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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.

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 15, 2010

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.