by Francisco Aragon
this deserted stretch of beach this
And that slick border of sand
would make a slapping sound
were I to run
along the very edge
on my left
as I did after school those years
four of them,
striding to the Cliff House
and back: practice.
this shoreline—a kind of liquid lace
gathering at the corners
of your mouth
that Sunday you ran with me:
the starter’s pistol, mile 1,
off at mile 10…
—The San Francisco
Marathon I finished
at fifteen. Not
this ocean’s palette—muted, barely
green: a fringe of froth
along the top dissolving
into sky, half this canvas
—a kind of absence.
this human invention
—two of them—
wood, tightly woven
And if you were seated on the right, in the distance
and I in the one
on the left
in the foreground,
be facing each other
We might even
In 1998, after a ten-year residence in Spain, Francisco Aragón began a period of activity that included his own literary output, editing, translating, and curating. In 2003 he joined the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) at the University of Notre Dame, where he founded Letras Latinas, the ILS’ literary initiative. In 2010, he was awarded the Outstanding Latino/a Cultural Arts, Literary Arts and Publications Award by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, and in 2015 a VIDO Award by VIDA, Women in the Literary Arts. A CantoMundo Fellow and member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, Aragón is the author of Puerta del Sol (2005) and Glow of Our Sweat (2010) as well as editor of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (2007), these latter two winners of International Latino Book Awards. He teaches a course on Latino/a poetry at Notre Dame in the fall and directs Letras Latinas in Washington DC in the spring and summer. For more: franciscoaragon.net . "Unknown Distances" first appeared in Nepantla and was written as part of PINTURA:PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis.
We're excited to announce the first issue of a new online magazine of art and poetry: Decals of Desire. The founding editor is British artist and poet Rupert Mallin, and the poetry editor is British poet Martin Stannard, who lives and works in China (and who has been a guest here).
Martin Stannard used to edit joe soap’s canoe, a UK magazine that was the first in the UK to draw heavily upon the New York School, publishing among others Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Paul Violi, Charles North, and Tony Towle. One can expect a similar taste to show up in Decals of Desire.
The first issue demonstrates its commitment to both the visual and the written, and kicks off in stunning fashion by featuring 8 collages by John Ashbery, as well as a poem, and extracts from Ashbery’s 1968 essay on the avant-garde. Among other writers featured in the issue are Ron Padgett, Sharon Mesmer and Mark Halliday from the U.S., Ian Seed and Alan Baker from the UK, and Mairéad Byrne, who was born in Ireland, emigrated to the U.S., and now appears to be travelling…. But it’s not all “poetry”. There’s even a short play in there. Variety is almost all.
In terms of the visual arts, Decals of Desire will look back but also across to traditional, experimental and off-the-wall art forms today.
Featured in the first issue is the work of contemporary landscape painter Martin Laurance. Laurance’s work captures the crumbling English coastline through dramatic, captivating studies. The magazine also reviews The British Art Show touring exhibition – a show that claims to represent the “most dynamic” art produced in Britain today, but which probably doesn’t. There is sculpture, too: sculpture of the 20th century is often viewed in terms of form and mass. Decals of Desire outlines how sculptor Alberto Giacometti dealt primarily in scale and human distance.
Other articles include a sideways look at the Turner Prize 2016. Back in 1999 Tracy Emin turned the prize into prime time TV viewing but didn’t win. Will a female artist win this year? And whither the Avant-Garde? In this piece evidence of its existence and withering is found in contemporary dance and the ‘NO Manifesto.’ And in each issue an unusual artistic technique will be explored and the side streets of modern art history revisited.
Decals of Desire can be found at http://decalsofdesire.blogspot.com.
We're already looking forward to Issue 2, which will include a review of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy, an exploration of Catalan Contemporary Art, the Anglo-French Art Centre 1945-51 plus an abundance of poetry and regular columns – featured artists, Decals DIY and more.
Decals of Desire does not accept unsolicited manuscripts or poetry submissions.
More fantabulous answers by superb poets, including some scary responses... Part III of III... Find Part II here.
Question 9: List five events in your life that mattered to you during the writing of your book.
Max Ritvo: I read the book Ardor by Roberto Calasso, which is about the Indian Vedic tradition. This religious tradition encouraged its devotees to spend their entire lives in ritual dance to commune with the gods, to the extent there was no time left over to build permanent buildings of worship. Which feels to me like a life writing poems. The Vedas spent much of their time addressing the creation of the world and the fundamental ecstasy of desire. They do so using hallucinatory Freud-like myths in which a god has sex with his interior monologue, Speech, only to have the child rip out the womb of Speech itself and force it on his father's head as a turban so he may never impregnate such a potent womb again. This is all I could ever aspire to have my imagination create. It also is a religion that focuses around the guilt and complication of eating meat, and I am a vegetarian. So Ardor's blood runs strong through this book. Grazzi, Roberto! On a less literary note: I got dumped during cancer. I got married to the most wonderful woman in the world. My illness is now terminal. I am in great pain and on many drugs. All of these things made me feel very strong feelings, and so I wrote poems about them. Since my mentation has certain very idiosyncratic features, the poems cohered into a meaningful whole with kind of a narrative around them. And this, my friends, is Four Reincarnations!
Chris Santiago: Akita. I wrote the first draft of the long title poem as I was graduating from Oberlin and moving to Akita, Japan, to teach English. It was a relatively isolated part of the country, with even more snow than my home state of Minnesota. That experience of isolation— living in another language, one I could hardly read or understand—was a gift. It gave me solitude, distance, and perspective.
Manila. From Japan, I was able to backpack around Southeast Asia. At least a few poems came out of this, including “Photograph: Loggers at Kuala Tahan,” which is about getting drunk with some loggers we befriended in the Malaysian rainforest. I also traveled to the Philippines a few times. My uncle Flu put me up and showed me around. He took me on some adventures, introduced me to his network, and regaled me with stories, many of them harrowing.
Los Angeles. After Japan, I lived in LA for fifteen years and worked several odd jobs: I worked in a call center; I read scripts and rolled calls at Miramax; I was a substitute teacher in South LA and Long Beach, and a graveyard shift editor for a wire service. I also dealt with mild depression, and would go one or two years at a stretch without writing a poem. When I met my wife, Yuri, it was, as Karl Ove Knausgaard says about meeting his own wife, like day broke. After we had our first son, the poems started coming again.
Minneapolis. A few weeks after I defended my dissertation—which included an earlier draft of TULA, my mother died unexpectedly. Up until that point, it had been a season of joy: not only had I finished the program at USC, but I had gotten a job teaching literature & creative writing. The job was even back in my hometown, where my mother and father were still living when she died.
I was, of course, devastated. Part of me wanted to set the manuscript aside—it was hard for me to look at it. It became clear to me how much the poems had to do with my mother, how she tried to transmit our family’s history to me, through songs and stories. The fact that I never learned her language is the seed the book grew out of: I never learned it, but when I hear it spoken, it’s like a music and a home.
But my circle—from USC, from St. Thomas, from Kundiman—gently kept the pressure up. After Daniel Slager called me to say that A. Van Jordan had picked TULA for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize, I called Yuri and cried for a long time. I’m grateful that my mother was at least able to read a draft of the manuscript.
Megan Snyder-Camp: Falling in love with the Pacific Northwest coast and wondering about the origin of these bleak place names like “Dismal Nitch” and “Cape Disappointment.” The birth of my daughter. Sitting with writer, Native Studies scholar and enrolled member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe Elissa Washuta at a bar one night and her rattling off a long list of books I needed to read (she was right). My husband losing his job. Driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike with my dad, a trip we used to make all the time but hadn’t in many years. Encountering the term “ruin porn.”
Clint Smith: It’s impossible to disentangle the poems in this collection from the broader racial justice movement that stemmed from the death of Trayvon Martin, and later Michael Brown. These poems are shaped by and responding to the political moment from which they are birthed. These poems are also deeply informed by my work both a teacher and researcher in prisons over the past two years. I teach creative writing at a state prison in Massachusetts and in my doctoral program, I am being trained as a sociologist focusing on the relationship between prisons and education. My proximity to both the people I worked with in the prison as well as an extensive engagement with the social and historical literature outlining how the prison system came to be very much inform my political, and inevitably artistic, commitments.
Tony Trigilio: The Boston Marathon Bombing. Boston, where I lived for ten years before moving to Chicago, already was a big part of the book. The Marathon bombing occurred very early in the composition process, while I was only a few pages into the manuscript. This is a violent book at times, and it has to be, because it documents the politically turbulent year, 1968, when these Dark Shadows episodes first aired, and the painful world we’re living in now. The Marathon bombing is the book’s first violent act. Even when I wasn’t directly writing about Boston, the bombing shadowed just about everything as I wrote the first section of the book.
Gun violence in Chicago. I’ve lived in major urban areas for almost three decades, and I’ve never seen anything like this. The body count we experience every day is heart-wrenching and infuriating. The episodes I watched for this book originally were broadcast in 1968, and I imagined the book would document the global violence of that year (all but ignored in the show’s fictional, soap-escapist seaport town of Collinsport). I just didn’t anticipate how violent my own city, and at times my own neighborhood, would become as I wrote the book.
Posted by Alan Michael Parker on October 03, 2016 at 12:35 PM in Art, Auden, Book Recommendations, Book Stores, Collaborations, Feature, Guest Bloggers, Interviews, Latina/o Poets, Movies, Music, Overheard, Photographs, Poems, Poetry Forums, Poetry Readings, Poetry Society of America, Poets House, Science, Translation | Permalink | Comments (0)
In June, 2016, Terrance Hayes visited Florida to read and teach in the University of Tampa low-residency M.F.A. program. In the course of his presentation, he made a comment about syntax and sound that struck me as important, and worth exploring. Despite our both being distracted by the seventh game of the N.B.A. Finals later that evening—a game to ruin any Davidson College professor’s mood—we agreed to correspond via email, and this conversation ensued.
Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry, including How To Be Drawn in 2015. His honors include a 2010 National Book Award, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship and a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry. His website is terrancehayes.com.
AMP: Welcome to the non-place of email. Let's dive in, over our heads.... If I understood correctly, sometime in your artisitic development, you began to associate the extension of syntax with the production of a different kind of music within the poem. Is that an identifiable moment? Would you care to elaborate?
TH: I was drawn to syntax early in my reading life. It was the feeling something beyond words was being communicated in the bones of poems. Certainly that was my experience of Keats’ “To Autumn”— specially that first stanza. When I first read it in college, I didn’t associate its power (mellow, carnal oozing power) with the fact it was a single over brimming sentence:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
The same feeling came in certain passages of prose. I remember a college professor beginning to sob as he read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes in Ulysses. It’s one of the longest sentences in the English language (4391 words according to Wikipedia). I must have associated the sentence’s breathless charge with his emotional reaction. There were no periods—he couldn’t take a breath to collect himself. I’m still trying to create that sense of charge and “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in my work.
AMP: I love your description of the “o’er-brimm’d”: that’s a great ambition. In that passage, Keats also holds it together contrapuntally, via end-rhyme and those almost-parallel caesuras in lines 7-9, which lead us to read backwards into memory as we move forward in the sentence. Is that something you do too? Or, rather, what’s your way of managing the length and breath of such a charged sentence?
TH: I see “contrapuntal” and “caesuras” and get a tad nervous. Especially when thinking about my early drafts of a poem. I mostly follow something closer to what Frost called “the sound of sense”:
“Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.”
I am trying to find the sense in a sentence: its sense of rhythm, its sense of verbs and nouns, its sense of thought and sound. I work in units of sentences as often as I work in units of line and image.
AMP: Cool, those connections that you draw between a sentence’s musical properties and its meanings....
“Rhythm” is a term that I tend to fudge when I’m discussing sound and sense; it’s such a difficult concept. Maybe I can ask you to consider an example from Frost, and talk a little more about rhythm.
In “West-Running Brook,” Frost observes of the water:
It has this throwing backward on itself
So that the fall of most of it is always
Raising a little, sending up a little.
I think that one way to read these lines is as a discussion of rhythm, the riffles in the water “contraries,” as Frost calls them elsewhere in the poem. Would such a metaphor be consistent with your use of “rhythm”? Or are you thinking of the rhythm of a sentence in another way? Could you elaborate upon your use of the term?
TH: The word “rhythm" is fluid. Sometimes I’m thinking about varying the length and speed of a sentence. As in the first poem in my collection Wind In A Box. (Is it self-important to refer to one my own poems?) That’s sort of an exercise in staccato sentences. And in the ways punctuation impact a sentence. A series of periods, some slashes, a dash:
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the carpet—. This cry. This mud.
But most times I’m thinking of rhythm as a kind of pattern. As in the ways subordinate clauses and repetition can expand a sentence. Especially the way lists can expand a sentence. The catalogues of Whitman and his Beat progeny, for example. Ginsberg spins wildly creating a fog of image that first long, elastic sentence of “Howl.” That first sentence is one of the most technically dazzling dimensions of “Howl.” I don’t know if that answers your question. I agree rhythm is a difficult concept. Because it is such a personal/intuitive concept.
AMP: Now that we’re talking about sentences in your work expressly, I’d love to hear you comment upon one or more of the poems in your latest book, How To Be Drawn. In light of this conversation, I’m especially interested in the formal play in “Who Are The Tribes," the “Portrait of Etheridge Knight…," and “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh”—all of which use words inside boxes and/or charts. Care to dig in a bit?
