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
Dear Mr. Lehman,I know this email comes out of the blue, and many months late, but it occurred to me just today that I could write to you and tell you how much the James Tate Tribute back in February meant to me. It was one of the most moving nights of my life. As is often the case when reading his poems, I both laughed and cried. Tate has been my favorite writer for years, and it was wonderful--almost religious--to be in a room with so many other fans of his, to see pictures of him projected against the backdrop, to hear his words. Your introduction to the event was especially memorable, and revealed a true understanding of Tate's poetry and personality. For that I thank you. I will always remember the image you shared of him drawing a crude--yet somehow functional--map using the lines on the palm of his hand.I hope all is well, in life and in writing.Sincerely,Mikko Harvey
Since its inception in 2008, we have cheered on Bill Cohen, one of our favorite bloggers, as he has assembled an array of tattooed poets for Tattoosday's annual tribute to National Poetry Month. We are once again happy to spread the word to inked poets everywhere. Bill would like to post an image of your tattoo on Tattoosday every day during April. Tattoos need not be literary in nature to qualify. If your ink is featured, Bill hopes to give a little history of your tattoo, some background about you and your poetry, and he'll include links to your own website, books, and poems. With your permission, he'll even post a poem.
In addition, you'd be joining the ranks of over two hundred poets, many of them BAP contributors, who have participated in years past. You can see who's been cool enough to join the ranks here .
For more details and to express your interest,please contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All too often, writers possess great technical ability, but they lack ambition with respect to the larger ideas that seemingly small choices within a text—a line break, alliteration, and even the visual appearance of the work on the printed page—can communicate. For many practitioners of the literary arts, style remains mere ornamentation, rather than functioning in a more substantive way. And so we are left shivering in a beautifully painted corridor after the performance, with the doors latched all around us.
At the same time, three recent texts by women remind us that form, and the behavior of the language itself, can function as an extension of content, opening up possibilities for readerly interpretation that transcend the semantic meaning of the words as they appear on the page. C. Kubasta’s All Beautiful & Useless, Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat, and Anne Tardos’ Nine each present us with subtle technical choices that call our attention to the politics inherent in language, grammar, and the literary forms we have inherited. We are asked to consider language not as a given, but rather, as a set of implicit hierarchies, judgments, and assertions of power. Even more importantly, the reader is reminded that language structures conscious experience, and even the most subtle implications of grammar are internalized by the subject. In these deftly crafted works of poetry and hybrid prose, we watch as each author simultaneously inhabits and revises received structures for thinking and writing, ultimately subverting them from within that familiar and deeply entrenched order. Although somewhat different in style and approach, these innovative texts certainly share an investment in approaching poetic technique as politically charged, the smallest nuances of formal innovation offering opportunities for social justice within the literary landscape, and well beyond its boundaries.
What does possibility look like, then? How will we recognize her, and what glittering ammunition does she carry?
* * *
I did not say this exactly. I said
I am alone. I am ashamed.
I said I am so thirsty I
want something to drink. And
I said there are small shells
crushed beneath my feet. And I
also said one simple thing…
Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat provocatively juxtaposes inherited myths with invented forms, which often use the space of the page as a visual field. By presenting her artistic inheritance alongside the wild machinery of her own imagination, Danon ultimately calls our attention to the arbitrary nature of the forms, narratives, and linguistic conventions that circumscribe what is possible within thought itself. Indeed, the cultural imagination from which we all borrow is revealed as the result of chance, and what’s more, it is only one of many possibilities.
At the same time, Danon’s graceful retellings of classic myths remind us that these shared narratives, these symbols and motifs that circulate within culture, are necessary for dialogue, artistic exchange, and even community. Danon fully acknowledges the necessity of a repertoire of forms and narratives, and the larger collective consciousness to which they give rise. She herself is implicated in sustaining this chance assemblage of cultural knowledge. Yet she skillfully works within these received structures for thinking and writing to expand what is possible within them.
What will we find when we open the door?
* * *
Any sequence of three lines
suggests a narrative…
As Danon’s book unfolds, familiar myths, and the literary conventions that structure them, are rendered suddenly and wonderfully strange. Indeed, we are made to see that the story of Narcissus and Echo offers myriad possibilities for identification on the part of the reader, among them a silenced female beloved, who discovers the possibility of speech by traversing the darkened corridors of her own psyche. Narcissus, who normally occupies a prominent role in the story, becomes a tertiary figure, mere ornamentation.
As Danon works to excavate Echo’s agency from this familiar mythical dreamscape, narrative convention is revealed as a source or order within a text, but also, a diversion, a limitation, a silencing. When we are asked to attend to Narcissus, we miss the possibilities at the margins of the text, the subversive and provocative gestures that exist only on the periphery of a larger cultural imagination.
Indeed, narrative convention is revealed as an attempt to impose order on an inherently unruly human psyche. What we discover through Danon’s work is the multiplicity that is housed within any experience, perception, or event. As we struggle to sort through these glittering possibilities, our attempts to find order inevitably replicate the power structures within the culture we inhabit. Danon’s work offers us a profound interventionist gesture, which inevitably expands what is possible within this familiar narrative, and the larger power structures that narrative replicates.
When Danon forces us to unsee Narcissus, we see Echo for the first time.
What else is waiting for us when we meet her?
* * *
Mix of funk and freejazz Miles Davis musical response.
Lucretius saw the universe as something having a nature.
Bernstein: “Estrangement is our home ground”-Yukon bullfrog flu.
Barely arrived, it seems, and almost time to leave…
In her most recent collection, Nine, Anne Tardos acknowledges the necessity of shared conventions, myths, and narratives for creating community, and in turn, works of art. Yet her interrogation of these constraints is as relentless as it is fiercely intelligent. She ultimately eschews the rules of grammar, syntax, and narrative, choosing instead to define her own.
Written in nine end-stopped lines of nine words each, the poems in this provocative collection make us suddenly aware of the many constraints that are imposed upon conscious experience. Much like Danon, Tardos reminds us of the chance nature of the rules, and the larger cultural imagination, that we have inherited. This burdensome inheritance, accidental as it may be, ultimately circumscribes what is possible within thought itself. And for Tardos, the vast terrain of the cultural imagination we all inhabit is wholly subject to revision.
As Tardos redefines the rules that lend structure and meaning to experience, she allows this radical grammar, these new syntactical structures, to open up unforeseen possibilities for her own thinking, and for our imaginative work as readers. The poetic line becomes both a self-contained unit and a gesture toward infinitude, the possibility of indefinite extension. Similarly, the wild and provocative juxtapositions within each line strike sparks within one’s imagination. Each moment of rupture within these fragmentary narratives becomes an aperture, a doorway through which the reader is beckoned. Indeed, the poet no longer gives meaning to an audience who passively receives it. The text instead becomes a machine for generating meaning, and practitioner’s job is merely to guide the reader in his or her own imaginative work.
KMD: Your collaboration with Joshua Beckman, Nice Hat. Thanks., is as lively and engaging as it is thought-provoking. More specifically, I’m intrigued by your approach to collaborative writing as a kind of improvisation. This makes possible a degree of surprise, chance, and wonder that is rare in single-author projects, which tend to be much more deliberative. With that in mind, how does one invite such spontaneity into one’s own writing when working in isolation? Within your own artistic practice, how do you negotiate planning and structuring book manuscripts with the kind of invention and improvisation that we see in your collaborative work?
MR: I think for years now I have been approaching all of my own writing as a kind of improvisation. I am very uninterested in planning out a poem, and am not very interested in reading poems that are obviously written like that. I just don't find it interesting to engage in writing that way (I'm not, after all, a novelist) and luckily for me I am pretty prolific -- so if an improvisation doesn't really work, I just toss it out. I write another one.
I do think, though, that this came to a head after or while working with Joshua on NICE HAT. THANKS. The freedom and excitement and unalloyed FUN of collaborating with him was so intoxicating that I couldn't imagine going back to my own poems with anything other than the same sense of freedom and improvisation.
