’ve aged and my brain has changed, I’m pretty good at it now. I used to say, “I can’t do math.” Now I say, “I can do a lot of math.”
If you think you stink at writing, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It’s the same as playing an instrument. Pretty much everyone stinks at it when they first start, but with practice, and learning, they get better. Not everyone gets to be a professional bassoonist, but adults who played bassoon in high school band can pick it up again with practice and enjoy it. They are going to have a hard time getting back into the swing of breathing and fingering, and reading music, but they will get better. You will too. Also, revisit paragraph 6.
Finally, I am reminded of the small bottle of stool softener in my medicine cabinet. I don’t use it often, but when I need it, I’m glad I have it. I’m also glad for Pepto-Bismol, but that’s a different problem and a different metaphor for another essay. Writers need to remember there are so many tools available through Google searches, books on writing, and online and in-person writing groups. My favorite website for help when I’m writing is called The Sunday Whirl, which gives a set of words every Sunday that writers can use to jump-start their writing. When I’m feeling dried up, I read a favorite poet. There’s never a reason not to write. There are so many reasons it’s good to write. Write your words. You need to let them out.
Kristin LaTour is a poet and professor living in Aurora, IL. Her book, What Will Keep Us Alive, and forthcoming chapbook, Mend, are both published by Sundress. Readers can find her in journals all over the web and in print. This is her only published essay. She wrote it in a few weeks. She didn’t procrastinate in writing it, but she did forget she had it done and to send the damn thing in.
Poets in Pajamas, a Live-Stream Reading Series by Sundress Publications Presents Episode 43: Samantha Edmonds
Do you enjoy live poetry? Are you looking for a relaxing way to spend your Sunday night? Don’t want to travel far or change out of your comfortable PJs?
Well look no further! Poets in Pajamas is a live-feed online reading series presented by Sundress Publications. We bring live poetry, complete with Q&A and poet interaction, to you. We don’t ask you to dig out a scarf, no, we welcome you as you are and bring the poetry. Won’t you join us? We often draw a diverse audience from around the world and we’d love it if you, too, were there.
Our next reading is scheduled for Sunday, November 18th, at 7PM EST, featuring Samantha Edmonds. On behalf of Sundress Publications, Anna Black will host.
Samantha Edmonds is an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, The Pinch, Indiana Review,McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Knoxville, where she serves as fiction editor for Grist and as the Community Outreach Director for Sundress Academy for the Arts.
Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University. Black 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. In addition to hosting PiP, Black is the staff director at Sundress Publications.
The readings occur on PiP’s Facebook page every other Sunday at 7PM EST/4PM PST. The selected poet will read for about 15 minutes, and will then open the floor for an additional 10-15 minutes to receive questions from the audience.