REVIEW: The Pink Box by Yesenia Montilla

 

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by José Angel Araguz

I…continued dreaming, of owning a space
where all my poems would live & recline when tired, a pink box…

I wonder, will I call it Jessie or Yesenia? I need it, else I’ll have to continue
carrying my poems around like a baby on a sling, in the absence of a pink box.

From The Pink Box’s opening poem, Yesenia Montilla establishes herself as a poet for whom language is not only how we communicate but how we live. Throughout this collection, the reader is presented with a voice consistently aware of the stakes of a given situation, aware that for every dream there is a struggle. Whether it is a painful memory as insistent as the sound of a subway train buckling along on its track, or a moment of celebration via ghazal, ode, or haiku, Montilla keeps the reader close to the action of life. When the speaker of a later poem states, “I want to live in service of one action today, poetry,” they are declaring the heart of Montilla’s vision.

An example of what this vision is generous enough to offer is evident in the poem “Dendrology.” Here, the speaker recalls being shamed for her hair:

…my aunt announced
I’d never be loved by a white man
con ese pelo malo.

This judgment, however, is immediately challenged:

I loved my hair,
the way it frizzed around the edges
of my face & stood there like a woman
waiting to be asked to dance a slow bolero…

In recalling this moment of shaming, Montilla guides the reader through the process not of defiance but of consideration. Through these lines, the reader experiences a specific moment, one of new knowledge, and the instinct to hold that knowledge up to what one already knows. It is a nuanced form of defiance and of living enacted here. At the level of sheer understanding, the speaker’s narrative is moved to an image that evokes the physical hair via metaphorical movement. In this moment of intuited action, both speaker and reader wait to see what unfolds.

A similar moment of action via language occurs in the poem “Ode to a Dominican Breakfast.” As the speaker moves through a challenge against other traditional breakfast fare, the speaker and poem take an unexpected turn:

The other day I wore a white dress
with a wide skirt & red sash

I danced a merengue barefoot on my stoop, I kissed the
Dominican flag, once for each time I remembered a Taino word

yucca, batata, tanama, ocama, yautia, cacique, juracan,
every bite on the plate, every morsel like a bachata tune

This scene moves the poem from a mere contrasting of one cuisine against all others into the realm of celebration within language. Through the combined actions of dancing, kissing, and remembering, the speaker makes clear that what is at stake in this ode is not just what feeds the body. The gratitude and presence of each Taino word – words, like all words, to be spoken, mouthed – gives the poem a heartbeat’s persistence.

In “My Father’s 50th Birthday,” another kind of ode-like action takes place:

We forgot two years of jail visits.
Polaroids with white walls.
We forgot crack & shame.
We carried you out of the club,
you threw up on us with abandon.

Carried you like a dead body into
the narrow building…

removed your
shoes & lifted you onto the bed
to not wake your tired mother.

As we left we heard you cry out
Mami & at that moment you
were five & we were fifty.

We felt our childhood scratch
the back of our necks to let us know

it was finally gone        for good.

In this poem, the celebration of the father’s birthday becomes a meeting and blurring of memories. The development of emotional tension leading to the images of the father being carried out are powerful and transformational; in a way, the father becomes a symbol himself of all the familial memories, struggles, and disappointments that the children carry between them. When the speaker feels “childhood scratch,” the physical nature of memory is emphasized.

Moments of such emphasis abound throughout The Pink Box. Montilla again and again makes available her stories and insights in poems that live up to the struggles experienced and overcome to get them to us. Her determination “to live in service of one action…poetry” is inspiring. That one should not surrender to despair, to hardship, to celebration, to anything but the language to evoke the journey, the surviving, is an admirable mission. It is a mission that Montilla, as evident in the poem “Iktsuarpok,” seems committed to:

the shaman said                        be ready

& I bought a new dress    black             a million ravens huddled

 

he said                                      love affair

& I opened wide a calendar                   lunar phase & all

 

he said                                      fire

& it was a million hummingbirds with their human faces dancing

 

he said                                      madness

& here I sit waiting for the honey taste of it to drown me good

Buy it from Aquarius Press/Willow Books: $17.95

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.

 

REVIEW: Tells of the Crackling by Hoa Nguyen

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by Allison Noelle Conner

The poems in Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection concern themselves with the domestic and/or quotidian. There are scenes of cooking, dreaming, note-taking, remembering, season-changing, crying, tree-cutting, and bird watching. At times it feels as if you are reading fragments from a diary, one seemingly focused on expressing the everyday through language. However, the “everydayness” of the content is countered constantly by Nguyen’s use of gaps, silences, evasion, and reassemblage.

Her work brings to mind two quotes from “Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box”, an essay by Trinh T. Minh-ha from her book Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. In the first, Minh-ha describes an alternative type of writer, one who does not express themselves in sentences but rather “thinks sentences: she is a sentence-thinker…[one] who radically questions the world through the questioning of a how-to-write.”(17) In the second, Minh-ha stresses the importance of writing as becoming: “To write is to become. Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become, intransitively. Not when writing adopts established keynotes or policy, but when it traces for itself lines of evasion…A sentence-thinker, yes, but one who so very often does not know how a sentence will end, I say. And as there is no need to rush, just leave it open, so that it may later on find, or not find, its closure. Words, fragments, and lines that I love for no sound reason; blanks, lapses, and silences that settle in like gaps of fresh air as soon as the inked space smells stuffy.”(18)

What shapes do Tells of the Crackling trace? The image of the slash( / ) recurs throughout the book. It is found on the cover, on the title page, in the bottom right corner of the pages facing right, and on the penultimate page. The sign recalls a blade, a slice, carving, the aftermaths of some cutting motion.

