Saturday, December 31, 2016

Interview with Anya Krugovoy Silver

In the Fall semester of 2016, I asked Jessica Wilson, the administrator for the Georgia Writers Association, if she could recommend a handful of new poetry books. Her kind and generous response included I watched you disappear, by Anya Krugovoy Silver, which won the Georgia Author of the Year Award (GAYA) in 2015. I soon began reading Silver’s 2016 publication, From Nothing and found myself suspended between the worlds of late 19th and early 20th century art and, at times, unfamiliar fairy tales. I suspect that what will keep me picking this book up again and again is that I’ve found a bit of my own true north in the poet’s reluctance to romanticize childhood in favor of celebrating the weft and twill of adulthood.

Speaking briefly of her journey, Dr.  Krugovoy Silver relates, “I was born in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to a Russian/Ukrainian father and Swiss/German mother.  My father was a Russian professor and I learned my love of language from the multilingual and multicultural environment in which I was raised.  I grew up in a home that valued learning, creativity, and questions over material success. Literature and church were the two sacred poles of my childhood.  I started scribbling stories early, but as an adult, I’ve published three books of poetry, The Ninety-Third Name of God, I Watched You Disappear, and From Nothing. I have always wanted to be a teacher, and currently teach English literature at Mercer University.  I live in downtown Macon with my husband, who also teaches at Mercer, and my son.  I have been living with inflammatory breast cancer since 2004.”
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: At its core, this collection of poems is a quiet rebellion against the myth that innocence alone is able to shoulder and shrug off malevolence. These poems take the stance that naiveté (projected or clung to) has no place in womanhood with a capital “W.” Was this a deliberate message? 
Anya Krugovoy Silver: It wasn’t a conscious theme as I wrote individual poems, but I noticed the focus on sensuality, and a refusal to conflate innocence with goodness, appearing and reappearing as I put the manuscript together. That’s especially true in a poem like “St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Lent.”  I have long resisted the Platonic binary between body and soul, and in that particular poem, I reject the neo-Platonist Paul’s assumption that sensual desire is sinful or opposed to holiness: “Not to live in the passions of the flesh--/how grim and arid the light we’re promised.” I like to call this collection of poems my “red book” because there are so many red images throughout it.  The color, for me, signifies vitality and energy, blood and life.  Although there are many poems about mortality in the book, I also wanted to make room for the fullness and lusciousness of lived, bodily experience.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: Your newest collection, From Nothing, also includes several ekphrastic pieces based on art by early 20th century painters such as Modersohn-Becker, Nolde, Chagall, Klimt, and Toulouse-Lautrec which reflect this “bodily experience.” The paintings and corresponding poems explore our sensual natures.  How did these works of art come to serve as a springboard into the conversation about sensuality and what is your personal connection to this time period?
Anya Krugovoy Silver:  Expressionist painting and art from the turn of the last century in general happen to be among my favorite art.  I particularly like German painters like Modersohn-Becker, Nolde, Köllwitz, Werefkin.  Each of these painters, and the others you mentioned, sought to paint the human body in a non-romanticized way.  With the possible exception of Klimt, they painted ordinary people with ordinary bodies, and sometimes erotically (Chagall and Toulouse-Lautrec, especially).  Modersohn-Becker painted German farmers without turning them into symbols of “the land” or “good, honest people.”  She simply painted them as she saw them, including what she perceived to be their individual spirits.  I love Kollwitz’s famous quote that “The motifs I was able to select from this milieu (the workers' lives) offered me, in a simple and forthright way, what I discovered to be beautiful.” One of my goals in this book was to write about the body—the ill body, the sexual body—honestly, without making the body either grotesque or precious.  I wanted to always respect the body’s, even the dead body’s, integrity and dignity.  The Expressionists whom I admire the most do that, so they were models to me, in a way. They painted human beings neither heroically or fastidiously.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: These same long strokes and subtle countenances that favor insight rather than minutiae are inherent in your own work. For example, several impressions of your father appear in “The Christmas Hat,” “Wake,” “In the Sanatorium,” and “Partings.”  He is, at once, a beloved parent seeking refuge from his demons, a man who cannot articulate his own suffering, and one who only found peace in death.  Do you feel that this is more kinship or craft in regard to the Expressionist painters?  
Anya Krugovoy Silver: Wow—that’s very insightful. I had never thought of a biographical reason for my love of expressionist art, but I think you’re right.  My father and I loved each other very much, and he was very proud of my poetry.  At the same time, in hindsight I would say that he experienced PTSD from the murder of his father during the Stalinist purges and from other experiences in the Soviet Union and in exile during and after the Second World War  He would begin to tell me stories and then explode in rage at the memories of what he’d seen.  When I look at expressionist art, and its focus on the turbulence of the inner life, and about how much can’t be articulated or understood by others, I definitely see my father’s face.  There is a loneliness in the figures of that art that I think resides in many people.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: Fairy tales are woven through From Nothing. One might think that they are close relatives, but in this case the speakers of these poems seem to admonish the mythological ‘happily ever after’ while conveying childhood memories that do not mollify young skepticism. In fact, the speaker in Snow White cautions against romanticizing death and recognizes her own early folly. What inspired you to use fairy tales to promote the conversation addressing innocence in this collection?
Anya Krugovoy Silver: Fairy tales were the first form of literature that I encountered in my life.  My parents had a big blue book of the Grimms’ fairy tales that they read to me as a child.  I’ve continued to be obsessed with fairy tales, as so many writers are, because beneath a seemingly obvious and predictable narrative, they can be analyzed in countless ways.  I believe that reading and thinking about fairy tales can help humans find their values and vocations, to reach into their own minds, and I read many of them allegorically.  For example, I read the story of Cinderella as a tale about how one can survive grief; the romance is incidental to the real purpose of the story. It’s true that fairy tales posit a generally benign universe; things almost always end up happily for the protagonists.  I want readers to question those happy endings.  Specifically, serious trauma can’t simply be overcome by meeting a prince with a castle.  Pain stays in one’s memory, in some form or another, forever. 
I was consciously writing against the dominant cultural mood that one should “get over” grief and “move on” from pain.  I can’t stand that superficial notion of healing, and it’s often used to bully people who have gone through cancer or some other kind of violence.  As someone who has lived with cancer, I reject pink ribbon “survivor” culture.  My fairy tale poems, like “Nettle Shirts,” “Maid Maleen” and “Snow White” each argues that the concept of “getting past” cancer is absurd and puts a huge burden on a sick person.  I think that idea could be applied to anyone who has suffered abuse, assault, or violence.
And finally, I see in some popular culture, especially music and social media, a glorification of dying “young and beautiful.”  That’s always prettier in songs than in real life.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: Is your answer to a more genuine healing process found in the poem, “Four Prayers for Forgiveness”? Because it is here that the origins of wounds are pursued while shifting perspectives still allow pain its rightful place.
Anya Krugovoy Silver: “Four Prayers for Forgiveness” grew out of my Sufi meditation classes. I’m trying to forgive a lot in the poem:  cancer, my body, myself, God.  For me, life with chronic illness is best lived when one is able to find peace and joy in the present.  I realize that’s a cliché, and easier said than done, but for me, happiness is an active practice and choice.  It’s definitely not the emotion that comes most easily in the face of suffering; happiness is difficult.  So the forgiveness that I describe in the poem is a forgiveness of my cancer cells, which are only doing what they’re biologically programmed to do, and a forgiveness of my body for endangering me.  I attempt to look beyond illness, and I refuse to let cancer define my life.  I choose to be fully alive. The last lines “I am absorbed like a drop of water/into a bottle of perfume without a bottom./I open my eyes and all is golden” express how I want to live completely immersed in life.  That’s also one reason that I included several love poems in the book.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: Before we close, I’d like to discuss the book’s title poem, “from nothing” which is preceded by the lines, “I am re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.” from Donne’s “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day.” 
                                    Again and again, from nothingness I’m born.
                                    Each death I witness makes me more my own.
                                                I imagine each excess line of mine erased,
                                                each muscle shredded, each bone sheared.
                                                   One day, my spine’s long spar will snap,
                                    ribs tumbling loose; my face will droop and drop.
                                    Then I’ll be re-begot – the air will shimmer
                                    and my molecules will vault, emerging free.
                                    From darkening days, the light will surge and flee.