I got to interview Ron Padgett in 1995 about his Selected Poems and that's something he said then, which I remembered but which I don't think I fully understood until later; he said that after doing so many collaborations with Ted Berrigan, he began to approach his own writing as if it were a collaboration as well. And I think it's that sense of surprise at every turn in his poems that's so amazing, and which I humbly would like to also have in my own.
When I think of your recent collaborations with Kristin Giordano -- the GHOSTS OF BIRDS sequence, I'm amazed at how you are able to take these very spare and stark photographs in black and white-- really just bones on a black background -- and find a world or a poetic space in which they can live alongside your new poems. The sea plays a large role in them too -- which makes sense since the photos almost look like bones washed up on a beach. I'm curious about how you approached the making of your poems in terms of these photos --- how you got to that moment of awareness that let you create this space in which the poems and the photos could live together?
KMD: That’s a great question. And I definitely agree with you that all of writing is a collaborative endeavor. After all, consciousness itself is essentially social, an ongoing dialogue with the various cultural texts, fragments of language, and phenomena that we encounter. But I think there is definitely something unique about collaborating with another practitioner of the creative arts. When I started working on The Ghosts of Birds with Kristin Giordano, I was amazed at how Kristin’s work allowed me to say something that I wasn’t able to say when writing in isolation. In some ways, the spare, barren landscapes in her photographs limited what is possible within the text. At the same time, though, this reduction of possibilities, and the inherent simplicity of the vocabulary of images that we were working with, actually made it easier to represent my experiences faithfully. There is something wonderfully generative about constraints. After collaborating with Kristin, I ended up with some of the most autobiographical writing that I’ve ever done, and they’re also some of my most honest poems.
At the time, I was writing grants and traveling full-time, and thanks to fellowships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, 360 Xochi Quetzal in Mexico, and Willapa Bay AiR in Washington State, I spent an extended period of time near the ocean. For the entire time, I was entirely out of cell phone range. The poems make frequent references to letters sent and received, and the anxiety associated with correspondence. White spaces, silences, and ruptures begin to speak more clearly, more forcibly than the text itself. These anxieties and inferences, the torn envelopes and the nerve-wracked shorelines that appear in the poems, were a very real part of my life during those months. I think there is something spontaneous and liberating about collaboration, but I also believe that we choose our collaborators for a reason. Looking back, I think I gravitated to Kristin’s work because it resonated with my experience, my aesthetic predilections, and my emotional state at that time. Yet her beautiful photographs also pushed me to simplify the vocabulary of images I was working with, to allow meaning to accumulate around them. Honestly, I was amazed at how much I learned about the craft of poetry from her exquisite artwork.
Which actually brings me to my next question. I recently had the good fortune of attending your excellent craft talk in Paris, where you discussed collaborating with unwitting co-writers, dead poets, and appropriated texts. Collaboration becomes a way of thinking through and interrogating another writer’s work, with or without their express permission. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how collaboration intersects with other modes of engaging with and responding to works of art. Within your own practice, when does collaboration become an act of readerly interpretation, the end result being a work of criticism (albeit an untraditional one)? To what extent does this practice of creatively responding to texts begin to democratize criticism as a genre? Can poets make necessary contributions to the ongoing work of interpreting, analyzing, and theorizing literature?
MR: Hmmm. That’s a good question and one I’m not sure how to answer. I do think that, at least for me, much of my collaborative instinct does come from actually wanting to engage with the text (or maybe art work in a museum) in a way that helps me understand it more. Certainly that is what happened when I did my collaborative “translations” of Hafiz poems that are in my last book. I was fascinated with Hafiz and his ideas, and came across some truly dreadful-sounding English translations that threw up huge roadblocks to really engaging with Hafiz in any meaningful way. So I did those as a way to think through what it was I saw in Hafiz. In terms of the collaboration becoming, in the end, a form a criticism, I think that’s probably true – though in a way that traditional critics might bristle at! But I guess I think there’s something to that – I certainly am not interested in criticism written by people who don’t also engage in the act they criticize (I know, I know…. there are lots of examples of good critics who do this but this is perhaps my way of politely expressing my distaste for criticism in general). You’ve written things like this, and I’m interested in hearing more about what you think its role is --- by which I mean, I guess, that if it’s so non-traditional, will it even be read as criticism? Do we need someone (and could this be you?) to introduce the idea of a collaborative, creative criticism?
KMD: These are great questions. First, I think that the concerns you raise about legitimacy, and whether non-traditional criticism could ever be taken seriously within the academy, are important considerations. Much of my writing, collaborative and otherwise, comes from a desire to democratize what are very privileged, carefully guarded scholarly forms of discourse. To make them more inclusive, more hospitable to a diversity of voices and viewpoints. To carve a space for autobiography, aestheticized language, and moments of beauty within these academic forms of writing. With that in mind, the question of legitimacy is fraught with ethical problems, since traditional criticism seems at odds with the desire for inclusion and diversity (in terms of voices, as well as modes of representation and the forms that engagement with literary and cultural texts may take). For me, this is what makes the collaborative, creative criticism so fascinating. It not only creates a more democratic space for thinking through texts, but also, it allows the unique resources of poetry and the arts to be brought to bear on complex theoretical and philosophical discussions.
I recently finished writing a collection of essays called Women and Ghosts, which is now available from BlazeVOX Books. The book is part of an ongoing engagement with Shakespeare’s tragic women, and uses erasure, strikethrough, and greyscale to address themes of voicelessness, self-censorship, and gendered violence in Hamlet, King Lear, and several other tragedies. As someone who also works in more traditional scholarly forms, it was truly liberating to use the space of the page as a visual field, and to see the novel work this could do in conveying an argument about these very familiar plays. For me, the white space within the book spoke more clearly than text, or a description of silencing, ever could. The space of the page also helped the reader to experience viscerally (I hope) what was being described, to render the moments of rupture within the text suddenly and disconcertingly palpable.
In The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James argued for a vision of the subject as essentially relational, actualized by one’s interactions within a larger community. We are made to see self as world, and prompted to take note of the astounding multiplicity housed within each of us. The human voice, then, is not a singular thing, but rather, it is a choir comprised of luminous fragments: a newspaper headline, a botanist’s field guide, the hit song played over and over again on the radio.
Three recent books of innovative prose remind us, through their most subtle stylistic choices, that to be human is to be a conversation. Cassandra Smith’s u&i, Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star, and Laura Mullen’s Complicated Grief each dismantle the boundaries between self and other with astonishing grace, wit, and stylistic dexterity. Indeed, they ask us to consider the artifice inherent in the divide we often imagine between subject and object, calling our attention to the role of language, its rules, and its implicit hierarchies, in sustaining a poetics of binary distinctions and exclusion.
Within each of these collections, seemingly small technical choices become politically charged, evoking the myriad ways that consciousness is mediated by linguistic conventions that are hostile to it. In other words, language and its implicit binaries, the larger power structures that are enacted within each of its rules, are inevitably internalized, leading us to overlook the constant presence of the other within the self. For Smith, Gerard, and Mullen, the sentence, and the paragraph, for that matter, become a battleground, its most beautiful monuments usurped, interrogated, and subverted from within. While somewhat similar in style and approach, these carefully crafted works of prose offer us three very different ways of conceptualizing a grammar of both alterity and resistance.
* * *
u&i worried that our bodies were growing differently. u&i clung to each other and after the fire it became very important that we were two who were clinging…
In Cassandra Smith’s u&i, we are presented with a poetics that is undoubtedly relational. The speaker of these linked works of lyric prose is at once both subject and object, self and other, viewer and viewed. Moreover, the reader is often unclear as to whether the “u” who is being addressed is external or internal, embodied or imagined. The poem sequence could be read as social interaction and an exchange between parts of the self or parts of consciousness. With that in mind, the narrative is both externally voiced and a manifestation of the speaker’s inherently dialogic imagination.