She is her but I don’t rem

ember                          remember

the ashes I obsess   She said

Remember cracks, is swallowed by action rather than expressing an action. You feel the pulse of the speaker’s empathetic thinking: the words do not merely relay, they enact the disjointedness of failing to remember that which you apparently know. For Nguyen, language is not static or unchanging or inherent. It can easily be fragmented to reveal hidden meanings, alternative possibilities, and unknown sentiments. It can exist as a song that resists the rational, the ordered, the logical, the dominant. It can become “punctuated shredded parts” coursing together to form the unimaginable, the absent, what on the surface seems to be impossible. In “Locust Tree Notes (East Toronto)”, the speaker mentions how this specific species is “[u]sed to reclaim damaged land”:

They reestablish “disturbed sites”

with nitrogen roots

amend soil

 

(my notes say soul)

Nguyen seems to be searching for ways in which poetry, language, and gestures can(and, conversely, fail to) restore and/or regenerate comprised geographies; whether those be ancestral, psychological, emotional, spiritual, linguistic, material, political, or metaphorical. Throughout Nguyen presents us with moments where disturbed sites rupture and erupt into the domestic present. What if the sharp, short noises previously discarded as nonsense or ruined rose to sing an untraceable tune? How should one capture the texture of its tellings?

In “To Seek”, the speaker announces her frustration with the utilitarian function of expression:

I want the root of the words

not the fucking use

made purposed and stupid

 

Many any foot feet be

May my root feet be

The shifting wordplay illustrates the unstableness of language and meaning. On the surface, “the root of the word” can refer to the word stripped of its prefixes and suffixes. But root also connotes lineage, history, and pasts; or that which disturbed sites wish to remember and reclaim. “Stars” approaches this subject of parental inheritance and reconnection. But rather than explicitly state “This is a poem about familial legacy, about a speaker reckoning with their ancestors”, Nguyen stitches words together to create a multiplicity of meaning. The stream of consciousness tone reiterates this feeling of linguistic spontaneity, interrogation, and ambiguity.

Stars   your parents join

join your parents of the stars

under an oxygen tent

The blank between “Stars” and “your” could be a breath, a hesitation, something missing, contemplation, preparation, a space for creation. As the poem proceeds the language starts to turn in on itself. The speaker views memory as something “to sever”, “to sit in”, to “serve you”, “a rock fortress”:

more father than father in years

 

After cold spring

I mean spring o uncle

 

What have you here               bring spring

Bright spring

The exact uses of the words are less important than the knot of associations the words bring forth. The father is far, farther, as distant as traveling light. The realization turns spring to psring, a reordering that illustrates the speaker’s difficulty in thinking clearly about traumatic pasts. Nonetheless, roots in the form of “bright spring” continue to sprout despite the cutting, the erasure, the destroying. Tells of the Crackling wonders: What language will or can grow from the disrupted? Nguyen offers no definitive answers. As readers we are given openings, channels, and points of departures. Perhaps what matters most is our willingness to return, as the last lines of “After The Song” suggest:

tremble and I sign

my name   It’s my

hand on the page

 

climb back up again

 

a chorus of screams

Sing     Sing the chorus again

Buy it from Ugly Duckling Press: $9.00.

Allison Noelle Conner is writer based in Los Angeles. She is an assistant fiction editor for The Offing. Currently, she is at work on her first book, a prose project exploring institutionalization, possessions, and black women geographies.

REVIEW: Think Tank by Julie Carr

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by Douglas Piccinnini

César Vallejo, Inger Christensen, Alice Roberts, Louis Malle, Alfred Tennyson, Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, William Shakespeare, Andrew Zawacki, P.B. Shelley, David Glimp, Stephen Ratcliffe, Lisa Robertson, Erin Mouré, John Wieners, Robert Urquhart, René Char, John Ashbery, David Hume.

In the residue of “old devotions” and new meditations, Julie Carr’s Think Tank archives the still-digesting data from a-life-in-books into the mind, into the body. From the body, Carr gives back a novel text in an act more nuanced than ventriloquism: Think Tank dialogs in the ear-marked pages of ‘literature’ in a style that mirrors the craft of folksong and of jazz; to expand the role of inherited ideas and exponents of style; to take input and produce an output worthy of praising and pushing the boundaries of the art(form).

And at once, the space of this book and the space of the body achieve an act of synecdoche, in which the body is an extension of the book and the book an extension of the conscious body.In this way, Carr is able — to borrow a line from Carr via Inger Christensen —  “to circumvent death and communicate presence.”

As equal parts homage and transformation, the long sequence that makes up Think Tank dwells in a metalepsis of poetic selves. Its alert, yet forgiving, engagement with the “sharp rocks of indeterminacy” yields more than pastiche. As Carr writes,

And narrative illusion breaks down metaleptically

Transforming expectations of early and late

Bubbling in “yeasted minutes” the resulting work presents an “effort to amass some new time” and track a consciousness of melodies that dialog with Vallejo, with Notley, with Myles, with Hume—among others.

A careful reader sees the many minds at work in this book and takes note of the overarching gesture that values the superimposition of selves that form the narrative of our lives and, as Carr trumpets, via Notley,

One has a secret self, a rather delicate pondering inner person. Much of poetry exists to communicate with this entity.

