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Monday, November 29, 2010

Soham Patel, Poems as Rendition: Or, Some Ways I'm Stealing

No apologies—I am a thief.  I wrote about a poem a day this November.  Since it’s nearing the end of the month I just went back to read over what I’ve been writing.  What I see is that I imitated, I stole, I borrowed, also I experimented, I expressed, improvised, imagined, I formed, I failed.  But mostly I stole.  Some of the poems are quite acceptable.  Some make no sense.  Some are almost there and some are nowhere near.  Now I’m wondering what near means and what it means to be there.  Is being there a mirror?  Is the mirror convex? Probably, to some extents.  My concern isn’t to sound mature (to Eliot) but to thank a lineage/writers for writing.  It’s so often a poem that starts me on a poem.  Certainly, all the other inspiring things eventually find a way into the poem—but I just realized after rereading these November poems that when it comes to sitting down to type it out, right now I am one of those poets who feels compelled to visit another poem first for a point of departure.

One night it was right after reading pages from Amnesiac by Duriel Harris which is, as one of my favorite bloggers put it: “a gallery of portraits and self portraits composed of dense lines and complex syntax or quick, deft strokes.”   I try on that density, that syntax, those strokes by way of the good old replace-a-verb-for-a -verb or one-object-for-another, etc. exercise.  So Harris’ “vial and corn tash” becomes my “necklace and speaker” and in I go. My speaker writes a version of her body’s history that loses a lyric singularity.  She does this through statements around who she is and who she is not in a setting that shares a history with others.  Harris’ speaker knows who she is, who she is not and frames the knowing with the objects in the portrait—the speaker rejects any givens as last words and the words complicate over on top of themselves.  I stole that knowing and it’s mine now in a draft.  Even though it’s mine, what I ended up with was a stolen self-portrait.  Stolen self-portrait.

And as the month went on, I kept stealing!  I wish I could say it was a rock star moment when I broke my decade old guitar earlier this month, but it was just a clumsy moment playing fetch with my puppy.  I threw the ball.  The puppy retrieved.  In the process she knocked the wooden instrument off its stand.  The guitar crashed on the floor and won’t play anymore.  For a feeling of closure, I decided to write an ode to my guitar but couldn’t begin before going to Neruda and his socks.  Translated, his “feet were two fish made of wool,/two long sharks, sea blue, shot through/ by one golden thread.”  My hands “became two steely blisters,/two long sliding centipedes/of burnt rust to bleed from veins.”  My ode had start with Neruda’s before it slips into something else.  We’ll see where it goes!

This month I’ve been working on a crown concerning a population of girls in India who were never born because they were girls.  Had to go to Gwendolyn Brooks’ take on part of the subject/form first.  Eventually her lines from “the mother” turn up verbatim as volta for my own.  Here’s a draft from the crown:

(The Missing)

with lines borrowed 
from Gwendolyn Brooks

She was never with me—I only imagined
Her memory fragmented loss in fontanel
Closing to form recognition or rattle.
Her eyes may have been green or light
Reflecting off the dam’s concrete
Offers some glint for the aching, tumult
Relentlessness of no sleep now or later on.
But why should I whine, she was never
Mine—But that, too, I am afraid
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
We exist in the drained lands of the missing.
Fiercely for one another come and go the sex
Flooding on our floodplains we continue outward.
Swoons of luscious reach—finished, just beginning.

It goes on, my thievery.  I n+7'ed a friend’s poem, took one of my teacher’s poems and rewrote it backwards—made day into night.  I’ve been appropriating, repurposing.  These procedures teach me how to read a poem, too—what they mean/how they’re working.  Does my going to a poem to write a poem mean my originality is lack/run the risk of seeming redundant/make the poem less conceptual than it's capable of being?  Maybe. Probably not to some extents.  Anyway, I’m feeling lucky for this obsession, this spark, all these amazing poets/this lineage since it allows me to never run out of something to get me started.

Soham Patel has taught Composition, Creative Writing, and Literature courses at the University of Colorado, Pikes Peak Community College, and Anand Arts College-in Gujarat, India.  Currently, she studies poetry in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh.  Some poems are forthcoming in XcP and have appeared in SHAMPOO, Copper Nickel, The Cortland Review, Foursquare, Marginalia and other places.  She’s a Kundiman fellow and has been awarded residency at Soapstone and Soul Mountain. 

Michael Koly, Clockworks - a Digital Poem

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Douglas Kearney, The Body is a Plantation of Needs

I was in Little League one season. Everybody got a trophy just for being on a team! From this, I learned that almost doing something (in that case, almost being competent at tee-ball) is just as good as doing something. This dovetails nicely with my Lutheran upbringing: a sin in mind is just as much a sin as one in deed.

Thus: here are a few poems I would like to write. This is just as good as doing them, yes? And if I do them, I am just an overachiever. Awesome!

1) "Ham Sammich": This would be a poem about slavery. I think it would need to be a longer poem in order to justify "sammich" versus "sandwich" and the thought of sandwich at all. The Biblical allusion of "Ham" also seems like it needs longer to cure, or smoke, or honey bake. As I think about the length, it makes me think about the world a poem can make—here, a poem could make a world in which a poem about slavery would have to be called "Ham Sammich." What happens in that world? Why the dialecty "sammich?" This poem would be ridiculous. Hooray!

Oh, there was a line I really liked about a year and a half ago. It went:

    "The body is a plantation of needs."

This became:

    "The body a plantation of need."

In a poem called "Ham Sammich," would that line have to be:

    "The body a plantation for empty."