TH: The notion of “formal play” is on the mark. What it suggests is I’m just playing—or trying to play outside my given tendencies. Since sentences are my default inclination, the poems you mentioned are instances of trying something different. Of trying to shift my focus. They are genuine, intimate experiments. Meaning I don’t see them as natural extensions of the sentence. Though you’ll find maybe some syntactical play, the attention is given to form. Not that I’m Jordan—I’m no Jordan, but it’s akin to asking Jordan the relationship between his dunks and his work on his jumper or his defense. He was, when he developed his jumper and defensive prowess, only trying to broaden his skills…
AMP: So what’s next, in terms of formal play? Is there a kind of poem you’re working on, that you haven’t been able to write?
TH: Great question. I’m mostly/usually concerned with the last poem and the next poem. The last poem was accompanied with drawings. The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape. The poems of late have been pretty long. The poem before the last poem was over 1200 words. So I’ve been trying to work my way back to compression via sonnets lately. But I don’t know. I don’t mind not knowing.
AMP: I’m going to highlight a phrase from your latest excellent response, and take the conversation in a slightly different direction.
You write, “The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape.” Do you think this is true—that phrases, or scraps, or oddments, are “waiting to find a shape”? Maybe the shape is yours, and you have certain shapes internalized that wait for the scraps you collect by writing? Or… maybe there are shapes waiting to find scraps… in the culture? Care to comment?
TH: Yes, I mean scraps waiting to find a shape. As in what I suspect happens in quilt making. I’m just gathering bright bits of thoughts and conversations, imagery in my notebook. Waiting to stitch/thread something compelling together. Usually the brightest bit becomes the poem’s heart, its engine.
AMP: You mention your notebook. Could you talk a bit about how your process might elucidate the quest for “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in the syntax? How do you handle, literally, the writing, so as to facilitate in the composition process the ambitions you identified earlier?
TH: I have to talk about basketball again here. I can’t say I’m handling the writing so much as continuously practicing with it. I am trying to broaden my facility with it. I am practicing form, of course, but I am also practicing thinking and feeling. It’s all practice. That’s what Thelonius Monk says. For me, poetry is all practice. Occasionally practice pauses for a game—which is to say, some of my poems get published— but my habit is practice. I’m practicing to sustain my strengths while strengthening my weaknesses. I like a long sentence, for example. So I have to push myself towards new challenges with long sentences. One of my challenges/experiments in How to Be Drawn was to push myself into longer poems. These days I’m trying to work my way back to the sonnet. It all takes practice. One can fail in practice. One can experiment and scrimmage. There is intimacy and measure. Practice is a laboratory, a workhouse, a habit. For me, poetry is the practice of language. —June-September, 2016
During my hiatus, I worked diligently to figure out what “bad poetry” meant to me, and once I become empowered to disappoint, how I could appall myself in a poem. I felt vicious, intemperate, outrageous, sleazy, hysterical, cantankerous, willful. I made poems with unconscionable and irrelevant leaps, poems with overblown abstractions heaped upon abstractions (who will ever forget “the turpitude of forgiveness”?), poems with speakers pronouncing upon every character in sight (because “I” always knows so much better than her or his family), poems with social toxicities heightened further by specious speechifying. I made poems that clanked and thumped, beset by sneaker-in-the-dryer iambs, and conversely, poems that used non-metrical speech oblivious to all considerations of sound, the kinds of poems that deserve to be chopped up, but are too often just divided into lines and called free verse. I made poems that ended four times without beginning once, poems that left out crucial details, poems with no details. I made poems that suffered from gender whiplash, empathy deficit, emotional aphasia, and narrative ataxia. I hated every line I wrote (who will ever forget “the hounds of my heartbeat”?), and wanted nothing more than to ball up each of my poems and drown them in a bucket of my crocodile tears.
And I read appalling poems, too. I searched for well-known poets I thought over-rated, bought a book by each, scoured the Amazon algorithms for like-minded horrors, and read on, McDuff. Bruising poems that attempted to meld unethical politics and self-righteousness, those bedmates always stealing the too-small blanket. Vapid poems that combine cosmetically, in the name of originality, unrelated subjects—as Lear says, “two pernicious daughters join'd” (King Lear, 3:2:22). I drank each drop of the soured milk in my summer’s failing fridge.
I crawled inside the zeitgeist and curled into a ball. Oh, the ekphrasis! Oh, the Self as our One Hero! I read fourteen ekphrastic poems on the Dutch Masters by fourteen poets, and forty-seven ekphrastic poems on Frida Kahlo by forty-one poets. (Where goeth Van Gogh? Where fleeth O’Keefe?) I read eighty-eight poems in which the last two lines begin with “I...,” after not using the first-person throughout the whole poem (“Sudden I Syndrome”). I read forty-three poems that begin at dawn or at dusk, but only three that begin after lunch. I read an even two-dozen poems that are centered by Microsoft Word because the software can. I read sixteen poems that mention breasts in the first four lines metonymically. I read—and I believe this is a coincidence, but I cannot be sure—five poems in the month of May about pets running away, poems in which I began to cheer for the pets, “Run, Sparky, Run! Run from the horrid poem....” (I wondered if the pets running away in May had anything to do with April being National Poetry Month.) In one of these poems, the narrator promises to ‘whup’ the dog beater, but doesn’t, because the dog beater turns out to be an elected official: that poem ends with the line, “and this is an allegory, people.” I read thirty-one poems with “Why” in the title, twenty of which also have “Why” in the last line. In the moment, out of time, and bad poem mad, I read so many bad poems I couldn’t tell where the poems ended and my emotions began.
I began to believe there was sand in my mouth, Jell-O in my shoes. I felt as though I had done a Morgan Spurlock, and super-sized all of the awful poetry I could consume. The lines were too salty, my glass of metaphors too fatty: I was threatening my psyche with The Poetry Arteriosclerosis.
After two months of the most god-awful poetry, I became mean to those around me. I kicked my bicycle whenever the chain fell off; standing on the sidewalk, I kicked and kicked. One time, I was so mad at how my own new poem ended, I drove my car straight onto a restaurant’s lawn, and insisted to the policewoman that I receive a moving violation. I felt as though I had enlisted in a poetry assassination squad, a private cohort of beauty slayers, and my code name had become Buzz Kill.
But nevertheless, all the while, keeping a working notebook in which I recorded my abjection, I began to clarify what had ruined my work too often, and especially the kinds of go-to conventions of free verse I had inherited, and learned to teach.
And then I stopped, the alarm went off, and adorned with my obsessions once again, though a little more sure of my weaknesses, I began to write what I hoped might be “good” poetry.
My poems had changed: my poems had become zanier, woofier, airier, less subject to fad-ism, more emotionally unpredictable, both sadder and happier, less touristic, more polyphonic, more intuitive. I had become skeptical of the comma and the period—I, a badge-wielding member of the Punctuation Police. My poems had learned to bang around in the inexplicable, and I had learned to trust how the darkness felt.
And now I’ll tell the story backwards, at least partially. Here’s a passage that might help explain my initial motivation, aside from the endorphins of the self-flagellant. In “The Use of Theory,” an essay first developed in 1955 and revised again in 1963, French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet writes:
"There is no question, as we have seen, of establishing a theory, a pre-existing mold into which to pour the books of the future. Each novelist, each novel must invent its own form. No recipe can replace this continual reflection. The book makes its own rules for itself, and for itself alone. Indeed the movement of its style must often lead to jeopardizing them, breaking them, even exploding them. Far from respecting certain immutable forms, each new book tends to constitute the laws of its functioning at the same time that it produces their destruction." (Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction; Northwestern U Press, 1989; trans. Richard Howard)
Substituting the word “poem” for the word “novel” here, and thinking about the unrecognizability of “each new book” to the readers of the moment, I am interested in the notion that a poem “makes its own rules for itself, and for itself alone.” Even within received forms, isn’t this what happens, the work of art becomes a combo of promises kept and un-, the poem a linguistic and prosodic entity predicated upon the appearance of constant reinvention? Consider, in this context, the opening of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet V”: “I am a little world made cunningly / of elements....” I believe that Donne is talking about the poem itself here, and the behaviors within the poem consistent with specific physical constants and the text’s idiosyncratic rules of gravity.
But somewhere between reinvention, promises kept and dashed, and style, I had suffocated in my old little world, in my AMP-ocentrism. It’s a struggle, I think, to act upon a mature vision without parodying whatever artistic progress one has ostensibly made. A mature vision may yet generate a single (and singular) poem: however, a mature vision that corresponds too easily and too readily to Robbe-Grillet’s notion of the “pre-existing molds” that yield to “immutable forms” – which I believe the mature artist invents for herself or himself – threatens subsequent works with the prospect of being paler imitations of art already done well.
In other words, if you’re in the box, it’s because you are the box. And the box might look pretty, but that’s because you made it.
I’m no Kenneth Goldsmith, and this is not a stump speech for the uncreative; I’m much more inclined to Cathy Park Hong’s understanding of the history of the avant-garde anyway. Nor am I arguing to write against one’s own talents, which I realize constitutes an extremely complicated idea packed into a gnomic truism. Nor am I saying the zeitgeist is only a prison. Instead, I’m trying to endorse a healthy skepticism of the familiar: lesser versions of our own best poems need to be preempted by continued experimentation.
When I wrote bad poems on purpose — and hold your tongues here, social media wags — informed by my reading of bad poems, I found myself filling in the silences and the spaces between the words. Appearances aside, I’ve never been a narrative poet: my poems often perform what I call “the attitude of narrative,” and present in narrative ways their lyricism without succumbing to story. Filling in the silences and spaces, for me, might have meant adding plot, undermining inference, dumbing down ambiguity — but really, what it means, and what I think may be the best individualized lesson I learned during my Season of Hell, is that sound by itself isn’t a sufficient poetic phenomenon until dynamically interpellated by white space and silence. Perhaps I’ve come upon a commonplace in music composition, and/or a truism implicit to my earlier work, but the idea seemed a newly articulated notion for me.
You might expect a rant in a piece I’m calling “Bad Poems,” as I detail all that is execrable in the art form today, and name the worst offenders. I’m not going to do that —in part because I have an allergy to negative campaigning, and it’s a bad year for vitriol, but also because I wrote horrifyingly bad poems myself, and now I know they’re in me.
Besides, I wouldn’t trust me. Whose opinions aren’t provisional anyway? What working artist could possibly believe in an idea beyond its utility in the studio? Although I want what I want from a poem, and I tend to teach what I want, my desires have proven fungible with age, disproven as I go. Moreover, I remain a man suspicious of what I call “managed aesthetics.”
I am often reminded of a moment in 1993 when I was adjuncting at Rutgers University, and moderating a forum at "Writers at Rutgers" with visiting Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. A persistent questioner insisted upon asking Milosz to share his “world view,” a mode of inquiry I couldn’t seem to countermand; the questioner was trying to pin down Milosz, to get the great poet to collate all of our truths for us.
Milosz was gracious — he raised a spectacular eyebrow and smiled at me; he could handle this one, his gesture said — and answered wryly: “A world view is a world order.” I feel that way about learned experience in poetry writing, about my “moves” and their power over my aesthetics, but bad poems have now helped me work toward unlearning such vanities.
Here’s Milosz reading on March 26, 1998. At the 8:35 mark, he reads one of his masterpieces, “The Day the World Ends,” first in English and then in Polish; that’s the wild, good Milosz poem for me.
Cartoons © Felicia van Bork, 2016
The comics of novelist and cartoonist Lydia Conklin bristle with wondrous unfillable silences, à la Samuel Beckett, and wacky pointedness worthy of Roz Chast. Conklin’s especially terrific at the stare-down. But it’s her timing most of all that I love, how funny she is... wait for it... and funnier yet.
Here is a comic from her Lesbian Cattle Dogs series, expressly commissioned for this blog.
Lydia Conklin is the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in fiction at Emory University. She has received a Pushcart Prize, work-study scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, the James Merrill House, the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Brush Creek, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Caldera, the Sitka Center, and Harvard University, among others, and grants and awards from the Astraea Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Alliance of Artists Communities, and the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, New Letters, The New Orleans Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. She has drawn graphic fiction for Gulf Coast, Drunken Boat, The Florida Review, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tags: cartoon, comic, comics, dogs, drawing, drawn, gesture, humor, ink, lesbian, personification, poem, poets, romantic, unsaid, wry
When offered a guest appearance on the Best American Poetry blog, I decided not only to write a couple of articles that I’ve been mulling over, but also to celebrate new books of poems coming out this fall. I put out a call via Facebook and Twitter, and had such a strong response I was made to choose among submissions. I did so: I read the galleys and selected eleven poets to interview. (And I apologize to those this feature could not accommodate.) So, on July 2, eleven poets received the following charge:
Please answer five of the questions below. Elaborate upon your replies—that is, please explain your thinking, and explore the examples you’re citing—and nonetheless limit each answer to a paragraph or two. Concise, substantive responses would be preferred.
One sad note: as many of you know, the poet Max Ritvo died this summer at the age of twenty-five. We are fortunate to have his poems, and also fortunate that even in his decline he was able to contribute sparkling responses to the interview questions. My condolences to his family and friends.
And in case you’re wondering, Eleven Questions for Eleven Poets took 143 emails.