Carr’s Think Tank broadcasts an involved music that roams along the historical dial of thinking and makes a strong case for the pleasure of interior life and the pleasure(s) of thinking.

Solid Objects (2015): $16.00

Douglas Piccinnini is the author of Story Book: a novella (The Cultural Society, 2015) and, a collection of poems, Blood Oboe (Omnidawn, 2015).

Read an earlier view of this book on the Volta Blog here.

 

 

REVIEW: Throng by Jose Perez Beduya

 

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by Raymond de Borja

It is fairly commonplace to characterize our contemporary setting – of ubiquitous computing, the cloud, the Internet of things, big data, etc. – as one where our knowledge of the world is increasingly easier to accumulate and transmit, but where our experience of the world is becoming more and more inaccessible and uncommunicable. Not to say that the ubiquity of technology is an outright catastrophe, but at least to point out that the relationships among language, knowledge, experience, and the world (already traditionally fraught problematics) are made more intricate by developments in technology. That, as there are changes in the accumulation and transmission of knowledge, so too must there be changes in our means of accessing, communicating, and making experiences. Changes that all the more make the necessity for poetry more urgent, should we think of poetry as a space where language is both knowledge and experience, and also, very possibly, a limit of a world.

Giorgio Agamben traces a genealogy of the problematics of language, knowledge and experience in his essay Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience. A tracing motivated not by a nostalgic return, but by the possibilities opened up by a topology, a mapping of potential experience given the then, modern conditions. Among the first accounts of the poverty of experience, Agamben notes, is by Walter Benjamin, who, observed that soldiers returning from the First World War have “grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.” Post World War I, a critical break in the genealogy of experience happens when the poverty of experience becomes quite ubiquitous as to become the day-to-day: A “destruction of experience,” Agamben writes, which “no longer necessitates a catastrophe” but one where “the humdrum daily life in any city will suffice.” Here is Victor Shklovsky cleaning and meandering about in Art as Technique:

I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember – so that if I had dusted it and forgot – that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been. And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.

We enter Jose Beduya’s Throng after a catastrophe; here is the first poem The Search Party quoted in full:

THE SEARCH PARTY

In the fields
We were boys

And girls finding debris
Gathering notes

With nothing to report
A people very inside ourselves

We found each other
Through a system of ropes and smells

Our long, stumbling days
Began and ended

With ballad versions of the prayers
We were taught in different tongues

Flashes and rustling
From copying machines replaced

Our voices when they failed
The images we’ve tucked under rocks

Scattered with the wind
That moves all merchandise

Guarding against numbness
We started small fires

Everywhere we went
Only when we buried

Our hands in the hard soil
Of the valley

Did the throbbing surrounding
Hills become a part of us

Ironies around the poverty of experience are performed in The Search Party – the neat couplets, the calm prosody (a calmness that runs throughout Throng mostly through lines of under 10 syllables), the sparsely punctuated lines… what we find here and in the rest of Throng is a worlding, a lyric cycle with the tonal consistency of the day-to-day albeit punctuated with disasters. In The Search Party, even catastrophe has become routine – to the point that the heroic work post-catastrophe is left to inexperienced “boys/ and girls finding debris,” who show no indication of remorse even when there is “nothing to report.”

Apart from the tonal consistency, other specific tropes found in The Search Party recur throughout Throng, among them the divine characterized as un-redemptive, and often disfigured:

With ballad versions of the prayers
We were taught in different tongues

(from The Search Party)

Spun
With the helicoptering
Angels

(from Morrow [In the clearing)

Who lives alone
Will be surrounded by armless angels
And when she lies down
For a long time in the field
Attempting to decipher
The temperamental night sky
Sees the long swords
Of flashlights approaching

(from Morrow [In the clearing)

Such glimpses of the disfigured divine are legion in Throng, and throughout, what is certain only is that “God was,” that the “The sweet lord has many/ Moving parts said my sensors” – harrowingly beautiful lines which sum up in their brevity a divine, which unlike the divine of theological pedagogy, approachable only through experience and suffering (pathema), is in here instead disfigured, is merely knowledge, is information captured by sensors.

Another recurring trope is the copy:

Flashes and rustling
From copying machines replaced
Our voices when they failed

(from The Search Party)

              We check against copies
And eat the pages
As we read them

(from Ever)

We make ten copies of the morning

(from State of Emergency)

The copy has permeated Throng’s world so much that “We must mass-produce/Mirrors to stay what we are” which although is a desire for identity, is on the other hand a desire for a simulacral one, without real possibility. A thought, which offers no solace, in a world where already the divine is un-redemptive, and the copy is the quotidian.

But the potential for the miraculous appears in Throng through the plural “we.” In most of the poems, the “we” rather than the “I” is used. This offers a nuanced questioning of experience: In a world which is increasingly routine and disfigured, how is it possible to speak of a “we,” how is authentic shared, first person experience possible in a world shaped by accumulated knowledge? “Reality,” says Paul Celan “must be searched for and won,” and in Throng perhaps although “We found each other/ Through a system of ropes and smells,” (from The Search Party) at least we found each other, and although “We make ten copies of the morning” (from “State of Emergency”) we at least “watch and watch/for changes” (from “State of Emergency). Only in “we” is pathema again minimally possible:

THE END, THE END

Sundays we move sideways
Mondays we are blurred and folded
Into the eternal question
Experiencing
Stabbing pains
We cry out
And our crying out reveals us
To each other and ourselves
By the long hooks
Of our fears we are suspended
In an oxygenated sensitivity
That we later drag down
Flaccid
To our cubicles
Without fellow feeling we are
Motionless on a rooftop garden
By our sorrows we are lowered
Our household objects
And our loved ones glow
But we’ve reached
A threshold to our amazement

Minimally, as we reach a threshold to our amazement, and so Monday is a possibility for revealing us to each other and ourselves; a Monday, that in Walter Benjamin’s terms, is “shot through with chips of Messianic time,” the threshold both a limit and a door to our amazement.