2) Another section to the poem: "Thank you but    please don't buy my children     clothes with monkeys on them": This, I think, would be the last section I need to write, though it will probably go into position between the current third and fourth section (the ones with the cartoon tuxedo gloves and the proliferation of monkeys, respectively), though the current fourth will likely follow the current second (the one about the history of black baby tail circumcision). Hmmph. Of course, that would make it the last, unless the current third goes last (which it might). The new section will be the one where I might use the chimp who went crazy (or as Chris Rock might say, went "chimp") as a Trojan Horse (er—Chimp) to get at how people at the mall say how cute my eight-month-old twins are, but will probably clutch their purses and such when they see them in 13 years. I have no lines for this yet—rather, the ones I have are too too too heavy. Ham-fisted, so to speak. Here's two of em:

    “oh but they must grow mustn’t they?”

    “yes, and isn’t it awful?”

Isn't it?

3) "Worksongs": These were going to be a bunch of revisitations of the Herakles Labor tales, because what we need is another re-telling of a Greek myth! At one point, these were all gonna have one word titles (The one about the stables would be called "Shit." The one about the hydra would be called "Heads."); but then, I wrote a poem called "I was standing    on the corner    when I heard my    bulldog bark" which I think might be a good way to deal with the one where Herakles kills the lion (since the poem involves Stagolee killing Billy Lyons and wearing his skin). This could be more fun than my previous approach, called "Lion" which had lines like:

    great hope: man in a lion

    skin is more man than ever.

    you wake up one day
a lion in a city. you will be


The "great hope" plays off a series of epithets suggesting "champion."

I said meh!

 There's other stuff, too. A bunch of poems called: "A History of Negro Silences" (I wrote several of them, but I think they work better as studies; besides, I'm cannibalizing that title for a different project). A revision of a short story called: "Suhthen Ventriloquizardry as Jig-Breaking Catalyst." A satirical Western opera called Dead Horses… Perhaps if I accumulate enough almosts I could publish a speculative un-collection of poems! Perhaps enough almosts will get me an almost grant, which is when someone nearly sends you money, but just doesn't quite. And surely if I keep stacking up almosts, I can avoid writing the poem about the miscarriage, when I woke up to skulk of foxes stealing away from my wife, their red backs crossing the bed sheet, their tails disappearing over the mattress edge.

Poet/Performer/Librettist/Educator Douglas Kearney's first full-length collection of poems, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press. His second manuscript, The Black Automaton, was chosen by Catherine Wagner for the National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books in 2009. It has since been named a finalist for the 2010 Pen Center USA Award. He has also received a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Coat Hanger award and a MAP Fund grant. An Idyllwild and Cave Canem fellow, Kearney has performed his poetry at the Public Theatre, Orpheum, and The World Stage. His poems have appeared in journals such as miPoesias, Callaloo, jubilat, nocturnes, Ninth Letter, Southampton Review, Washington Square and Gulf Coast. Born in Brooklyn, he lives with his family in California's San Fernando Valley. He teaches at CalArts and Antioch.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Oliver de la Paz, Sunbursts