Now the poets and their answers, a sampling of some of the brilliance we find in poetry today: Elizabeth Colen, Carolina Ebeid, Dana Levin, Max Ritvo, David Rivard, Chris Santiago, Lee Sharkey, Clint Smith, Megan Snyder-Camp, Tony Trigilio, Monica Youn.
Elizabeth J. Colen is most recently the author of What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems. Other books include poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition, and fiction collaboration Your Sick. She teaches at Western Washington University.
Carolina Ebeid is a the author of You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior (Noemi Press, Fall 2016). She is a student in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Denver, and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She has won fellowships and prizes from CantoMundo, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Stadler Center for Poetry, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work appears widely in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, and more recent work appears in Linebreak, Bennington Review, jubilat, and in the inaugural Ruth Stone House Reader.
Dana Levin's new book of poetry is Banana Palace, out this October from Copper Canyon Press. A grateful recipient of fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim, Whiting, and Rona Jaffe Foundations, Levin serves each fall as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. [Photo by Anne Staveley]
Max Ritvo (1990–2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. He was also the author of the chapbook AEONS, chosen by Jean Valentine to receive the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2014. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, and the Boston Review, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. His prose and interviews have appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, Divedapper, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
David Rivard’s most recent book, Standoff, was published by Graywolf in August. He is the author of five other books: Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Among Rivard’s awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, and the NEA, as well as two Shestack Prizes from American Poetry Review and the O.B. Hardison Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching. He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of New Hampshire, and lives in Cambridge. News & reviews of Standoff can be found at his website: www.davidrivard.net.
Chris Santiago is the author of TULA, winner of the 2016 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, selected by A. Van Jordan. His poems, fiction, and criticism have appeared in FIELD, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, and the Asian American Literary Review. He holds degrees in creative writing and music from Oberlin College and received his PhD in English from the University of Southern California. The recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, Santiago is also a percussionist and amateur jazz pianist. He teaches literature, sound culture, and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas. He lives in Minnesota.
Lee Sharkey’s Walking Backwards will appear momentarily from Tupelo Press. Her earlier collections comprise Calendars of Fire (Tupelo, 2013), A Darker, Sweeter String (Off the Grid, 2008), and eight other full-length poetry books and chapbooks. Her work has been published in Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse, FIELD, Kenyon Review, Nimrod, Pleiades, Seattle Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of the Abraham Sutzkever Centennial Translation Prize, the Maine Arts Commission’s Fellowship in Literary Arts, the RHINO Editor’s Prize, the Shadowgraph Poetry Prize, and Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. A lifelong writer, editor, and teacher, she leads a creative writing workshop for adults recovering from mental illness and serves as Senior Editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. [Photo by Al Bersbach]
Clint Smith is a writer and doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the National Science Foundation. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Guardian, Boston Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He is the author of Counting Descent (2016) and was born and raised in New Orleans. More of his work can be found at www.clintsmithiii.com. Counting Descent is available for purchase here.
Tony Trigilio’s most recent collection of poetry is Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2 (BlazeVOX [books], 2016). He is the editor of the chapbook Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney (Essay Press, 2016), a collection of interviews from his poetry podcast Radio Free Albion. His other books include, most recently, White Noise (Apostrophe Books, 2013), and, as editor, Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments (Ahsahta, 2014). He plays in the band Pet Theories and teaches poetry at Columbia College Chicago, where he is Interim Chair of the Creative Writing Department. [Photo by Kevin Nance]
Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre (Graywolf Press 2016), which is currently on the longlist for the 2016 National Book Award, Ignatz (Four Way Books 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Barter (Graywolf Press 2003). Her poems have been published in Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Lana Turner, The Paris Review, and The Best American Poetry. She currently teaches at Princeton University and in the Warren Wilson and Sarah Lawrence MFA programs. A former lawyer, she lives in New York.
Part I: Questions 1-5
Question 1: Which of these poems predicts your future?
Carolina Ebeid: The closing poem of the book “M, Marina” predicts a kind of future. In fact, the poem was supposed to be part of the next work. I decided to include it in You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior precisely because it didn't fit perfectly, to my mind. Therefore the book itself doesn’t actually feel shut. Rather, the poem acts as a leading to the next book. In formal ways, “M, Marina” also describes my present. It is written in serial form, made up of short, variegated pieces. While the poem centers around Marina Tsvetaeva, the serial poem is a form open enough to allow many observations into its orbit. Both this poem and “Veronicas of a Matador” function in the same way formally; much of the work I am writing presently relies on the same methods of seriality.
Dana Levin: “At the End of My Hours,” of course!
But seriously: I don’t think I’d ever survive civilization’s collapse. I’m over fifty, not in apocalypse-withstanding shape, and trained to teach poetry. My only hope would be to convince a rag-tag band of survivors that they needed a shaman bard crone woman.
Max Ritvo: All the ones that predict my imminent death due to Ewing's Sarcoma. I'm pretty sure they're hitting the nail on the head. And by "the head" I mean my head.
Lee Sharkey: Allow me to subvert the question to talk about a dream that led me on a journey. In the early summer of 2011 I woke in the middle of the night hearing the words “Tonight I am walking backwards”; I scribbled them in my journal before falling back to sleep. The sentence had the peculiar quality of utterance that has led me over the years to germinal poems, yet I had no idea what it might refer to. In a month I was to fly to Vilnius for an SLS seminar, an opportunity for me to explore the Jewish history and culture of a city that had witnessed both their heights and their depths, but I made no conscious connection between the trip and the image of walking backwards.
In Vilnius, I lived in the garret of an old building on one of the seven streets that had constituted the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Between 1941 and 1943, over 35,000 people were confined there; almost all would die at the hands of their captors, the majority by execution in the nearby killing fields of Ponar. I literally walked in their footsteps as I traveled the cobbled streets and as I climbed four flights of crumbling stairs to a room some number of them had crowded into and tried to sleep. By chance or fate I found myself “walking backwards” into the vexed history I claim as my inheritance. Night by night in that haunted room, in the company of the poetry of the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, I listened to the silence as the poem of walking backwards grew into “In the capital of a small republic.”
Clint Smith: It’s difficult to say which poem predicts my future, but I know which poem speaks to the future I hope to live in: No More Elegies Today. The book, as a whole, is exploring the marathon of cognitive dissonance with regard to coming of age as a young black man in America. How does one reconcile ever-present tension between belonging to a community and family that celebrates them, and a larger world that dehumanizes them? What I want, for all of us, is a world in which that tension no longer exists. A world where the violence dissipates and black children grow up with the humanity left uncompromised, a childhood not shaped by its relationship to violence. As a writer, I think, I have a responsibility to both reflect the world as it is and then imagine the world as it can be. The role of the art is to operate in that imaginative space, to push beyond the boundaries of what we see. The violence black people experience is a part of our reality, but it is not our only reality. We are and always have been more than that which kills us.
Question 2: What two moments in the volume, or two images from the poems, would you like your reader to remember?
As I mentioned yesterday, last June I drove over to Toronto, crossing Michigan’s upper peninsula and then driving south through a comparatively remote region of Ontario. I wanted to see an exhibit by artist Lilian Broca. I’d come across her work online and been intrigued by her interpretation of the stories of Queen Esther and Judith from the Bible. She creates large-scale mosaics, and they are stunning. The depth of color and quality of light in compositions of glass is different from paint, regardless of how saturated the color of the paint is. Even when the viewer can’t actually see through it, glass suggests translucence. Paint can suggest depth, but even when I’m looking at watercolors, I’m seldom as captivated by the light itself as I am when I look at objects made of glass.
Edward Hopper said that “Maybe I am not very human” because all he wanted to do was “paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Reading that quotation at an exhibit of Hopper’s drawings at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York a few years ago, I realized that visual artists are often trying to translate their response to the world into a particular medium, the way we writers experience a gut feeling during certain events or conversations, knowing that a poem awaits us, and our task is to translate our own responses into language.
What was most intriguing about Broca’s exhibit, after I recovered from my awe at the mosaics themselves, was that she included the initial drawings, the cartoons with the sightlines angled across the paper, beside painted versions of the drawings, and then the actual much larger mosaics. For someone as woefully uneducated in visual arts as I am, her revelation of her process was astonishing. If art conceals the artifice, Broca unconcealed hers. Yet the magic remained, for I sensed that the final version had hovered at the edge of her mind long before she committed pencil to paper, and that the drawings—these were finished drawings, not casual sketches—were an early stage of her translation of her vision into glass. The drawings were a middle step in the process of articulating her vision, just as writing down the words sometimes occurs well after a poet’s conception of the poem.
I’ve tried to talk to visual artists about the images in their minds that precede the images they create on paper or canvas or through clay or glass, but such conversations often lead more to bewilderment than to clarity. They feel the way writers feel, I suspect, when we’re asked where our ideas come from. Who knows why our attention is captured by one situation and not another? Artistic inspiration flees when it is actively sought; they arrive when we are receptive but not engaged in active pursuit.
I don’t exactly haunt art museums, but I enjoy them. I’m lucky now to work at a university whose art museum is only a few feet away from my office. Exhibits of drawings, paintings, photography, and now mosaics have substantially informed my own work. Poets have been inspired by other art for millennia, of course, and we can probably all name our favorites. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts" is among the most famous modern examples, and I learned a lot from his strategies there (as well as from Bruegel’s representation of the myth). Among my favorites are Stephen Dobyns’ Balthus Poems, and I own an anthology of poems inspired by Hopper’s paintings.
Museums are unusual spaces in that they almost relieve us of the limitations of space. Or they foreground different spatial limitations—the frame—so that the space where we literally stand recedes. Gazing at a painting of a forested path becomes the opposite of walking along a forested path. Both experiences inspire me and my work, but it’s often the museum more than the world beyond it that truly engages my imagination.
I've been very interested in the debate about the Donald Trump statues. Some find them offensive as fat-shaming, transphobic, or simply in bad taste. Others find them hilariously apt. I collected these 2-D caricatures from history because I wanted to pin down what it is about the DT statues that causes such a strong reaction, as opposed to other unflattering caricatures of him that are all over the media. Is it because it's a 3D statue, lifesize and lifelike, therefore commanding our attention in a way print does not? Is it because there are five of them? Is it because he's naked and his genitalia have also been caricatured? Certainly one could argue that some of these cartoons are in bad taste, exaggerating physical characteristics (Bush and Obama's ears; turning the jowly king of France into a fat piece of fruit; the obese, bug-eyed King Edward), but are we as offended by these? And does our feeling of being offended lessen when the subject is evil, such as Hermann Goering? (Also, does the fact that the Goering collages are considered masterpieces of Dadaist art change our feelings about the images?) Many of the cartoons of Trump portray him as overweight, distorted, and grotesque; the watercolor naked portrait of him that circulated on the internet did not elicit such a strong negative response in anti-Trump folks. (It did, however, result in the artist being punched in the face by a Trump supporter.) I'm not trying to criticize anyone - I'm just really curious at how and why we respond to this kind of political commentary in the ways we do.
"Trial of Napoleon Bonaparte," George Cruikshank 1813
"King Louis Phillipe," Charles Philipon 1831
"Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia" 1871
"Napoleon III and Kaiser Wilhelm I," 1871
"King Edward VII of Great Britain," 1905
"Hermann Goering," Hannah Hoch 1930s
"Herman Goering," John Heartfield 1933
"Shah of Iran," Wiaz 1977
"Ronald Reagan," Paul Conrad 1987
"George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac," 2000s
"Dick Cheney," 2006
"Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama" 1913
Of the many memorable poems about paintings and sculpture—“ekphrastic poems” is the technical but ugly term for them—my favorite is W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Named for the Brussels museum of fine art that Auden visited late in 1938, the poem begins with a stanza about two emblematic if generic paintings, one that depicts the birth of Christ (lines 5-8), the other depicting the crucifixion (lines 10-13)—the two most solemn moments in the Christian year:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
The poem’s opening statement is guaranteed to stop you in your tracks. To appreciate the artistry, imagine a more conventional way of saying the same thing: “The old masters were never wrong about suffering.” Though virtually identical in language, the sentence loses all its power. There may be no better demonstration of a crucial lesson in the rhetoric of verse: that word order—combined with the strategic pause at the end of the line—is crucial in arousing and sustaining the reader’s attention. Note, too, the staggered rhymes in the stanza, which approaches prose but turns back to verse at each line’s end. Not until line four of this 13-line stanza do we encounter the first rhyme, and the last word of line six does not meet its mate until the stanza’s end.
Heather Fowler is a poet, a librettist, a playwright, a fiction writer, an essayist, and a novelist. She is the author of the debut novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, forthcoming in May of 2016, and the story collections Suspended Heart (2009), People with Holes (2012), This Time, While We're Awake (2013), and Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness (2014). Fowler’s People with Holes was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans in 2015 as well as an MA in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University in 1997. Her collaborative poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale, was the winner of the 2013 TWIN ANTLERS PRIZE FOR COLLABORATIVE POETRY and released in December of 2014. Fowler has published stories and poems online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India, with her work appearing in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, and more, as well as having been nominated for the storySouth Million Writers Award, Sundress Publications Best of the Net, and Pushcart Prizes. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine.
KMD: I enjoyed reading your collaboration with Michelle Reale and Meg Tuite, Bare Bulbs Swinging. More specifically, I was fascinated by the book’s structure. Each of the three writers’ contributions to the text are clearly marked, and so too are collectively authored pieces. So much of the time, writers talk about minimizing the individual in collaborative manuscripts. Could you say more about what artistic autonomy makes possible within a project like this? How did you arrive at this structure for your collaboration, and what unique opportunities did it offer?