The poem itself is absolutely void of sentiment or affect, thus setting the tone for the rest of the collection, while the slant rhyme and final true rhyme imply a belief in a sense of order. How has your own belief in “the order of things” transformed since your cancer diagnosis, and is this poem most reflective of that sense?
Anya Krugovoy Silver: When one’s life feels out of control because of illness or trauma, it’s helpful, in a therapeutic sense, to wrest order from circumstance.  Some people do that through religion; others conceptualize their lives as journeys, with illness as part of the meaning and self-actualization of their time on earth.  In my case, poetry enables me to take a chaotic experience and fix it on the page, to give it line lengths, images, and sounds and to do what I want with it.  I reestablish a sense of control by giving experiences the meaning that I want them to have, no matter how inchoate that meaning is. 
In “From Nothing,” and in my poetry in general, I am more and more drawn to internal rhyme, slant rhyme, and sound effects such as assonance and consonance, to emphasize a sense of order.  For example, I used the slant rhyme of “snap and drop” and the alliteration of “droop and drop” consciously.  I like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s assertion that “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines/And keep him there.” Ultimately, if there is any underlying order in the world, I don’t think that human beings are privy to it.  I discern no order whatsoever in the deaths of my friends, or in the daily tragedies and disasters of the world.  All humans can do is create our own individual structures with which to deal with the unknown.  That’s why poetry and art will always be essential to the experience of being human.

Anya Silver has published three books of poetry with the Louisiana State University Press.  She has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, most recently in Best American Poetry 2016 (Scribner) and The Turning Aside:  The Kingdom Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry (Poiema Poetry).  Her work has been featured in Ted Kooser’s column American Life in Poetry, on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, and as an Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day.  She is currently completing her fourth poetry manuscript.  She has taught for eighteen years at Mercer University.  She is also a metastatic breast cancer thriver.

JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp is a Lecturer at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia.  She received her MFA in Creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, and her poetry has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine,, and Bigger than They Appear: Anthology of Short Poems.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Pricking by Jessica Cuello

Jessica Cuello 

Tiger Bark Press

By the numbers 

ISBN: 978-0-997-63051-0 
Publication: 2016 
Total pages: 74
Number of poems: 69


Pricking is Jessica Cuello's 
first full-length manuscript. Her second collection, Hunt, was the winner of The 2016 Washington Prize from The Word Works and will appear in March 2017. She is also the author of the chapbooks My Father’s Bargain (Finishing Line Press 2015), By Fire (Hyacinth Girl Press 2013), and Curie (Kattywompus Press 2011). She was the winner of The 2013 New Letters Poetry Prize and the recipient of the 2014 Decker Award from Hollins University for outstanding secondary teaching. Jessica was selected as a Juried Fellow by the Saltonstall Foundation.

I interviewed Jessica on my personal blog last year about her chapbook My Father's Bargain. You can read that interview here.

—Nancy Chen Long


Jessica Cuello's first book Pricking is titled after the act of pricking, a method of witch-hunting in the Middle Ages. Suspects, usually women, were forced to strip naked, while witch-hunters, usually men, pricked the marks on their body—birthmarks, moles, pimples. If the hunter found a spot that didn't bleed, the suspect was declared a witch. Using special needles, these often-times paid hunters would prick and prick until they found a spot that didn’t bleed and would identify that mark as the devil’s mark. The title of the book is indicative of what I sense to be the primary impulse of the book: Woman’s struggle for autonomy over her body, the connection between bodily integrity and empowerment.

The book as a whole is comprised of compressed and spare persona poems that place us smack in the Middle Ages. We find ourselves caught up in the lives of three French women thought to be heretical: Esclarmonde de Foix, Joan of Arc, and a midwife. Through the use of imagination and historical fact, Cuello fleshes out a captivating narrative that brings each woman to life.

There are three sections to the book, one for each woman. The first is in the voice of Esclarmonde de Foix, a prominent leader in Cathar Church in the thirteenth century who was accused of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. The origins of the Inquisition are in Rome’s effort to quash the heretical Cathers, a religious group in the south of France whose practices were believed to contain elements of witchcraft. Esclarmonde had six children and is thought to have turned to Catharism after the death of her husband.

This first section opens with three poems that set the stage for Esclarmonde's rise as a leader of the Cathars. The first poem "The Births: 1186" is about Esclarmonde giving birth to her children and introduces birth as one of the themes of the book. This first poem also signals Esclarmonde's turn towards religion after her sixth child: "After my sixth I locked the door. / ... / The natural world is hard and dirt. / I want to scrape it off my skin." The second and third poems center around her mystical conversion experiences. In "Conversion: May 1204," Esclarmonde begins to hear voices, a whisper that has "no decision it," faint voices that she discovers can't leave, because "they were in the body." While there was indecision in the first conversion poem, the second conversion poem, "Conversion: June 1204," is resolute: "God reversed me. See my legs / jaunt up the hill. / The hot wind is His mouth / around me."

In the remainder of this first section, Cuello's poems propel us forward with Esclarmonde through a Cathar-Catholic debate, the atrocities of the Cathar Wars (aka the Albigensian Crusade), and her life as a fugitive, a time during which she was rarely seen. Throughout this first section, the tone remains even and matter-of-fact in the face of violence, for example "The Foot of Montségur," which depicts the remaining remnant of the Cathars corralled and then burned alive, "All night, sun sets on the town. / Easily they fit us in the circle. / We are the last of us." This section closes with a funeral lament voiced by Esclarmonde for her brother Raymond Roger, a non-Cathar who fought to oppose the crusades:

Planh For My Brother, Raymond Roger, Count of Foix

While I was finding room
to hide refugees and heal the sick
you were present.
We never lacked
for things to do and moved
in the self-importance of our birth.
Once, pinning up my reddish hair
I paused and thought of your boyish head.
We were two foxes
from the last litter of our kind.
Our tongues were South.
When you were before the church
half-dressed and shackled,
I couldn’t look.
The world did not seem
long enough in history.
No, it was done.
Our land. Our tongue.
At the end you said your only wish was
that you’d killed more of them.

The second section of Pricking is set in 15th-century France. Most the poems are in the voice of Joan of Arc, another woman who heard voices and had visions. It's a shorter section comprised of ten poems. Around the time that Joan of Arc lived, there were prophecies that France would be saved by a virgin from Lorraine. The first poem, "Jeanne D’Arc Thinks of Her Virginity" hints at the importance of virginity to her ("a virgin / can prophesy for God"), possibly in light of the prophecies. The poem also suggests that once she becomes a mother, she would (or could) no longer be an instrument of God ("but once / a mother, / nothing else.")

