Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Digging the Renaissance: Nikki Grimes and the Golden Shovel Poems for “Children”

by Anthony Fife

One Last Word cover; Nikki Grimes, photo by Aaron Lemen (from nikkigrimes.com)

The Harlem Renaissance was a deep-water era from which countless artists have since drawn inspiration.  So too, Nikki Grimes whose latest collection, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance, includes poems not only from luminaries of that illustrious period, but also original poems by Grimes herself, who, via the Golden Shovel method, updates social issue of 1920s and ’30s Harlem for a 21st century readership.  Borrowing lines from Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and a score of other Harlem Renaissance poets, and pairing her poems with vivid, evocative artwork, Grimes’ collection is a fitting tribute to her cultural and literary forebears, while cementing her reputation as an adept children and young adults’ (and adults’) poet.

Each of Grimes’ original poems borrows words or lines, utilizing a form called Golden Shovel, to incorporate into her own work.  “The idea of the Golden Shovel poem,” writes Grimes, “is to take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from that poem (called a striking line), and create a new poem, using the words from the original.  Say you decide to use a single line: you would arrange that line, word by word, in the right margin.”  The next step is writing “a new poem, each line ending in one of these words” (6).  The first stanza of Arna Bontemps’ poem “Southern Mansion,” for example, reads:

Poplars are standing there still as death
And ghosts of dead men
Meet their ladies walking
Two by two beneath the shade
And standing on the marble steps.

An original poem based upon the final lines of each poem might be:

I drink deep to their life and to their death—
those who came before me, those raggedy men
who spent their burdenful time on earth trudging,
seeking their hour in the undemanding shade.
Ever searching, forever counting their steps.

Utilizing the last word of each line in a stanza, however, is but one way the Golden Shovel can work.  Each word in a single line can also serve the same purpose, as in the case of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Calling Dreams,” and Grimes answer, “The Sculptor."  Johnson writes:

The right to make my dreams come true
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate’s deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand.
Too long my heart against the ground
has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length, I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning-break! (31)

Taking Johnson’s concept a step further, Grimes offers a more specific version of a similar theme.   Grimes writes:

No accident of birth or race or even place determines the
scope of hope or dreams I have a right
to.  I inventory my head and heart to
weigh and measure what talents I might use to make
my own tomorrow.  It all depends on the grit at my
disposal.  My father says hard work is the clay dreams
are molded from.  Yes.  Molded.  Dreams do not come.
They are carved, muscled into something solid, something true. (32)

But adaptability of form—which words, lines or even stanzas to borrow—is only half the story.  A poet indulging in Golden Shovel is also at liberty, as in the case of the collection’s first pairing, Jean Toomer’s “Storm Ending,” with Grimes’ original poem “Truth,” to make their own thematically unique work.  Toomer writes:

Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stretching clappers to strike our ears…
Full-lipped flowers
Bitten by the sun
Bleeding rain
Dripping rain like golden honey—
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder. (15)

The human presence in Toomer’s poem intrudes upon the imagery very little.  One could possibly read metaphor into the poems subject matter, especially given the themes found in many of Toomer’s other works, but the poem demands no such leap.  “Storm Ending” can be taken at face value.   In Grimes’ Toomer-inspired poem, however, the human presence is nearly everything.  Toomer’s meteorology becomes Grimes’ metaphor for outlining the human condition.  Grimes writes:

The truth is, every day we rise is like thunder—
A clap of surprise.  Could be echoes of trouble, or blossoms
of blessings.  You need know what garish or gorgeously
disguised memories-to-be might rain down from above.
So, look up!  Claim that cloud with the silver lining.  Our
job, if you ask me, is to follow it.  See where it heads. (16) 

The adaptability of both form and theme is part of what makes the golden shovel so attractive.  Thematic differentiation serves throughout the book as a reminder that Grimes does not work for but with the inspirational poems she has selected.  Which is often the whole point.  The golden shovel is not only a way of honoring, but simultaneously a springing forth from other’s works.  This duality, of course, is what One Last Word is all about.  Grimes never fails to honor, but she refuses to be confined.

Grimes is a self-professed poet for children and young adults.  Her youthful audience is catered too tastefully throughout the book.  From the simplistic descriptions that preface the collection—an overview of the Harlem Renaissance, definition of golden shovel, and poets’ biography—to the vivid imagery of young people appearing throughout the book. 