This purposeful ambiguity within the sequence allows meaning and possibility to accumulate. The other is revealed as an ever-present part of the subject, but also, self-knowledge remains possible only through one’s interactions with the other. It is this ongoing dialogue that allows us to see ourselves, our individuality, and our own conscious experience in sharper relief. If the self is essentially a social being, made and unmade by the workings of a larger community, is there such a thing as difference? Or alterity, for that matter?
The questions raised by the text strike sparks against Smith’s formal innovations and stylistic nuances. For instance, the reader is frequently presented with prose that appears pristine, logical, and orderly. Yet we are offered only the illusion of coherence, a continuity that is possible only through the reader’s own imaginative work. In much the same way that the boundaries between subject and object are dismantled and interrogated, the poem itself becomes a collaboration between the artist and her audience, particularly as the separation between them grows less and less clear. In Smith’s skillful hands, the poem becomes a locus for dialogue, authorship being merely an ongoing process of curation.
Now the movement of leaves, that laughter in the distance.
To whom is she speaking, then? What is being gathered here, and for whom?
* * *
u&i alone in a forest were the only subject of all these cards, alone on a wall in a forest. these cards were stack on a bookshelf, a stack on the floor. a stranger would enter and the cards would tell stories of how to tell more…
As Smith’s book unfolds, our most solitary moments are revealed as socially constructed, as consciousness itself is only possible through a shared cultural imagination. Smith offers not only lyric prose, but also, a philosophy of mind and a grammar to accompany it.
In many ways, u&i seems oddly reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Here, too, a narrator finds herself alone in a forest, yet at the same time, conversation—with culture, with literature, and with the multiplicity housed in the self—becomes almost infinite in its possibilities.
Yet what begins as dialogue inevitably gives rise to discord. What happens when conflict arises within the subject? Can one ever escape the movement of consciousness itself?
* * *
I want to not want that all the time. I want to forget I want that.
I want not to want what I think I want. I want to not want what I want.
I don’t want to smoke.
I want to sleep.
Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star begins as a love story. A young female protagonist struggles with an eating disorder, while her boyfriend remains engulfed in depression and substance abuse. Yet it becomes clear that they are destroying each other, piece by piece. Gerard invokes strange and luminous metaphors from astronomy to suggest that these individuals, these distant stars, are actually part of the same system, held together by a deathly gravitation pull.
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.
Keeping with this week’s theme of immigration and community in mind, I asked Marcelo Hernandez Castillo to chime in on his own experience. What follows is his essay about place, origin, and stalks of corn. Thank you Marcelo.
I don’t know where my grandfather is buried, only that he’s been lying somewhere in the desert for the last 60 years. He died crossing the border like so many others, attempting to provide a better life for his family. To cross a border as an undocumented immigrant is to risk crossing a threshold into invisibility. And so, for 21 years, every act of living has been an act of trying to remain visible. Recently, I keep going back to a line by Wendy Xu in which she says “I am trying to dissect the memory of my erasure.” And it is true, our act is an act of dissection, of opening ourselves up to what has been hidden. I have to keep redrawing myself back in a landscape because erasure is a constant. I’m negotiating an absence and presence simultaneously that was begun by the event of displacement. And because of such displacement undocumented immigrants are taught to guard our presence for fear of deportation, to have an intrinsic fear of being seen. But you can’t live like that, not for long.
Perhaps to be a writer of color and to write about place is to always write about what has hurt you. The places we inhabit are always in relation to an origin and in the act of immigrating, you are always longing for what you have lost, perhaps forever. I’m thinking of a way back, of mapping the lineage of pain caused by separation. What would that look like? I’ve thought of reversing my parent’s journey but it doesn’t work like that. And for many, there is no going back, undocumented immigrants come to this country and die in this country without ever seeing their family again. My cousin was forced to sit by while they buried his father 2000 miles away in Mexico; forced to mourn from a distance. And so, a substitution occurs, because it must, because there is no other option. You need to replace the object of mourning with something else, something physical you can hold in your hand to replicate the act of touching their deceased body, whether that be a picture, or an old coat that belonged to the deceased. When they buried my uncle, his children in the US mourned through the phone, hearing only the wailing on the other line. My cousin asked to touch me because I had touched her father last.
And so poetics, as far as I am concerned, is a way to make sense of this separation; of mourning as third party mediation of senses. Place, then, can’t simply be somewhere you can travel to, or occupy, it must be something else. For writers of color, the history of place is just as resonant as its present. To some people, the trees are still trees despite who has been hung from them. To think, how many trees in the US alone are still living where once hung the body of a black or brown man, woman, or child. To think how many bridges we drive over, completely unaware of the weight they’ve once carried from beneath their rafters? Are they still trees, or are they something else? I can’t pretend that I do not exist in a space fraught with the memory of pain lived by people like me. I can’t avoid it. Rope and trees has been replaced by a gun and a badge, in the end, we still have the body and we still have the spectacle.
How many bodies lie at the bottom of the Rio Bravo? Some prefer to see a river but deny the bodies, they prefer to see the beauty for the sake of their comfort. I am skeptical of the “nature poem” that insists on its singularity, on its continued refusal (through omission) of the terror that lies beneath the water.
I don’t know if the function of place and landscape in American poetry is to restore and preserve a classifiable lineage of influence and identity. We seek place in order to avoid being alone with ourselves because the untethered self is a terrifying thing. Because then we must face the reality of how fucked up we really are, which means that the landscape, in a sense, may only be a distraction, or a respite from a life of limbo. But to those who are separated from their home, their entire life is lived in limbo. How can we expect to move forward if we don’t know in which direction to walk?
Place is inextricably intertwined with language. Because I acquired English later in life, I am forced to step outside of myself in order to look at myself in both expression and representation. I change language depending on my surroundings. The parallels between place and language complicate ideas of hierarchy and teleology that govern who is authorized to speak for a landscape. I’m thinking here of Tarfia Faizullah’s book “Seam” in which she says “It belongs and does / not belong to me.” I have to take ownership of what has already been stripped from me since before my birth: an authority to command my existence, my validity, and my origin. And I have to continually think, “what is mine and what has been taken from me?” And when you feel as if you don’t belong, when you’ve been exiled from your landscape of origin, what allegiance can you spare for a country that denies your worth?
To command the language that is privileged for a specific place is the price we must pay in order to be seen, to be allowed to speak and be heard. The locus of language operates in multiple directions. I am informed by the landscape in what I hear and I inform the landscape by what I say, and that in itself is valid. This brings to mind the writings of the young Mexican poet Yaxkin Melchy who says:
“Hundo un pie en el lodo
lo que no he leído es la belleza de la descomposición
palabras que antes fueron árboles
ahora están aquí deshaciéndose en el agua.”
In 2013, after 21 years of being undocumented, I was granted a temporary visit to return to my country of birth, Mexico, to visit my father who was deported 10 years prior. I remember flying over the mountain range of the Sierra Madre and having a strange feeling overcome me. I cried as we began to descend into the Guadalajara airport. I didn’t know what to call my own home, or how to feel about it. I cried because I was angry that it took 21 years to step foot on ground I had dreamt about for so long. I was angry because we flew over a meaningless border and presented a meaningless piece of paper just so that I could be reunited with my father and the rest of my family.
Ten years had passed since his deportation; we were both different men. I was 15 when he left and he was 55. We were now 25 and 65 and I brought my wife to meet him for the first time. I couldn’t stop looking at his face, and seeing what ten years of living alone without his family had done to him. I was almost happy the day he left because he was not the best father. We were terrified of him. There were many times as a child when I would come home from school and see my mother’s face completely shattered and bruised. But in the airport that day, I saw a different man, much smaller than I remember. As we drove to my hometown, with each mile, I felt I was going into myself, to a point of singularity. It was early morning when we arrived and I fell asleep, and for once it wasn’t a dream.