HF: The first thing that must be said is that when I see talented women leaning in to work together and am invited, I often shelve more solitary projects. I had already enjoyed collaborating with visual artists like Elisa Lazo de Valdez (Visioluxus) for a few hybrid texts for The Better Bombshell Project and would soon be working with artist Pablo Vision for my illustrated story collection Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness. When Meg and Michelle wrote me and asked to do a book of poems, they’d already been on my radar as writers I admired. The premise of working together began with: Could we write a collaborative book of poems—three talents trading off and amplifying the themes already present in each poet’s solitary work? It was never an effort to blend, always an effort to stand together and apart. The only poem in the whole book we wrote without designations of who wrote what was the first poem in the book, and we wrote that last.
Like that scene in a movie when you see a band of outlaws where each has her own distinctive personality traits, this project let us radiate as individuals as well as those joined in purpose. I loved the idea of that much estrogen gathered in strength, in camaraderie, in art. The structure of each poem taking off from where the last one ended, each poem carrying the author’s name, was done as a part of that alternation. We were uninterested in erasure, or the blending of voices—more so in having a poetic conversation between women. We worked from the premise of integrating published poems with new poems written to create the book. Unlike an anthology where work is simply reprinted together, this was interaction. I knew my poetics were invested in different formal structures than Meg’s and Michelle’s. I also know I couldn’t pass up the chance to enter the deep spell of making words carry ideas in imperfect but heartfelt harmonies. And then we won the contest. Our book became a testament to our friendship and openness, a visible public record, a poem book baby with many mothers.
Yet even had we not won, we’d still have come away with the joy of our close exchange, the memory. Kind of like the experience of building a boat with a few friends—the time spent fabricating the effort was as much about building relationships as creating the project.
But you’ve done some beautiful collaborations. Do you feel the same, where collaboration is artful play embraced for joint pleasures, almost regardless of outcome? I note you’ve also done work with visual artists in creating narratives, particularly I am thinking of Music for Another Life with Max Avi Kaplan. How did that come together? Were the poems first, or the photos first, or was the book made in a congress of building and gathering? How did Adelle come to be? I’m fascinated by persona projects.
KMD: You very eloquently described collaborative poetry as a visible public record of a conversation, and this is exactly how I imagined my work with Max Avi Kaplan on Music for Another Life. Max is a very talented visual artist, photographer, and costumer, and when the opportunity arose for us to work together on a book project, I was delighted. Max initially sent me a set of ten or so photographs, in which he had brought Adelle to life. He found a model, period costumes, and the perfect backdrop: New England in the fall, the foliage aflame. My task was to give voice to this character, whom I must credit Max for imagining nearly in her entirety. I wrote a poem in response to each photograph, and after that, Max crafted scenes and took photos in response to my text-based contributions.
In many ways, this is what’s great about collaborations. They give rise to shared imaginative space, in which anything becomes possible. When writing alone, I find that things are often completely different. So much of the time, writing becomes about achievement, about career advancement rather than spontaneity and play. I’m grateful to Max for restoring a sense of surprise and wonder to my artistic practice. We created a world together, which ultimately brought us closer as friends. In my experience, this is how collaboration almost always happens. I’ve never worked on a collaborative text that didn’t enrich my artistic practice in some way. After working with Carol Guess on our book, X Marks the Dress, I came to consider Carol one of the most inspiring mentors I’ve had in my writing career. And I recently finished a book-length collaboration with poet and editor John Gallaher, and I will say that I admire his work even more than when we first began working on the book. We initially started writing about landscape, but he showed me that this very specific idea contained the entire world.
With that in mind, I’d love to hear more from you about how collaboration relates to questions of community and literary citizenship, as well as your own artistic practice. How has this collaboration changed your friendship with these two writers? What has collaboration made possible within your thinking about literary community? Lastly, has collaboration changed or broadened the scope of your practice when writing single-author texts?
HF: There’s a solitude to writing that feels unmatched in some of the other creative disciplines. I think many of us are hungry for connection and relish the spark brought by interfacing with other people’s talents. After all, community and solid literary citizenship are created and amplified by collaborations, whether these be creative or promotional.
Every time an editor selects my work, the book, issue, or anthology in which it appears becomes a part of his or her professional record, just as I become part of the community interested in his/her affiliated projects. Every time I interview another writer, I feel I’m doing a good thing for literary citizenship by helping a peer get the word out. These networks grow—and every person touched by them enjoys a slightly larger community.
Regarding my own artistic practice, whenever I collaborate with one or more artists directly, there’s this magical thing that happens where I decide the world may be an artist’s candy store. I almost instantly want to take on ten more creative projects since the combinatory play of new themes or differing representations becomes irresistible. It really doesn’t matter whether I’m collaborating with visual artists, writers, or composers. Different people open different doors in the psyche. Encouragement from people in other creative realms creates new movement into unexpected genres:
Had I not met composer Jon Forshee, for example, I doubt I would now call myself a librettist, but he offered me the opportunity to convert a published story he’d read and loved from my fourth collection into an opera. I wrote the whole libretto in poems, in old French poetic forms. He then wrote music based on the libretto, so together we’ve now made performance art for the stage with a chamber opera called Blood, Hunger, Child. When the singers roam in, there’ll be yet another level of collaboration. And the director. And the set design folks. And, and, and… The collaboration of ideas and perceptions continues all the way out to the audience.
Regarding Meg and Michelle, I’d say our work on Bare Bulbs Swinging has only heightened the existing friendships since I’m still in direct communication with both on a fairly regular basis. We are still part of each other's support network. In fact, while I recently struggled with a painful professional setback this January, unbeknownst to Meg Tuite, I got an encouraging, surprise card from her in the mail one day that made my week, that essentially reinforced my desire to go on with literature.
Yes, it sits atop a jury duty summons. It’s trying to obliterate that summons from my line of sight—doing good work there. Anyway, my point about the card, or the loveliness of Meg, or about the ways that friendships and collaborations impact personal trajectories in the arts is this: It’s hard to be an artist alone, and the more creative relationships we begin and nurture, the more of a safety net we both receive from and provide for artistic others. As we speak, Michelle is waiting for the advance review copy of my spring 2016 novel release Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, which she’s graciously agreed to blurb.
With regards to how having collaborated impacts the scope of my practice when writing single-author texts, would it be too brassy to say I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a single-author text? Even when I write alone, I borrow. I draw style and theme ideas from those I’ve read before, seen before, heard before. I am a raven, stealing attractive, glimmering objects from those both dead and alive.
Speaking of which, you’ve just published a stunning experimental text called Women and Ghosts, at play with the themes and the work of William Shakespeare, where line-throughs, footnotes, multiple narrative lines, and alternating gradients of text are used to tell stories of female negations in both modern life and Shakespeare’s day. Did you ever fear using such a huge figure in literary canon to assert truths about gender roles? Was it daunting to subvert such a giant, particularly with strategies that visually eradicated passages of his texts and/or re-wrote them? How did you learn or first internalize the poetry of white space, the poetics of silence and silencing?
KMD: These are great questions. First, I wanted to say that I appreciate your observations about collaboration, particularly the ways that art isolates us, and we often crave connection and community with other practitioners. I believe that all texts are in essence collaborations, that the act of writing is not possible without a larger community. In many ways, every speech act is a collaborative endeavor, as voice is itself a social construct. And I would go so far as to say that consciousness itself is collaborative in nature, as we continually draw from a shared cultural imagination, even in our most solitary moments.
With that in mind, I saw the erasures in Women and Ghosts not as an adversarial gesture, but rather, as a collaboration with Shakespeare’s plays. There are many ways that erasure can function in relation to a source text. The erasure can serve as an excavation, a bringing to light forgotten or overlooked parts of a literary text. Additionally, erasure can redirect the focus of scholarly attention, prompting us to attend to something that might currently exist only at the periphery of our ongoing interpretive work. I definitely see Women and Ghosts as an excavation, a redirection, a reframing, rather than as a subversion of a literary giant. I had hoped to excavate these female characters’ voices, to give them agency and visibility that they did not have in the original text. While this is certainly an interventionist gesture, I don’t see it as an adversarial one, as the possibility of voice and agency was merely buried in the work, overshadowed by so many other words.
I did have a tremendous amount of anxiety about the project, though. I worried most of all about the erasures that incorporated text from female characters, as I was concerned that they would seem like just another silencing. This was not my intention, as I hoped they would read as a coaxing out of voice, an exhuming of the most provocative and subversive of these female characters’ observations about power, violence, and the world around them. I first internalized the poetics of white space when I myself felt silenced. I cannot count on two hands the number of times my poems have been erased, defaced, or otherwise marked up by an individual in a position of privilege. This is not due to the lack of examples, but rather, it is due to the limitations of human anatomy. The poetics of white space, of silence, became way of representing my own experience in a way that felt emotionally true, more so than words ever could.
Which brings me to my next question. How do your beliefs about community, literary citizenship, and collaboration inform your work as an editor and curator? How is this different from their manifestations in your own creative work? What holds true across your work as an editor, curator, and practitioner?
HF: I love what you did with that book. Women and Ghosts definitely made me reflect on the horror of what happens when women’s stories are viewed as less than primary, or fall beneath the radar. Exhume is a perfect word for your work there—and that book is so important in that respect.
Related to literary citizenship and community (and the topic of female visibility itself), I think not just of curatorial and editorial work, but also the role of reviews in women’s careers. I hear fewer men will choose women’s titles for reviewing assignments at larger review venues. Many of the visible female figures in the field don’t review due to multiple stressors on their schedules, so you have these beautiful books that no one sees or hears about. Reduced audiences. Less impact. Fewer award considerations.
Due to this, I have enormous respect for reviewers of both genders who read and spread the word about books making key statements on gender and power, particularly those by female-identified authors. In fact, when I make choices about what to pursue in that arena of literary service, I often think of a 2013 interview between Margaret Atwood and Gina Frangello at The Rumpus where Atwood discusses, in a very real way, why women’s literary books have different visibility—and why women’s power politics have different investments. Atwood says, “Well, let me ask you this question: you’re a female writer, you put a lot of time into writing your book—and you also have a family. Then somebody asks you to write a review…” Read closely into the subtext of that. I live it. For every review I choose to write, as a single parent who works full-time, I accept choosing away from using my limited free time on my own work. For every hour I spend editing or curating, I sustain a chosen hit for the sake of contributing to the community I care about, but it all comes down to what each person thinks is important enough for which to make sacrifices. I pretty much only write full reviews for women, for this very reason. Because Atwood struck an undeniable chord. Because she's right: Often, there are demands on my time that make doing that service extra arduous or less desireable.
But here’s a theory: If powerful, visible women don’t give back to their community for the sake of creating more balanced representation, in a sense, they have the same power card as visible male authors to change the literary landscape, to be more inclusive of talented women authors, but they aren’t using it. And what good is a power card you won’t play?
I can tell you quite honestly, my work as an editor or curator has one purpose: To promote the voices of people I think are talented. As Poetry Editor for Corium Magazine, I’m looking for work that lights me up and I’m hoping to select content for issues with a balance in gender counts. I don’t care in the slightest about what’s in vogue. I don’t solicit a lot of the journal’s content from known quantities—or even read cover letters. “Does the work speak to me?” is my first question. My second line of thinking is regarding whether I have enough diversity and female representation in each issue. I know the Editor in Chief at Corium, Lauren Becker, considers this issue for fiction selected as well.
Conversely, my own creative work isn’t service to the literary community or citizenship—it’s pure artistic release. Every bit of my endeavor in that realm is hedonism, is play, is channel.
You’ve written so many books, over twenty collections of poetry and hybrid prose; you’ve also had an active role in helping other women. What are your clearest thoughts on how to view the significance of reviews regarding the reception of published books? What costly investments of your time have you felt most rewarding in terms of community support?
KMD: First of all, thank you for the kind words about my book. And the role of reviews in women’s careers is such a great question. I admire your commitment to reviews as a form of literary activism, and my approach is somewhat similar. Within my own practice as a critic, I try to shine light on works that may have been overlooked, and so much of the time, this is because the work doesn’t fit neatly within the frameworks we have for understanding genre. The categories we have (Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, Criticism, etc.) are steeped in gender politics, and more often than not, it’s women who write across, beyond and in spite of these genre boundaries. Yet at the same time, the categories we use to frame literature become a way of silencing innovative women. After all, the channels of distribution are predicated on these simplistic categories, and this makes it even more difficult for hybrid texts, texts that interrogate the power structures at play in our understanding of genre, to reach an appreciative audience. For these reasons, I tend to focus my attention as a critic on hybrid work. This is a way of evening out the playing field, as you so eloquently mentioned when describing your own practice.
You are absolutely right that reviews are a costly investment in terms of time. Yet I’ve made great friends and even met mentors and collaborators as a result of my critical work. For example, I reviewed Carol Guess’s Tinderbox Lawn, and after reaching out to her and doing a book trade, we wrote two books together: X Marks the Dress and Instructions for Staging. I now consider Carol to be one of the best mentors I’ve ever had. She has been extremely generous sharing her experience and expertise, and for that I’m so grateful. And I might never have connected with her if it weren’t for reviews. Poetry criticism has been a great way of expanding my consciousness as an artist, and my ability to appreciate work much different from my own, but more than anything, it has expanded my community. What I love about doing reviews is that they excite people about poetry and help them make connections across geographic and artistic boundaries.