Artwork by E.B. Lewis

Artwork by Frank Morrison

Artwork by Shadrack Strickland

The poems, too, often feature young people; in Grimes’ “Crucible of Champions,” for example, each stanza begins the name of the stanza’s young speaker:

The evening news never spares us.  Tune in and we
hear: if you’re a boy and you’re black, you live
with a target on your back.  We each take it in and
shiver, one sharp-bladed question hanging overhead: how
long do I get to walk this earth?  The smell of death is too intense,
and so we bury the thought, because the future is
ours, right?  We get to choose?  Well, we choose life.

Stupid is the word that stalks me.  I’m anything but, so
I seethe inside.  Even on a good day, I’m full
of an anger that burns my breath.  Who?  It’s all because of
my diagnosed dyslexia.  Ask me to read aloud, I stress. 
Whenever the teacher calls on me in class, I stutter.  So
most folks surmise that my head is hollow.  Actually, it’s quite full. 
My words and letters simply switch places.  They’ve got a mind of
their own.  I call that reason enough for stress, for strife. (lines 1-17)

Given the personas represented in the six stanzas, it’s perhaps fitting “Crucible of Champions” would be considered a poem for juveniles.  This assessment, of course, doesn't tell the whole tale.  Educators, parents, and in fact any adult who wants to better understand the life of a young person, especially a young person of color, has a great deal to learn from the six people represented therein.  That said, when Grimes herself claims that, though she began her career focusing on the adult market before shifting her “emphasis to literature for children and young adults” (page 1), the claim certainly has credence, but no reader should underestimate her work because it bears the label.  The distance between juvenile and adult poetry is not so great as we might think.

Grimes speaks at the
2017 Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet

Anthony Fife
: In the preface, you say that the poets of the Harlem Renaissance were among your earliest influences.  Geographically, at least, that makes a lot of sense; you are, after all, from Harlem.  But what about the work itself, regardless of geography, was so appealing to you as a child?

Nikki Grimes
: I came to this work in my teens, during the early 60s, at the flashpoint of the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of the Panther Party, and the new slogan of Black Power.  The poets of the Harlem Renaissance were addressing the very issues of racial and social injustice that we were wrestling with, at that time.   Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" spoke to me.  Countee Cullen's "Incident" was my own story.  Waring Cuney's "No Images" and Langston's "Harlem Sweeties" ("Carmel, brown sugar/A chocolate treat") let me know I was comely even before the phrase "Black is Beautiful" was coined.  Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel" was the "Yes!" to my personal drive to write poetry in spite of the emotional wreck and dysfunction of my family life. 

"Inscrutable His ways are, and immune...
What awful brain compels His awful hand;
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!"

I was that poet!          

I still read Langston, of course, and I love to return to Georgia Douglas Johnson and Gwendolyn Bennett.  And the language of Jean Toomer still plucks the strings of my heart.

AF: How long after learning the Golden Shovel form did it take you to conceive of this project? 

: I had two ideas for projects immediately after writing my first Golden Shovel poem.  I knew I wanted to do something with poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, specifically bringing it to an audience of young readers who might not otherwise appreciate its relevance.  And I wanted to introduce readers to some of the female poets of the period they probably weren't familiar with.  The other idea I had was to apply the form to an exploration of the Psalms.  The Harlem Renaissance project ended up being idea I attacked first.

AF: Is the golden shovel a form that, aside from One Last Word, you often use?

: This form is relatively new, so I haven't had many opportunities to use it, yet, but I have written a picture book using this form.  It's called The Watcher, and it grew from the lines of Psalm 121, one of my favorites.

AF: What other forms are common or important in your work?

: I love free verse, haiku, and tanka. These are forms I return to often. But I'm addicted to challenge, and so I'm looking to explore other forms, as well.  Each form of poetry takes me places I wouldn't go, otherwise.

AF: What are some of the challenges of golden shovel poems that differentiate it from challenges of other forms?