During my visit, I asked to visit the abandoned home in the mountains where my mother was born. I was speechless when we arrived as I saw the ruins of a home neglected for decades. I waded through a thicket of weeds high as my chest through each room whose roof had collapsed entirely.
I sat in the middle of what had been the courtyard and cried. There was corn growing near my feet, sprouting from the seeds of seeds of seeds that my mother dropped while desgranando mazorca when she was a child. The same courtyard that saw 5 or 6 generations of my family grow up, have kids, and continue with their lives. There was nothing closer to “origin” that I could think of, other than my mother’s womb, but somehow the idea of origin always escaped me, somehow it still didn’t feel like I completely belonged to it because I was removed for so long. But I did feel a sense of largeness that I had never felt before. I felt that I extended outward for miles. I wanted to take my clothes off and lie on the dirt. I wanted to touch every adobe brick with every part of my body.
The reality, however, was less glamorous and less Lana Del Rey inspired. I didn’t thrash naked in a point of my origin. I merely took a few pictures, cried by myself in the middle of a clearing surrounded by crumbling walls, and eventually left. I wanted so much more, but I couldn’t access it. I eventually returned to my mother in the states, and to everyone else waiting on the “other” side of the impenetrable line. When she saw the pictures of her childhood home, she was sad to see what had become of it. The ranch her single mother raised her on and the neighboring ranches were all ghost towns. The majority of the people migrated to the U.S., leaving behind only the deep roots of their plants and flowers.
What else is left for me, other than to accept how meaningless questions of place are without realizing the privilege of mobility, citizenship, and acknowledging the damage that the legacy of colonialism has done to marginalized people. The landscape will outlast me; the border will still be up, and the trees will continue to be nothing but trees if we don’t raise our eyes to their branches.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and crossed the border through Tijuana at the age of five with his family. He is a Canto Mundo fellow and the first undocumented student to graduate from the University of Michigan’s MFA program. He teaches summers as the resident artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. He was a finalist for the New England Review Emerging Writer Award and his manuscript was a finalist for the Alice James Book Prize and the National Poetry Series. His poems and essays can be found in Indiana Review, New England Review, The Paris American, Gulf Coast and Southern Humanities Review, among others.
I thought I was immune to culture shock. Attending American schools, K-12 (albeit in Kuwait and Egypt) meant I was familiar with the lingo. Even though I spoke some Arabic at home, I never formally studied it at school, which translated into reading, writing, and dreaming, in English. What’s more, I had gone to college in the United States - so I didn't really expect much of an adjustment period when, around ten years ago, I made the US my home.
But, my college years in (in Washington, DC) were a kind of reactionary blur, where I’d spent most of the time with my nose buried in a book, experimenting with things like philosophy and silent fasts instead of taking in the New World around me. Seasons came and passed without my noticing, and I would go back home anyway at the end of each semester. So, when I decided to move stateside I was, for all practical purposes, living in America for the first time - the same way they say that you never know someone till you live with them.
Thus, in spite of all my early Americanization, landing in Miami airport, in early 2006, I felt like an untitled and near penniless version of Eddie Murphy’s African prince character in the 1988 hit comedy, Coming to America. A series of cultural confusions during my first year of disorientation, featuring my then-college-crush and soon-to-become wife, convinced me I was still “off the boat” and that Project Integration was very much underway.
Sure, America had changed, and I had too, since those college years (this was the tail end of the Bush Years, and pre-financial crisis) but somehow I had not wrapped my mind around the basics last time I was here: like the credit system. So, when Diana(my spouse-to-be) disclosed to me the amount of her mortgage ($115K) I was genuinely scandalized. After I candidly told her I thought such debt was criminal and she should do time for it, I gave her another piece of my overwhelmed mind. “In Egypt, we have a saying” I volunteered: 'extend your legs to the extent of your blanket.' Meaning if your blanket/means are limited, no need to stretch/splurge.” She heard me out, patiently, and brushed the whole thing off, assuring me I was over-reacting.
As a fledgling poet, I used to send out countless packets of my work to magazines across the country, like quivering arrows, in hopes a lucky few might hit their target. One day, Diana brought back an envelope to me. “You need to include the state and zipcode,” she said. “I did,” I replied. “No, you didn’t,” she continued matter-of-factly, “you just wrote Portland.” “Oh no,” I shot back, rather smugly. “I read that one very closely, my dear. It clearly stated either Portland or the zipcode; and the ‘or’ was even written in caps!” Very slowly, as though addressing a small (dim-witted) child, she let me know that OR stood for Oregon.
Meantime, I was looking for work and without much success, when I came across what seemed like a plum position. I could hardly contain my excitement. “Dianaaa,” I nearly hyper-ventilated into the phone “come over, this instant, and check out this job!” She tumbled into the room, also breathless, like a happy puppy. “Where, where, let me see…”
“You’re going to need to sit down for this,” I warned, presenting her with the job description. As she scanned the form, I volunteered: “I know, I know, it’s a military job… But, I’m willing to swallow my principles [I’m a die-hard pacifist ] for a salary like that… I'll just sell my soul to the devil for a short period, in order to buy my long-term freedom.”
“What are you talking about?” she ventured, cautiously. “Keep reading, please.” I bounded across the room and pounced on the page, forefinger landing on the key paragraph: “There!” I exclaimed. “401K,” I mouthed it like a miracle. “Can you imagine, for an editorial job? I’ll do it for a couple years, then quit! Plus, they can keep that extra one thousand dollars…” She gave me a look - half incredulous, half pitying - then burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Author collage (shortly after arriving to Florida) with his wife, Diana C. Restrepo
*I was soon to learn, a 401(k) is a standard type of retirement savings account in the United States, and has absolutely nothing to do with my fantasies of fortune and early retirement.
Poetry is how we pray, now. In these skeptical times, poets are Caedmon and poems hymns. Past the personal, poets sing for those who cannot – registering our awe, making sense of our anguish, and harnessing the inchoate longing of countless souls. Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets - deepening our silences, so that we might overhear ourselves.
Poetry, also, can restore our sight, helping us to bear better witness to Now and, past that, calmly gaze over the head of our harried times. By lending us this third (metaphysical) eye which collapses distances, poetry can act as a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life. After all this, too, is what prayer can do: serving as our conscience, and reminding us in times of (personal or political) duress of our essential selves, or who we might become: ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Thus, poetry reconciles false distinctions between vita active and vita contemplativa – demonstrating how words are also actions. I pray by admiring a rose, Persian poet Omar Khayyam once said. In contemplating poetry’s rose – its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we’re made finer morally, able to conceive of a greater reality.
Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, seeing through the apparent to the infinite. Lately, I’m consumed with the idea of the artist as mystic, and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, in Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance (prayerful admiration of a rose) one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic, Al Ghazali, puts it thus: This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow."
One year before his death, Rilke is meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds, in these memorable words:
"It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."
Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body we access the life of the spirit. Remembering we are "bees of the invisible," sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a Here and There. Bodies are like poems that way, only a fraction of their power resides in the skin of things. The remainder belongs to the spirit that swims through them.
Here is another Persian and Sufi poet, Hafiz, reflecting on the centrality of beauty to our well-being:
“The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy it is synonymous with existence.”
Beauty, far from being a superficial concern is essential, and can be a turnstile that leads us from the visible to the invisible world. To return to Khayyam, yet again, by admiring the rose — its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we are made finer morally, spiritually even. This is how aesthetics can serve as an ethical code, and prayer is "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul" (Emerson’s definition).