         The light is catching Nolan's face in such a way that his expression folds inward; his eyes scrunch tight, lips press firmly together. But he's giggling despite his sour countenance. My mother bounces him on her knees, every once and awhile raising him up by his armpits into the shooting rays of light in her living room. It is November in the Pacific Northwest, and these quick sunbursts are rare jewels. He's so fat, she tells me. You were skinny when you were his age. So skinny.
         This is hard to imagine. What's even harder to imagine is that I'm the father of two boys: one held aloft in the arms of my mother, the other, Lucas, lining up cars on the carpet making vrooming noises. I had often asked my mother why they didn't have another child when I was younger and their answers were always elusive . . . tinged with what seems to be regret. I'm told lots of reasons. I'm never told that they were afraid.
         I'm worried. Worried that my new book is too heavy with emotion . . . with sentimentality. We writers worry about such things. We fear being sentimental. We are told to stay away from sentimentality.
         I am a sentimental fool. My family is filled with sentimental fools. Meredith sometimes catches me crying at movies. I cry when the music surges. It's gotten worse. There are moments when I have to stop, count, and catch my breath while speaking about my children--about my family.  So, I've become hyper-aware of the sentimental when it comes to my own writing. I've become the pathos police with my work. I've been busily stripping back any overt sentimentality, paring it down to the bare fibers where the texture is smoothest. Blankest.
         On September 21, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. My mother gave away all the household utensils . . . the bed, her medical equipment. She had even given away the rice cooker and all the food in the kitchen. In the mornings, my father goes to Camp Crame, the headquarters for the Philippine Constabulary at the time, in order to get clearance to leave the country. I'm told that the roosters were crowing when he leaves, and that the dust was low because of the morning dew. My mother packed him lunches gathered together from relatives so he could wait in a line thousands and thousands of people long. He does this for a week, leaving at daybreak and coming back at five in the afternoon without our travel clearance.
         The flat, arid landscape that we came to call home is nestled in Malheur County, Oregon. In French, "malheur " translates to "bad luck." The town of Ontario, Oregon, is where my mother begins her private medical practice. The Snake River brushes its sides along the town, separating Western Idaho from Eastern Oregon. The number one employer is the Ore-Ida Factory and the hospital. We are the only Filipino family in the valley and we are viewed with immediate suspicion. The Vietnam War had ended only five years before, and the nearby Air Force and Army bases were filled with veterans. I'm told that my parents bought me a pair of cheap cowboy boots. They thought the boots would help me "fit in."
         My attention span is so attenuated these days. Some catastrophe in the next room usually needs my attention, which pulls me from my writing desk. The call away from the writing desk is so much more important these days. Little cries throughout the house snap my trances. Sometimes I have to count. Hold my breath.
         My mother tells me that my uncle was educating communist guerillas in the mountains in the Philippines before martial law was declared. My father tells me my uncle was educating poor farmers. I don't know whom to believe. I also don't know whether this is why we left the Philippines--whether the de la Paz name was on some black list . . .  but it certainly adds to the myth of our departure. In the 70's everyone was afraid of communists in/from Asia.
         My first Little League practice and one of my teammates is pulling at the sides of his eyes and making "ching-chong Chinese" sounds at me. He's dancing in place like a monkey chained to a Calliope. We are the "Pioneers." Our mascot is a Davy Crockett-like figure wearing a racoon-skin hat, holding a rifle at his hip. Our practice field is adjacent to a cow pasture, and the smell of manure is everywhere. The team is comprised of farmers' sons from the periphery of Ontario, OR. The ball coach looks at my jeering teammate and laughs before calling him back to the dugout for warm-ups. Behind me, the electrical fence clicks, and I can feel the heat from the ground rising to meet my face.
         Nolan is laughing. There's a rope of drool hanging from his bottom lip, caught on the collar of his footie pajamas. These pajamas are pink because Meredith wanted variety. My father wonders aloud whether this is a good color choice, but Meredith isn't here to defend herself. Meanwhile, my mother raises Nolan up into a beam of light, then down again. He looks like a plump cloud at dawn, as the sun hits the floating dust on the horizon just so.
         Charlie Perez is guiding me over to a water fountain. I have sand in my eyes and the hot sear of the grains press deeper into my lids with each orb's involuntary twitch. Put your head under here, Charlie tells me as the water rushes from my right eye to the bridge of my nose to the left eye. One of my Little League teammates has thrown sand into my eyes. Another teammate is helping me wash the sand away. A little cloud of dust rises in the dugout while I can hear the aluminum bat clunk from contact with a ball in the field.
         I'm a sentimental fool, yes. So I'm told.
         I'm told I had sepsis when I was Nolan's age. And colic. And I was skinny. I was, apparently, a very difficult and fussy child. My mother had completed her medical training and was the resident pediatrician at her hospital, but she was often home to care for me while my father waited in line to get our passports stamped.  I tell my mother that my first memory was of her holding me as we looked out the window of our old house onto a dirt street filled with merchants trying to sell food from baskets. She tells me this is impossible because I was too young. Again, I don't know what to believe. My memory is tricky. Perhaps it was some fevered imagining. Perhaps it's an actual memory. I remember sounds, though. I remember hawkers shouting to the windows.
         I'm writing about my sons again. And I think that some people don't want to hear about them, but I want to talk about them. I've become one of those parents--the kind that seems to have something to sell to you. The kind that keeps photos of his kids in his wallet. The kind that sidles up to you and asks do you want to see something really cute?
         I'm told that a week had passed without clearance to leave the country and because of martial law, the threat that all travel departing from the Philippines would be shut down. I'm told that my father, in desperation, threw our passports to the government agent stamping them clearance at the head of the line. After a week of waiting in a line thousands of people deep, I imagine my father was fed up . . . desperate. This was the Saturday after Proclamation 1081. There was no work on Sunday, so the next day my father went back to Camp Crame. He came back that afternoon with our stamped passports.
         Red car. Blue car. Green car. My oldest son is testing out his colors, feeling the new words in his mouth. As he says each color, he raises a small Hot Wheel up to eye level, puts it back down, and lines it up with the other cars on the carpet.
         My father was told that small foreign cars are "tin coffins." Ever since, my father insists on buying Ford pick-ups to "fit in." He bought our first when I was ten. He barely "fits" in them, looking somewhat comical in their cabs--a small man, barely able to peer outside the driver-side window. He's since gone through several pick-ups in my lifetime, each given up for the same reason: they're too big. Each time I tell him to buy something smaller and he tells me we need a big car here. He's always scared of something. Scared that someone will barrel into us while we're innocently driving to the grocery store. That some drunk driver will veer from his lane into ours. That he'll lose us.
         The plane we took to leave the Philippines was from Hungary. I'm told that the plane was extremely full and that we were stuffed between other passengers and their bags. I'm told that I cried the whole journey, my small body lodged between suitcases. I'm told that I was very sick. That we had given away everything. I'm told that there was no turning back. I was very skinny, my mother tells me. So skinny.
         My poetic lines have been getting longer over the past three years because I've got so much to say. There's so much to tell. Writing day today, and Meredith has taken the kids outside to play. The sun's unbelievably bright, warming the cooled house so that the morning dew steams off the siding. I imagine the house, from the outside looks like it's rising on a cloud.
         In San Francisco, where we landed, we ended up living in a third floor studio apartment in the Mission District. We slept together in a queen-sized Murphy bed. My mother did groceries at a nearby canned food store and bought all our clothes from the Salvation Army. My dad worked in the Trans America building, doing grunt accounting, saving up enough to help my mom with her medical residency. I have a picture of myself in diapers, running on a brown tile floor. My parents say so little about those days. My mom says there's nothing to say. She tells me they were happy. That I was getting fat.
         I've been trying to get it all down on paper but my time is not my own. I'm told it will get easier to get back to the writing desk when my children are older, but for now I am giving my writing time to my children. I'm told that these years are crucial to their development. I know these things that I am told. The journey from the desk to the living room where the world of toys spills out before my sons is a small journey, and one that I gladly take. I've been writing about what scares me. I've been writing about my children and the things we do to keep them safe. How so many of those things are governed by forces out of our control. How sometimes we take detours. Sometimes those detours take us to a place that bewilders us. How sometimes grace can be found in the wild toss of a passport with the world of hope within its pages.
         The toy cars are arranged from hood to fender, hood to fender. The line of cars stretches from one edge of the carpet to the other and everyone has to watch their steps as they cross into the living room. Lucas is full of consonants that growl to match the heavy engine roar of a big Ford pick-up. Nolan is rising and falling and rising again. His vowels arc into the bright sun as we watch him lift, skyward, into the parabolas of love.  