: While other forms lock the poet in where meter is concerned, Golden Shovel forces you to use words that may or may not fit comfortably in your mouth, or in your psyche.  If, for instance, you select your striking line from a poem written during another period in time, you may end up having to wrestle with language that is antiquated, or be stuck having to use a word that you would never encounter in current speech.  In one of the Renaissance poems I chose, a striking line included the word "Chromatique."  That was quite the head scratcher!  What on earth, I kept asking myself, am I supposed to do with that word????  I ended up using it as the name of a hair salon.

The other aspect of the Golden Shovel that's challenging is determining what your poem is going to be about, and then working out a strategy for using the words you've chosen to help tell that story.  For me, it feels a bit like sculpture in that I don't know what I'm going to end up with until I get there.  I just take my raw material—words—and keep chipping away until something coherent begins to emerge.

AF: I notice that many of your original poems in this collection are persona poems.  How does adopting the perspective of another, be they real or fictional, help shape the trajectory of your poems?

: I'm a character-driven writer, and delving into character is most often my way into story, whether that takes the form of a prose work, a novel-in-verse, or a narrative poem.  So character was also my default, here.  When I asked myself, with each striking line I chose, "Now what is this poem going to be about? What story will I tell?" I turned to characters to suss it out.  Once I climb into a character's skin and look at the world, or a given situation, through his or her eyes, my direction becomes very clear.

AF: Indeed, several of your poems adopt a different persona from stanza to stanza.  These are among my favorites in the book.  Could you speak to the interplay of the one character to another to another aspect of these poems?

: There is something about the dance between two or more characters that add energy and a certain dynamic to the narrative that I love.  When I was developing as a young artist, I spent time in the theater, and I brought that sensibility into my writing.  I'm forever picking up snatches of dialogue between strangers, and imaging interplay between characters long before they make it to the page.  I can't help it.  I love placing a number of characters in a space and then seeing how they interact how they impact or influence one another.  I suppose that's why I keep writing multi-voiced novels like Bronx Masquerade, a novel in prose and poetry written in 18 voices.  It's a kind of sickness, I suppose, but it's all mine!

AF: In part because of the multiple personae in some of your poems, your work, on average, tends to be much longer than that of your literary ancestors.  Whereas many of the Harlem Renaissance poems you exemplify in this collection are relatively brief (usually fitting comfortably on one page) yours is much more expansive.  Could you please talk about that?

: Well, by virtue of the form I've chosen, every word of every line I select from the original poem becomes a new line.  On that basis alone, the minute I select more than a single line, the resulting poem is bound to be longer than the original, even more so in those cases where I've chosen to use the lines of an entire stanza.  Then, of course, in the few cases where I used the words of an entire longer poem, well the growth is exponential.  That's one answer.

Beyond the above, I was seeking to expand the subject matter both to express the intent of the original poem more clearly for young readers, and to bridge the gap between their own point in time, and the period of the Harlem Renaissance poets.  I want to make sure readers fully appreciate the relevance of the Renaissance poetry today.  Sometimes, that requires a bit of expansion.

AF: Did you have a relationship with any of the artist beforehand or were they and their work kind of brought to you by the publisher or something like that?

: More and more books for middle grade readers are being illustrated, these days, and so I knew there would be some art, though precisely what form it would take was an unknown.  When the text was complete, my publisher suggested that, rather than having a single artist illustrate the book, we might, instead, invite a variety of artists to do one illustration per poem.   I thought that was a brilliant idea, and immediately agreed.  I compiled a list of artists for the publisher to contact, and we went from there.  Most of the artists have illustrated one or more of my picture books, over the years, or else illustrated my poems in various anthologies, so I was familiar with their work, and their artistic sensibilities.  And, of course, I relished the opportunity to do one of the illustrations, myself—a first for me!

AF: As the final question I always mention the title of the blog: Poetry Matters.  Of course, it can be read as "stuff about poetry," but it can also be read as the bold declaration "poetry DOES matter!"  Taking the latter as our guide, please explain to me why poetry DOES, in fact, matter.

: There are so many experiences in life for which language, in general, is ill-suited: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the upheaval caused my natural, or unnatural, disasters.  Things that cannot be articulated otherwise can always find expression in poetry.   We humans have so much pent-up stress and anxiety—particularly in this present age—that we desperately need a healthy mental and emotional outlet. Poetry offers that.  Poetry is a celebration of language, of beauty, of truth—all that we need for the health of our souls.  The world would be
demonstrably poorer without poetry.  Who would choose to live in such a world?  Not I.