Another aspect of reviews and criticism that I’ve found incredibly meaningful is a recent experiment in lyric criticism. I’ve been working on lyric responses to the work of writers I admire, and what I love about this form is that allows me to examine perhaps two or three different texts at a time. The books become a point of entry to larger questions about the boundaries between self and other, subject and object, viewer and viewed. There is also tremendous room for creativity within lyric criticism. I love being able to use the artistic resources of poetry to build intricate theoretical and scholarly arguments. More than anything, though, lyric criticism has helped me to refine my thinking about issues that are important to me (for example, collaborations, voice, alterity…) while also connecting these ideas to my own creative practice.
Which leads me to my next question. How does your work as a critic shape, inform, and expand what is possible within your creative work? When reviewing, how do you negotiate work that is much different from your own? What is the most unexpected thing you’ve learned about yourself as a creative practitioner while reviewing?
HF: I think the best response to your question involves learning to slow down, sitting in front of a text and examining what it does that works—or doesn’t. When I first started teaching literature decades ago in Northern California, I realize I selected texts for my syllabi primarily due to “loving them” as a reader. But when you have to teach something you love, “loving it” alone isn’t enough: How to translate personal taste into a discussion of craft is the operative question. How to translate personal epiphanies into universal lessons in writing well. For me, there’s so much hybridity in texts that surprise or delight me, hybridity I integrate into my practice.
But to learn anything or teach anything, you have to slow down. You have to take the text on its terms and examine specific strategies and stylistic choices. I think it’s a given that the practitioner who spends hours writing a paper (or preparing a lesson plan) learns more about the heartbeat of a piece, its patterns, its predecessors, than someone who simply enjoys it and walks away: The one who studies and explores retains. There’s memory magic in close reading, deep study.
The same retention of style and substance occurs for me when I review books, and I negotiate work that’s different than my own with the delighted sense of an explorer. What can you teach me, is my underlying reason for my zooming in on a certain text. Charting new terrain also keeps my own work fresh and open to new influences, helps me to avoid a sort of stylistic stagnancy. I think the most unexpected thing I’ve learned about myself as an author when I do review work is that, with each work I study or delve, my own sense of what I do as an author, or am willing to do, has a chance to mutate. I’m always looking to try unusual tools that others use.
But reviewing itself is also a collaboration of the reviewer’s experience and the author’s aesthetic. I find it fascinating how many authors my work has been compared to, this stemming largely from the identified “good stuff” canon of each reviewer in my view. Do you agree? In prose reviews, I’ve been compared to Shirley Jackson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez in drag, heir to Angela Carter, Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka, and Haruki Murakami, among others. In terms of my poetry’s form and function, I often borrow influence from the imagery of Federico García Lorca, formal structure cues from Edna St. Vincent Millay, thematic quandaries from Shakespeare, and confessional life observation impulses from Sylvia Plath. I get a lot from Atwood, too. But ask me tomorrow and this list will change.
Something I’m curious to ask you in terms of collaborations, since we share enjoying doing them, is have you ever selected a collaborator to bring out specific underutilized aspects of your style or psyche? Sometimes I say, “If you want to meet your inner Wordsworth, you have to find your Plath to force that contrast,” and I feel like collaborations allow me to explore different kinds of energy so are often selected specifically to do so. Do you, too, play with the lightness and darkness of others when you make aesthetic choices about next projected projects or participants?
KMD: I loved your comment about book reviews as a form of collaboration. For me, what’s great about book reviews is that they push you to read, engage, and think through work that’s often very different from one’s own. Books that challenge, interrogate, and push one’s own aesthetic choices.
This is also one of the great benefits of collaboration. Most of the projects I’ve co-written (X Marks the Dress, which I worked on with Carol Guess, and most recently, GHOST/ LANDSCAPE, a collaboration with John Gallaher) were rewarding because I was working with someone whose style was different from my own. This is usually great because it creates different textures of language within the manuscript, but also, there’s tension between the various styles of writing and literary forms that populate the work. And it’s usually this tension that drives the manuscript, that entices the reader to read on.
For instance, when working on X Marks the Dress with Carol, we both brought very different strengths to the book project. Carol is an expert novelist with a gift for structuring a beautiful narrative arc. I tend to gravitate more toward lyrical language, and it was a joy to see how this lyricism could work with (and complicate) the narrative itself. Similarly, with GHOST / LANDSCAPE, John and I both brought very different strengths and interests to the collaboration. While my sections of the book were usually pastoral and fairly lyrical (with the occasional ghost), I was constantly amazed by the humor, strangeness, and wild juxtapositions in John’s work. In many ways, the different styles worked even better in dialogue than they would have in isolation.
For me, it’s open-mindedness, and a willingness to engage work that’s very different from one’s own, that keeps the spontaneity and playfulness of collaboration present when returning to one’s own creative practice. But it’s important to remember, too, that all of writing is collaborative, and each literary text is a deconstruction of all the writing that came before.
[My apologies – after a gruelling flight from London to Beijing yesterday (a journey I’d made in the opposite direction a few days before, coming home for a dear friend’s wedding), I found myself feeling somewhat discombobulated by my ping ponging of time zones. And so I’m running a day behind (or ahead?) with these posts which, appropriately enough, have just acted out the very West-East transit they describe.]
At the turn of the twentieth century,
the monk appointed by himself caretaker
of the sacred rubbish was persuaded
by Aurel Stein that the explorer should be able
to load up his ponies and
‘Don’t miss me too much today’
two years later the cave was empty.
–Caleb Klaces, ‘The cave is woken up’
At the close of my second post, I left you with Li Bai’s famous poem, ‘The Moon at the Fortified Pass’, which imagines how the wind which beats at the battlements of the Yumen Pass in Gansu has already scoured a thousand miles of desert before it reaches that point. The elements have eroded the four-feet deep ochre brick walls of today’s Yumen Pass to a dilapidated softness – as though destined to collapse back into the surrounding sands – which it can’t have possessed in Li Bai’s day, when it bristled with soldiers guarding China from westward hordes. Stretching away on either side of the pass are distant, marooned fragments of the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) Great Wall, now just a few feet high. Built from tamped earth and reeds in the absence of a resilient local stone, they are a thousand years older than the crenellated bulwarks of the Ming Dynasty wall tourists saunter along near Beijing. On the afternoon, two weeks ago now, we filed through the squat doorway that broaches the Yumen Gate, jostled by a stream of eager Chinese tourists, the air hung unbearably still – the desert’s oven-like expanse relieved by no wind. But when the wind does blow in that corridor of the Gobi, it blows from the West. In other words, the winds noted by Li Bai follow the same route across Central Asia from the Middle East as the eastbound caravans of 2000 years ago, which would have had to pass through that very juncture, where we were stood, on their way to Xi’an and other Chinese cities to trade in silk and precious goods.
We had originally planned to track further back along this stretch of the Silk Road, from Gansu on to Xinjiang province. Xinjiang, whose name means ‘new border’, is the furthest west of China’s provinces and also the largest – its vast reaches of desert account for almost 20 percent of the country’s total area. Despite a recent and growing influx of Han Chinese, its inhabitants are mostly members of the Uighur ethnic minority, whose Turkic descent and Islamic faith mean they have more in common with the peoples of Central Asia than the Chinese heartland. We were interested in the city of Turpan because of its importance as a stopover on the Silk Road, but modernity intruded (as it does) by way of a reminder that the troubles facing China’s western border regions in Li Bai’s poem are still very much a present concern. In July this year violence once again broke out in Turpan’s streets, partly in remembrance of the Xinjiang riots of July 2009, in which hundreds were killed. In an effort to quell the ethnic unrest, the central government cut off communications and the internet in an effort to stay the flow of information in and out. As July wore on, we scoured the internet back in England, noting the trickle of photos showing tanks and troop-bearing vehicles lining the roads, which had made it out via twitter and a few news outlets, pondering whether it might still be possible to go to Xinjiang. That is, until our domestic flight into Turpan was cancelled a few days before we were due to travel, barred along with all other routes in to the region. That decided that.
On the long drive from Dunhuang out to the Yumen Pass, we whisked by an ‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’. From the photo-heavy signage, it seemed to offer Han tourists, there for the Silk Road sites, the chance to stop by and watch specimens of the westernmost few of China’s famous ‘55 recognized minority peoples’ engage in traditional cultural activities, from dancing and sporting colourful costumes to playing typical instruments and carving folk handicrafts. We had already encountered something of this that morning, when we found the route out of our Dunhuang hotel’s front entrance flanked on both sides by twenty pretty local girls wearing elaborate jingling headdresses and skimpy turquoise bikini-and-harem-pant-type outfits. They all adopted wafty poses and smiled (no teeth) while a besuited tourist-trade delegation padded past them into the carpark. By the time we passed between their ranks a few minutes later, they had already gone slack, looking rather bored. Our driver said that you could see Mongols and Kazakh immigrants, among others, in the Dunhuang ‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’, but when I asked if there were any Uighurs inside, he was distracted by an overturned motorbike that had clearly skidded to the roadside some minutes earlier. After that, I didn’t have the heart to ask him again.
The main reason for making the trek to Dunhuang (which really is in the middle of nowhere) is to see the Mogao Caves. The Mogao area’s several hundred individual temple-grottoes, which are decorated from floor to ceiling with painted murals, have also earned it the name ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.’ Along with the material goods transported along the Silk Road, another foreign import to China that arrived along those continent-spanning routes was, of course, Buddhism. The Mogao Grottoes are not the only such painted caves in the region: various sites survive where monks and merchants, adopting the practice from Indian Buddhism, sponsored as an act of piety a cave to be cut out of the cliff face and painted with scenes brought to life from the written sutras.
What makes the Mogao site unique, however, is the sensational rediscovery in 1900 of its so-called ‘Library Cave’. A smallish cave (you can only peer in through a grille, as the guide’s torch wavers through the gloom), it had remained sealed for centuries, filled to the roof with thousands of manuscripts on paper, silk, hemp and bamboo, all hidden behind a carefully repainted wall. The manuscripts’ ‘discovery’ is usually credited to the British explorer Aurel Stein, who hearing rumours of their existence, rushed there to purchase thousands of the scrolls, shipping them back to the British Museum in London. But in fact it was a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu – he had arrived at the caves while wandering through a famine and appointed himself their caretaker, sweeping out the in-blown sand each night – who helped pull down the patch of wall another monk had noticed rung hollowly under his tapping pipe. Amongst the batch of manuscripts wending their slow way to London was a volume called The Diamond Sutra, which would later be identified as the oldest printed book ever found. It was the unfortunate Wang who presided over their sale to Stein and the succession of foreign collectors who arrived in his wake – a fact which continues to grate upon Chinese patriotic sensibilities, as was clear from the wire of emotion in our guide’s voice as she pointed her frail torch into the Library Cave’s hollow dark. Stein conducted the negotiations in broken Chinese and could not, in fact, read the scrolls he was acquiring.
...two years later the cave was empty.
The story of the Library Cave makes up one strand in a sequence called ‘16 Airs’ from the first collection, Bottled Air, of British poet Caleb Klaces. (Klaces might be known to American readers because of his role as curator of Like Starlings, an online space for collaboration between US and British poets, whose conversations often have a transatlantic flavour.) Bottled Air is a book of poems whose brilliance and variousness makes me regret the need to pick out here just one small tile from their mosaic. Describing the origins of these poems in an interview, Klaces stressed that he has never been to China. His imaginations of Mogao were mediated entirely through Aurel Stein’s journals and the other books on the subject he could find in the Texas university library where he went to work at the time. I find this so interesting – the question of what it means to summon a place in the mind solely from one’s read experience of it. The same thought occurred to me as I processed along the Mogao cliff-face, filing behind the other tourists to pass in and out of one cave after another, eyes dazzling in the desert sun after the accustomed gloom – Bottled Air in my rucksack all the way.
Klaces’ poem, ‘The cave is woken up’, opens by comparing ‘Waking cut into managable pieces / by the snooze button’ – its troughs and hikes of consciousness – to the lookout towers spaced along the Great Wall. Intercut with the narrative of Mogao’s rediscovery, the poem’s other overt subject is a long distance relationship – a Skype call (‘Don’t miss me too much today’) across the Atlantic between the speaker and a girlfriend who is ‘always finding secret caves / in metaphors’. Klaces’ oxymoron, ‘sacred rubbish’, in the passage from my epigraph, at once reveres and dismisses the Library Cave’s contents. It is entirely characteristic of the book, whose tone is at once laconic, flat, and intriguingly multilayered. Whose words are these? Is the colour we’re getting here (‘sacred rubbish’) an ironic insight of the speaker’s – voiced with a century’s distance from the colonial unconcern of the European collectors? Or does ‘sacred rubbish’ subtly focalise the thoughts of one of the historical figures in the poem? Aurel Stein, who purchases the trove for a mere four horseshoes of silver? Wang Yuanlu, who allows the treasures to leave China for a song? Or could it be the monks who sealed the cave a millennium before? Their motives are still not understood, but it is thought they closed off the cave either to protect its precious cargo from Muslim invaders riding from the West, or alternatively because the Library Cave’s contents were fragments, useless scraps of sutras, which were only stowed away because they couldn’t bring themselves to burn them.