Poets, philosophers and mystics, by their nature, seem especially well-suited to exposing the false divisions between the visible and invisible worlds. While a calling in the life of an artist might be divorced from the strictly religious sense of the word, it still requires similar renunciations, obedience and sacrifice. I can’t say I’ve studied the lives of mystics as closely as I have those of artists, yet the profound similarities seem difficult to dismiss. Time and again, I discover poets and thinkers I respect powerlessly submitting their private lives in the service of intensifying consciousness (out of what can only be described as an indestructible inner imperative). Thus, entire lives are anxiously arranged around the conditions most conducive to the maturity of this elusive faculty.
The artistic-philosophic landscape is teeming with seers of this type. The power and aura of these fiery spirits derives as much from the truths or realities they have revealed as what they’ve had to sacrifice along the way; it is an authority born of the tension between what is accomplished and what is suffered.
What such poets or thinkers have in common is a life-long struggle to build a bridge between the two worlds — an uncommon commitment to bear better witness and Be, more fully. To travel to and fro, between the visible and the invisible, required a kind of vanishing act of the traveler, what Foucault called “a voluntary obliteration that does not have to be represented in books because it takes place in the very existence of the writer.”
I am thinking about time, how it divides and separates. I have been attempting to locate myself in the present, and I think I am getting better at it, but it is hard work. The mind wants to slip back into the past, to glory over supposed triumphs and fret over past defeats — or to pump itself up over things it is looking forward to or cower over things it is apprehensive about. Yeah, you know the drill. But to be in the present, when one can achieve it, is a gift to oneself, and ultimately to everyone else as well. Meditation is a practice for this, and so is going to poetry readings.
I’ll always remember an early poem of Anne Waldman’s called “Things That Make Me Nervous” — and the entire poem reads “Poetry readings. / People. / Dope. / Things I really like.” Which, back in the day, all went together. I looked up the poem and found it in Waldman’s collection Baby Breakdown, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1970. It was in a period when major publishing houses thought it made sense to go with the zeitgeist and try publishing some far-out poetry, almost as though they were record companies, gambling that one of these books could be the Next Big Thing. Others in this class include Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire, published by Holt Rinehart and Winston in 1969, and Tom Clark’s Stones, pubished by Harper & Row, also in 1969. These were hardcover publications with dust jackets and very sharp design, seemingly because the decisions were left to the poets. Joe Brainard blanketed Padgett’s book with white stars on a royal blue jacket, cover and endpapers. His hand-lettering of the title and author’s name is exquisite. Clark’s book also has jacket design by Brainard, in this case a large piece of yellow swiss cheese on a black background with the author’s name on the vertical axis. Brainard also contributes a blurb, which begins, “Ron Padgett is a poet. He always has been a poet and he always will be a poet. I don't know how a poet becomes a poet. And I don’t think anyone else does either…” Ted Berrigan’s “liner notes” for Waldman’s book are typically effusive. He starts out casually, “Anne Waldman is easily the most exciting poet of her generation, and Anne and her poems are among the great pleasures of everyone’s generation. Half the population of America is under 25, and Anne Waldman, at the age of 25, is a star. It seems she can do anything, and she has, and does …” Later, he adds something as true today as it was in 1970: “She has altered all our lives for the better simply by her presence, for she is no wielder of power, but simply a presence that permits everybody to be themselves and more often than not their best selves in the world…” He concludes, “This book is an ordinary miracle.” I love that Berrigan dated this blurb, printed on the book’s dustjacket folds, “May 18, 1970.” Baby Breakdown is really a far out book! The half-title and title page are hand-drawn by Waldman, and the inside of the book also features experimental typography and layout.
Tonight I heard two poets reading their poetry, Bobby Byrd, from El Paso, Texas, and Todd Colby, from Brooklyn, and they both, in very different ways brought me back into the sound of a human voice. That seems obvious, but it’s not. Too many times, at readings, there’s a different sense, an overriding thought, usually, of how is this going to come off, what’s my percentage in it, the calculation of a laugh, or a particular point of view that will give the poem, or more to the point, the poet, support. Poetry doesn’t work like that, nor do poets. First of all, it has to be about the poem, or the poetry, not the poet. Not that poets are not glamorous, fascinating, and fun to look at. And not to deny that they are the authors of their work. But there has to be a moment in the reading when you forget all about the poet, who they are, where they live, what they are wearing, who’s that sitting in the back row, and you are left floating, coasting on a wave of words that takes you to a place you simply could not have imagined before you came to the reading.
I became a convert to James Tate’s poetry when he published Constant Defender and Reckoner in 1983 and ’86 respectively. I was asked to review his work for the Washington Post Book World, and this in part is what I wrote:
“Tate brings to his work an extravagantly surrealistic imagination and a willingness to let his words take him where they will. Nonchalant in the midst of radical uncertainty, he handles bizarre details as though they were commonplace facts. [Tate’s poetry draws upon] so rich a fund of comic energy that it may well prove an antidote to the anxiety some readers feel with poems that refuse to lend themselves to instant analysis.”
What I did not suspect was the break-out success that occurred a few years later with Distance from Loved Ones. Tate had always had a unique comic sensibility – he was hilarious but with an edge, almost a menacing edge. He continued to write poems that enlarged the boundaries of the comic imagination. But suddenly there was an overflow of wonderful prose poems – the title poem of Distance from Loved Ones, for example -- and for the next twenty-five years, Jim managed to reinvent the prose poem as a form while turning them out at an astonishingly prolific rate. Some could be read as parables, some as shaggy dog stories; there were those that depended on a single idea carried to an extreme and others in which the dialogue took over. He was a master of the uncanny.
It is quite possible that no poet of our time has done more to integrate narrative and poetry than has James Tate. Poets are greater than the sum of their influences, but to get an idea of where Tate comes from you would need to consider the tales of the "grotesque and arabesque" of Edgar Allan Poe, the French surrealists with their exaltation of chance and accident, the casual diction of New York School poets and the value they place on variety and possibility, and the wild fabulism of certain South American writers – an assemblage that suggests a diversity of impulse while conveying only the vaguest idea of what Tate was up to when he undertook to satirize a concept in such prose poems as “National Security” or “Bounden Duty."
For the writer interested in the prose poem there is no one’s work that will prove as rewarding as that of James Tate. In Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, Jim’s latest book, scheduled to appear from the Ecco Press in August, there is a poem entitled “Invisible,” which I find charming although it doesn’t have the metaphoric richness of, say, “The Key to the Universe” in the same book. The story in “Invisible” is deliberately banal, concerning the chance meetings of two men. One of them knows the other, or acts as if he does; but the speaker tells us he “didn’t know the man,” so the encounters are always just this side of ghostly. When the mysterious stranger calls him Chester, the speaker exclaims, “How did he know my name?” It turns out that both men have been “here” for many years: "“But I’ve never seen you here before,” I said. “Maybe one of us is invisible,” he said." There is a further twist but I cite this exchange not only for the beauty of the logic but because of the resonance of the repeated “here” and because the title fits the poem expertly and with stunning simplicity.
I had the good fortune to collaborate with Jim on The Best American Poetry 1997. He read the poems of the year with the generosity and eclecticism that the task requires and with such acumen that the book remains a classic of the series. As an editor I learned much from Jim’s judgments and instincts – he enlarged my sympathies as a reader. We did most of our work by telephone but when we got together to confer, we discovered that we shared a taste for Tanqueray martinis and responded to an exhibition of Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings with the shared conviction that one of her pictures would suitably grace the cover of our anthology. And so it did.
We have lost too many important poets in the last twelve months. But I feel the loss of James Tate with an especially sharp pang. He was one of our best, most original and exemplary poets. Read his books – any or all of them – and know, as surprise follows surprise, that the experience will change you forever.
