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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Joy Katz, Why Does a White Girl Get to Write About a Lynched Man?

The photograph** sat on my desk for ten years. (I am a slow writer, but this is the longest it has ever taken me to finish a poem.) Someone sent me the article thinking I’d be interested in the show. I was. I went to the show, but I can’t remember any image except this one.

I am writing this the week after Claudia Rankine’s reading at AWP. In that reading she presented Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” and raised an objection to its description of a black woman tennis player, a description that invokes racial stereotypes.

Hoagland’s poem uses stereotypes brutally. By “brutal” I mean that the poem doesn’t comment, except in the artifice of its making, on the fact that it uses them. It declines to sum up for me what I am supposed to feel, or what the writer felt. I am glad for that aspect of the poem; I don't want to be made safe. What white person, even a young white person, even a woman, even now, gets to safely say that she is absolutely not racist?

I tried for a kind of brutality when I wrote this poem. When I write brutally, I never want to attack you. I am writing to discomfort myself. It’s too easy to say I can write about a lynched man because anyone can write about anything. 

It would have been nice—healing?—if i could walk into the chasm between me and the photo, between me and this man. I would like to scoop up something from that space (a shovel full of mud or a rock, in the form of a stanza) and put it down on the page as something I could jump on, and then put down another and jump closer, in order to connect me to this man and bring you closer to the fact of the lynching, but I can’t. There is no path to get me there. I only feel a certain way when I look at the picture. I tried to get close to that.

So I did some wretched (to me they feel wretched) things. I rhymed “mother” and “murder” and I said that a hanging man has an expression. He has a facial expression as much as any corpse has an expression, which is to say doesn’t, because what I call an “expression” is a function of the physical hanging. Anything I say about his face is me imposing an idea about his face onto him. Any metaphor I make is uncomfortable on a million levels, not least because I am a white female, in a different century, eating a sandwich at my desk. I say he looks like a boy looking up at a kite. (When people look at the faces of corpses, they often say they look peaceful in order to comfort themselves or someone else.) His hands are tied behind his back; you could superimpose a photo of a man holding his hands behind his back politely, or with forced politeness. 

When I look at the photo, I am good at being objective while also feeling wretched. (Maybe this is also what the people who sent their neighbors to the gas chambers were good at?) I can concentrate on the composition of the photo because i was trained to do that in design school. The only perfect y-axis is the one the man hangs on. He hangs straight down. You can say an object  is “true” when it hangs plumb. He is true; the other two important compositional elements in the picture are curved (the tree) and skew (the trashy little step he climbed on to get close to the noose). The other "true" object in the poem is a bunch of grapes hanging from a fancy hook you can use to ripen fruit—you put it on your kitchen counter.

I say the tree leans in like a pet. Then I rhyme “pet” and “poet.” In that way, with two steps, hop hop, I jump closer to the man in the picture. I am a living creature. I lean in from where I sit, as the tree leans into the frame.  I mean to be brutal to myself when I ask  “what kind of a poet would say that”—and then I go on to say that there is a sturdiness in the heaviness of how he hangs. There is no one else in the picture. The white men who slung him up are gone. One more made the photograph. Saying the man looks casually abandoned, like a rake, gets at (I hope) that the lynchings were ubiquitous, more functional than remarkable to the people who came to see them. But I also suggest, by my last metaphor, that the man is no more dignified than a tool used for manual labor. It’s an uncomfortable place to leave myself, and you, but it didn’t seem like the poem ought to leave me in a safe place, because the photo doesn’t.

Joy Katz is the author of The Garden Room (Tupelo Press) and Fabulae (Southern Illinois University Press). Recent poems have appeared or will soon in The American Poetry Review, Notre Dame Review, Ploughshares, Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Her awards include a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She teaches in the graduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and in the on-the-ground and low-res programs at Chatham University. She lives in Pittsburgh.

Joy's Poem originally appeared in The Notre Dame Review

**Editors Note: Because of the graphic violence of the photo in reference, we've chosen to provide links to an online gallery with an explanation of the image essay:
The Lynching of Joseph Richardson, September 26, 1913 From Without Sanctuary

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Aaron Angello, The Poetics of Poemedia

When poet/artist Erin Costello and I set out to make Poemedia, we had a simple question in mind: What is the role of the printed poem in our contemporary, media-saturated environment? The piece did indeed address this question, but it also addressed a number of other aspects of contemporary poetry and digital art/literature. I’ll touch on a few of them here.

First of all, for those of you who haven’t seen it, Poemedia is an art and poetry installation first produced in the Atlas Black Box Theater on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. Around 300 original poems printed on 8 ½ by 11, white cardstock are hung from the ceiling, 2 to 7 feet from the ground. Four video projectors project a live “VJ” performance – a live cutting of found and created video – onto the poems as the audience/readers walk through the installation, reading as they go. Sound is also being mixed live either in conjunction with or in opposition to the video. The sound palate is dominated by advertising, talk radio, pop music, serious music, sounds of urban life and sounds of nature.