I read the first poem of this section to be at a time when Joan of Arc is still with her mother and father. Earlier in Joan's life, her father had a dream that Joan would go off to war. It was a dream that made him frightened for her. This first poem seems to take place soon after Joan hears her mother say that her father told her brothers he would want Joan drowned if she were to leave for war ("I pretend not to know / that he told my brothers // to drown me.") With respect to timing, the remaining poems in this second section seem to take place during the last two years of her life, that is, the year she spent in prison after her capture in 1430 and the subsequent year when she was on trial for heresy. For example, the second poem "70 Feet Down" is likely about one of her attempted escapes from a tower at Beaurevoir Castle where she was first imprisoned. ("Can you be dropped from the lips of the Lord? / I leapt. The ledge / less certain than the bracing cold.")

The poem "In My Cell" appears to be set during a time when the interrogations for Joan of Arc's trial of witchcraft and heresy were moved to her prison cell. In this poem, we see the return to the of idea of mother in which Joan of Arc is mother to herself:

.... shackled to the wall at night
I dream in silence of Lorraine.

The fields are wide. I hold
my left hand in

my right and kiss
my fingers like a mother.
This reference to being a mother bridges back to the opening poem of this section and suggests that Joan is realizing the end of her prophesy, of her usefulness to God. The idea of mother continues in this section's final poem "Isabelle D’Arc Thinks of Jeanne," which is in the voice of Joan of Arc's mother. Coming as it does after a poem titled "Executioner," we know that Joan of Arc is now dead. It strengthens the poignancy of the poem, a mother bearing the grief of a lost child, as we listen to Isabelle talk to her daughter: "I hear your humming while I work / as if you left it in the timbers of our home." The idea of the child being heard and held within the timbers (walls) of a home presages a metaphor of womb-as-a-room, a metaphor that is introduced in the next section.

The third and final section of the book is set in 1580 during the Reformation and associated witch trials. The poems are told in the voice of a midwife. Unlike the second section, which begins with the speaker not wanting to be a mother, this section opens up stressing the importance of motherhood and birth. In the opening poem, "Midwife," the speaker, who is assisting in a birth, uses room as a metaphor for the womb: "All of us began in a room." Speaking of the woman giving birth, the midwife asks "What room is she?" and answers her own question, an answer which highlights the importance of bearing children during this time period: "Walls that go / when they hold no one."

Even though the first handful of poems in this section are about birth and midwifery, the reader will find herself immersed in death. In this arc of the narrative, the speaker recalls one of her own children, a son who died after nine days ("Nine days. The court / remembers. Even my goat / has babies longer", from the poem "Baby Boy.") In addition, one, possible two of the babies whose birth she attends die ("Sick Infant," "Baptism.") In addition, the speaker becomes a widow ("Widowed Young.")

The story turns once the speaker is widowed: She stands accused of witchcraft, likely due to the death of the babies. At the time of the Reformation, some people drew a connection between midwifery and witchcraft. Midwives were not infrequently prosecuted in church courts for providing charms either to assist the mother in childbirth/ pregnancy or to encourage conception. In the poem "Evidence Before the Court" (see the third poem in the link), the midwife denies that she crafted an aigullette "to take a man away." An aigullette is, among other things, a knotted loop of thread used by midwives and/or witches to cast a spell, either for bareness in the case of women, or impotence in the case of men. Through the skillful use of anaphora ("I never / never" repeated twice), the reader is left wondering if perhaps the speaker has indeed used the aiguillette. In the poem, the allusion to Eve, Original Sin, and the biblical garden ("an apple in my / bucket smelling / of the devil") foregrounds the belief at the time of the inherent evilness of women and the blame of women by the Judeo-Christian church for all ills that beset humanity.

After the accusation of witchcraft, the midwife is subjected to a number of tests: "Lack of Tears (see the fourth poem at the link)," "Pricking Test," "Water Test," and "Fire Test." The tests were nothing less than legalized abuse, sexual violence, and murder. Unfortunately, the midwife meets the fate of many who stood likewise accused—she is found guilty of being a witch ("They found the marks," from the poem "Limbo.") The midwife speaks from beyond the grave in this final poem in an understated tone, with what I read as relief: "How familiar: I won’t belong / to the face that made me. / I won’t belong by living." One leaves this last section feeling the full potency of being accused of, and/or prosecuted for, witchcraft, how potent it was as a tool of intimidation, how effective—almost foolproof—it surely must have been in controlling women and their bodies.

Pricking is a successful first book. Its themes carry the reader through each woman's life and time in history, beginning and ending with birth, mother, and midwifery. The themes of body and agency integrate the poems to form a satisfying whole, from the first section, in which Esclarmonde, in "Material," tells us:

My God had no argument,
he panted through my body
until the body was inward
like the caves: cool, silent.
Until it was as the cliffs...
...until the final poem, "Limbo," in which the midwife "waits with the unsaved babies," her soul in limbo, body-less like the others there, until they are reunited with their bodies at the Resurrection. Cuello's consistent use of an understated tone and her finely-chiseled, spare language serve the poems well by standing in contrast to the violence witnessed in the poems. Cuello's poems bring history to life.


- by Jessica Cuello

Soon she would have learned
to strip the membrane
near the womb.
One finger to set
the labor on.

Then she would have learned
to turn the baby
in the mother’s water.
A sailing planet in her hands.

"Apprentice" and "Planh For My Brother, Raymond Roger, Count of Foix" © Jessica Cuello Pricking (Tiger Bark Press, 2016)

Nancy Chen Long is the author of Light Into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry and Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013.) You’ll find her recent and forthcoming work in Prairie Schooner, The Briar Cliff ReviewAlaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. She received a BS in Electrical Engineering Technology and an MBA, worked as an electrical engineer, software consultant, and project manager, and more recently earned her MFA. As a volunteer for the Writers Guild at Bloomington, she coordinates a reading series and works with other poets to offer poetry workshops.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Darkness & Celebration: The Beauty that Pervades Us in David Kirby’s 'Get Up, Please'

by Anthony Fife

David Kirby’s latest book (of about twenty-five total books) is titled Get Up, Please, and was released by Louisiana State University Press early this year.  This new collection of poem will seem familiar to longtime Kirby fans; the long lines, the saw-tooth margins, and the wit sharp enough to slice a cantaloupe are all intact.  Form and humor aside, however, some new tones have entered the equation that render the established form quite fresh.  Much darker subject matter appears throughout the book, making Get Up, Please, at least in places, a much heavier read than previous Kirby collections.