Oliver de la Paz is the author of three collections of poetry, Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), and the forthcoming Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada.  He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry.  A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry:  The Next Generation.  He teaches at Western Washington University.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, The Origin of the Whale Shark: An Ars Poetica

When the dive-master yelled, “Flaaat!” my legs seized with terror and my body unfolded into the shape any body would take when a confronted with a giant whale shark gliding directly towards your head: a pancake. Actually, since I was floating on the surface of the water of the 6-million gallon “Ocean Voyager” tank at the Georgia Aquarium, and most of my ears were submerged as I was face down, the command sounded more like “AAABBATTTTTTT!” Just minutes before, us guest snorkelers were instructed over and over again: “If you hear me shout, ‘Flat,’ that means you’ve got a whale shark swimming directly under you. Flatten your body so your belly doesn’t skim her back.” I could hardly believe a fish, longer and wider than a school bus, was swimming directly toward my head. I thought for sure I would be swallowed whole inside her gaping wide mouth.
An accident, of course—whale sharks only eat plankton and bits of shrimp—but what an accident to tell my son and husband back home in New York. What a dumb legacy to leave them in this way. But as the giant fish moved closer to my head—at the last possible moment before I thought she would crash into me—the whale shark sank just low enough to not touch me at all, though her dorsal fins almost brushed up against the belly of my wetsuit as I hovered there. If I wanted to, I could reach my hand down and pet her spotted back, but I was too terrified to do anything but float, lift my belly and curve my back as far up as it would let me as I tried to get out of the shark’s way.
It was as if she was toying with me—wanting to give me a little fright, just enough to let me know exactly who was queen of this tank. This particular whale shark repeated her close encounter drive-bys with me several more times during the entire length of my snorkel session, even though there were five other snorkelers plus two dive-masters in the tank besides me. Each time she passed me, I saw her giant eyeball look right at my mask, curious as a spaniel. Very rare to happen at all, let alone to the same person, said the dive-master.
By the time I climbed the metal ladder out of the Ocean Voyager tank, I could barely walk on the concrete deck. I had tensed up all the muscles in my arms and legs for the last half an hour and suddenly, even the fairly light-weight snorkel system seemed as heavy as carrying a bag of mulch. Around my neck. In the locker room, I was the last one to change back into my street clothes. When I was sure all the other snorkelers had already left the room and were probably all lined up to collect their souvenir photo, I sat down on a wooden bench. Still wearing my half-unzipped wetsuit, I wept with my face in my hands.

Even though I spent almost a year studying them, I was never prepared for the size. Even though I spent almost a year studying them, I was never prepared to submit myself so completely to Nature. Or rather, man’s interpretation and preservation of Nature by adding 1.8 million pounds of sea salt in a giant tank of water so that all these creatures could live and swim together. For science. For entertainment. For spectacle. Perhaps for a little of all three. In addition to the three whale sharks in the tank, there was a giant hammerhead shark, notorious for attacks on humans—and scores of other dangers: blacktip reef, spotted wobbegong, zebra, and sand tiger sharks.
Even though I had fulfilled a life dream to swim with a whale shark, I felt incredibly guilty. My son could have been motherless. My husband, a widower. And I certainly felt sorry for the sharks. I was able to leave the aquarium and fly home to my family. I had brought back a whale shark hand puppet for my son. When I gave it to him in the car, he promptly slipped it over his tiny fist, which he unclenched to make the shark puppet mouth open/close-open/close-open/close. He giggled in his car seat as my husband drove us all home. It was as if I had never left them at all.
[[ Bolinao, Philippines ]]
Everyone knew where Kablay kept his coins. One of his eyes always pointed left towards the starfruit grove, and the other was always fixed on his coins in the tin cookie box under his bed. Every night, after his dinner of bangus fish and jelly seaweeds, the neighbors heard him pry open the cavemouth lid of the cookie box. He stacked the coins into a small silver city, then crashed them just to hear the noise. Just to see the light disperse into a hundred pieces on his bedroom floor. Sometimes, lizards mistook it for a flash of moth-wing and collided into one of the pile of coins, their whippy tails scattering silver along the floorboards. All night, lizards peered out from behind curtains and shook their head from side to side, as if to say, “No-no. No-no.” Each night, these small crashes became familiar and expected as a sort of   metallic lullaby in the otherwise quiet province, save for the occasional bark of a stray dog.
            When the Great Typhoon hit and it was clear the dams would not hold, all the villagers fled to the hills of Patar. No time to collect photos, rambuntan fruit, or rosary. Everyone left the province except Kablay. He sat on the floor in his house and hugged his cookie tin to his chest. The no-no lizards had long since scattered. The waters rushed through the province and swept everything out to sea: tender, young chico trees and even whole bamboo stands where you could buy a sweet fizzy drink poured into a plastic bag with a straw. Even the hapless chickens and stray dogs with their mouths wide open whirled away into the ocean.
            But Kablay held tight to his coins and his coins held him. He held them so tight, they pressed into his body and left a white spot. And another. And another and another spot until his whole back was dotted white. Kablay’s mouth became a small cave and the bubbles that popped from it were silver. Sometimes you can still see Kablay and his wide eyes still searching for a small ship, a scrap of moonlight. Every April he comes back to see if he left any more coins behind. Kablay’s money is always with him, pressed into his dark, leathery skin. And because he loved his coins so much and did not want to part with them, his legs shrank into fins until he turned into a whale shark. The spots on his back look like a whole city of light, where everyone is always awake and where everyone tries to remember the simple sweet memory of soil. 

 Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of the poetry collections, At the Drive-In Volcano, winner of the Balcones Prize, and Miracle Fruit, which was named Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine and the winner of the Global Filipino Literary Award. Other awards for her writing include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Pushcart Prize. Her third collection of poems, Lucky Fish, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2011. She is associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia and lives in Western NY with her husband and two young sons

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Curtis Bauer, I Wish I Were Out Walking

I’d like to go for a walk, but right now I’m too busy with work and project obligations. I can’t catch up during the day and evening, so I’ve let that seep into my morning, my before-light writing time.

Half a decade ago, I worked on a year-long project with the poets Ryan Walsh and Sebastian Matthews: the project, Walking the Morning Line, required that each of us write several lines every morning, either on a theme or threaded out of something we had read, seen or heard the day before. We emailed the lines to each other, typically in the morning after a walk, or at least the first cup of coffee, but before we started the day and all its subsequent crap began to filter into our observations. Often, the first email would set the mood for the other two. No matter where we were in the world, no matter how busy we were, we wrote our lines—we felt the obligation to each other and to the intention of the project. This project led us into a daily practice, necessary like brushing your teeth, or getting dressed to go to work. Here’s a sample I sent from Spain:

It's 7.30 in the morning and here I am, thinking about this blind kid I saw the
other day, and how he sticks in my mind more than any beautiful woman or man I've seen on the streets here, and how that seems to make sense to me, that a typical, normal person should stay with us over the less ordinary, extravagant beauty.

Although part of the project intended to keep us in communication, another part intended to allow us room to meander through ideas, compose some phrases or fragments that would eventually lead us to something specific: a poem or piece of prose. It reminded us to fix our attention on the world around us, to be awake to our observations, even if those lines took months to develop into something else we wanted to work on. The above lines later turned into the beginnings of a poem, a little more specific, though not yet the poem it might become:

Give me a choice—a sexy lady
with so much hair and breast
and sweet perfume, or a boy
blind, weeping and crossing
a street, and I'll choose him.
I need a little more angle
walking in my life, and horn
blare, a man at my side
tapping my shoulder
as I careen toward traffic,
on-coming and rude. Beautiful,
round-faced boy confused by the light
pole he can't walk through, his cheeks
flushed red and his eyes, worthless
and hazel, rolling up, into his head.

This project didn’t really end, but the space for it started to fill, for me at least, with another method of focusing on my own writing. Instead of walking around and thinking about how I might revise a poem, I began to wander about in the poems I was reading in Spanish, thinking about how those poets were crafting their lines and rhythms in my second tongue. Perhaps the transition was a natural one, to move from living abroad to recognition of and meditation on linguistic idiosyncrasies. I don’t think one has to live in another country to be concerned with or invested in translation. It’s an act we do constantly when we see and talk or write about what we see or hear—also, remember, metaphor is translation; in fact, in Greek it means to move; you see the word written on moving vans all over Greece. But for poets at least, translation from one language to another seems a necessary act; it brings us closer to the language of our poems by requiring that we break through the surface and sub stratum of our observations, emotions, thoughts, etc.. It’s like something my archeologist friend Chris Witmore has to do when he’s surveying a new area for a dig: he reviews satellite images taken of the terrain, and then compares that data to what is on the ground in front of him, a practice called Ground Truthing. In theory the collection of ground-truth data enables him to adjust what he knows from afar, or in my case, what I know about my own language through the evidence and layers of another. I know the Spanish language has its rules of syntax, and I know there is more than one meaning for a word. The oddity of the Spanish syntax and how I’m often pushed to a dictionary to look up even the simplest word, reminds me on a certain level that I need to slow down in my own writing practice, dig a little, get my hands dirty. This also reminds me that my poems can benefit from a recognition of what is a natural form and structure in this other language, but is uncommon—though not grammatically incorrect—in my own.

Although the following poem (by the Spanish poet Juan Antonio González-Iglesias) has no surprising syntactical quirks, its easily recognizable gist in the original title, even if you don’t have a vast knowledge of Spanish, will lead most readers to think of the Ars Poetica form.

Arte Poética

Si no quieres quedarte a mirar la tormenta
Yo la miro por ti.

Ars Poetica

If you don’t want to stay and watch the storm
I will watch it for you.

But as an exercise, we might also think of a literal translation (an easy one even the newest beginner might do with a dictionary):

Art Poetic

Yes/If no you want stay you to look the storm
I it/her I look for you

Juan Antonio would kill me if he saw this, but my point is that even the most basic study—and incorrect if you use “Yes” instead of “If” (yes would be sí)…—of the individual words of this poem can set a poet off down a track that might lead to the beginnings of a poem that may become a new ars poetica.

As I mentioned earlier, translation is about moving. I’m concerned with how my poems evolve, shift and expand. Another approach connected to my practice of writing poems is how I work into them through prose. I still write letters by hand—though I’m cutting back on that because my friends tell me they have a hard time understanding what I’m saying—and correspond frequently with family, friends and other poets and artists. Part of this comes from my need to maintain a connection to friends who are living all over the world; but another relates again to how I enter into language, dwell in a space and siphon from it the workings of a poem. These prose pieces are often quick, written with one person in mind, though perhaps sent to several friends as dispatches; they’re like conversations, but ones that require that I wait for a response. The waiting is quite important for me; it requires that I slow down, that I think intensely about the subject for a while, and then that I return to it again through the lens of the response from my correspondent. The following is an excerpt from a piece I wrote last summer in response to a friend who was traveling in eastern Europe, who had written me responding to an observation I had sent him about looking out my apartment window.