Poemedia Final Compilation

Here are a few of my observations:


The contemporary reader is entirely comfortable consciously interacting with a text. I believe this is due in large part to the prevalence of web culture in each of our lives. We are getting ever more used to calling the shots when it comes to reading. We are used to surfing text.

In Poemedia, each reader reads the poems in the order he or she wants; each reader reads as many or as few poems as he or she wants. No one who has experienced it, to my knowledge, expressed any dissatisfaction with this process. A few did mention that they felt they were following some kind of narrative, making connections between the poems that weren’t necessarily intended by us, the authors. Each piece of text was unchanging and unchangeable, yet the reading experience was unique to each reader.

Interestingly, readers seemed entirely okay with reading these paratactic pieces in this environment. No one commented on the disjunctive nature of the proximity of one poem to another. If, however, these poems were in a traditional book, I believe many readers would fixate on that disjunction. For instance, the challenge a poet like Lyn Hejinian poses to her reader – the challenge to interact with the text, to make meaning, to recognize existing linguistic structures by seeing those structures break down, etc. – become less of a challenge when the piece is obviously and clearly interactive.


One of the most interesting aspects of Poemedia is the fact that when an audience member/reader enters the space (enters the text), he or she becomes a part of it – literally. The video is not only projected onto the poems, but onto the people. The audience members/readers read the projected text and image off of each others’ bodies. Their bodies also become part of the overall visual structure of the piece. Many have stated that they became aware of the fact that they were indeed a part of the text while they were a part of the text.

In fact, literature doesn’t exist if it is not read. And there is a sense of community around any given text which helps to contextualize it. This is taken for granted on line, there is an understanding that reading a text on a website, for instance, is communal – there are probably others out there reading it too, but reading a print book is also communal. If I read Susan Howe or Harriet Mullen, I enter into a community of people who have read Susan Howe or Harriet Mullen. Poemedia made this fact literal and readily apparent.


Poemedia is digital art, but it is digital art on paper. Each hanging piece of paper is a screen. It is both tangible and transient. Sound and video interact with text that the reader has chosen to read at a given time. The sound and video is not a distraction, rather it is a part of the literary experience.

I don’t think the book is going anywhere, but the way we, as readers, experience it has already changed.

Aaron Angello is a poet and multimedia artist who is dedicated to the exploration of the space between sentences, words, letters and marks of punctuation. He edits the University of Colorado's MFA literary journal Timber and teaches creative writing.

Aaron's collaborator, Erin Costello, is a writer and interdisciplinary digital artist. Her poetry manuscript, "The Sciences Of" won the 2010 Jovanovich Imaginative Writing Prize and her work has appeared most recently in Trickhouse, Umbrella Factory, Edge, Titmouse, Palimpsest and Crash. She is the co-founder and editor of SpringGun Press and lives in Denver, Colorado where she studies and teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado.

Both are working towards their MFA in creative writing at CU-Boulder.   

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Paul Guest, Words have meaning. They have mass...

For much of Saturday I was away from my usual tethers to the world: email, Google,
even Twitter, with its endlessly trending stream of the Moment. Not that I was
particularly vexed - I was carrying an iPad around in my backpack, for God's nauseous
sake. Later, I even found I could steal a hotel's free Wi-Fi, from down the street. I was
checking illicit email within a few minutes. And that's when I began reading about the
assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Her surgeon
said she was shot "through and through" the head. Meaning her brain.

And it wasn't long before articles began citing a graphic Sarah Palin put out before the
recent election with various congressional districts under "target" - each of them tagged
with the crosshairs of a rifle.


Words have meaning. They have mass. We build poems with them, with the unspoken
prayers that maybe, just maybe, they might last a little while. Almost none will. And
that's ok, right? Somewhere just outside the long shadow of futility a few poems go on.
There is the Grecian urn and the west wind and Fern Hill and so on. Keats died awfully
and Byron - did Byron drown? - and Dylan Thomas drank himself all the way gone.

Why do you write poems?


I'm working on two new books: my next collection of poems, which has run off in
strange, unexpected ways, and another nonfiction book. Both are exciting, and feel
good to turn to after the long difficulty that writing my memoir One More Theory About
Happiness was. By temperament, I'm not much for talking about myself, even though
I'm a poet - I love the fiction that poetry provides. I make myself up every time. But
writing the memoir didn't truly afford that same pleasure, that freedom. Lest you end up
on Oprah, being eviscerated by a billionaire talk show host, you feel the need to stick to
the facts. Best as you know how. I feared this would keep me from writing many new
poems while working on my memoir, and this turned out to be true. When I finished
the book, and when it was out, I could feel my mind gradually begin to return to poetry.
That process is still going on, to an extent. But, it's also exciting, like stumbling about in
partial darkness, slowly finding my way again.


No New Year's resolutions, again. What about you?

Paul Guest is the author of three collections of poetry and a memoir. A Whiting Award Winner, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches at Agnes Scott College.