So preciously vulnerable are the Mogao Caves that tourists cannot be trusted to wander them alone. You must join a tour, so that your guide can unlock the climate-controlling metal shutter doors (donated in the seventies, our guide said, by a rich Hong Kong businessman) and check the carbon dioxide detector dial just inside the lintel to see if excessive touristic breathing is today at risk of mouldering the frescoes to oblivion. Only then will she gesture for you to shuffle through the threshold. When Aurel Stein saw them, the caves’ cliff-face exterior had partially collapsed, leaving their precious statue-sentried vestibules exposed to the elements, with ladders the only means of communication between each hole. My husband Marc and I were part of the only English-language tour group that day, and found ourselves tagging along behind a modest busload of twenty or so middle-aged Israelis. (Even though his Hebrew no longer stretches much further than his Bar mitzvah portion, Marc takes a certain professional pleasure in identifying Israeli tourists when we happen upon them abroad.)
Our guide spoke rapid English straight into our earpieces, which startled because of its frequent invocation of a highly specialised theological and art historical vocabulary (Asparas, Bodhisattvas, lapis lazuli, oxidization), which sat strangely with her lack of basic fluency elsewhere. She would preface all of these choice terms by giving the word in Chinese, then would say, several times over, ‘Do you know...Bodhisattvas?’, or ‘Do you know...oxidization?’ The effect of her repeated ‘Do you know...’, ‘Do you know...’, was to make my idling mind begin to imagine that Oxidization, like the various members of the Buddhist pantheon, was a personified entity whose acquaintance one might hope to make. As it turned out, her strategy was an effective one, and no doubt learned from hard experience, because many of the Israelis hadn't met Oxidization. So there would follow a period of susurration in which the more fluent English speakers would try to translate for their companions what was going on. This pleasant Babel lingered especially long after the guide explained why so many of the seated Buddhas and other painted figures appear to have black skin: the lead white pigment, ground by the original craftsmen so many centuries ago, had oxidised on prolonged exposure to the air and gradually darkened to black.
I thought I knew what was coming when one lady finally asked the guide whether part of the Buddhist community of Mogao had come from Africa. Perhaps she had in the back of her mind the Ethiopian Jews famously evacuated to Israel in the ’70s and ’80s. In many ways it was a fair question, given the trans-continentally cosmopolitan variety of peoples who passed through Dunhuang on the Silk Road. Among the manuscripts in the Library Cave were discovered not only Buddhist scriptures, but writings in many different languages and from several different religions – Daoism, Manichaeism, even Nestorian Christianity. Several leaves of prayers written in Hebrew found in the Library Cave have allowed scholars to conclude that Jews were among the many groups who traded along the much-trodden road via Dunhuang. In fact, Marc and I had gone to seek out the still-surviving descendants of these Silk Road Jewish traders the summer before, when we took a detour from following the route through China of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Missionary, Matteo Ricci, to stop at the city of Kaifeng. Kaifeng lies right across the other side of the country from Dunhuang, at the Eastern end of the Silk Road – and was even the capital of China for a time. Ricci never visited Kaifeng himself, but in 1605 received an emissary from the head Rabbi of their small community – previously unknown to Europeans – who wanted to negotiate with him towards their conversion to Christianity. Otherwise, he feared the dying out of their non-Chinese traditions.
After many generations of intermarriage, the Kaifeng Jews looked Chinese in appearance, but still practised many customs (sometimes without quite remembering why), such as the avoidance of pork, which marked them out from the rest of the Chinese population. Searching the dusty alleys behind one of Kaifeng’s many mosques, we eventually stumbled upon ‘Teaching Torah Lane’. A lady about my age and who self-identified as Jewish, Guo Yan, welcomed us into a side room in the house she inherited from her grandparents, which happens to sit on the site of the synagogue built there in 1163 (the synagogue’s footprint is now largely covered by Kaifeng’s city Hospital no. 1). The room serves as makeshift shrine to the place’s Jewish past, its back wall bearing a painted scroll mapping the lost synagogue’s various courtyards – to my eye, its architecture of red wood columns surmounted by colourfully tiled roofs looked like a Chinese Buddhist temple. Guo Yan’s dream was to raise enough money to have the synagogue reconstructed, not as an active place of worship – she didn’t believe the government would allow that – but as a kind of garden-cum-museum with live demonstrations (‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’?) of the city’s Jewish past. We bought a leaflet from her for a few pounds. In 1851, European missionaries in Kaifeng purchased a Hebrew Torah scroll, one of the fifteen thought to have originated in the city – the remaining Jewish descendents were happy to sell it to the foreigners as no one could read it anymore. It now resides in London, in the British Library.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Mogao frescoes, oxidization aside, is the continuing brightness of their pigments – the intactness that came from being so long forgotten by the outside world. And so the examples of their deliberate defacement, when you come upon them, are all the more striking. In 1921 the Dunhuang local authorities were confronted with a flood of incoming Russian soldiers, fleeing the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. They decided to house them temporarily in the Mogao Caves:
The emigrants wrote their names all over the statue,
carved genitals into its mouth
and cut out its eyes. “The kind of shit people do
to find out where they are”
(Caleb Klaces, ‘Emigrants deface the caves’; you can read an earlier version of the poem, which differs only by a few words, online here)
In one of the caves we entered, decorated with thousands and thousands of two-inch high Buddhas, crosslegged in their painted niches (the pattern reminded me of English wallpaper), the Russian refugees had used their nails, or perhaps knives, to scratch out the faces of all of the tiny figures they could reach. Our guide explained that they were after the gold leaf that once shimmered over those thumbprint-sized visages. I wasn’t sure about this explanation; I wasn’t sure one could so confidently infer the motives of such iconoclasts. In my academic work as a scholar of Renaissance English literature, I’ve been interested for some time in the history of Reformation iconoclasm – the waves of destruction of Church art, in the 1530s and after, that followed on from England’s conversion to Protestantism. A host of little churches in Norfolk contain painted rood screens of Christian saints sporting exactly the same type of damage as the Buddhas in Dunhuang: whole faces, or sometimes just eyes, scratched out with a neatness of outline (like a kind of reverse colouring-in) that seems to belie the passion involved in such a destructive act. The paradox is, of course, that the iconoclasts seem to believe that the pattern of pigment on the panel before them holds forth an eye, a face, which could suffer hurt, even as they seek to demonstrate the image has no hold over them. Sacred rubbish.
The final stanza of Klaces’ last Mogao poem, ‘Emigrants deface the caves’, switches scene entirely, leaving behind the desert of Dunhuang for what I think must be the South American waterfall that starred in Werner Herzog’s 2004 film, The White Diamond:
Nobody had ever seen the cave behind the water.
“Please don’t show it in your film”,
requested the elder tribesman. “We would rather not pry
where the swifts go. It is their place,
The cave behind the water. Herzog’s water-veiled cave is that of Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls. But the segue here reminded me of the Water Curtain Cave (Shuǐlián Dòng) from the Chinese novel Journey to the West, the thought of whose secret space used to enthrall me as my mum read to my six-year-old self about the Monkey King’s early days, happy in the cave behind the waterfall. Journey to the West ultimately tells, of course, the legend of how the Buddhist Scriptures were brought eastward from India into China. In The White Diamond, Herzog puts his camera behind the sacred falls and watches the footage himself, but does not show it to the viewer:
But how could he not take a camera
through the falls, just once, to turn
on himself, to star in what wasn’t really there?
When the Jesuits arrived in China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they considered paintings of the Virgin and child to be among their most powerful tools in the quest for converts. (The Crucifixion – the execution of a lowly slave – seemed to go down less well with the Chinese audience.) But it wasn’t so much the content of the paintings as their style – endowed with all the ‘realism’ Western linear perspective and chiaroscuro could afford – in which they placed their faith. The technical devices of European painting demonstrated its clear superiority to the unshaded flatness and misshapenly proportioned figures the Jesuits saw in Chinese painting – and thus couldn’t help but capture the minds of Chinese converts with its awesome verisimilitude. And yet this idea of depth – of penetrating through the painted surface into the receding world of the work of art behind – is enshrined in the famous legend of the artist Wu Daozi. On finishing a spectacular mural for the emperor’s palace, the Tang dynasty painter clapped his hands and disappeared into a cave within his picture, whose mouth sealed itself behind him before the emperor could follow. Scratching away at the murals’ gilded surface, perhaps Mogao’s Russian guests were trying to emulate Wu Daozi – to open up a hole in the painted surface and follow him through.
–Sarah Howe (August 15, 2013)
The following is a starting point for anyone willing to understand the plight of immigrants in this country better. For anyone that is interested in our humanity. I believe that if everyone read these books, signed up for the authors'/websites' newsletters, friend-requested artists/writers, followed them on Instagram/tumbler/twitter; we would not have such a strong anti-immigrant sentiment in this country. I truly believe that when we begin to listen to each other, we understand each other. We understand why we do things, how we might help each other through them, and we begin to care about each other’s happiness.
The following is a list of first-hand accounts from immigrants, or accounts written by children of immigrants. It's important that we tell our own stories and that we read the stories from the mouths of immigrants.
And anything by Reyna Grande
Poetry of Resistance: Poets Responding to SB-1070 and Xenophobia, Francisco X. Alarcón, Odilia Galván Rodriguez
And a forthcoming undocumented anthology edited by Sonia Guiñansaca, look for it. Look for anything she does over at: http://soniaguinansaca.com/
Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza's Dignidad Rebelde Collective
And these helpful organizations:
Again, these are only the beginning in understanding the 12 million undocumented individuals in this country. Spread the word. Let's talk to each other via our art, writings, posts. Let's understand each other and treat each other with respect. Also feel free to add any other suggestions in the comment section. Thank you for reading.
On a visit to Shelter Island last summer, I discovered Black Cat Books, a treasure-trove of used books and a great place to get out of the midday sun. I’m looking forward to having to get out of the midday sun again! Browsing the shop, I found a Georgia O’Keefe catalogue from a show called Circling Around Abstraction. So satisfying: all those circles. But the real prize for me was the humbly bound 20 Poems by Tomas Tranströmer. Robert Bly translated the poems for The Seventies Press. The cover is rough brown paper, and I particularly love the only image, a man holding a lantern as he stands on a reindeer’s back. The blackness of the reindeer, the light of the lantern, and the human figure divided between light and dark seem perfect. It is Tranströmer’s first book published in English.
At times my life suddenly opens its eyes in the dark.
A feeling of masses of people pushing blindly
through the streets, excitedly, towards some miracle,
while I remain here and no one sees me.
It is like the child who falls asleep in terror
listening to the heavy thumps of his heart.
For a long, long time till morning puts its light
in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.
I am also taken with Bly’s commentary on the flyleaf. Bly writes, “It’s clear that in the head at any moment all sorts of consciousness are struggling to get to the head of the line, and so to the lips…Tranströmer in his poems always arranges things so that the spiritual consciousness slips through the gate the moment it is opened, and so gets in the poem first.” In “Kyrie” the description of a child’s night-fright is simple and vivid and circles back to the adult's existential fright in the first stanza.
In her book For Opening the Mouth of the Dead to be published by Lone Goose Press this year, Catherine Woodard often writes in the voice of a child studying Egypt in school and resorting to her fascination with the Book of the Dead to cope with her mummy-like father. The speaker finds a spirit guide in Ba, a winged creature with a child’s head that stays with an individual from birth on into the afterlife. She refers to Ba as Soul-Bird. Soul-Bird is sometimes a vehicle for reaching the speaker’s father.
SOUL WITH FACE AND FEATHERS
I stay in at recess
To take notes from
The Dead Book
With the same hairdos
And in dresses, men
And women look alike.
Stiff – hands out
As if to catch a ball
Or bat it away.
But not the little bird
With big wings
And a child’s head called
The mummy, Soul-Bird
Spreads a kite of feathers.
If Soul-Bird stands still,
In a royal cape.
In my second favorite
Picture, Soul-Bird hovers
Over the mummy
On a bed with lion feet,
A lion head and a lion tail.
Soul-Bird’s feet clutch
An eternity ring. A wing
Fans the mummy
To get its attention.
In my favorite, Soul-Bird
Slopes its wings to hug
The sleeping mummy.
Gently stands between
The mummy’s tummy
And the mummy’s heart.
Soul-Bird’s head wants
To slide down the slope, rest
Under the mummy’s chin.
In an excerpt of another Soul-Bird poem, we see the child speaker become a writer with Soul-Bird as muse, turning fears into written wishes:
SOUL-BIRD FLOATS SECRETS IN WATER AND AIR
Walking home, I stop on the metal bridge
Over the canal to look down at the weeds,
Pretend they are reeds and I am a scribe.
While she grades papers after school, Mrs. Long
Lets me play with the hieroglyph stamp set.
Soul-Bird helps me decide what to say.
The poem ends with the wishes released.
One-by-one, I uncrumple secrets
From the pocket of my navy sweater.
I rest the hieroglyphs on my open palm
For Soul-Bird to glide and guide them,
As my wishes lift into the pine trees or
Float downstream in the muddy water.
I sometimes have my students write about poems that pull us into nature’s web and/or reflect on our outsider status, using the section on nature in Czeslaw Milosz’s anthology, A Book of Luminous Things. Milosz suggests that this sense of the push-pull of consciousness is particularly American, although I’m not sure the poems he includes bear this out. Turning from the mythological world to the natural, Anna Catone’s poems often reflect the balancing act between belonging and not. Below is a poem about being in nature by Anna Catone, Poetry Editor of The Cortland Review that includes a blip of alienation and a release:
THE GREEN DRAKE HATCH
Slap of water, the ghost of a tail in the air.