In “The Juniper Tree,” for example, adolescent love for a much older woman is intertwined with the JFK assassination conspiracy, America’s early efforts at germ warfare, and a clandestine plot to cover up the accidental death of the female object of said adolescent love.  And not just a peaceful died in her sleep kind of death.  Kirby writes: 

          …Dr. Mary is found in her bed, her right arm
     and rib cage completely burned away, though the hair on

her head is untouched; investigators guess she was brought
               back to her apartment after suffering the burns somewhere
        else, such as, you get it, that secret lab where a malfunctioning
particle accelerator used to mutate monkey viruses sends out
               a high-voltage charge that hits Dr. Mary like a bolt
       of lightning.  Dr. Mary—so warm, so vital, so encouraging to a sick

little boy, then found mutilated, half her body burned away,
               though her bedclothes were barely singed. (lines 65-74)

Please don’t assume, however, that this is a somber or horrific poem.  Gruesome in places, definitely—and later Kirby’s speaker takes the reader through the folktale from which the poem draws its name, in which a young boy is murdered by his stepmother who subsequently frames her daughter for the murder, later cooking the boy’s flesh into a stew then fed to the boy’s father.  But despite this, the poem is far more tender than menacing.  The aforementioned adolescent love bookends the poem’s more graphic content, ending with the poem’s speaker, in fantastical fashion, coming to terms with Dr. Mary, pledging his now adult affection:

             ... I wanted to kiss you when I was a little boy,
                but I didn’t know what kissing meant: I mean, grandmas,
      yeah, but not that kind.  I’d be older than you are now,
so it’d be okay.  Dr. Mary, you were my first crush.
                You were a pin-up to me but a saint as well, as beautiful
     as a martyr on an ancient wall. (91-96)

“The Juniper Tree” is hardly alone in its elements of darkness.  Elements of the poem that leads off the book, in fact—though not quite as explicit—are just as potentially harrowing.  In “If I Don’t Go Crazy,” Kirby writes:

               a killer has been working these country roads of late
with a blue flashing light, pulling people over and shooting
        them for fun, like the men who lived in the caves on the Natchez
Trace in the day and who killed travelers for money and then
               because they found out how much they like killing. (6-10)

Surprisingly, from here the poem becomes a selective history of, and guide for achieving, the blues.  Son House, Ma Rainey and W.C. Handy are all touched upon, as the poem eventually culminates in the only place a blues poem can: The Crossroads.  Where, in very Hawthornian terms, a music man (or woman, I suppose, but I’ve never heard it attributed to a woman) must choose to forfeit his soul for the ability to move people with his (or her) music.  As you wait, lonesome in the place where the “Southern line intersects/the Yazoo & the Mississippi (50-51), Satan comes out of the woods in your direction.  He’s carrying “a guitar, and he says ‘Here,/I tuned this for you, take it,’ and you know if you do, you’ll be lost” (63-64).

In counterpoint to all his newfound darkness, Kirby is able to navigate equally heavy material in a much subtler, more sentimental way.  In “The Nematode,” the speaker (presumably Kirby) encounters a dying student:  

“I’m not drunk!” my student says, though her features sag
        and her speech slurs.  “The doctor’s doing tests—I just
wanted you to know.”  She comes to class and talks about
               the assignments in her halting voice,
the other students nodding and giving her the time she needs, even

slowing their own speech so hers doesn’t seem so different.  A month
        later, she says, “Do you know what amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis is?” and I say, “Yes, Lou Gehrig’s Disease,”
               and we cry and hug each other and go
to class, where she continues to talk, a little slower each time, until

she can’t talk at all, which is when she begins to write down
       and give me everything she would have said
had she been able to say it.  (1-13)

In less capable hands this episode could easily slip into something unredeemable.  Something too morose or melancholy for its own good.  Not so with Kirby.  The rest of line 13 reads, “There’s beauty in everything.”  Kirby, it would seem, is able to glean beauty, and inspiration, from a good many places.  So instead of getting lost in the darkness, Get Up, Please could just as easily fall into the category of celebration.  More specifically, celebration of the arts and artists.  And what better way to celebrate art than by writing a poem in which an artist celebrates an artist.

In the poem that gives the book its name, Kirby writes:

The two musicians pour forth their souls abroad
               in such an ecstasy as to charm the audience
       like none I’ve ever seen before, and what
they finish, they rise and hug each other,
               and then the table player bends down
and touches the feet of the santoor player in an obvious gesture 

of respect, but what does it mean? (“Get Up, Please” 1-7)

The speaker later learns from a hotel owner, one Mrs. Patel, that the gesture “means he thinks the other/is a God.  My children do this before they go off/to school in the morning, as though to say, ‘Mummy, you are a god to us’” (18-21).  The poem then evolves, as Kirby poems are prone to do, toward poets, in this case Keats, who adds his two cents from beyond the grave, concerning love and adoration.  “Get Up, Please” isn’t the only poem in the book that celebrates artists.  It’s not even the only poem that allows time for Keats.  (Keats even gets his own poem.)  Throughout the book — many of his books, in fact — Kirby name-checks actors, musicians, poets, painters and, in a poem that, at least to my mind, serves as kind of an anchor for the whole ordeal, architects.

In “You’ve Built Your Own Mosque,” Kirby celebrates the work and foresight of Sinan, who left repair instructions imbedded in one of his hundreds of years old arches.  Sinan (via Kirby) says:

…The lifetime

       of these stones that make this arch is 400 years.  After
this period, they will be decayed and you will try
               to replace them.  Probably architectural
techniques will also change and you won’t be aware of our style.

       That’s why I wrote this letter to you,” and then Sinan
talks about the stones in detail and tells where to find
               them in Anatolia and how to build
the arch again.  Now that’s foresight for you… (lines 20-28)

The poem celebrates not only the artists, but the spirit of the artist who want their work to matter in a civic capacity.  Responsible art that serves a purpose and takes its place among the other people, places and things that are complicit in shaping a healthy civilization.
Kirby takes a stab at instructing future generations in the art of writing poetry:

... If someone in the future
were to ask me how to write a poem, I’d advise
               that person to buy an ice
cream cone and enjoy it, and if he or she drops it on the sidewalk,

       why, so much the better.  I’d suggest you shop for new
underwear and take a taxi, or if you’ve taken a lot
               of taxis lately, walk to your
destination instead.  If you take your pants off and put them on again

       and really pay attention, I’d say you could learn as much
about writing poetry as you could from reading a lot
               of poems, especially bad ones. (45-55)

Kirby doesn’t leave these instructions so that he will be remembered 400 hundred years hence.  He does it because art is important and to share it with others is a duty.  Celebrate and share.  In “Come to Find Out,” Kirby writes:

... Art says to us, What do you
               want to be true, and then it gives us all these choices:

               you can do whatever you like, or, if you prefer, 
        nothing at all.  No wonder some people hate it,
though I say, Thank you, art!  Thank you, opera, plays,
               movies, things you hand on a wall or put on a pedestal! (27-32)

This passage, and several similar love letters to the arts spread liberally throughout the book, are the lasting impression—celebration in the midst of a world full of potential darkness—I take away from Get Up, Please.

David Kirby’s 2016 collection of new poems, Get Up, Please, can be purchased through the Louisiana State University website: Read the full text of one of the poems from the book, "Taking It Home To Jerome," which was featured in the New York Times.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

There and Back: Travel Stories, Temporal and Spatial, in David Kirby’s Get Up, Please
An [Email] Interview with David Kirby

Mr. Kirby, Congratulations on winning the 2016 Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing.  And congratulations on the completion and publication of Get Up, Please, released earlier this year.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about your work, generally speaking, and your most recent poetry collection in particular.