New York Times
bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include the much-honored books Garvey's Choice, ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin's Notebook, Talkin' About Bessie, Dark Sons, Words with Wings, and The Road to Paris. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.

Visit the official Nikki Grimes website:  http://www.nikkigrimes.com/

To purchase your own copy of Nikki Grimes’ One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance, visit Bloomsbury publishers at:

Friday, November 10, 2017

What We Are 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!

Karen George tells us about Roberta Schultz's Songs from the Shaper's Harp

Songs from the Shaper's Harp
by Roberta Schultz
Finishing Line Press, 2017
ISBN: 978-1635343175

I'm currently reading Roberta Schultz's second poetry chapbook, Songs from the Shaper's Harp, (Finishing Line Press, 2017). The book is populated by dreamers, singers, and ancestors, as well as fantastical and mythical beings such as sea creatures, ghosts, angels, seers, and sirens. The poems vibrate with mesmerizing cadences of lyrical language, and layered, interconnected imagery of water, shape-shifting, and the boundaries between worlds. She explores and celebrates memory and the imagination; the ways we invent and reveal poems, songs, stories, dreams; and the mysteries that saturate our lives. Color, motion, and sound infuse these poems, along with a deep sense of wonder and reverence for the natural world. These poems examine family and community connections, revealing ways to heal from loss and disconnection we endure as humans. Songs from the Shaper's Harp resonates with emotional intensity that pulls you into its worlds, and haunts you into returning for more. 

Anthony Fife discusses Jennifer Kronovet’s The Wug Test

The Wug Test
by Jennifer Kronovet
Ecco, 2016 (National Poetry Series)
ISBN: 978-0062564597

Through a careful balance of personal, character-based poems and disinterested, clinical poems, Jennifer Kronovet’s The Wug Test (2017), reminds me precisely what I love about poetry and language.  The spoken word, either through its presence in our lives or its conspicuous absence, in one way or another touches us all.  We often take language for granted, however, opting for lazy or thoughtless talk when we are capable of so much more.  Kronovet and her collection allow for no such carelessness. 

What of the child raised by the voiceless?  What of the child whose language is systematically prohibited?  Such matters are pondered in The Wug Test, and the reader walks away more knowledgeable and in awe of our spoken word.

Nancy Chen Long comments on Hannah Sanghee Park's The Same-Different

The Same-Different
by Hannah Sanghee Park
LSU Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-0807160091

The Same-Different is Hannah Sanghee Park’s first book and winner of the Walt Whitman Award, which is awarded by the Academy of American Poets to a poet for a debut book of poetry. While there is so much to admire in Park's book, the thing I'll lift up in this short overview is Park's deftness with language, her  celebration of it.

The Same-Different divided into three titled sections. The first section, titled “The Same-Different,” is comprised primarily of sonnets (or 14-lined poems, at least), that make use of puns and linguistic and sonic echoes to explore similarity and difference, and to a lesser extent, to work against a strictly binary view point. Take, for example, this poem that riffs of off true/false:


          It is the long con,
          the construct of it.
          You are always on:

          Magnet and dragnet.
          No use avoiding
          the obvious us.

          We live on a wing
          and a prayer, thus:
          first cry foul, then wolf.

          I have had so much bad
          faith in our future
          I don't know what to do.

          This statement is false.
          This falsity true.

The second section of the book, “A Mutability,” contains 12 sonnets, one for each month of the year. The title of each sonnet references a mythical character from a different culture, such as “Narcissus in January” and “Norroway in February.” The poems in this section explore love and lover, for instance these lines from “Nagual in November”:
. . .
Shapes were aped: now you're the very man
to swap identities. To hell with costs

and costumes: child’s play, acting beneath
your skill for a life undercover.
I’m duped, and due for unending grief
by the form first took: someone’s lover,

someone's rock, someone's ever-longing con.
. . .

The third section, “Fear,” is one poetic sequence of fifteen untitled poems prefaced with a poem titled “Preface to the Fear/False Spring." These poems stray from the sonnet form and make beautiful use of white space. This section centers more on (a) relationship(s). The poems are exquisite and poignant, for example the portion of a poem, shown below.