Agamben locates the possibility of authentic experience in infancy, taking from literal infancy where one has not learned language (parole), but also conceptualizing a condition of infancy that comes before and continues as one is appropriating a language. Reading Claude Levi-Strauss, he locates this condition of infancy, this boundary condition between langue and parole, in myth. We can very well locate this boundary, this infancy, in the poem. Lisa Robertson articulates this through the beginner: “Poems are beginners. The urgent social abjection of the poem transforms that vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion. […] In poems and through vernaculars, citizens begin themselves, because only here speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, towards natality[.]”

But even with the narrative arc that Throng seems to take through its fictive worlding, and despite the many similarities it has with our contemporary reality, it is obviously, and formally a poem, and hence a beginner, intimating ambiguity to make as Shklovsky would have, the stone stony, if only to make this stone the harrowing stone that it in its is-ness is; “Guarding against numbness” by starting “small fires” (from The Search Party). We read through these ambiguities: What redemption can we find from the shards of disfigured divine? What hope can we draw from such persistent “we” faced with the impossibility of personal and therefore also shared experience?

Then we come to the poem Morrow [In the clearing] and ask what is this “I” and why does s/he appear mostly in the Morrow poems?

MORROW

 In the clearing
In the fragrant heat
I ran my fingers

Through my beloved’s
Hair checking
For lice and daymares

But our bed of leaves disguised
A complex network of gears
A whole abysmal

Marketplace
I lost all
Feeling in later systems

The epoch a muscle
Stopping twice
Bittersweetness

Was a year in June
Over the countryside
The great wheel

Spun
With the helicoptering
Angels

Our souls were scattered
Only half of us
Sang

The beloved appears only once in Throng, and s/he appears in the morrow. Throng begins after a catastrophe, and perhaps only after/through a worlding such as Throng is it possible to begin to experience.

——-

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience. Trans. Liz Heron. New York, N.Y.: Verso Books, 1993.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, 2007.

Robertson, Lisa. Nilling.Toronto, ON: Book Thug, 2012.

Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique” Ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, Second Edition. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Lake Forest College Press (2012): $13.00

Raymond de Borja’s first book, they day daze, was published by High Chair. He is working on his second book tentatively titled Given.

INTERVIEW: HL Hix

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Heather Lang interviews H. L. Hix on his new collection of interviews, Uncoverage: Asking After Recent Poetry (Essay Press).

Heather Lang: You open your conversation with Patricia Smith on her book, Blood Dazzler, with an observation: “The metaphoric correlation between woman and weather is introduced in the first poem (‘every woman begins as weather’) and revisited regularly throughout the book.” Can you talk a bit about some of the themes that reoccur throughout the eighty interviews conducted within Uncoverage: Asking After Recent Poetry? Which reoccurrences did you anticipate, and which were less expected?

H.L. Hix: I was trying to address each poet with respect for her/his individuality, and to ask after each book with attention to its uniqueness, not to ask uniform questions; and the poets were being interviewed separately, so they weren’t consciously working together. In that sense, all the recurring themes were unanticipated! Maybe their being unplanned makes them even more revealing. In any case, there they all are.

So, for example, in that same Patricia Smith interview, she gives concise and forceful formulation of a capacity poetry has, that I think many of us want to draw on. “Throughout the book,” she says about Blood Dazzler, “I try not to put those affected directly and those not affected directly into different camps; in a tragedy as far-reaching as Katrina, no experience can be discounted.” Smith’s statement reminds me of Wisława Szymborska’s declaration, near the end of her Nobel acceptance speech, that “… in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.” A number of the interviewees explicitly make that same recognition: that heightened attention inclines, and inclines us, toward equality and respect and justice.

HL: In your interview with Mark Nowak on his Shut Up Shut Down, you mention that the “juxtaposition of voices in these poems, as represented graphically by contrasting bold, italic and plain text, creates a kind of dialogue.” This observation is intriguing to me particularly within the context of Uncoverage, a collection of interviews. May we explore the larger dialogue within your new book? In other words, what can we learn from the juxtapositions between these diverse conversations?

HLH: Thank you for asking that. It’s exactly my hope: that, although each conversation occurred on its own, putting them together, which each reader will do for herself, creates a conversation.

The juxtapositions themselves are accidental, in the sense that the interviews are arranged alphabetically, rather than by an “intentional” ordering principle such as perceived thematic commonality. Yet the juxtapositions create spark after spark of illumination. For instance, if I reflect on your question by looking at the Nowak interview along with the one that follows it, the interview of dg nanouk okpik, I notice that both Nowak and okpik are concerned to speak of and with a people, without speaking for them. Nowak declares that working people “are always front and center in my work, as well as the first audiences for its reception. Their voices are writ in bold (literally).” To me, that resonates quite richly with okpik’s will to “lend witness to the existence of my family and what changes are happening on the earth today,” her sense that “I cannot speak for my people, but I can document one account as if it is a voice from many views.”