Swish and pull. Our boat on the pond like a silent owl.
Night lays down the rounded mountains, the complete pines;
wraps the path back in its blackest pitch.
For a minute, I think all the fish in this pond
might lift our boat up and dump us in the feeding deep.
But you lift the slippery Brook Trout off my line—
a flash of its rose-lit spots in the moon
before it slides out of your hands, and the water rolls over.
What have I feared all this time?
The Green Drake nymphs surface. They molt, mate,
fall back into the pond—spent spinners. Their eggs sink to the bottom.
Bats sail over a rise, another rise.
The night is alive, and we are inside it.
A Hermit Thrush in the trees.
The steadfast thump of the frogs from the lilies.
Catone's poem "Fear of the Possible" in Boston Review is an incantation against letting the blip of fear take over.
I would like to thank Stacey Harwood-Lehman and The Best American Poetry blog for inviting me to be a guest blogger for the past five days. This blog became the winter vacation I wanted this year!
If you take a walk around out of doors and are attentive in Paris, you will see that lots of people seem to have dogs. Perhaps you might even have noticed myself au chien, tee-shirt, hoodie and skintight jeans, huddling against the elements. But probably not.
On the other hand, you would have noticed Karine.If you take a walk around out of doors and are attentive in Paris, you will see that lots of people seem to have dogs. Perhaps you might even have noticed myself au chien, tee-shirt, hoodie and skintight jeans, huddling against the elements. But probably not.
The reason for the distinction is simple. ‘Though thoroughly respectable, I do not look so. On the other hand, not so respectable as I feel myself, I fear, Karine looks good, even in skintight jeans.
In the superficial World we have been thrust into, mere physical attractiveness counts for more than solid moralism.
I’ve lodged many a complaint about this, but it hasn’t so far done any good.
So. Under the influence certain cartoons, you may imagine that these Parisian canines belonging mostly to good-looking women are also mostly a sort of poodle, caniches.
But, superficiality notwithstanding, the World, not yet being a cartoon (though, by Jesus, we can sometimes wonder) is also one still happily at a bit of a short remove from the popular Imagination. Keats and Coleridge, along with Warner-Disney-Spielberg Imaginatronismo, also notwithstanding, Imagination is a backwoodsman’s broom closet compared to the great sparkling constellation of World out there on the sidewalk, also notwithstanding Dogpoopismo, Trumpismo, Terrorismo & grouchy neighbors.
In the World these days, a caniche is usually either a canine companion of any race or a homo sapiens arse licker, both in the sense of “lapdog”.
As you can see in Maïtena Barret’s portrait of a Parisienne, your lapdog doesn’t even have to fit snugly in the lap.
And, if you are not faking your attentiveness, you might be able to see from Barret’s portrait of a Parisien that men can also have caniches, or, at least, if asked nicely, can take care of their lady friends’ canines.
Finally, as Madeleine Lemaire’s 19th-century portrait of Collette Dumas shows (above), poodles have never had an especially privileged place among the French capital’s Beau monde, at least in the Republican period.
Barrett paints her contemporaries with and without crocodiles, monkeys, and lapdogs. I sometimes think it all might come down to the same thing – my beloved peers being at the same time crocodiles, monkeys & lapdogs, I mean. However, I am sure that Barret’s clear, ocean-grey eyes see none of this dark cogitation. At least, her hands don’t paint it.
So that’s the World as it is; so much for cartoons and paltry Imagination.
As a fact, and quite apart from having had to walk one from time to time, the real-World caniche parisien has affected me, ‘though I did not acknowledge it as my personal savior. Nobody ever did notice me out there in the elements, either.
Karine’s caniche was not at all like the fat sort of schnauzer or mauser, whatever, clutched by Barret’s contemporary Parisienne. Au contraire, Karine’s animal de compagnie, let us call him “Woofie” was a little soft-furred, red-brown, pointy-nosed, pointy-eared yapper that would fit on my lap with room to spare, were it ever to stop trying to bite me.
Being in volume not more than a spongy, palpitating soccer ball, a Woofie yap is louder than a Mastiff’s bark. A Woofie yap is pitched so high that it reaches Yahweh’s ears. It may very well be for this reason that our Biblical Jove may seem more irascible of late.
Weighing not much more than a jar of foie gras, Woofie flung himself ferociously at all Karine’s male visitors, no matter the species. Except Karine’s husband. In this exception, Woofie committed an unforgivable error of appreciation.
Humping the leg of every female visitor, Woofie then compounded Karine’s consternation by frantically humping her leg anytime she isn’t actively defending it. Say, when she was walking someplace with a heavily-laden tray or in the middle of a most interesting conversation.
Finally and fatally, Woofie, like the father of her children, loved Karine beyond all reason & faith. Infinite was this female homo sapien’s disgust as her eyes so often crossed the loving, bright little eyes of the fragile and dependent Woofie, who, as Karine was trying to relax, stared long hours longingly up from the cold parquet.
Karine hated Woofie like poison.
Now, in the days of my youth, along old Chicahominy Crick, poisonous hatred like Karine’s would have early led to a fatal last hunting trip for Woofie. Between those times and this, however, Karine and I both discovered that we are animals too, like the rest, and that the rest deserve at least the consideration we give ourselves.
So, Karine could not murder or abandon Woofie à la Chicahominy Crick, or even give him away to whatever homo sapiens would vaguely promise an old rug in a damp garden. So it was that, at the sound of the rapid-shot patter of Woofie’s tiny claws skipping over the parquet, I had seen a champagne glass slip bonelessly from Karine’s otherwise firm grasp to shatter on the floor.
To navigate the World and problematics such as Woofie, Karine cultivates an air of Olympian calm that she calls “Zen.”
She tells me that Zen enables “a three-fold benefit”: 1) she can enjoy the strong feelings of a short-fused psychotic Elmira Gulch, Wicked Witch of the West, without flying too much out of control; 2) impress her friends and neighbors with her moral strength and 3) congratulate herself on the excellence of her understanding and virtue.
She also has an exquisitely stressful profession that requires a steady nerves and a beady eye. Zen must work for her since ‘though her mouth does tighten & whiten, I have never seen her hand tremble.
At the same time, she says, Zen is an exercise in a shout of “Sat Nam” – “Your essence is truth.”
There are limits to what even Zen can absorb. And her experience shows, Karine says, that in the space beyond the limit of ordinary tolerance the World becomes more than mere Imagination, productive of Miracle. Which is to say, that at one moment or another, the World always turns poop into flowers and flowers into garlands for Zen brows.
So, one early summer morning, some one of Karine’s brats – they dispute it still – leaves the garden gate open. Thus does a moment of irresponsible egoism cap off hours of blissful inconsequence, hurling us over the thresh hold of tolerance and opening the World’s door to the Miracle beyond Imagination.
As soon as he hears Karine stir, Woofie yaps a joyful yap, runs in joyous circles several times and leaps joyously through the open gate and into the street.
Sleep-haggard in her tatty dressing gown and used-up ballet slippers, her psychotic inner Elmira Gulch, Wicked Witch of the West, twisting, stabbing, crushing, hurting this hyperactive Toto, Karine stumbles off in pursuit, yet once again, of addled Woofie…
Turning a corner, Karine finds Woofie panting hilariously, wiggling in the arms of a bright-looking young woman. It turns out the young woman is a journalist, as well as a neighbor and hero of the early hour.
She follows Karine back to the house with a joyous, face-licking, yip-yapping Woofie in her arms.
Karine felt obliged to invite the new neighbor in. She served her a coffee, smiling the while.
She was praying, as she told me, that Woofie wouldn’t start humping the reporter’s leg, but was soon completely absorbed by the younger woman’s clever, friendly chatter.
Karine consented to a photo with Woofie. She also volunteered her grain of salt for an article this energetic, jolly new acquaintance has tentatively entitled “Neighborly doings” or some such guff.
A few days on, the front page of the local newspaper featured a huge above-the-crease color photo of a fat, frowsy, peroxide-blonde slut dossed out in a roomy, disorderly but richly-appointed salon.
Instantly the reader wonders, Was this fat, rumpled-up slut suffering from a case of coitus interruptus with a meaty, cardiac paramour also prone to heavy sweating? Even so, the reader reasons, with the means to wear a Kenzo housecoat, this decaying bourgeoise clearly is not even capable of staying decent. Elle déborde partout! The reader snarls.
And while the accompanying article does not outright so allege, it does strongly imply that the frowsy slut in question does not even love the expensive lapdog she keeps as a toy. The article admirably insinuates, in fact, that Woofie is possibly in danger. Seemingly holding the cute, lively caniche at arm’s length, the slut’s puffy, mottled, unsmiling face does indeed suggest casual murder.
“Neighborly doings,” indeed.
Zen settled over Karine’s brow like winter frost on Fuji’s lofty peak.
She said only, “Around here nobody reads the f---ing papers. The neighbors don’t have the wit for it.”
It is clear that the inner Elmira Gulch, Wicked Witch of the West, is pushing hard for a durable solution to the Woofie problematic.
But Karine will not be defeated.
She will not abandon the caniche, will not have him “put to sleep”, will not ask me to take him for a walk in the country, will not give him to the ASPCA, will not sell him up for a sleazy profit (Woofie’s a costly purebred as well as a pain in the ass).
‘Though Woofie’s sins were as inspissated even as her husband’s, Karine will assume her part of interspecies cooperation. Because it is Right.
Together, she and the World will make a Miracle.
Sat Nam! So There!
One way or the other, Karine and I walk together every day. To my delight, she starts holding my hand as we move along, something she hadn’t ever done. She talks less and looks around more than usual.
I ask her what’s going on? She explains she is focusing “on the essential”. “
“Well,” I say, squishy like a romantic boy, squeezing her hand, “That’s really good!” The “essential” for me is her holding my hot paw, of course. When she does, nobody can doubt that she belongs to me. Ha!
Some days later, as we walk from her work, she says she doesn’t see how anybody could be against it.
“Against what?” I ask, squeezing her hand.
“Against those nice old people I met in the park. Do you know, they are both retired? They don’t look it, that’s for sure. They look strong and fit.”
“The lady who just lost her caniche.”
I let go of her hand and take her arm. For some reason, my brain has fevered up, has noted that we are just beneath the great pillars of the Farmers General at Nation, dwarfed by events, swept along by passing time. Reason within seems to vibrate and hum, as if changing gears.
I croak, “What are you talking about?”
Her eyes roll up in her head and roll back down again, like the Sybil’s.
“An old couple just lost their little dog,” she says. “I met them in the park. Their caniche looked just like Woofie. They are so sad. Very sad and very nice.”
Karine pauses, looking wistful, then continues, “I was telling them that I had to leave Woofie alone next week and they were wondering if they could take Woofie for a day or two. And I told them, No.”
“What, you said, no? Why did you say no?” Clutching her arm harder, pulling her closer.
“Woofie reminds them of their old dog. Madame is really sad without their caniche. It’s true that Woofie seems to like them both.”
I stop her again. I look directly into her wide, blue eyes. She does not see me.
“Are you telling me about a scheme to rid yourself of Woofie?” I demand.
“Nothing like that,” Karine replies after a moment.
An inhabitual wind blows through the pillars of the Farmers General and flow cool over our backs, chills my neck. Invisibles rags of gossamer shred and pass into the wide wide World over the Bois de Vincennes.
Actually, Karine had said “Rien du tout,” Nothing at all. But I still don’t understand what she could otherwise have meant. Suddenly, she asks if I want to share a beer. We do.
Some weeks passed before I heard more of the Change reshaping our little World.
We are making dinner. Karine’s back is to me, hands in the sink, while I cut vegetables.
“Juliette,” she tells the wall, “Juliette’s telling me that she is worried that the old couple will grow too fond of Woofie. They’ll want to keep him because they are too lonely.”
Juliette is Karine’s girl.
I put down the knife. I listen hard because she has turned on the tap as she talks. The water is loud as it rushes into the sink.
“But I don’t think it’s anything like that,” she says in a voice just barely above the noise.
“Besides, Juliette can’t be bothered to even pat him, let alone stay with him. Hahaha. They called today and asked me if it would be okay to supplement his food with some cooked stuff. I told them of course they could! Hahaha!”
She ends our conversation abruptly. Her boy, Hassan, steps in the door. Without even a preliminary “Hiya,” Karine launches into obscure reproaches.
Hassan, an irresponsible, narcissistic pest, is a fine, hardworking young fellow who’s been at school all the livelong day. He is tired. I see he is exasperated by this verbal ambush. He is too confused to answer.
But before he can squeal with rage and fly up the stairs in a dudgeon, Karine chimes loudly, cheerily, “Dinner is ready”.
At which chime, Woofie appears from nowhere. He yaps senselessly at me before rushing over to hump Hassan’s left leg. He grumpily shakes Woofie off and stalks to the table. Woofie runs to the foot of the stairs to yap at Juliette as she descends.
Karine was not smiling as she abruptly announced her decision to let the old couple keep Woofie over her coming 10-day vacation.
“I’ve been worried from the beginning that they will become too attached to Woofie,” she tells us.
She turns to look directly at me, “That’s why I refused them at first.”
But now, she explains, she feels that it is cruel to deprive them - and Woofie - of company.