I find The Same-Different to be an impressive and compelling book. If you are drawn to lyric, language-leaning poems, this book sure to delight. I'll leave you with this snippet from the third section of the book on page 52:

          The light flinches, and I fear.

          As the snow heaped proportional to sheets,
          trees balancing snow for some time,

          then the universal gesture for giving up.

          The snowplow darkens the road

          There are runs in my stocking like plowed road,
          revealing         a clearing.

          I adore you. Am I to pretend otherwise.
          . . .

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Holdfast: Progress of a Soul


         by Christian Anton Gerard
         100 pages

         published by C&R Press

         ISBN: 978-1-936196-74-6


        reviewed by Barbara Sabol

Holdfast: Progress of a Soul

     "Muse, say, fool, look in thy heart and write." Such is the impulse that powers the work in Christian Anton Gerard's second book, Holdfast.  The poems are laser-tipped with ache, with longing, and ultimately with personal redemption. They do not flinch from confrontation of poet to self as speaker, who lingers in the dangerous intersection of dependence and deliverance. This collection represents a searing introspective reckoning yet veers from the confessional: the poet opens the door to his soul, reveals the wreckage in the "blue room," and identifies it: "Whiskey's voice." In the poem, "Defense of Poetry; or Prayer in Recovery," he writes, "This is not a plea for redemption. This is not//a plea for restitution, though it is a thought moving/toward such a thought." The collection arcs from alcohol addiction, the misplaced self, to setting right the wreckage and arriving in islands of joy via love, faith and poetry itself.

     The "Christian Anton Gerard"/"the poet" figure (so named in most of the poems titles and lines) moves with deliberate and honest steps out of that blue room, following a map populated by a host of characters, primarily literary (Whitman, Spenser, Sexton, Rilke, Creeley and so on), with whom he identifies―an identification that often crosses into Negative Capability. The poems' speaker merges, or wishes to merge, with another poet, with a mythological figure, with an outlaw cowboy. In "Image," the speaker states, "I wish Whitman's portrait could be my self-portrait,//that Whitman's ghost is real as me." He becomes Spenser's Calidore, the hunter, in the opening poem, "The Poet Making a Scene." In this poem the poet/speaker is split, amoeba-fashion, into three characters: the two boys who "are practice-dancing shirtless/on the lawn. . ." and a videographer who is ". . .turning in circles like a narrator." And then further into myth: Calidore. The ground is perfectly laid, in this poem, for the through themes of personal crisis and fractured identity that haunt this collection. The poem's ending signals the beginning of the collection's larger narrative:

            . . . I have Spenser,

            though, his own allegory, to show me I am
            my own allegory, to help me see the heart's racing in,

            stumbling. How intricate to acknowledge the enough,
            the vigilance required to stay hidden and then admit. 

     The disassociated voice serves as a rhetorical device which enables identification with these various figures, and highlights the diffusion of identity, a necessary prelude to self-discovery. The poet creates an authorial distance between the Christian Anton Gerard of his poems, at a remove from portrayed self: a chorus of I's. Yet an intimate internal dialogue is at the same time established, such that poet/self and speaker move back and forth from confrontation/brokenness to affirmation/healing.   

     While the tone throughout the poems is edged with conflict, the poet, in true Keatsian manner, is "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." This ability, along with a reliable and powerful narrator's voice, draws the reader into similar mysteries and doubts; she travels that rough terrain through the uncertainties, guided by a narrator bent on revelation. In the final three lines of "Irises" the speaker addresses and responds to poet/self:

            . . .
            Where are you, Christian?
            On my knees. In this night.
            How do you know? My Hope is open.

     Through the three parts of the collection a progression toward wholeness is enacted via dialogue with the alcoholic, fractured and guilt-bound self who works to "understand forgiveness' shape" in part one, to the recovering self, wrestling with faith with his sober presence with his family in part two, moving to a more integrated self freed to love in all directions in the final section. This progression is, naturally, non-linear: in the first section, for example, we find a poem titled "[Because there are nights that seem to put one arm first]" which flows into the opening line, "on a ladder toward day." Here is the poet figuratively climbing into daylight/recovery. Perceptions are already shifting, as in the penultimate stanza, the speaker states, "I used to think flowers were fireworks celebrating//the dark not eating me."
     The title poem, "Holdfast: My Alcoholic Head in Recovery," in part two of the book encapsulates the fractured and grasping self in a rush of run-on lines, with double-breath space between each:
            . . .
            so I set down my thoughts on a twig

            and say I am not I over and over

            until I'm more comfortable with not being I

and in the final four lines, the movement toward recovery:

            . . .And still, most nights, I sit in the dark,

            knees drawn to my chest and all the worlds I know

            dangle like ghosts I can't grip, can't stop gripping.