Train Lines, Thinking of Hikmet

It’s 2010, early June and I’m sitting by the window on the Sevilla-Granada train. It’s a Sunday, mid-day and hot. The heat is a glare that hurts the eyes. I never knew I liked to squint. There’s a word in Spanish—hincar—that means to look upon someone or some thing with great attention, as if hooking or attaching one’s eyes to the object. I like the sound of that word and squinting is what I’m doing with this dry, flat landscape. As if looking away from it, as if looking down at the paper or the work waiting for me in my bag would be some sacrilege I don’t know how to regret, that I might miss something important out there, and my eyes know this. I like how my eyes hook the tossed-away bottles under graffitied walls as the train leaves Santa Justa and heads east, passing through Dos Hermanas and clattering by stretching fields of apartment blocks. I forget that I love looking at these tall, vast buildings until I’m pulled by their rows under the force of an engine, but my eyes glean the windows and balconies for color, for someone looking out on this train passing by, like I would be, because I also love to watch trains, almost as much as riding them. I think of my friend who wrote a short note recently, telling me he had just taken a nine hour bus ride to Sophia—one can only write short notes on buses—and I wish he could have taken a train because it’s so much easier to let your eyes wander when you can stretch your legs and use the restroom; even the grime and trash along the tracks, the squalor around the station, seen from a stiff vinyl upholstered seat is a lovelier sight than what we can see from the plush comfort of the bus. And who likes to watch busses pass by anyway? No one has to stop and wait for a bus crossing; no child stands at the roadside and gestures to the bus driver to honk his horn. At least not here.

Reading this again, that trip comes back—the rhythm and noise of the train as it dislocated me from one city and hurled me into another, the frame of those windows, the murmur of conversations around me. Though the geographic distance (and cultural…and social) is vast between West Texas and my homes in Spain, if I can tap into that energy and give myself the time…I can write something—poetry or prose—that can take me back there, even if only briefly, or push me in a different direction.

Days have passed since I first wanted to leave the house for that walk, since I’ve been able to dwell in any place creative. I know there’s an interesting view from my office at the back of the house—light must be coming into the yard, defining the leaves, the utility poles, a cat on a branch over the neighbor’s garage—and I know I only need a little space to crawl through to wander into the rest of the day, that I need to shrug off the obligations for only an hour, write some lines to friends. Out of them I’ll find my way into a poem, or down some other, unexpected path. A little time; that’s all I need. It’s not so hard.

Curtis Bauer has published and has poems and translations forthcoming in Fulcrum, The Dirty Goat, The American Poetry Review, Circumference, The Cortland Review, and Barrow Street. He has been a finalist for the New Letters Poetry Prize, The Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and The Glimmer Train Poetry Open. He won the John Ciardi Poetry Prize for his first poetry collection, Fence Line, published by BkMk Press in 2004. He teaches Creative Writing and Translation at Texas Tech University and is the publisher of Q Ave Press Chapbooks.

Poemedia: Erin Costello and Aaron Angello

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jake Adam York, No Marker But Memory

Dear Reader,

My wife and I stand in the backyard, waiting for dinner to be done. We won’t, we know, have many more weekends—maybe any—when we can use the grill.

It’s remarkable, she says, thinking of how few bean pods have come off the locust that’s going yellow overhead. Normally, the yard is covered, like the pool of balls at a child’s play-place, with these beans, and it can take all morning to clean up the yard.

Less work tomorrow, then. Welcome news.

I’ve just received copies of
Persons Unknown, my new book, from my publisher. It’s a little unreal, if for no other reason than I really haven’t seen it or had much to do with it for several months.

I had worked on it for almost three years, thought about it every day, but for most of the past year, it’s been in someone else’s hands. It’s felt missing.

So, it’s good to see it, but it’s also a little like a family reunion: I haven’t seen it in so long, I’ve learned to live without it, and now I have to learn to live with it again.

And like that cousin you haven’t seen in 15 years, it’s asking questions. What have you been up to?

The answer to that question is both I’ve been busy and Not much.

The color of things is changing. Part of this is sun, the light swinging around to the South. It happens so slowly, of course, you don’t notice it day to day, but then, one day, you’ve crossed some threshold and the light is different.

And now that the light is different, even without the locust’s bean pods to trash the yard, my mind is a pile of leaves.

It’s a little more than a year since we got the call, as we headed down from the mountains, that my uncle had died.

We flew back—to Alabama—the next day, and not even two months later, we drove back to be with my family for Thanksgiving, the first without him, to help hold everything together.

The funeral is something of a blur. I remember it the way you remember the events of a day in which you’ve had a few too many cups of coffee: it’s one long streak. It’s hard to remember specific moments in that week without remembering everything: booking a flight, driving to the airport and then from Atlanta into Alabama, the service, all the questions, his widow calling me to come help organize his clothes, the lawyer taking me and my brother to lunch, the rental car company double charging us for the insurance and me ready to throttle someone, my wife taking over.

Thanksgiving is clearer, quieter and more momentary. Clearest is a walk we took, my wife and I, up an old logging road behind my grandparents’ property, toward the creek where I spent a lot of Fall afternoons, and wading through tides of oak and sycamore leaves.

Which was how I spent many Saturday afternoons, after the white noise of college football became overwhelming or when I just got bored. We lived a mile from my grandparents and another mile from anyone else, in the middle of the woods, and we had one television that got two channels, but basically was whatever my dad wanted to watch. But I could walk.

And Fall was always walking through leaves, through two-dozen acres of mixed forest. Everything barren and buried. The canopy that kept the stars from any summer night now spidery and open, and the understory one long spread of brown.

Which meant that a lot of things were hidden, waiting to be uncovered, good or bad. The heart leaf of wild ginger or a copperhead’s bright muscle.

I don’t know how it is for anyone else, but when I finish a book, I go through a lull. The intense focus required to complete the book and to attend to all the details—reading every line maybe two dozen times, reading the entire book in a single sitting a half-dozen times, remembering one’s plans and comparing one’s ideas of what was supposed to happen with what did—is gone, and I feel untethered. I’m floating, unfocused.