“How will it hurt us to share Woofie?” she challenged Hassan and Juliette, who, in reply, started eating in silence.
And that was that. I have never seen Woofie again.
Thus, through the medium of Sat Nam! the World trumped Imagination and produced a Miracle, where one and all came to their proper places. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Woofie is now gone to that place where love for him reigns. For the rest of us, what should be now is, although Karine has stopped holding my hand.
I wonder whether shouting “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” would have the same effect for the rest of you as Karine’s Sat Nam!?
As soon as I get this damned ass’s head off … There!
Perhaps because I am a Sagittarius, the word “horsewoman” has always appealed to me. It embodies the unity between rider and horse when all is going well and sometimes even when the rider loses control, as in Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.” I remember feeling exhilaration as well as fear, clinging to the neck of my favorite horse when she ran away with me during a spur-of-the-moment race through a meadow. My daughter was also an avid horsewoman from an early age. The world of the stable already seemed a natural part of life to my six-year-old. So I was surprised when one of her friends who had come to watch a lesson, asked in wonder as Kate swung herself into the saddle, “Doesn’t the horse mind?”
I’m sure it had never occurred to me, to my daughter, or to any of our riding friends that the horse might mind, except when a fearful rider was hauling on the bit, “ruining the horse’s mouth.” Does the horse mind when we seem to be working in harmony? I don’t know. But I have known horses that balked at unfamiliar or unskilled riders, which suggests to me that the sense of oneness can be mutual. In her poem “Appaloosa,” Jo Sarzotti captures the mythic aspects of riding. Anticipation and danger are signaled by a series of dark images as the rider approaches the barn for a night ride on the beach. The glow of the spotted roan the rider has chosen is the image of desire. The edge of danger in the roan’s excitement carries us into a controlled but violent tumult of light and dark images, white surf breaking, the sickle moon as weapon, the cathedral of the night sky, and the transit between worlds:
The dark drift of horses in stall, black
Windows on the still blacker shapes,
The Barn is quiet and heavy —
I stop at the spotted roan’s pale glow.
He’s the one I take out to ride,
Ears pointed like an Egyptian guard dog,
Excited tear towards the beach, white surf
Tattered by wind, sickle moon a gash
In the sky god’s thigh, pinpricks of starlight,
The crab nebula, rare gift of August,
Stained glass from a cosmic cathedral
Exploded—the horse shies sideways, neighing.
For the Nez Perce, the spotted horse was
Totem & transport to the next home,
Battle, world—I stick to these sweaty sides
Lashed by leather and mane, an exhalation
Of time on an eastern shore, racing.
The gorgeous, romantic imagery in “Appaloosa” includes acknowledgement of the many uses we put horses to and the sheer will it takes to stay with a creature that cooperates but is not subdued.
The record of our fascination with horses is ancient. In the Chauvet caves, documented in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” the first image in the entryway, after a distinctive red polka dotted handprint, is a group of running horses, mouths open, depicted by a single artist. As Herzog observes, not only do the drawings articulate motion enhanced by torchlight and the contours of the rock, but the sound of the horses neighing is evoked too. Edward Muybridge captured the mechanics of a running horse on film. The cave drawings enact both the understanding of the dynamics of motion and the spirit of that motion. “Fluidity and permeability” between humans and animals inform this world. It is hard to imagine the horses depicted in the Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira caves as anything but wild creatures, unharnessed and un-ridden. Riding a horse is about power, but it is also about entering into a mythical, shaman-like freedom that we have been separated from by centuries of domestication.
I am grateful to Jo Sarzotti for permission to include “Appaloosa” from her book of poems Mother Desert, Graywolf Press 2012.
As he explains in his TEDx talk, “Embrace the Shake,” when artist Phil Hansen could no longer do his pointillist drawings due to nerve damage in his hand, he learned countless other ways to create art. But why wait for a disability to open your mind to new possibilities? Whether you are a poet, artist, teacher, novelist or musician, here are five unconventional ways to climb into your creative projects from a fresh entry point.
Use your non-dominant hand. This is a practice I learned at the Art Students League in New York, where I realized that drawing a model with my left instead of right hand made me see the subject differently. Sure, the drawings were terrible (though they did get better over time) but when I went back to drawing with my dominant hand, it was as if a bit of the left hand perspective had joined in. If you keep a writing journal, try making every other entry with the opposite hand. Yes, it will slow you down; that’s part of the benefit.
Get up and move. In her New York Times essay, “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” Joyce Carol Oates says that running allows her an expanded consciousness in which she can envision what she’s writing as a film or a dream. Back at her typewriter, she recalls that dream and transcribes it. The scenes in my own novels usually unfold during walks in the woods with my dog. In the classroom, I try to get my students up and moving as much as possible. Physical stagnancy can cause the creative juices to stagnate, too.
Employ the power of two. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Atlantic essay, “The Power of Two,” explores how the tense creative collaboration of Lennon and McCartney produced artistic genius that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Hemingway and Fitzgerald would not have been who they were without Maxwell Perkins. I regularly have my students do brief story-generating exercises in pairs or groups of three. Sometimes it devolves into silliness, friction and occasional brilliance. All are worth it. I meet weekly with writer friends to work in silence together, a practice which strikes some as bizarre, but which helps us stay motivated and on task. Even the lonely work of novel writing can benefit from company.
Sleep In. This is a luxury I don’t often enjoy, but when I have the time and courage to lie in bed for awhile after waking in the morning, looking around at the semi-dark room and frail light slipping between blinds, entire scenes from my novel write themselves without my having to do a thing. It’s amazing. All I have to do is be present and watch the scenes unfold. The trick then is to write them down before the obligations of the day surge into motion. This is sacred time. If your day allows it, take it.
Work on more than one thing at a time. Full disclosure: I am terrible at this, but when I do manage to do so, both projects benefit. My painting teacher, Roy Kinzer, always encouraged us to have multiple canvases in motion concurrently, so that if we got stuck with one, we could move to the other. Often that shift allowed obstacles to get sorted out in the back of the brain. Upon returning to the first canvas, voila, the solution was clear. Since I tend to get completely sucked up the fictional dream of whatever novel I’m working on, it’s hard to tear myself away, even when a poem calls. But working on several projects simultaneously keeps the mind malleable.
When artist Xu Bing was asked by the Chinese government to create two phoenix sculptures for the atrium of the new World Financial Center in Beijing, he accepted, but when he visited the site and saw the dismal working conditions of the migrant laborers who were building the luxury towers, he was so disturbed that he decided to create the phoenixes out of the workers’ battered tools. The elegant, gargantuan birds are constructed of shovels, hard hats, jackhammers, pliers, saws, screwdrivers, plastic accordion tubing and drills. The building’s developers worried about the message the sculptures conveyed and asked if Xu would consider covering them with crystals. No dice. They withdrew the commission, but the artist forged ahead with the project and the birds have been exhibited in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and elsewhere. While the limited materials made the sculptures more challenging to construct, they also made them infinitely more compelling both aesthetically and symbolically.
In the introduction to his book WIND/PINBALL: TWO NOVELS, Haruki Murakami explains that he discovered his writing style by first composing in English with limited vocabulary and syntax and then “transplanting” those sentences into his native Japanese. In the process, a new style of Japanese emerged that was entirely his own. He describes the experience as a moment of clarity when the scales fell from his eyes. “Now I get it,” he thought. “This is how I should be doing it.”
“The Ten-Minute Spill,” a Rita Dove poetry exercise found in THE PRACTICE OF POETRY by Chase Twichell and Robin Behn uses a limited palette of words and an inverted cliché to point writers toward a similar eureka experience. After doing this exercise with my creative writing students, we tried it a second time using a palette of words they “found” on a “field trip” (see yesterday’s post) and then exchanged with one another. They complained about the confines of the exercise, but promptly produced great stuff.
Material is one way to exploit constraints. Structure is another. Frank Lloyd Wright would not have created his Fallingwater House if he had seen the waterfall as an obstacle to be overcome rather than an asset to be incorporated. Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” came from an exercise in end stops, and Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box” would not exist if she hadn’t been trying to figure out a creative way to use the impossible limitations of Twitter.
In my creative writing class, students first groan over and then feverishly tackle the constraints presented to them. They have written villanelles, sestinas, haiku, 6-word stories, Yelp reviews, fictional book blurbs and recently “Contributors’ Notes” in an emulation of Stacey Harwood’s poem by the same name (BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2005). The ratio of early complaints to eventual satisfaction is gratifying. Great ideas come from pushing against boundaries. The frustration of constrictions can distract the thinking brain enough to allow the deeper work of the creative mind to unfold. Get your students moaning. You won’t be sorry.
Tune in to tomorrow’s post for ways to find fresh entry points into your writing.
My teacher Roy Kinzer routinely warmed us up for our life painting class with a series of timed gesture drawings beginning with lightning fast poses. He required us to use large paper and to fill up the whole page. Grumbles of exasperation reverberated as every 15-seconds he told the model, “Switch.” Sometimes, in his smooth evil voice, he would call the change after only five seconds. Our hands flew. Our charcoal snapped. We tore pages from our sketchpads and cursed. When the beauty of a particular pose made me desperate to capture it, I held my breath until the switch. Details impossible to catch abbreviated themselves into lines expressing movement, rhythm and musicality, as seen in this drawing by artist Greta Skagerlind. Once Roy had us where he wanted us, that is, with our thinking brains shut off and our arms in motion, he would gradually lengthen the poses to 30, 60 and 90 seconds. By the time we reached two minutes, it felt like luxury. He had succeeded in shutting down the part of our brains that wanted to hesitate, deliberate and ponder accuracy. We simply dove in.
Just as I had in Roy’s class, my creative writing students love to hate our timed exercises, which take many forms. Here are a few:
BAG OF TRICKS: I pass around a “bag of tricks” filled with various objects. Each student reaches in and grabs one, a pinecone, a playing card, a broken watch, whatever. Using the object as a prompt, they write for X seconds, and then pass the object to the right until every student has written about every object. Sometimes they write pure physical descriptions using the five senses. Other times they write memories or associations the object evokes. In the spirit of gesture drawing, we start with 15 seconds of writing and work our way up to a minute or more.
NOUN VERB SWAP: In a variation of the above exercise, I ask each student to write on separate slips of paper a verb and a noun. I tell them to go for highly specific words (“wire fox terrier” over “dog” or “paraded” over “walked”). Next, I set the timer and have them pass nouns to the left, verbs to the right. Students combine the two words in their hand into a prompt (…the wire fox terrier paraded…”) and write for a minute.
SPEED DATING: We do similar exercises in pairs, wherein students “speed date” by joining their words to a partner’s words for a blitzkrieg brainstorm before the timer sounds and they move to the next person. Inevitably they argue and beg. “We were just getting started!” Eventually, I increase the time.
IN-HOUSE FIELD TRIPS: The exercises the students love best are in-house “field trips.” For example, if we are brainstorming for a one-act play, I send them out of the classroom to collect eavesdropped dialogue for ten minutes. Another day I might have them pick from a hat a particular location in the school (library, cafeteria, gymnasium, etc.) and send them there to speed write sensory details (sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, colors, shapes, etc.) I ask them to write down both the obvious ones (the sound of a basketball bouncing), and those that normally fall below conscious awareness (the clinking of utensils, the hum of an air conditioner). When they return to the classroom ten minutes later, they share their spoils.
2-MINUTE SELF PORTRAITS: This idea comes from cartoonist Lynda Barry’s book SYLLABUS. Instead of drawing themselves as Barry suggests, students write a description of themselves in the 3rd person present tense using as many sensory details as possible. It might be a portrait of themselves when they arose from bed that morning or from when they were 5-years old. Their choice. Many of the wonderful cartooning exercises described in both SYLLABUS and WHAT IT IS are easily amended to writing.
5-MINUTE STEPPING STONES: Adapted from Ira Progoff’s INTENSIVE JOURNAL METHOD, this exercise asks students to map their lives in 8 to 12 stepping stones beginning with, “I was born,” and ending with the present. The stepping-stones could be external markers such as “We moved to Brooklyn” or “I made my bar mitzvah” or more interior ones, “I was afraid of the boys in my gym class” or “I had a crush on Lisa.” Stepping-stones can be done multiple times with different results, depending on how you’re seeing your life that day. They can also be done for a certain time period or project, such as the stepping-stones of a novel you’re working on.
7-MINUTE INVENTORY: Also transmuted from Jungian scholar Ira Progoff, this exercise asks students to take stock of their current life circumstances through a series of quick lists. For example: Who are the people in your life right now, both the inner circle—family and friends—and the outer circle—the gas station attendant, bakery cashier or others you see daily but may not know by name? We go on to list recent life events, projects we are working on, current circumstances relating to our bodies (health, sleep, diet, exercise, sexuality) as well as the current places in our life, both those we visit and those we think about. Next comes a brief list of our societal circumstances (home, office, school, town, nation, etc.) followed by any recent dreams we may remember. After compiling the list, I ask students to write a paragraph beginning with the phrase, “This has been a time when…” or “This time has been like…” Often a simile is waiting to unfold.
These exercises are fertile additions to what Anne Lamott refers to in BIRD BY BIRD as “the compost heap” of our journals. Lump these things together on a page and something is bound to combust. Whether describing an acorn in 15 seconds or writing a life inventory in 7 minutes, the clock we love to rail against is our writing ally.
Tune in to tomorrow’s post for ideas about liberating your creativity by limiting your palette.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.