I hope that the larger dialogue you observe in the book does indicate, even though of course it can’t replicate, the scale and breadth of the capacious conversation that is contemporary poetry.

HL: Within the genre of interview, what can we learn from what has gone unspoken?

HLH: What a beautiful and important question! To me, one element of the interview’s force is its capacity for doubling the unspoken, for matching the unspoken in the questions with the unspoken in the answers. And that element itself has a double aspect. Something might be unspoken because it is shared already by interviewer and interviewee, or it might be unspoken because it is not being shared by one with the other. In either case, though, the unspoken animates the interview.

The poets in Uncoverage seem to me consistently alert to the unspoken. I think of such moments as Jennifer Moxley’s insight that “lyric makes real the response to the social conversation for which there is no space or permission; it is the voice of the silenced interlocutor.” Or Andrew Joron’s description of sound and silence as “locked in a mutually conditioning embrace.”

HL: In your conversation with Shane Book on Ceiling of Sticks, you ask, “What is the difference for you between a first-person narrator speaking from an essentially public space (a space more others’ than his own) and such a narrator speaking from an essentially private space?” Can you talk a bit about Uncoverage in this context of public versus private spaces? Within which do you feel these interviews were conducted, and did this change from interview to interview?

HLH: In response to this question I’ll cheat, and try to have it both ways. I’m working at this very moment on an essay that takes issue with Peter Singer’s influential article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in which he tries to argue by analogy from an instance of private responsibility (saving a drowning child) to one of public responsibility (ending a famine such as the 1971 Bengal famine that was occurring when he was writing his article). I’m arguing that reconciling public space and private space takes more work than Singer recognizes: he falls for a mistake neoliberalism pushes us toward, a mistake Wendy Brown calls “depoliticization.” I hope that Uncoverage does not fall for that mistake. There are plenty of parties who seek from poetry an Eden of depoliticization, but the poets I speak with in Uncoverage are working hard to construct and sustain a more salubrious relationship between public and private spaces.

HL: At what point did you realize that these conversations would become a collection, and how did you know when the collection was complete?

HLH: I knew from the start that I wanted them to become a collection, and I knew the approximate scale, because the project had a very particular starting point and framing question.

The very first sentence of the foreword to the first edition of Richard Howard’s essay collection Alone with America, first published in 1969, makes an astonishing claim: “In the forty-one studies which follow,” Howard says, “an accounting is made of [all] American poets who, with the publication of at least two volumes, have come into a characteristic and—as I see it—consequential identity since the time, say, of the Korean War.” Howard purported to survey contemporary American poetry comprehensively. Since Howard’s moment, though, enough has changed that no one attentive to contemporary poetry could believe that, of the countless poets at work today, 41 and only 41 are “consequential.” We know we can’t survey poetry today in the way Howard clearly thought he could survey it then. So what can we do now, about poetry? What should we do? That’s what the collection as a whole tries to ask.

Alone with America vividly manifests certain premises of a poetic world now long gone: it projects a perceived transparency about and continuity within a singular tradition, implies a sense of clarity about uniform standards of quality applicable to all poetry, and assumes uncompromised correspondence between the quality of a body of work and the mechanisms that establish a poet’s reputation (prestige of publisher and of university affiliation, connection to others with similarly prestigious publishers and universities, prizes and awards received, and so on). It contains not a single name of a poet who was not at the time widely represented in anthologies and by reviews. Those features make the book into a period piece, by today’s standards wrong in the most obvious ways: e.g., its table of contents includes 41 poets, of whom 35 are male, and all 41 white.

Howard thought it possible to identify and consider all the poets who were poets in his time and place: “these poets,” he says in his foreword, “are, simply, what is there.” Poetry for him is a strictly limited domain, so a survey incorporates everything in that domain. Now, though, it is impossible even to identify, much less to consider, all the poets who are poets, so any attempt to survey the landscape in our poetic world has to be on different terms than Howard’s survey. Howard thought he could complete the survey; he thought he had completed it. Now one must recognize that it is not possible to complete the task.

Uncoverage is after an approach to the survey that acknowledges a plurality Howard didn’t recognize. So I have contrasted this project to Alone with America in at least two ways. To signify that Uncoverage is an inquiry rather than an exposition, it is composed of interviews rather than essays: rather than delivering my words in regard to the poetry discussed here, I have asked the poets for theirs. To signify the limitlessness of the field, Uncoverage approximates a doubling of Howard’s number of subjects, 80 in place of his 41. The doubling does not achieve coverage of all the “consequential” work being done: instead, it symbolizes the impossibility of covering all the consequential work being done. The work about which these interviews were conducted is all of it consequential, but (far from exhausting the consequential poetry being written today) it only suggests how much consequential work there is, how inexhaustibly rich is the domain of contemporary poetry.

HL: I have to ask. What was your most self-indulgent interview or question?

HLH: If we were conducting this interview face-to-face, rather than by email, the transcription of my response would begin with [laughter] in brackets. Guilty laughter: I’ve been caught out! But as a form of self-justification, let me start with an anecdote.

My long friendship with the artist Adriane Herman began when we were both teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. Once, when she and I were both in a student crit, I challenged the student with a question about whether some aspect or other of his work was self-indulgent, in response to which, rather than waiting for the student’s response, Adriane challenged me right back: “What’s wrong with self-indulgence?” Her question exposed me then, but now I’ll take cover under it. In an important sense, the whole project of Uncoverage is self-indulgent: I got to have virtual conversations with a bunch of very smart people about a bunch of profoundly consequential books. It’s almost like getting to live out Socrates’ fantasy, at the end of the Apology, of the afterlife as an endless conversation with those he admires. What could be more self-indulgent?