(Ed note: James Tate and Dara Wier visited the New School for a poetry forum with David Lehman in the fall of 2008. You can read our account of their visit here. sdh)
OK, so how many of you go straight for the bios at the back of the mag? I know, as an editor, I do. (More generally, I also read the footnotes first, to familiarize myself with the territory.) We are fortunate to have among the translators of the Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review many who are accomplished younger English language poets in their own right. A partial list only: Ilya Kaminsky, Phil Metres, Derek Mong, Valzhina Mort, Philip Nikolayev.Today, it is their turn to shine, and my, to rally the troops. I invite the translators themselves to post in comments paragraph-long proposals for their books-in-progress and, of course, for prospective publishers to contact them. I invite readers to return to this page to explore the links as more of the features, and brief reviews of books, are added. Today's post concludes with "a review of the literature"; recent Russian poetry books in English translation. The number of presses that publish poetry in translation being countable on one's toes and fingers, each of these is, indeed, a major achievement.
The Chicago Translation Workshop is Daniil Cherkassky, an accordionist and author of a socialist realist blog, gramonist.livejournal.com; Anton Tenser, poet and linguist specializing in Romani languages/ ethnography; and Sasha Spektor, writer and professor of Russian language and literature at the University of Georgia-Athens.
Alex Cigale’s poems and translations appear in Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, Two Lines, and World Literature Today. He is a 2015 NEA Translation Fellow, for Mikhail Eremin, and also edits at MadHat Press, Plume, St. Petersburg Review, Third Wednesday, and Verse Junkies.
Boris Dralyuk translated several volumes from Russian and Polish and is co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). He received First Prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award and the 2012 Brodsky/Spender competition. He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Katie Farris is the author of BOYSGIRLS (Marick Press) and co-translator of several books, including Guy Jean’s Selected Poems and Polina Barskova’s This Lamentable City (Tupelo Press). She teaches at San Diego State University.
Benjamin Felker-Quin studied Russian and literary translation at Hampshire College, where he worked on the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam, Alexander Vvedensky, and Joseph Brodsky. He lives in Pennsylvania.
He is one of the translators of the forthcoming Writing in the Dark: Five Siege Poets (UDP, 2016).
Anne O. Fisher has translated the classic Soviet satires The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. She and her husband, Derek Mong, received an NEA Fellowship for their translations of Maxim Amelin.
Sibelan Forrester is Professor at Swarthmore College. Her translations of Stepanova have appeared in Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets (Zephyr Press 2013), shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Awards.
Alyssa Gillespie is Associate Professor at Notre Dame. Her books include A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva (2001) and Taboo Pushkin: Topics, Texts, Interpretations (2012). She won the 2012 Compass Translation Award and placed third in the 2011 Brodsky/Spender Prize.
Born in Riga, Latvia, Dana Golin has poems in Russian and translations in English appearing in Cardinal Points, Druzhba Narodov, Gvideon, Novy Zhurnal, Big Bridge (tribute to Andrey Voznesensky), Cortland Review, IPR, Modern Poetry in Translation, and Plume. She has a graduate degree in psychology and works as a counselor.
Moscow-born Peter Golub edited the online New Russian Poetry for Jacket Magazine. His books include a translation of Andrei Sen Senkov’s Anatomical Theater. Recipient of the 2010 Pen/Heim Translation Prize, he lives in San Francisco.
Betsy Hulick lives and writes in NYC. She is the translator of Uncle Vanya and Other Plays by Anton Chekhov (Bantam Classics, 1994), Nikolai Gogol's Inspector General (produced on Broadway), and the poetry of Pushkin and Vladimir Aristov (with Julia Trubikhina Kunina) forthcoming in 2015 from UDP.
Ilya Kaminsky (see poets).
J. Kates, a poet and literary translator, is the editor of Zephyr Press. He lives in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. His Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 won the Cliff Becker Book Prize and is out from White Pine Press.
Yasha Klots is Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech and the author of Joseph Brodsky in Lithuania (in Russian). With Ufberg, he co-translated Tamara Petkevich’s Memoir of a Gulag Actress and Sergei Dovlatov’s The Outpost: Notes of a Correspondent.
Phil Metres is the author of A Concordance of Leaves (2013) and abu ghraib arias (2011), winner of 2012 Arab American Book Award in poetry. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and garnered two NEA fellowships. I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky is just out from CSU.
Derek Mong is the author of Other Romes (Saturnalia Books), poetry editor of Mantis, and a doctoral candidate at Stanford. He and his wife, Anne O. Fisher, published the first English-language interview with Maxim Amelin in Jacket2.
Ainsley Morse translates from Russian and the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian. Her books include I Live I See: the selected poems of Vsevolod Nekrasov (2013) and Anatomical Theater by Andrey Sen-Senkov (2014).
Valzhyna Mort’s (born Minsk, Belarus) two poetry collections are Factory of Tears and Collected Body (Blue Flower Arts, 2008, 2011). Editor of two poetry anthologies, she is a recipient of the Lannan Fellowship and the Bess Hokin prize. She teaches at Cornell.
Since relocating to the U.S. in 1990, Philip Nikolayev (b. 1966, Moscow) has published primarily in English. Nikolayev’s four collections include Monkey Time (2001 Verse Prize) and Letters from Aldenderry (2006). He lives in Cambridge, MA, and co-edits Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics.
Jamie Olson writes about poetry, translation, and Russian culture on his Flaxen Wave blog. His work appears in Asymptote, Cardinal Points, and Two Lines (Kibirov), Russian Life (Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak), Drunken Boat (Irina Yevsa),and Crab Creek Review. He teaches at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, WA.
Henry W. Pickford is Associate Professor at Duke. He works in philosophy and literature (chiefly German but also Russian). He is the translator and author of Critical Models: Catchwords and Interventions, by Theodor W. Adorno (Columbia University Press) and Sense of Semblance: Philosophical Analyses of Holocaust Art (Fordham, 2013).
Ian Probstein (b. 1953) is a bilingual English-Russian poet and translator of poetry, author of eight books of poetry in Russian, one in English, a book of prose, some dozen books of translation, and 250 publications in several languages.
Dmitri Psurtsev (b. 1960) is a Russian poet and translator. His two books of poetry, Ex Roma Tertia and Tengiz Notebook, were published in 2001. He teaches translation at Moscow State Linguistic University.
Misha Semenov (Princeton class of 2015 valedictorian, studying architecture and translation) was born in San Francisco to Russian parents. His translations are in St. Petersburg Review, Talisman, and Big Bridge 21st Century Russian Poetry Anthology. He won an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Compass Translation Award.
Bela Shayevich, a Soviet-born writer, illustrator, and translator, lives in Philadelphia. She co-translated Vsevolod Nekrasov’s I Live I See. Her translation of Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel The Big Green Tent is forthcoming from Macmillan in 2015.
Kat Shapiro (Ekaterina Chapiro) is a poet and translator studying for her M.A. in poetry and American Studies at the University of Copenhagen. She has contributed essays and translations to the Potomac Review, Able Muse, and Asymptote.
Larissa Shmailo’s translation of the Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun is from Cervena Barva Press. Her latest collection of poetry is #specialcharacters, from Unlikely Books. A novel, Patient Women, is forthcoming from BlazevOX.
Nika Skandiaka (b. Moscow) grew up in the U.S. and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has published translations from Russian and translations of English poetry into Russian. Her poems are in TextOnly, Vavilon, and Ulysses Unchained.
Alexandra Smith is a faculty member of the University of Edinburgh. Her books include Song of the mocking bird: Pushkin in the work of Marina Tsvetaeva and Montaging Pushkin: Pushkin and Visions of Modernity in Russian 20th-century Poetry.
Charles Swank graduated from Hampshire College, where he studied literature, translation, and Russian. He lives and works in western Massachusetts. He is one of the translators of the forthcoming Writing in the Dark: Five Siege Poets (UDP, 2016).
Julia Trubikhina (Kunina), born in Moscow, is visiting Associate Professor at Hunter College, CUNY. Julia has published four books of original and translated verse in Russian, and a translation of Vladimir Aristov into English (forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse).