     The ladder into daylight in these poems is love―of wife and son, of God, of self. And poetry. In the second part of the book, a full dozen poems' titles begin, "In Defense of Poetry;. . ." or are tributes to selected poets or poetry. In "Poetry Can Save the World?" the final couplet, the poet likens poetry to prayer - the impulse is one and the same:

            Prayer is what I do when I don't know, or rather
            in a poem it's the way I ask the sky to sing.
     The love poems in this collection, particularly in the second and third sections, signal a self learning, simply, happiness, and they are beautiful. In "Aubade in Afternoon" the subject of poetry fuses with romantic love in a loosely punctuated, idiosyntactic dialect that needs no parsing:  
            . . .      
            But if it be syntax inverted
            you love, let me
            be that wrangling, that
            reverse sentence full―
            your boots on still jeans
            my hands reach slide
            listen let us be denim

            its working to the floor
            the sound of.

     Perhaps the most beautiful poem, to the poet reader, is "You Poem You" in the final section. The speaker addresses the poem, as beloved:

            . . .
            Leaning your face against the clouds, your poem thinks of her cheek
            against your beard, knows she'll ask why you're crying.

            Your poem's whole life before and behind it.
            Your poem will be standing there holding her, and your heart

            will jump inside your chest's pocket, your fingers on her spine.
            The tears will be quiet, and you,

            you poem you, where everything happens so fast,
            you'll say, I want to read you this story I love.

     Blooms a bud that had been whorled in upon itself in the third section of Holdfast. Poems anchored in love petal in the direction of "her," of God, nature and numerous poets, and of Poetry, capital P. Eros emerges, intense and joyous. One of the many wonderful examples is found the final section of "Christian Anton Gerard to Her Sort of in the Style of a Teenaged Love Poem:"

            I said your name forty-nine times before I fell
            asleep last night―my voice fire-pop and invitation.

            I am all buzz and zing and you
            and yes and you and yes. Yes.

            I dreamt your voice. Breath in my ear.
            I woke a tulip field at sunrise.

or in the final couplet of "Christian Anton Gerard to Her," a contemporary Neruda:

            I want my sweat to taste like good, good labor, and dirt and grass.
            I want my name to taste like that in your mouth.

     Nature and Eros mingle, and of course God cannot but enter into the delicious brew. "Preservation" opens with the line "Christian Anton Gerard's tongue is a wetland.," and closes with
            . . .
            bullfrogs and crickets, ducks running on the water into dusk.
            Once though, Christian Anton Gerard stood in a wetland
            at sunset―a fox howl made his heart beat different.

      The poems in Holdfast are dense with image, allusion, figures from literature, science, popular culture, mythology all in service of a soul in progress: the Christian Anton Gerard of these moving and often breath-taking poems. The poet has laid down a template for a poetry of brave and vulnerable disclosure in a language refreshingly original, surprising and absolutely rewarding. The poet in no wise hesitates to follow the advice in his "Defense Prayer:" "Muse, say, fool, look in thy heart and write.

About the Author:

Christian Anton Gerard is the author of Holdfast (C&R Press, 2017) and Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella (WordTech, 2014). His work appears widely in national and international magazines. Gerard has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award.

When he’s not working, Gerard can be found fishing (usually just standing next to oceans, lakes, or rivers), learning to work wood (avoiding the ER), or indulging his love for home improvement projects of all kinds (after watching hours of do-it-yourself YouTube videos).