This can be a blessing. I can try things I was reluctant to, for fear of taking time or attention away from the book. I can cast about and try to figure out what’s next.

Which is what I’ve been doing. But it’s been a year of flood—ideas, maybe too many of them, and poems, maybe too many of them, too—in which I can’t find the channel.

My uncle died in the hospital. He was being treated for hypertension. He was given something to relax him, but it had the opposite effect: he broke out the window of his seventh-story room and leapt.

A few months before, my friend Craig Arnold disappeared in Japan. We learned a few weeks later the search team had concluded he fell from a cliff on the side of a volcano.

In January, a student of mine had jumped from his apartment building downtown.

A year of falling.

I sent a copy of my manuscript to an elder poet with whom I’ve worked. He wrote back, complimentary of the book, but he also wrote me: you can’t keep writing these poems—after a while no one will want to read them any more.

By “these poems” he means my ongoing project to write about each of the more than
130 martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement—the 126 men, women, and children murdered as a result of racial animus between 1955 and 1968, and the legacy of that brutality and hatred, the Matthew Shepards, the Oumar Dias.

Matthew Shepard you know. Ourmar Dia you probably don’t.

Dia was a Senegalese immigrant who’d come to Denver to work for a better life. He lived in a small apartment and worked at a hotel downtown. He sent money back to Senegal and saved so he could move his wife and children to the United States. On November 18, 1997, Dia got off work and stood waiting for the bus on a downtown corner just before midnight. A skinhead, Nathan Thill, came out of the dark, shouting at him. A few minutes later, Thill shot Dia dead. During the trial Thill explained Dia was “wearing the wrong uniform.”

The following Spring, the Colorado General Assembly
passed a resolution that ends:
Be It Resolved by the House of Representatives of the Sixty first General Assembly of the State of Colorado, the Senate concurring herein:

That we, the members of the Sixty first General Assembly, are horrified and angered by the senseless, despicable, and tragic murder of Oumar Dia.

Be It Further Resolved, That we express our deepest regret and sorrow for the death of Oumar Dia.

Be It Further Resolved, That we condemn, with all of our hearts and souls, the murder of Oumar Dia and the despicable, racist, and immoral beliefs that motivated it.

Be It Further Resolved, That copies of this Joint Resolution be hand delivered to Oumar Dia's wife and children in Diorbivol, Senegal, if arrangements for such hand delivery can be made with the United States Department of State. If such arrangements cannot be made, copies of this Joint Resolution shall be sent by mail.

But there is no marker, except the bus stop, except the intersection. Except the Joint Resolution.

No marker but memory.

Two years ago now, I flew into Jackson, Mississippi, on my way to a conference. I was working on a poem about Medgar Evers, assassinated in his driveway on June 12, 1963, the subject, in part, of the film Ghosts of Mississippi. The Evers home had been restored in the process of filming the movie and was, I had learned, to become a museum curated by nearby Tougaloo College. I wanted to see the home, and, as I stood at the rental car counter in the Medgar Evers International Airport, I asked my rental agent what was the best way to get there. She turned to another agent and said, “Can you help this man find his friend’s house?” I had to explain who Medgar Evers was.

An hour later, I was in front of the house. It looks like it did in the movie, like it did in 1963, as far as I can tell. There’s a plaque on the front of the house, and a small marker on the telephone pole across the street that would tell you where it is, “City of Jackson Civil Rights Tour, Site 49,” if you knew where to look.

Some years the leaves would pile up so thick you couldn’t see the creek itself, only a crease in the hummocks.

No one will want to read them anymore, he writes. And maybe he’s right.

People want the world to come back to normal.

Just the leaves falling and piling up, just the clearing away.

Not the peeling back to find the bindweed curling up again.

Not the old story still happening.

Dear Reader, today the record
I’m listening to is Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Music.

It begins with a rendition of “Abide With Me,” written not by Thelonious Monk, but by the namesake, William Henry Monk. The tune of the hymn is called “Eventide.”

Gigi Gryce on the alto sax, Ray Copeland on trumpet, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor saxes. It slides into a septet version of “Well, You Needn’t.”

This seems like good advice for me: what I want, what (maybe) I should want.

On the other side, “Off Minor” is giving way to one of Monk’s signatures, “Epistrophe,” from the Greek for turning in place.

Side B ends with “Crepuscule With Nellie,” which brings us back to eventide.

Maybe we stand in the leaves and turn and the leaves spin away, leaving us on the ground again.

This is going to take some time.

Jake Adam York is the author of three books of poems—Murder Ballads (2005), winner of the 2005 Elixir Press Prize in Poetry, A Murmuration of Starlings (2008), selected by Cathy Song for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award in Poetry, and Persons Unknown (2010), forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press/Crab Orchard in October 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Greg Pardlo, Somebody's Daughter

After my reading in Detroit a woman approached me to say that she enjoyed my poems but that she felt one poem I read was insensitive to people working in the sex industry. “As a former exotic dancer myself,” she said, “I was hurt by the suggestion that there was something wrong or shameful about such work.” The poem she is referring to deals with, among other things, a man’s changing attitudes about how much control a parent can exercise over a child’s life. I quote Chris Rock who famously boiled the issue down to this: a father’s primary job is to keep his daughter off the pole.

I understand things differently now that I have daughters of my own. But before I was a father, I recall a couple of lengthy arguments I had with people—one of whom became my wife—people I felt were myopic and condescending in their approach to the issue. My wife’s argument was that any woman who made a living plying the sexual imagination of men was a victim of malevolent social forces and was being exploited. Her argument considers the way economic conditions create a limited set of opportunities for women. This world of limited opportunities is made worse by cultural practices that devalue women’s labor. It is only natural, my wife would argue, that a woman would turn to such an occupation either to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-loathing or to validate herself as fetish object through the empty flattery of male attention. This, my wife said, was why men are often misled into believing that strippers, for example, had chosen their occupation over and above others, and that this was an informed choice. They are victims, my wife says, of men who prey on their compromised social position, men who prevent them from imagining other possibilities for their lives.