That said, let me fess up in the way your question means to make me. One of the interviews that comes immediately to mind for me as blatantly self-indulgent on my part is the interview of Chelsey Minnis. Her book Poemland (like the one that preceded it, Bad Bad), expresses, as my opening question to her confesses, a lot of things that “I would say about poetry and life, except that I’m too chicken.” But Chelsey wasn’t too chicken to say them, so the interview gives me a way to tag along behind her, even without my having mustered the same courage she did.

HL: Which interviews inspired you in your own poetry? For example, were there any interviews after which you rushed back to your own creative work in a moment of sudden insight or discovery?

HLH: I would describe the kind of inspiration I find in the book not so much “local” as “global.” By that I just mean that what has happened is not primarily that a few of the interviews gave me ideas for particular poems, but that the whole collection, all the interviews together, issues a reminder about the range of poetry. These poets show vividly that poetry can do many different things, not only one thing, so they give me reason to ask myself (and they suggest ways to ask myself) whether my poetry is doing what it wants to do rather than what someone else wants it to do.

HL: Looking outside of Uncoverage, which interviewers do you follow or enjoy? How have they inspired you, and what have you learned from them?

HLH: My love of the interview started early. In grad school I happened on a used copy of William Packard’s collection of “craft interviews” from the New York Quarterly: it was dated even then, but it was very exciting to me. As were the old Paris Review interviews. Terribly mainstream and old-school in comparison to my current interests, but I wasn’t in a creative writing program, so in poetry I was having to find things on my own, and everything felt like a revelation.

Nowadays, I follow interviewers who lead me to work I didn’t know about before, and who create openings for me into that work. The editor who nurtured Uncoverage into print, Andy Fitch, is a colleague here where I teach, and a dynamo who does a lot of things, but one of those things is interviewing. He’s done a huge collection of interviews called Sixty Morning Talks, and co-edited a collection called The Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He’s got a quirky sensibility that leads him to pose interesting questions that elicit interesting responses from his interviewees, and he’s looking around: his interviews have drawn my attention to a lot of poets whose work I might not have known to read otherwise. Another friend, Philip Metres, is also an interviewer I follow, for some of the same reasons. He, too, is looking around, taking me to work I might not have learned about if he hadn’t shown it to me.

In addition to following certain interviewers, I also follow certain venues for interviews. The website called The Conversant, for example, consistently posts interesting interviews of interesting writers, faster than I can keep up. Jacket2 also hosts interviews that I make a point of attending to, though there, too, I can’t keep up. I’m plenty ambivalent about digital technology, but one glory of the internet is that the number of sites for interviews is endless. Women’s Quarterly Conversation, Mosaic, and on and on.

And of course one very important such venue is the publisher of Uncoverage, Essay Press. In their series of free digital books and chapbooks, they’re creating an extensive and probing conversation around contemporary poetry.

HL: You’re a prolific writer and curator of literature. On top of your commitments with both the University of Wyoming and Fairleigh Dickinson University, how do you decide where to dedicate your time and energies? How do you choose your literary projects, and what’s next?

HLH: As a stay against the supersaturation by “information” with which we (each and all) are threatened, I believe in the importance of the curatorial role, though I find the role of curator much more exhausting than the role of writer. And I wish I were smarter and more efficient in that decision-making process you ask about. In both roles, I’m too much the “kid in a candy store,” flitting after whatever catches my attention, with the result that I waste a lot of time starting things I never finish because I get distracted by some tempting new project. If I would actually completed everything I started, then I would be prolific!

Thanks for the chance, though, to mention what’s next. I’ve just started looking for a publisher for the latest curatorial project, called Counterclaims. In it, poets and scholars from various points of view take issue with the now-overly-familiar claims that “poetry makes nothing happen” and that there is “no poetry after Auschwitz,” proposing other ways of thinking about poetry and its purposes and powers.

My next writing project is a poetry book called American Anger, due out in February 2016. It tries to think through (sing through? shout down?) the belligerence that stands at the origin, and pervades the history, of the U.S. Readers will decide for themselves whether it has any weight, but the writing of it certainly felt urgent and necessary.

H. L. Hix’s forthcoming book, American Anger, enjoys the great good fortune of inclusion in an omnibus review by Craig Morgan Teicher on the NPR website.  Hix’s website is www.hlhix.com

Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, essayist, and adjunct professor. She serves as an editor for The Literary Review and for Petite Hound Press. www.heatherlangwrites.com

 

INTERVIEW: Dazzle, Roll Call // Patricia Smith

 

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by Jon Riccio

There’s only one force of nature that can withstand you when your hurricane siblings include Emily who “whispered her gusts into a thousand skins,” Maria whose “thunder skirts flew high,” and Philippe (“flailing on a wronged ocean”), and that’s Patricia Smith, her 2008 collection Blood Dazzler a clarion container of persona and received form embodying the shockwave that was Katrina. Smith reflects on Blood Dazzler’s origins, provides an update on one of her subjects, and sings the praises of the 31-syllable tanka form. She makes us wonder whether the passage of time has salved Katrina’s “throbbing like a new-torn wound/ under August drape.”

For anyone about to title a book, there’s wisdom on that too… 

Jon Riccio: You’ve stated that “34,” a persona poem recounting the “thirty-four bodies…found drowned in a nursing home where people did not evacuate” served as Blood Dazzlers genesis, the deceased given their due with such lines as “What makes the dust of me smell like a dashed miracle,/ the underside of everything?” and “I’m cold/ and I’m strapped to this country.” Why are those last five words as horrifying as they are apt?