Anthony Fife:     In the introduction to The House on Boulevard Street, you write, “All poems are marked by fixed-length stanzas, and a saw-toothed margin, effects intended to help with the sense of what one critic calls in these poems ‘the whole motion of the speaker’s psyche: like a pendulum, it swings in one direction with an enthusiasm or passion, momentarily comes to a point of rest, and then swings back the other way’” (ix).  Presumably you are, or at least were, satisfied with this critic’s assessment or you wouldn’t have noted it in your book.  The “fixed-length stanzas, and saw-tooth margins” are ever-present in Get Up, Please, but does the pendulum metaphor still work for you?  Aside from the physical presence on the page, do you see your most recent collection as a continuation or as a step in different direction?  If the former, how and when did this pendulum concept take shape in your psyche and subsequent poetry?  Is there any overlap between your pendulum and old school stream of consciousness?  In “The Minotaur” you discuss Joyce, “consciousness, existence and other top-shelf literary themes.”  Is that what’s at play in many of your poems?  Like in “The Juniper Tree” when, though discussing other matters, the speaker can’t help but ponder the JFK assassination plot? 

Just as with a pendulum, your poems require a difficult balance or, frankly, things can easily fall apart.  Though your readers only see the finished, successful product, is it safe to assume that there are many David Kirby poems, poems that will never see the light of day, that have pushed a little too far, and that the pendulum wasn’t able to smoothly or successfully complete its journey?  How do you know when, sitting there alone in your solitary writing space, it just isn’t working?  When is it time to give a poem up?

David Kirby:     I wish I had a nickel for every theory I've expounded whenever an interviewer has asked me about those stanzas. But it's like any question anyone asks: why do you use humor, why do you write about your wife so much, why are so many of your poems set it in Europe? (I get asked those three questions constantly.) The answer in every case is the same: people like it when I do that. Mainly, editors like my stanzas, because they publish my poems from time to time and even request them. And I guess readers like them, or enough do, because I do get the occasional fan note. One thing is indisputable, which is that my stanzas make for a kind of poetic signature, don't they? You could tape a poem of mine on a wall like an ophthalmologist's eye chart and not be able to make out the letters, but you'd still know it's a Dave Kirby poem.

That said, you'll notice there are some more traditional-looking stanzas in Get Up, Please, and I'm varying my look even more in new poems. Why? Call it evolution, if you like. You'll also notice new tones and moods. Not that I'm letting anything go--I still write the three-pager with the sawtooth margins about something stupid that happened to me. But I'm also writing half-page poems in couplets that are darker in tone. 

All in all, I'm ruled in both my writing and my teaching by what Jack Gilbert said, which is that poetry is "the art of making urgent values manifest, and of imposing them on the reader. It is the housing of these values in poems so they will exist with maximum pressure, and for the longest time. It is the craft of doing so in structures that are a delight in themselves. And it is the mystery of fashioning poems in such a way that the form and the content are one." Unlike prose, poetry has linguistic content but a graphic aspect as well. And when a reader looks at the graphics of a poem, he or she either does or doesn't say, "Oooo, that looks nice!"

By the way, this first question is actually eight questions. Let's move on, shall we? But not before saying, no, I never really give up on a poem. I might put one aside and come back to it in a couple of years, though. I'm the ultimate recycler.

AF: You mention Jack Gilbert.  You also reference Jack Gilbert in the poem "The Nematode."  And I think I remember recently reading another time you mentioned Jack Gilbert, though I don't remember where this might have been.  So if I had to phrase it in the form of a question, I guess I'd just ask, "Why?"  Though a more sophisticated query might be, "What impact, if any, does Jack Gilbert and his work currently have upon your life or writing?"

DK: Two years ago, I was supervising two extraordinary young writers who were working on their honors theses. This was in the spring term, and they would defend in the fall, but I wanted to keep working with them over the summer, so I sent each a copy of Jack Gilbert's Collected Poems, and we read and studied the poems together and chatted about them on Facebook. To my surprise and joy, I found myself getting as much out of the project as the two young women did, maybe more. From him I learned more about nuance, and I also loved the way he often saw beauty amidst the deepest sorrow. The experiment worked so well that I assigned the Collected Poems to an entire workshop the next term, and everybody in that class wrote better as a result. Jack Gilbert is steroids for poetry.

So many of your poems feel highly conversational.  This can potentially be attributed to many factors — addressing the reader directly, end rhyme not playing much of a role in your work, lengthy sentences and extended ruminations on a given subject.  I find that many of my favorite poets are more conversation in tone or style.  I also find that I am completely unable to pull it off in my own work.  How, then, are you able to balance the conversational tone with higher poetic principles (all those really old Ancient Greek words) that poetry is supposed to embody, while still letting your poems sound like a dude talking to another dude?  Well, not a dude talking to another dude, maybe.  But sometimes like an authority figure giving a presentation.  “The Minotaur,” for one, comes to mind.

DK: One word: massage. To sound that casual, I have to spend a lot of time rubbing the knots out of my sentences. Poems are meant to be heard, and I want the poem to look on the page the way it'll sound on the stage. I read the poems aloud to myself over and over until they sound like a human voice--actually, "mutter" might be a better word than "read," but you get the idea.

Above I mention your lengthy sentences.  “Lengthy” is sometimes maybe even an understatement.  They kind of seem to serve as small versions of the long poem of which they are a component.  Please discuss for me your lengthy sentences and how they contribute to the spectrum that feeds your overall concepts?  

In regards to lengthy poems and sentences, the reader can’t grow complacent because you throw in some poems that deviate from the norm.  “I Believe You Are Death,” for example.  Or “Taking It Home to Jerome.”  Both consisting of quatrains.  What effect, if any, does the sporadic appearance of quatrains have upon the reader who might be expecting longer stanzas?  I’m not just talking about when the poems are being read, but also when being confronted by them for the first time—like turning the page and being surprised.

DK: Look again--those poems are in couplets, not quatrains. But surprise is good, no? I try to surprise people within poems, so why not in the whole book? Again, see "evolution" in answer #1, above. The poems are changing gradually, and I'm the guy who flies over that changing poemscape, often startled and occasionally pleased by what he sees. It's a little like Jurassic Park, though no poem of mine has ever tried to eat somebody's face off.

“Taking It Home to Jerome,” mentioned above, gave me my biggest laugh of the book.  Maybe because on several occasions in my youth I tried, and failed, to execute the trick described therein.  What is it about humor that blends so thoroughly and successfully with your style?  Have you ever tried applying humor to a subject matter that rejected the attempt?

DK: I'm often asked why I'm so damned funny, and that question starts with the assumption that most poets aren't. Perhaps that's because so many poems come out of the sad or angry parts of the brain. I mean, where does poetry start for most people? When you're in middle school, complaining about your stupid boyfriend or girlfriend or your even stupider mom and dad. And I suppose a lot of people continue that way. But I figure, why not use the whole brain? I don't eat with one hand or walk on one foot only, so when I put my brain to work, I figure, use the whole thing. And let me answer your last question, which, like some of the others, addresses frustration and failure, by saying that that doesn't happen very much because I think about a poem a lot before I start writing it. You know how prosecutors only take on cases they can win? Same here, only with poems instead of felons.

Your poems really travel.  I mean that in a lot of ways, but we’ve already talked about the pendulum, so let’s just focus on travel in the literal sense.  The poems visit many places.  How (and why) have your own personal travels carved out such a fundamental niche in your work?  More specifically, you seem to be fueling long-standing ruminations on self-hood with brand new experiences.  That’s just life, I guess, but how does it come so seemingly easily in your work?  What about the period in your life before you were a traveler—did that time actually exist and, if so, what did it mean for the poetry?  How does travel contribute to the spectrum that feeds your overall concepts?  