Christian holds a B.A. from Miami University (OH), an M.F.A from Old Dominion University and a Ph.D in English from the University of Tennessee. He lives in Fort Smith, AR, where he’s an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith


Friday, August 25, 2017

An Introduction to Shara McCallum's Madwoman

    Madwoman by Shara McCallum

     Alice James Books, 2017

    ISBN: 978-1-938584-28-2

Shara McCallum

Let me confess: I had never heard of Shara McCallum. At AWP Conference 2017, mid Friday morning, I listened, rapt, in a session called, “Written on a Woman’s Body: A cross-genre reading of bold writings about women and their bodies.” The presenters were prepared and impressive. The last presenter on the panel was Shara McCallum. A tough spot to be in, last. She opened, not with her own work, as the other four presenters had, but by reading Lucille Clifton’s “leda 1,” “leda 2,” and “leda 3.” McCallum’s commanding voice pulled off this reading and, in the process, put her own work in a vulnerable position. Then the strength of her own words followed—outstanding. She read from her newest publication, Madwoman, the following poems: “Madwoman a Rasta Medusa,” “Oh Abuse,” “Insomnia,” “Grief,” “To Red,” and “The Parable of Shit and Flowers,” in that order. Wow. The book was available at the Alice James booth in the book fair; I read it as I flew home from D.C. And this served as my introduction to Shara McCallum.  —Melva Sue Priddy

Shara McCallum was born in Jamaica to an African Jamaican father and a Venezuelan mother and moved to the United States with her family when she was nine. She earned a BA from the University of Miami, an MFA from the University of Maryland, and a PhD from Binghamton University. McCallum is the author of four previously published poetry books: The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2011); This Strange Land (Alice James Books, US, 2011), a finalist for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; Song of Thieves (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 2003); and The Water Between Us (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 1999), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry.

 Recognition for her poetry includes a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a Cave Canem Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series, and other awards. Her poems and personal essays have been published in literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks in the US, the UK, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Israel and have been translated into Spanish, French, and Romanian.

McCallum’s dramatic reading drew me in. But the strength of her own words are admirable, at times lapsing into her Jamaican patois. As if this weren’t magical enough, her poems slip in and out of time, yet remain timeless. She includes the mystical and commonplace. She writes of all life’s maddening contradictions matter-of-factly, without explanations, reflecting real life. Madwoman does not step neatly from one age or stage to the next; her contradictions and paradoxes are often stirred in with rewritten myths, life challenges demanding one’s need to adapt and push through living, doing what has to be done, especially for a woman of color.  

One can, of course, make a search of all the wonderful reviews and interviews available on the internet (Consider reviews listed at the bottom of http://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/madwoman .) and so I intend only to introduce McCallum to readers unfamiliar with her work.  

The persona, Madwoman, marginalized, sane, insane, and, more likely, multiple beings at once, reoccurs, scattered throughout the book, and remains an engaging thread that confounds with her many anomalies. At one point, she is “the madwoman now being all women” (27). She is addressed by various voices from multiple intersections: “Madwoman as Salome”(8), “Madwoman in Middle Age” (24), “Why Madwomen Shouldn’t Read the News” (41), “Lot’s Wife to Madwoman” (51). 

One theme that binds this book concerns the various stages of womanhood. In response to a question about those stages and whether madness was an inevitable trait, McCallum states: 

I suspect some forms of ‘madness’ are an inevitable byproduct of aging. As we go along in life, if we are fortunate to live long enough, we will all accumulate losses—of people we love to death or to the changing nature of relationships over time, or of parts of ourselves as we are forced to confront the fact that versions of who we thought we might be or a life we imagined we would live will simply not [be] coming into being. The poems in the collection address various feelings of ‘madness’ roiling below the surface—among others, rage and sadness and dislocation of the self but also defiance, a wanting to say or actually saying ‘fuck you’ to societal norms and expectations. The vantage points through which I look closely at or dwell in these poems in anger, despair, fear, moments of coming unhinged, etc. are those of womanhood and girlhood and the stages in-between, as you note. But I am sure the gamut of emotions the Madwoman confronts exists in men and women alike, in anyone who has eyes to see and does not close them. (Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum”, interview by Alice James Books)

A recurring motif is memory; what gets remembered, by whom, and why. In fact, McCallum’s prologue poem, “Little Soul” after Hadrian, opens the possibilities of memory’s role in, or lack of, influence. 