Ross Ufberg’s translations include Memoir of A Gulag Actress by Tamara Petkevich, Polish writer Marek Hłasko’s Beautiful Twentysomethings (2013), and Vladimir Lorchenkov’s novels The Good Life is Elsewhere (2014). He co-founded New Vessel Press.
Katherine Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards (2014 Miller Williams Prize finalist). Her poems are in Prairie Schooner, Iowa Review, and Shenandoah; her translations placed third in the 2011 Brodsky/Spender Prize.
SELECTED RECENT BOOKS
Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Endarkment (Eugene Ostashevsky editor, Lyn Hejinian introduction, Genya Turovskaya and Bela Shayevich translators; Wesleyan University Press, 2014)
Sergey Gandlevsky, A Kindred Orphanhood (Phil Metres translator; Zephyr Press, 2003)
Inna Kabysh, Two Poems (Katherine Young translator; Artists Proof Editions)
Daniil Kharms, Today I Wrote Nothing; Selected Writings (Matvei Yankilevich translator; Overlook Press/Duckworth 2009)
Vladislav Khodasevich, Selected Poems (Peter Daniels translator, Michael Wachtel introduction; Angel Books/The Overlook Press, 2013). "Vladislav Khodasevich occupies a place just below the giants in the Russian pantheon of poetry, unique for having come to maturity during the Berlin immigration of the 1920s and 1930s. The British poet and translator Peter Daniels's Selected is best at representing Khodasevich's substantial formal craftsmanship (though he may be served in English by following meter less regularly). This Russian Thomas Hardy/Robert Frost, who can at any moment remind one of a 1930s Frank O'Hara, may be read nearly as an early Confessionalist! Here is the conclusion, in Peter's translation, of his classic poem to his father, 'Dactyls'".
He had six fingers, my father. His son? He has inherited
neither the humble heart, the brood of children,
nor the six fingers. Like placing a bet on a dubious card
he stakes his soul, his word, on a word, a sound.
Now on a January night, drunken with six-fingered meter and
six-fingered verses, the son remembers his father.
Aleksei Kruchenykh, Victory Over the Sun (Larissa Shmailo translator, Eugene Ostashevsky introduction; Cervena Barva Press, 2014). "Velimir Khlebnikov, literally, missed the train on co-penning this one, contributing only a poem to Kruchenykh's libretto. Staged alongside Mayakovsky's Vladimir Mayakovsky, A Tragedy, the original 1913 production of Victory is remembered primarily for Kazimir Malevich's costumes, lighting, and set design, instigations for the Suprematism and Constructivism still to come in 1915 and 1919, respectively…. Nothing is more fitting for this centennial of "Russian Futurianism" than a celebration of Kruchenykh's great contribution to poetry, his Zaum, and not just for its verbal play – the inventive neologizing and the épater-le-bourgeois utopianism – but for the underappreciated antilyricism of his verse, as well. In communicating to us his musicality in English, Larissa Shmailo has done a remarkable job in conferring on Kruchenykh his true due as a poet." AC
Lev Loseff, Selected Early Poems (Henry W. Pickford translator; Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2013)
Kirill Medvedev, It’s No Good (Keith Gessen et al. translators; N+1/ Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012). "Imagine Charles Bukowski hopped up on a Marxist Sorbonne education and you have Medvedev. If you want to understand the current situation in Russia, nationally and in poetry, this book is the best primer I know." AC
Vadim Mesyats, A Guest in the Homeland: Selected Writings (Simon Pettit, Bruce McClelland, Alex Cigale, et al. translators; Talisman House, 1997)
Vsevolod Nekrasov, I LIVE I SEE (Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich translators; Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013)
Lev Rubinstein, Catalogue of Compleat Comedic Novelties (Phil Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky translators; UDP, 2014)
Mariya Rybakova, Gneditch (Elena Dimov translator; Glagoslav, 2015)
Andrey Sen-Senkov, Anatomical Theater (Ainsley Morse and Peter Golub translators; Zephyr Press, 2013)
Gleb Shulpyakov, A Fire Proof Box and Letters to Yakub (Christopher Mattison translator; Canarium Press 2011, 2014)
Arseny Tarkovsky, I Burned at the Feast, translated by Phil Metres and Dmitry Psurtsev (Cleveland State Press, 2015). "Having had a front row seat as these translations made their appearance over the past five years in various periodicals (see links below), my reaction has been that Metres and Psurtsev had largely accomplished something that I had previously thought impossible, giving us a Tarkovsky in lyrical, fluid English versions that capture the voice, intelligence, character, and the very substantial poetic gift of the man." AC
Marina Tsvetaeva, Dark Elderberry Branch (Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky narrators; Alice James Books, 2012 )
Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think (Selected, Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankilevich translators; New York Review Books, 2013)
Mikhail Yeryomin, Selected 1957-2009 (J. Kates translator; White Pine Press, 2014, Winner of the Cliff Becker Prize). "Of Yeromin's Poems, the critic Ilya Kukulin has written that they give “metaphorical expression to the transformation of the soul.” In this respect, he connects Yeryomin to Osip Mandelstam, another practitioner of the eight-line verse, finding therein a common source in Mandelstam’s writings on Dante’s “search for the spiritual foundations of the world.” Kukulin concludes that these external transformations have an invisible counterpart in the internal “soul work, the discovery of one’s own ‘I’ – for the apprehension of all these treasures. Each time, this apprehension may only be partial [provisional] and so it requires a choice…. Yeryomin’s art offers one possibility for how such poetry may endure in the post-modern era.... Even with all its philosophic qualities, it remains a personal [private] and faith-filled [trusting] lyric.” Jim Kates's Selected offers flashes of the brilliance of this acknowledged master whose body of work (all octets!) constitutes one of the most important of the second half of the 20th c."
She closed her eyelids. Not to step, but be plunged
Into a garden hidden beneath them. The trees
Not yet alphabet, now no longer ancient alleys of text.
Love is still a second hedge. Movement
No longer burdensome, but even less a burrow.
Lips do not discover with a word
The radiant appearance of pearls
Over my face.
Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets. Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova (translated by Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Khasin, and Sibelan Forrester, respectively; Zephyr Press, 2013)
I'm a phenomenon quite out of the ordinary; the Notebooks, Diaries and Letters of Daniil Kharms (Tony Anemone and Peter Scotto, editors and translators; Academic Press, 2013)
The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, Boris Dralyuk editors; Penguin, 2015)
Poems from the Stray Dog Café, translated by Meryl Natchez with Polina Barskova (hit & run press, 2015)
Stray Dog Cabaret (Peter Schmidt, Catherine Ciepiela, Honore Moore translators; New York Review Books, 2007)
Russian Silver Age Poetry, Sibelan Forrester and Martha Kelly, editors and translators (Academic Press, 2015). “It being dauntingly impossible to do justice in translation to that great world treasure that is the Poetry of the Russian Silver Age, editors and translators Forrester and Kelly have given us something more — selections of best existing translations are here amended by new ones and framed within their wider cultural context — the contribution that poets have always made to their culture and age — as critics, essayist, and yes, historians. A valuable personal discovery for myself was Mayakovsky’s touching tribute on the death of Velimir Khlebnikov (1922). This much needed book promises to become indispensable to students and experts alike." AC
Vladimir Aristov, What We Saw from the Mountain (Julia Trubikhina Kunina, Betsy Hullick, Gerald Janecek translators (UDP, 2016)
WRITTEN IN THE DARK: FIVE SIEGE POETS (Polina Barskova editor, Ainsley Morse et al translators; UDP, 2016)
AND THE REALLY BIG NEWS!
The New York Times headline: Columbia University Press to Publish New Translations of Russian Literature (100 NEW BOOKS!)
ATLANTA REVIEW RUSSIA ISSUE (Dan Veach editor, Spr. 2015, XXI.2)
ARS INTERPRES (Alexander Deriev editor)
CARDINAL POINTS (Irina Mashinsky, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk eds.)