DK: There are at least two answers to this question. The smaller answer and the one that applies more to me personally is that when I'm traveling, I usually have more time to write, and since whatever's going on around me usually works its way into my poems in one way or another, it's not surprising to find Rome or London or Attapulgus, Georgia in those poems. I take my teaching very seriously, so when I'm in Tallahassee, my time is pretty much my students' time. When I travel, those hours are all mine. 

The bigger answer and the more universal one is that when you travel, your brain fires up and begins to address essential questions: will I make my flight, did I bring my passport, should I have brought a sweater, what language is that guy speaking, is he trying to help me or is he a hustler? But those questions are quickly answered. Meanwhile, here's your brain, just looking for something else to figure out, which is when the ideas and images begin to come in from left field. Travel is good for any creative person, in other words, and not just artists. And I'm not making this up. There's real neuroscience to back up what I'm explaining here in layman's terms.

P-Funk master George Clinton, I’m told, lives in Tallahassee.  Have you ever seen him out ‘n’ about?  Like at the Post Office or something?  

DK: Ha, ha! Sure. I've seen George in the airport, and I go to his shows. I can't say he and I have ever double-dated, but the thing about Tallahassee is that it's small and we take our arts seriously here. Among my generation, most of the writers and painters and musicians know each other and support each other's art and go to each other's shows and openings.

You are really generous about allowing other artists a dominant place in many of your poems.  Not just passing references to people and their creations, but they are actually named as inspirations for the poem.  For every Grecian urn poem in which the poet gives him or herself over to outward inspiration, there are many, many other poems that are fairly self-centered, refusing to look outward.  This is not always a negative thing, perhaps, but when confronted with your poems—which quite often name painting, buildings, songs or other poems—it provides a stark contrast.  Explain, please, what it is about poetry that many people apply it so personally without much regard for the greater world, yet others, like yourself, are able to be so outwardly inclusive?  What do you suppose, if any, is the psychological effect this inwardness and/or outwardness has for the reader? 

DK: That's a really good question, one that could generate a doctoral dissertation, maybe one titled Should I Stay or Should I Go? Interiors and Exteriors in Poetry Across the Ages. All I know is that I was the youngest in my family and therefore always trying to figure out the world around me. I didn't have much interest in my own thoughts, and I can guarantee you that no one else did. So I looked at the world as a journalist might, compiling evidence and connecting one thing to another. 

Of course, sooner or later, all poems head inward, and that's when the things one sees become thoughts that go beyond those things yet keep them in the foreground. Isn't all poetry inward? I guess mine goes back and forth from exterior to interior in a cycle, especially in the longer poems. And while there are some poets who are almost photographic in their approach to the world, others prefer to stay indoors. Both are perfectly legitimate ways to write. Temperamentally, though, I'm going to spend a lot of time running around in the streets before I head indoors. That's what Dante and Shakespeare and Whitman did, and we're still reading them.

AF: You often work in the ars poetic tradition.  Poems like “You’ve Built Your Own Mosque,” for example.  Why is it important for you to write poems about what it means to be a poet and how poems are made and experienced?  Do you find that your understanding of your craft perceptibly grows once you’ve crafted a poem of this kind?

Another great question, because sometimes I feel like writing nothing but poems on poetry. What could be better than to celebrate what you love best? Then again, I've never felt that the poetic mind is a limited one. I feel as though the poetic mind observes, selects, orders, and revises until it produces a unified whole. That's what poets do, but it's also what scientists and filmmakers and cooks do. So over the years, I don't think I've discovered how poets operate so much as I've discovered how humans operate when they're functioning in the most successful way and also the most gratifying way possible, which amounts to the same thing.

AF: Get Up, Please is another Louisiana University Press book.  Could you please discuss your relationship with the press and how it came about?  You’re a native of that region, right?

If you look at my long list of books, you'll see I've published with a dozen or more presses. I've had great experiences with every one of them. But one shops around, of course, and eventually I landed at LSU. Yes, I lived the first twenty-one years of my life in Baton Rouge and got a BA from Louisiana State University, but I'm with LSU Press for one reason: because the best people are there. My editor, my designer, the business manager, the marketing people: they're friends as well as poetry lovers, and I hope I work with them forever. 

Any new projects, Louisiana UP or otherwise, on the horizon?

DK: This is an unusually productive period for me right now. Without thinking too far ahead, I want to write the best poems I can this summer and publish them in decent magazines and compile another book manuscript in, oh, a year, say. I'm writing a longish piece on the Beach Boys for The Wall Street Journal. I need to write a couple of letters to help people get tenure and promotion at other schools. I need to write a blurb--no, wait, two blurbs. Mainly, I need to get my syllabi done. When the fall comes, I'll go from 90% poetry / 10% everything else to 90% teaching / 10% poetry. 

But I look forward to that ratio shift: I'm still dreaming, but so many of my dreams have come true that I see this period in my life as a chance to help others fulfill their dreams. The other day on Facebook, someone said she needed more time to write, so she wasn't putting as much time into her teaching, unlike colleagues who seemed "wedded to the job."  Okay for her, but nobody's more wedded to the job than I am. And every time I walk into the classroom, I renew my vows.

Do you think, if he has ever read them, Little Richard enjoyed your poems?

DK: There's only one book that Richard enjoys, and that's the Bible. I have to say, though, the man's got good taste. That's some book, the Bible.

Finally, the name of this blog is Poetry Matter.  Can you please explain why poetry matters?

DK: There's so much music in my little town that I can't go to every performance. So I made a rule for myself, which is Always Do Something Good. So if I can't go to the symphony, that's okay as long as I go to the opera, say. It would not be Something Good if I stayed home and watched Forensic Files re-runs, so if I can't go to the symphony, I'll go to the opera or the alt-country show or the blues festival instead. So poetry doesn't matter to a lot of people, and that's okay, though I hope they're doing Something Good as an alternative: reading a novel, learning another language, volunteering at the homeless shelter. Then there are people like me, who became pale and anemic if they can't write and teach poetry. Like the roof over my head and the shoes on my feet, I need poetry every day.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

An Interview with Dave Harrity, Author of Our Father in the Year of the Wolf

Dave Harrity

Our Father in the Year of the Wolf


ISBN: 978-1-60226-016-0

Click here to read an excerpt of the book.

Dave Harrity was one of the first people I met when my family moved to Louisville, KY in the late 90s. We were both going into our freshman year of high school. I was still struggling to adjust to life in America after living overseas for most of the past 10 years, and Dave was a boisterous New Jersey transplant, already established and well-connected.

If I had to pick one person who I thought would become a respectable poet in my class, Dave wouldn’t have been my first choice. I knew him OK. We attended the same youth group on Sundays and hung out every once in a while. He was the guy most likely to swallow a lead fishing sinker, accidentally tip a canoe in ice cold water, or randomly inject “randy” into conversation, even in Geometry where a flustered “Madame Fro-bush” often failed to control the class.

But now that I think of it, there was the one time he conned some of us into going to a poetry reading we thought was going to be a killer ska show, and it probably would have been if the lead singers were singing instead of reading their poetry. Maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe not. I didn’t realize Dave was a poet until after I had moved back to the area and looked him up on Facebook. He had a chapbook out, and had graduated from Spalding University’s Brief Residency MFA program, a program I’d later complete myself. I soon discovered that not only did he write poetry, but he was writing pretty good poetry.