Little soul—kind, wandering—
body’s host and guest,
look how you’ve lowered yourself,
moving in a word of ice,
washed of color.  My girl, 
what compelled you once
is no more. 
Such a small, unassuming poem, and yet there it is: How are our lives shaped by memory, “what compelled you once”? Which begs of Madwoman, what role has memory played in your development? These questions will not be answered in this book. No neat little strings. McCallum doesn’t try to tell us what the meaning of her life is, what the meaning of our lives are, woman or man, madwoman or sane. And she reinforces this in the book’s second poem,“Memory” (quoted in full): 

I bruise the way the most secreted,most tender part of a thigh exposedpurples then blues.  No spit-shine shoes,I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet.Wherever you go, know I’m the windaccosting the trees, the howling nightof your sea.  Try to leave me, I’ll pin you between a rock and a hard place; will hunt you,even as you erase your trackswith the tail ends of your skirt.  You thinkI’m gristle, begging to be chewed?No, my love: I’m bone.  Rather: the sound
bone makes when it snaps.  That ditty
lingering in you, like ruin. (5)

Nothing sentimental here, no, rather bruises, dirt, howling, bone and ruin that linger. At best, the truth will confront: “Friends,/do you remember when we were young?/Life plump with promise and dreams?/Me neither” (41). Memories can “become unbearable” (12). But answer our life’s questions?  One voice asks midway through “Madwoman Apocrypha,” “Shouldn’t the death of ten thousand matter/more to you than that of just one person?” and another answers, “Yes. But I’m afraid grief isn’t math” (75). “Insomnia” speaks: “Dear one, why do you assume/there are lessons?” (64).

Yet even in the grittiness of life, McCallum gives us some beauty and innocence, but not much. “How else chart/a course than the way a child//plucks flowers from a field—/the eye compelling the hand to reach” (11). Even “Death” waxes poetic, if absolute: “…for I am in you/as the river is inside the stone”(56). 

In McCallum’s last poem, and the longest covering nine pages, “Madwoman Apocrypha,” several voices are speaking at once. Interlaced are those who will question and those who will tell Madwoman something, each with his/her own agenda. “Apocrypha” is a biblical term referring to texts of largely unknown authorship. When asked how this word defines the poem, McCallum responds: 

It speaks to it very well. But there’s another part of the definition of the word that is important to me to add to the mix. Apocryphal texts are those omitted from the ‘canon’ and are therefore not accepted as doctrine. Aspersions are often cast upon apocryphal narratives—due to their supposed lack of authenticity or truthfulness or sufficient evidence to back them up—in order to qualify and rationalize their exclusion. (“Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum”, interview by Alice James Books)

An excerpt from this poem is difficult to layout, the page is broader than the regular page, but let me try, in order to show these voices intertwining.   

          Q: Why do you make the past a fiction?
          A: Everything is a wager.

                                                                                              Duppy know who to frighten
                                                               I heard this as admonishment 
                                                                           when a child.  But now
I think she is, I will be,
                                                                                        we have always been
                                                                                                             the duppy we fear.

          Q: What do you mean “a wager”?
          A: I needed to enact a search, but something happened
          I didn’t mean to have happen. I’ve become
          a sifter and a counter of grains.  

                                                                                     When as a child I couldn't sleep,
                                                                                                  stroking my arm,
                                                            she would sit with me, repeating,  …

                                                            nursery rhymes, song, nothing making sense

  but her voice and the dark.

          A: I don’t know where she ends and I begin. (77)

This last answer, above, has no question before it. The poem attempts to imitate the many voices each of us may have to confront within ourselves, even when there are no easy reassurances. 

Madwoman may be semi-autobiographical (most poems are), but, certainly, it reflects those voices living on the margins of society, voices full of authenticity, truth and lived experience but which are often unheard. Shara McCallum reminds us they are worth hearing by bringing us into their complex world. Find her work and read. And so I give McCallum the last word.

Q: Why do you keep referring to this woman
in third person? She is you after all, isn’t she
A: I’ve come to believe all stories
are self referential. Or else none of them are. 

When comes the night of your unmaking? (78)

Melva Sue Priddy lives near Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband. In addition to reading and writing, she enjoys gardening, sewing, and grandmaw-ing. She holds an MFA from Spalding University and has published work recently with Still: the Journal, Friends Journal, Poet Lore, and LexPoMo.