Patricia Smith: Many people have asked me why I took on the storm, especially since I’m not from New Orleans and have no ties whatsoever to the Gulf region. It’s because I didn’t see Katrina as purely a regional event, but a human one. I think the disaster made it all too clear just what our country is capable of—the blatant dismissal of poor, mostly brown, people in a time of crisis. And there it was, blaring from our TV screens for everyone, finally, to see. The truth, and the horror, of those five words lie in the fact that the people considered disposable in our society are those forced to be most reliant upon what that society deems as “just.”

 JR: How did the personification of Katrina as a woman contribute to Blood Dazzlers impact? What were the pros and cons of gendering a hurricane in the draft stages of your work? 

PS: This line in Blood Dazzler is one of the first lines that came to me: “Every woman begins as weather.” I never considered NOT giving the storm the ability to be vulnerable, fierce, remorseful, arrogant, weary, and vengeful. Katrina’s voice is what eventually gave the book its shape. When I write poems, I always look for an unexpected entry point, and crafting this book was no different. I knew no one would expect to hear the storm to speak, and I needed her to help make sense of the chaos.

JR: The fatalities in “Tankas” – “I have three children,/ but only two arms,” “I found my sister/ whirling in the peppered blue,” and “—God’s hands smothering/ your heart. And the thumps/ grow slower, slower, until/ He takes back your name. Lifts you.” – shed light on a death toll estimated between 1,245 and 1,836 (source: Wikipedia). Why do the 5/7/5/7/7 tanka syllable constraints work so well here?

 PS: You can’t look directly at death unless you can contain it. It’s horrific in its undefined edges, and the idea of it unleashes a fear that blurs both its reality and inevitability. The tight control of the tanka is somewhat sleight-of-hand—it’s a taming of what refuses to be tamed. Working in such a terse, controlled form didn’t change the truth, it just slowed my approach to it. It helped me rein in rampaging emotion. Concentrating on the syllable count gave me a way to confront the body count.

JR: “Siblings,” a roll call dedicated to names of past hurricanes, maintains its modified abecedarian form through the letter W (“Wilma opened her maw wide, flashing rot.”), the final lines diverging: “None of them talked about Katrina./ She was their odd sister,/ the blood dazzler.” Was this the intended destination of your title all along?

PS: No, not at all. When I wrote the poem, relatively early in the process, I reached the last line and put the words “blood dazzler” in as a placeholder, intending to come back and replace them with a more suitable phrase when the right inspiration hit. They didn’t mean anything at the time. I came back when I considered the book done, and by then those two words had stretched to fit. They bellowed and mystified, all wrong and yet perfect against each other. So they stayed in the poem, becoming what was whispered about that bad girl.

Then came that terrible moment when the book needed to call itself something. I’m terrible at titling, it’s something I’ve always struggled with. And those two words wrapped themselves around everything—the phrase was just wide enough to encompass the narrative without defining it. It was darkness and sparkle. It was menace and the memory of a clear, untroubled sky.

JR: Blood Dazzler also contains a sestina and a ghazal. You close your book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah on a Motown sonnet crown. Why has received form been such a good fit?

PS: I dedicated my MFA study to mastering the language of form and metrics. Blood Dazzler was my MFA thesis. As I worked, I tried to be receptive to the poems, to listen to what they were asking to be. Katrina, as persona, helped me with the direction of her voice and the voice of the story surrounding her. Form is a device in my toolbox, accessible to me when it’s needed. Chaos becomes something other when it’s controlled. I love how it’s possible to take a sprawling, unwieldy story and give it lyrical boundaries.

JR: I keep returning to “Ms. Thang Sloshes in the Direction of Home,” as you’ve built an empathy around this character, fierce in her fuchsia suede: “She thought that being a woman meant filling/ the body with rain,” “Old muscles swell, beg her to dive and push/ like a man, master the water,

swim/ like a bitch with an Olympic agenda.” What’s she up to these days?

PS:      She smoothes rampant muscle

and silkens errant hairs

with a sung southern syllable.

Ask her where the storm went

when she chased it away, and she’ll

tell you her new name, spitting

the hard K in homage…

JR: There’s a series of eight voodoo poems in Blood Dazzler, each “available for the following magickal purposes…” including love and passion, healing, spiritual cleansing, and blessing. Which of these holds the most significance for you?

PS: That would be healing—healing wounds, healing rifts, healing ruptures. The prospect of being able to recover from any depth of hurt.

JR: The back cover features praise from Mark Doty, Carolyn Forché, Terrance Hayes, and Yusef Komunyakaa. How would Hurricane Katrina blurb your book?

PS: You mean Blood Dazzler? What a weird question. I suppose: “Patricia Smith dared to lock eyes with a storm—and thought she saw me.”

Coffee House Press (2008): $16.00

Patricia Smith is the author of seven books of poetry, including Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the 2014 Rebekah Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Phillis Wheatley Award; Savannah was also a finalist for both the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Balcones Prize. Patricia also authored Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her most recent book is Gotta Go Gotta Flow, a collaboration with the late Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The New York Times, TriQuarterly, Tin House, The Washington Post, and in both Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir, which she edited, won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories. She is a 2014 Guggenheim fellow, a 2012 fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner, recipient of a Lannan fellowship and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. Her next poetry collection will be released in 2016; she is also working on a volume combining poetic monologues and a collaborative novel with her husband Bruce DeSilva, the Edgar-Award winning author of the Liam Mulligan crime novels. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

Jon Riccio received his MFA from the University of Arizona. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Yellow Chair Review, Stickman Review, Pamplemousse, Mead, Bridge Eight, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review, and After the Pause, among others. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.