Fast forward to today. Dave has had success with his book Making Manifest, teaches at Campbellsville University, and has played an important role in the formation of The Association for Theopoetics Research and Exploration and serves as creative editor for its associated journal, Theopoetics: A Journal of Theological Imagination, Literature, Embodiment, and Aesthetics. His two latest books are These Intricacies and Our Father in the Year of the Wolf.

Our Father in the Year of the Wolf is the type of book that helps bolster a poet’s reputation. Although the poems will often challenge the reader, the subtle but pervasive music is a strong enough engine to keep most readers engaged. Harrity's lines are often long, but pleasantly long the way Whitman’s lines are long. Lines that span the entire width of the page often fall naturally into pleasant "breaths."

The music of the poems serves as an ordering mechanism. Even when the poems are thematically dense, the music encourages the reader to trust the poet and to return to the poems again and find each time a richer experience. But even when it is difficult to process the poems intellectually, the book makes profound emotional sense. This is a great testament to Harrity's skill as a poet.

Dave took a little time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions by email.

First of all, congrats for releasing not one but two books of poetry in the past year or so. If you were to tell me in high school that you were going to be a poet, I don’t know that I would have believed you. So how did you come to be a poet? 

First, thank you for asking me to do this—I’m honored and full of gratitude! As for your question: Hah! I was a poet in high school, but I was quiet about it. No one knew except one of our classmates. I wrote her poems to try to get her to date me, and it worked for a while. She liked poems. The relationship didn’t last, but I kept writing. And just never stopped really. I became a poet by doing, not by reading. That’s important for me. I’ve since developed a habit of study, but it came after the fixation I had with creating.

We are both graduates of Spalding University’s MFA program. I can understand some of the criticism MFAs receive, but my experience at Spalding was overwhelmingly positive. Briefly, what influence has your MFA had on your literary career? 

I had a good experience at Spalding as well, and I think that had to do with the literary community it provided for me. It was a place where I didn’t have to explain myself—I could have this strange, shared artistic fixation; I could ask questions to friends and read and write alongside them. The MFA taught me how to demand meaningful interactions with other artists. I worked so hard in that program—took full advantage of my profs and peers. The MFA helped me understand how important it is to have literary and creative relationships—I still have some very close relationships from Spalding.

Of your two most recent books, These Intricacies seems more contemplative and accessible, while Our Father is denser, darker, and more experimental. Did you write these books with a specific purpose in mind or was their creation more organic in their development? 

They both sort of materialized as their own projects. Most of the poems in both books were written post-MFA. I was writing all the poems at the same time though, since about 2007. The poems in TI are certainly older, and an editor approached me about making a book. At the time, I had a manuscript. He looked at it and asked me to send as many other poems as I could. We worked from there to make the book.

Our Father was always conceived as a book-length project. I kept writing the strange poems and just piled them all in a folder. After about four years of this, I pulled the folder out and began stitching them together.

When reading Our Father for the first time, I was struck by its remarkable depth, and I feel like I have a richer experience each time I revisit the book. It’s exquisitely woven, whether it’s the thematic movement from poem to poem, illustrations of the moon passing through different phases, or the interaction of poem titles. What was your revision process like for this book? Did you focus more on the individual poems or the work as a whole? 

Thanks for saying that—man. That’s a really wonderful compliment and I’m glad it worked that way for you. I hope the same for all who read it! Originally, the manuscript was over a hundred pages. Which was crazy. I cut it down to sixty pages. Lots and lots and lots of cutting—ruthless. I tried to trust what the poems were trying to be, which was unfamiliar at first. But as the process moved forward, I began working in this strange, long tercet, and the voice in the poems began to ring clearer. The form really helped to order the book, which had never happened to me before. It was an uneasy delight the whole way.

You mention hagiography in the author’s notes. Could you briefly explain what that is and maybe give an example of the role it plays in this collection? 

Yeah… that idea—the narratives of the lives of saints—has always captivated me. The lives of early martyrs in the Christian tradition, especially. The stories are so fanciful and bizarre—they’ve always seemed to be the most interesting secrets of the Christian Church, though similar styles or narrative abound in other faith traditions.

In Our Father, there is this cursed family—focused mainly on the father and son. I read a story about St. Natalis of Ireland who cursed the Meath Clan when they wouldn’t repent from their evil. He cursed them to be werewolves. I just found the whole story captivating and thought I could use it, quite loosely, as the basis of the book since monsters/beasts—wolves, in particular—were dominating the metaphorical structure of the book.

In Making Manifest you argue for writing as spiritual practice. Our Father is full of biblical allusions and influence from other religious sources, but the book seems to embrace mystery and acknowledge nuance rather than evangelize or provide Sunday school answers. How is Our Father a reflection of your theology? 

Oh dear… I’m going to have to speak generally, and you’ll have to forgive me for it. I feel so estranged in/from discussions of faith and art. In my travels and teaching I’ve learned most believing people don’t want art, especially if it seems contrary to whatever they’re bred to believe, or—at the very least—art isn’t a priority of the faith experience for the majority of religious folks.

Sure, there are people who are serious about their faith and their art—I know many such people deeply, and I’m not talking about them here—but art seems to be largely dumbfounding to “the faithful” unless it does evangelize or affirm what’s learned in Sunday School. Whatever that nonsensical conglomeration of creative things is, I can’t usually name it as art or artfully made. On top of that, making art is an act of existence, of living into one’s embodiedness—one’s humanness—and there are more than a few people in the pews that think that existing as one is is sinful.

I told a student recently—he writes poems—that if he wants to be an artist and is a person of faith that he should bury that faith so deep into his poems that no one but someone just like him will know it’s there. If you ask me, all things worthwhile sing to one another from the depth. I also told him not to trust people who claim faithfulness but have no creative life.

Generally speaking: it’s usually dangerous or unfair to discern a person’s theology through a person’s art, I think. And the acts of mixing theology and art—with some fantastic exceptions—are often irrelevant disasters that suffer from didacticism and are blind to how extraneous, inappropriate, or just plain silly they are. My work has been there. That said, there are so many brilliant artists of faith that get little attention outside of literary circles—God, so many brilliant ones. And that’s a sin—that their voices aren’t known. As for Our Father and me, I don’t know if it reflects a theology, much less my own.

You experiment with longer lines in many of these poems, which can be dangerous when paired with the kind of weighty subject material and dense language you use in this book, but your lines have a natural “breath” to them that allows the reader to process them in small chunks. You also experiment with space and breaks within the line in a way that pays respect to form and tradition, but is fresh and contemporary. Could you talk about the role form played in developing these poems? 

As I said before, the long tercet became the book’s fingerprint. With lines like that, however, I had to really work to understand the caesura, which is something that alluded me until this book. Also, in this book, I worked to master metrical structures, which are important to me as a poet, and have always been important to my work. I think I gained some ground, but what I love about poems is that I will spend the rest of my life working on sounds.

How do you approach titling poems? You do it so well. “If the Silver Could be Given Back & Prophecies Erased” is a brilliant title, and the titles as a whole in this book carry a lot of weight and significance.

That’s a really tough question—in this book I tried to embody the poem with some kind of Scriptural, historical, or philosophical referent. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

As a parent to two kids under the age of 4, I struggle to get a lot of writing done. You have two kids, a wife, a job, and a literary career. How do you find time to write and be a part of the literary community? 