All of this, she would be quick to acknowledge, can also be said of wives.

Before becoming a father, I argued we must keep in mind that every human being has agency. Except where physical coercion is used, there are few power dynamics in which one party holds absolute authority over another. Authority must be given, and that “gifting” constitutes an empowered act. We understand the people at the bottom of a paternal system of power are actively engaged in authorizing the symbolic king’s or father’s or master’s position. Each member of a family, tribe, community, network, etc., determines the quality of their participation within that group. My point being that what we see as malevolent social and economic systems are, for people within them, reality. There is a bourgeois arrogance in demeaning people for manipulating the systems in which they live. Disparaging someone for choosing to become a stripper in response to limited social and economic opportunities is like denying the afterlife to ancient Greeks because they existed before we invented Christianity. In other words, because the relatively comfortable conditions in which we live and raise our middle class families does not provide for any real measure of economic mobility (certainly not enough to assuage our middle class guilt) for the poor and working class, and because the conditions in which we live narcotize us into believing we, too, are conscientious and morally justified, we must vilify others for, essentially, not being us, and for engaging the system in ways that may radically afford them a greater exercise of agency.

But that was before I became a father. The woman who found fault with my poem, I thought, was approaching the issue from a more personal perspective, one that harkens back to the days of political correctness. I understood her to be saying, if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all. And I started to respond to her out of frustration. I found myself thinking, if there was nothing wrong with being a stripper then why did you stop doing it? Then I realized what she was defending was her hurt pride. Not necessarily her actions within a particular economic system; she was not railing against a hegemonic ideology. And she was right. I could have made my point without resorting to the Chris Rock joke. I could have chosen not to perpetuate a culture in which the sex worker is alienated and vilified (because that is the only way men may continue to profit from it). She handed me her card and offered to continue the conversation. I discovered she is a graduate student at the local university. Here’s another possibility: perhaps all she was trying to say was that she was somebody’s daughter, too.

GREGORY PARDLO is the author of Totem (APR 2007). He is recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has received other fellowships from the New York Times, the MacDowell Colony, and Cave Canem. Pardlo is an associate editor of poetry for Callaloo, and an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at George Washington University. His website is

Monday, October 04, 2010

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Ninth Ward

When Hurricane Katrina strikes, one young girl in New Orleans will need all her strength to survive in
Ninth Ward, a stirring children’s book debut by award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, I was transfixed by new stories and images of the survivors. I always kept asking myself, “What about the children?” I caught glimpses of them, but seldom did I hear a child’s voice.

My own family had experienced the 1994 Northridge Earthquake; my children were five and three. My three year old stopped speaking; my five year old, kept hiding. For a week, my husband, children, and two dogs all lived on our “big bed” in a broken house. But we were all safe, no one had died, and we didn’t have the second punch of the levees breaking after a natural disaster.

Still, it wasn’t until 2008 when Hurricane Ike was threatening New Orleans, that Lanesha’s voice spoke to me: “They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove. My mother died birthing me. I would’ve died, too, if Mama Ya Ya hadn’t sliced the bloody membrane from my face.”

There she was! An orphan, someone nurtured with care by an elder, and someone born with a caul, a sign of “second sight.” I just knew Lanesha was a survivor—a strong, resilient, and heroic child to be celebrated. With loving from Mama Ya Ya, friends, and the companionship of a dog, Lanesha would endure. More importantly, I wanted her to mirror all the children who get challenged by natural and unnatural disasters—whether it be a hurricane, poverty, or family dysfunction. Lanesha is the child who throws her arms about herself and says, “I like me.”

I was the child with far less self-esteem who sometimes hid in the closet, crying. My mother abandoned me as an infant and Grandmother Ernestine raised me. Grandmother, like Mama Ya Ya, was a conjure woman, believing in ancestors and holistic healing. She was the community griot, telling stories to heal us all. Grandmother’s love eventually did heal me. But I was less cool, less smart, and less creative than Lanesha. Lanesha, though, is the character I would’ve loved reading about!

Ninth Ward has sad moments but it isn’t a sad story. Just as Mama Ya Ya dies, my Grandmother died. Just as the levees break, life sometimes seems unbearable. But just as Lanesha shares her story to inspire others, I’ve found storytelling to be my passion.

I was born in Pittsburgh but my very first adult novel, Voodoo Dreams, was set in New Orleans and honored its mixed-blood stew of social and spiritual traditions. I’ve been writing about, visiting New Orleans ever since. I think I might have lived there in another life.

My entire life has been about getting ready to write Ninth Ward. Lanesha is a girl with hope, a big heart, and the belief that “Always, eventually, the universe shines down with love.”

Last week, I toured schools in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi. I met hundreds of children who all gleefully loved books and wanted to be writers. It was an amazing experience and I felt uplifted. I felt that my dream to one day become a children’s book writer was indeed fated to happen. I am still holding the smiles of the children in my heart.

Here is a video clip of me on the TODAY SHOW speaking with children interviewing me about Ninth Ward. Imagine those wonderful kids multiplied and you’ll have a sense of what it felt like for me all last week visiting schools.

“Absolutely exquisite . . . both timely and unforgettable.” – Patricia Reilly Giff

“A story told with gritty poetry.” – Richard Peck

Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is the Piper Endowed Chair for Creative Writing at Arizona State University and the Artistic Director for Piper Global Engagement. She is the author of the adult novels: Voodoo Dreams, Magic City, Douglass’ Women, Voodoo Season, Yellow Moon, and the forthcoming, Hurricane. Ninth Ward is her first children’s book.