 

REVIEW: A Third Instance – three chapbooks by Rosa Alcalá, Craig Watson and Elisabeth Whitehead

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by José Angel Araguz

By two we enter
the story, and leave the ark built
to survive
the telling
of catastrophes –
one by
one

Via Biblical allusion, these lines from Rosa Alcalá’s poem “The Story to be Written” stress how reader and writer necessitate and need each other, meeting in the “ark” of the written work. Throughout the “telling/of catastrophes” found throughout the works of Rosa Alcalá, Craig Watson, and Elisabeth Whitehead, this collection of chapbooks shows itself to be engaging with the way literature manifests itself past the page.

Rosa Alcalá’s To the Archives begins the collection with its poem “Projection,” which finds the poet using varying fonts to quote from Ben Rubin’s media installation, “And That’s Just the Way It Is” (University of Texas-Austin, Cronkite Plaza) and Walter Cronkite’s news report of President Kennedy’s assassination.

This maneuvering and blurring of the world between text and story is continued in “Notes on Pasiphae.” Through a longer line, we move from myth to the computer screen, to the infamous act of coerced bestiality Pasiphae is famous for (which led to the birth of the minotaur), to a meditation on the way these acts are rendered through various paintings, ending on a final moment in which ideas of motherhood are juxtaposed against that fateful moment where parent and child meet:

…Here, they stared
at each other – mother, monster. A maze long before any built.

Mixing her own voice with that of Jacques Derrida, Alice Notley, Barbara Guest, Julia Kristeva, and Michel de Certeau, Alcalá then works out a meditation on ideas of voice in terms of language (spoken, unspoken, written) in the poem “Voice: An Essay.” Family stories and ghosts are mixed in with intellectual reckoning. Throughout these poems, one feels a reaching after that space between reading and understanding, where the self lives unknowingly, almost as a ghost.

Craig Watson’s Almost Invisible: Depositions from Neverland focuses on the way that “J. M. Barrie’s life and fantasies were so integrated, so seamless, that one continually became the substance of the other.” This blurring between what is written and what read, what made up and what made real through reading abounds through Watson’s poems.

The muddied relationship of the story of Peter Pan and the story of J.M. Barrie begins to be explored right off in the opening poem, in which the character of Mrs. Darling begins by asking:

All children, except one, never change. Does this make me the
narrator?

only to end with:

All children, except one, kill their birth with a new story. So who is
the narrator now?

The narrative implications in these two statements is powerful. In the first, it is an adult voice that presents the logic of what defines a child, namely that they “never change;” that is, “except [for] one.” The change implied is that of adulthood, which would point to the speaker, Mrs. Darling. What is also implied is a relationship between narrative and change. This relationship is further complicated in the closing formulation of the opening statement and question. If a “new story” can “kill [the] birth” of a child, then one must wonder what possibilities are opened via the new narratives being created by Mrs. Darling’s meditation here via Watson’s project.

These ideas explored in the voice of a fictional character are counterpointed with the voice of a person in the poem “David Barrie,” which a note informs us is:

…J.M.’s brother, drowned while both boys were young. Their mother…grieved so deeply that there were times J.M. pretended to be David to garner attention.

This narrative charges the meaning of these lines presented in David’s voice:

In the paradise of self-interest
You can learn to be someone else.

Time’s up, lights out.
Anyway, sorry about that promise
It was dead when I found it.
Are they looking for you too?

The interplay of voices – J.M. via David, both via Watson – is revelatory in its implications. This poem, with its layers of narratives, seems to be asking: How much life is lived in the voices of others, via reading, or, in J.M.’s case, in the gestures of others?

Whereas Alcalá and Watson frame their projects with outside texts to take familiar narratives to unfamiliar places, Elisabeth Whitehead’s To the Solar North project starts with the unfamiliar and takes the reader further into unfamiliarity. Here is the first section of the opening sequence, “Pilgrim”:

she was collected toward the borderlines / with hanging pelts / a mover’s supply of the finest quality / fibers brand / cigarettes paper / post cards from the old city and internal / detail / how to construct a model- / animal or wood spine with field books occasioning / the frequency of prison- / ships sustenance / on vials of sugared water

What is unfamiliar here is the broken narrative presented through a line capable of phrasal and visual jolts. As the project goes on, this approach opens up to some startling lyrical moments, like the following from “At the Lodging House”:

3 silk purses 3 garnet rings / pulled aside for barter
and the soft grains make the stomach churn / elder and spiral a water- /
cup this
our first view of a city:

an appeal or merciful /

what will you bear of it /

in waiting of course /

gilded of this /

Elsewhere, the use of the slash mark produces a kind of break in narrative cohesion as well as setting up a kind of binary within the details and what’s said. Here, however, the slash marks are used as a kind of imaginative space, playing against the setup of “our first view of a city” and offering only half of the conceptual “view,” the other half necessarily left up to the reader’s imagination. As the project returns to its theme of travel again and again, the reader is presented with varying ways in which the “ark” of a poem can tread water.

Buy it from Instance Press (2014): $15

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. His collection, Everything We Think We Hear, is forthcoming from Floricanto Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.