You don’t find it, you make it. If my writing doesn’t get done, I’m the only thing that forced it not to happen. Make time. No one else is going to do it for you. But if you’re lucky and smart you will surround yourself with people who remind you of what you should do and help you do it. And don’t forget to play with your kids every day.

Lastly, what projects do you have on the horizon that we should be watching for?

Right now all I’m doing is working on a poem every day and playing blues guitar. I don’t think anyone will be hearing much creatively from me any time soon. But if you see me, say hello!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What We're Reading Now

We're always reading fine works of poetry. This month on Poetry Matters, instead of an in-depth review or interview, you’ll find three quick posts about what books have captured our attention: 
So take a look—you might find that next great book of poetry or a poet whose work resonates with you. And friends, please do share with us what you're reading. We're always looking for good books!

From Melva Sue Priddy's Bookshelf

ISBN: 0-300-10792-7

A copy of Georgics was loaned to me by poet Chris Mattingly. His comment about how the same tools used in farming today were used in farming 2000 years ago hooked me. And so they were. I had never read Virgil’s Georgics in its entirety, so this was a pleasure. I soon found I needed a copy of my own so I could annotate it. Lempke, whose father was a farmer, retains as much of the original poetry as possible while translating into American English. She replaces out dated place names, and other obscure antiquities with their geographic, modern equivalents. She retains the four book division and line numbers as closely as possible. What a joy to read about the work of farmers, not as an idyllic pastoral, but as the daily struggle the work is, with ruin from insects and weather a perpetual possibility. Book Four reminded me of my family’s bees, however our’s arrived by mail.

ISBN: 978-1555973896

I return to this memoir written by the son about his father William Stafford. Kim Stafford mines his father’s journals, book, letters, notes and poetry drafts as his father’s literary executor. As well as chronicling the elder’s life and work, it reads as an honest portrayal of the strained relationship between son and father. The poet isn’t understood by his son, though they lived closely and often worked together, until after Kim delves into his father’s papers, and it then becomes part of his life’s work. I attended several AWP conferences and had the pleasure of sitting in on panels including Kim Stafford.

Anthony Fife Discusses Robert Hayden's Collected Poems

Collected Poems
by Robert Hayden
edited by Frederick Glaysher
Norton, 1985

Regarding “‘Mystery Boy’ Looks for Kin in Nashville,” the poem is so profoundly grounded, so deeply of this world that I can’t quite reconcile how distant the poem truly is. The story floats ten feet off the ground, never touching down, despite that fact that its full weight is a burden upon my shoulders each time I think of it throughout any given day. And I think of it often.

Robert Hayden’s work cannot, however, be pigeonholed by the likes of the “Mystery Boy.” Hayden’s oeuvre is quite varied, as would be any half-a-dozen-decades-worth of work, and knowing this, as I read and re read my way through his Collected Poems I can't help trying to recapture that feeling so strongly eased upon me by the aforementioned poem. I ‘v yet to find its like, though I have combed the pages many times. I haven’t found it, at least, in quite the same way.

Whether it’s a poem about Malcomb X (“El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” 86-89) or the legendary fighter Tiger Flowers (“Free Fantasia: Tiger Flowers” 130-131), many of the poems in this collection select a topic, a very specific topic, and more or less stick to it throughout. In this way they are particularly linear. Highly imaginative: definitely. Conscientious in light of the multitude of responsibilities they name and satisfy: absolutely. They pull in and out their masterful focus, never resting long before a single storefront. But highly linear. Having typed and edited the previous paragraph, I think I’ve learned a little more about our “Mystery Boy.” Though many of Hayden’s poems are self-contained—leaning heavily on the book ends of a definite and logical place to start and stop—there is, it turns out, no damned kin in Nashville. The poem—organized but decisively nonlinear—will go on forever. And with no beginning and no end the poem has no choice but to swell and resonate.

Before recently reading his Collected Poems, my only exposure to Robert Hayden was his “Those Winter Sundays” (41). Due to being so commonly anthologized, I was highly aware of “Those Winter Sundays” and the role it plays in 20th Century literature. It’s a marvelous poem, of course; it’s earned its place in the thick books. And, revisiting it now after having read and reread 195 pages of Hayden’s work, I can’t help but feel it serves as the perfect halfway point between the two types of poems I mention above. Definitely linear. Yet allowed off the leash to expand and fill an almost empty room.

Of course, whether it’s the historical epics concerning the lives and exploits of notable personages including but not limited to Malcolm X and Tiger Flowers, character sketches that are also cultural and historical lessons (read the wonderful “The Ballad of Sue Ellen Westerfield” 13-14 for proof of my claim), or a poem more like the one concerning the young whomever that begins this brief rumination, Hayden’s poems often tell much more about Hayden himself than the supposed subject of the poems. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him.

Nancy Chen Long Discusses The Book of Goodbyes

BOA Editions Ltd, 2014
ISBN: 978-1938160141

The Book of Goodbyes is Jillian Weise’s second book. Her first is The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. The Book of Goodbyes is the winner of the 2013 James Laughlin Award, which is awarded by the Academy of American Poets to a poet for a second book of poetry. The Book of Goodbyes is also the winner of the 2013 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, which is awarded to a poet with a new book of exceptional merit.

I found the overarching theme of the book to be what the title indicates—goodbyes in its various forms: loss, departure, death, loneliness. The book contains four sections that are presented like acts in a play (Weise is also a playwright): act “One,” an “Intermission,” act “Two,” and “Curtain Call.” With respect to subject matter, the sections titled “One” and “Two” center primarily around two things:

  • The first is how other’s react to the speaker being an amputee, for example “The Ugly Law,” a poem that weaves in lines from a law about disfigured or unsightly people being restricted from appearing in public, and “Café Loop,” which reads as a sort of transcript of things the speaker has overheard in a café: “She's had it easy, you know. // I knew her from FSU, back before she was disabled. / I mean she was disabled, but she didn't write like it. // Did she talk like it? Do you know what it is, exactly?” (You can read the poem here, second poem on the page). “Café Loop” is indicative of the conversational tone of most of the poems in the collection. The collection is peppered with dialog.
  • The second is the speaker’s affair with an older person, someone she calls Big Logos, e. g. “Poem for His Girl” (“I’ll tell you which panties / look good on you // psychedelic plaid / with ruffles on the waist …), “Semi Semi Dash,” “Poem for His Ex,” and “For Big Logos, In Hopes He Will Write Poems Again” (“Maybe it’s because you’re cut off / from your roots, and need to go / to Spain, be with your forefathers …”)

Act “One” tends to dwell more on the disability; “Two” tends to dwell more on the affair. Regarding the intermission between the two 'acts', it is indeed that: It's comprised of three poems that form a narrative about “Tiny and Courageous Finches” named Bitto and Marcel who live in a cave behind the Iguazú Falls on the Argentine side.

The last section, “Curtain Call” is one long poem “Elegy for Zahra Baker.” Zahra was a ten-year old who, due to cancer, was deaf and disabled (she had a prosthetic leg.) She went missing in North Carolina in 2010. Her step-mother confessed to dismembering her and leaving her remains in the wild. The poem includes snippets from news reports, personal reflections of the speaker, snippets of conversations between the speaker and others, dialog from Zahra herself.

Friends, I was quite taken with this book and will definitely re-read it. It’s quiet and powerful, unflinching. I find something about it to be irresistible. Here is one of my more favorite poems in the collection, “Goodbyes.”