FOUR CENTURIES (multi-lingual; Ilya Perlmutter editor)
THE MANHATTAN REVIEW (Issue 15.2, Philip Fried editor)
MODERN POETRY IN TRANSLATION (Sasha Dugdale editor)
ST. PETERSBURG REVIEW (Elizabeth L. Hodges et al. editors)
SPRINGHOUSE JOURNAL (Elizabeth L. Hodges editor)
TELEPHONE 4, Sveta Litvak Issue (Paul Legault, Sharmila Cohen editors)
I owe the pleasure of this week to the evening spent at Cornelia Street Café at the back table with David Lehman and Lawrence Joseph (his friend of 50 years!) Jump cut: When I recently asked David might he feature the Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review I'd just edited on the BAP blog, he offered me this residency to guest blog on the subject. It seems only fitting then that, in my first post, I do exactly that. Without further adieu.... AC
Welcome! Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Yevtushenko, Brodsky. I have probably just summed up what most of us know of modern Russian poetry. And yet there could hardly be a nation more important for us to understand—or one with a greater enthusiasm for poetry. Yevtushenko’s readings used to fill football stadiums. Brodsky might have, had he not been exiled from his country as a “social parasite.” (On their worst days, poets sometimes wonder if what they do is useless. Imagine having your country tell you so officially!
But what these poets do is far from useless, and it was out of fear, not scorn, that Brodsky was expelled from the Soviet Union. As Osip Mandelstam, who died in Stalin’s prison camps, once said: “Only in Russia is poetry respected; it gets people killed. Is there another place where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” Independent thinking, a broad and humane perspective, imagination, fearless criticism, creativity itself—these are the things that repressive regimes fear most, and for which we turn to poetry and poets.
Here indeed are some chilling poems in which the personal and the political intersect, like Andrey Gritsman’s “Sarin, Soman, Tobun.” But also remarkable is the extent to which these Russian poets have refused to let political struggles dictate their agenda, finding space for free and imaginative exploration in the ample country of their own art.
At Brodsky’s trial his Soviet judge sneered, “Who enrolled you in the ranks of the poets?” “No one,” replied Brodsky. “Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?” Brodsky would go on to win the Nobel Prize and become Poet Laureate of the United States. But the young and unrecognized poet’s answer still stands: what makes an artist is not the approval of society, but the expression of one’s own humanity.
Nobel Prize or not, all poets still face the vast, snowy tundra of the blank page, with which this issue fittingly begins. And yet, from prison cells to castle keeps, Arctic to desert to Amazon jungle, they come bearing gifts of the human spirit, for which we will always be grateful.
Dan Veach, Editor & Publisher of the Atlanta Review. TABLE OF CONTENTS
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Of the canonical English poets, was there ever a finer rhymester than "rare" Ben Jonson? His poems sing; they are lyrics that require no musical accompaniment, though the impulse to set his words to music must always be great. Jonson's facility with triple rhymes is unrivaled, as in this gorgeous song from his masque Cynthia's Revels (Act I., Sc. ii.):
Slow, slow, fresh fount, keep time with my salt tears;
Yet slower, yet, O faintly gentle springs:
List to the heavy part the music bears,
"Woe weeps out her division, when she sings.
Droop herbs and flowers;
Fall grief in showers;
Our beauties are not ours":
O, I could still,
(Like melting snow upon some craggy hill, )
drop, drop, drop, drop,
Since nature's pride is, now, a withered daffodil.
Happy birthday to us, big Ben. -- DL
About twenty years ago in Nashville, when Philip Levine was Vanderbilt University’s visiting writer, there was a Burger King on 21st Avenue South, at the edge of the college’s magnolia-fringed campus. It had a large parking lot that butted up next to a place called San Antonio Taco, where Vanderbilt students lined up to buy galvanized buckets of long necked beers on ice to ease down their guacamole tacos and buffalo wings. The parking lot belonged to Burger King, but SATCO customers often parked there.
Nowadays, Panera Bread (which has replaced the Burger King) employs a large, male security guard festooned with handcuffs and a police baton to patrol the lot, making sure the spaces reserved for Panera customers go to Panera customers. But back in 1995, Burger King had a sole female employee performing that job. Anyone who’s spent time around college students can tell you it’s dangerous to get between them and their beer. So it was not unusual to see this woman – in her late fifties, early sixties – running out of Burger King in her brown polyester BK uniform, a matching kerchief flapping around her neck, a matching cap bobby-pinned to her dyed blond hair. Like a lot of people who do these kinds of jobs, she was a good employee, and took her work seriously. To discourage the students from parking where they wanted to park, she sometimes shook a rag at them, sometimes she just called out. Overwhelmingly, (of course) they ignored her. When she wasn’t trying to chase off illegal parkers, her duty was picking up trash. You’d have thought anyone could see it was a miserable job, and taken pity. Still, it was a job, right? And in 1995, she must have been making $4.25/hour – minimum wage at that time – $170/week if she worked full time. Some of the students called her the Burger Bitch. I just hope she never knew…
As it happened, my colleague and best-friend-of-Vanderbilt Creative Writing, Vereen Bell, sometimes had a cup of coffee and did a little last minute paper grading in the Burger King before crossing the street to class. It was convenient, cheap, quiet. It’s hard to describe Vereen: somewhere in his late 70s now, he’s an iconic figure at Vanderbilt where he’s taught for more than half a century, he’s pretty much transformed the English Department from its midcentury roster of white-men-teaching-white-men into the lively, diversified department it is today. (Read about Vereen here)
In the English Department, we were thrilled when Phil won the Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth on April 18, 1995. He actually took the call in his office with his door open. Vereen was in his office, across the hall, ready with a bottle of bourbon. I was in an office just a few doors down – brand new to Vanderbilt, taken aback by its surface formality and the constraints of a conservative campus culture. “Please be quiet,” warned a placard hung in the hall outside the department. “Voices can be heard from within.” I’d never been part of an English Department where talking was discouraged…
As soon as Phil confirmed he had won (“Yes. Isn’t it sweet?” he said to my colleague, Mark Jarman.), I watched in astonishment as various faculty and staff rushed up and down the hall, arms full of liquor bottles, or wrapped around trash cans, commandeered as ice buckets. Soon, a full blown party was underway in the Department’s Duncan Library. What I remember best is the expression on Phil’s face – bemused, pleased, still something a little bit held back (maybe because Franny wasn’t there). I read later that he said, of the Pulitzer, “If you take it too seriously, you’re an idiot. But if you look at the names of the other poets who have won it, most of them are damn good.” His face reflected those split emotions that afternoon.
Well, what does this have to do with the Burger Bitch, her miserable job, and her pathetic little life picking up trash and chasing drunk college students out of Burger King’s parking lot?
Just this: when Phil gave a poetry reading at Vanderbilt later that semester, Vereen Bell introduced him. The reading was packed. When it was time, Vereen unfolded his tall frame and made his way to the podium. In his slow-paced and garrulous manner, with his soothing, south Georgia accent, he began to talk, bypassing entirely the impressive literary credentials of Philip Levine. He told, instead, the story of the Burger Bitch, how he had started talking with her one day as she went about her trash-dumping duties.
“She came and sat down at the table with me,” he said. “She told me what her job was, and how hard it was, how difficult it was to get the students to listen to her.
“Then she asked me what my job was. ‘Well,’ I said, feeling a little embarrassed, ‘I teach over there at the college.’ She brightened up right away. ‘You do?’ she answered. ‘Then would you do something for me?’ ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Would you please tell those girls not to laugh at me because of my job?’”
In the audience, our own laughter, our wry smiles, the subtly self-congratulatory atmosphere we’d created around ourselves of having a Pulitzer Prize winner on faculty dissipated instantaneously.
For a few seconds – and I will never forget the feel in the room – Vereen let us sit in that.
And then he said, “Maybe you wonder why I’m telling you this story. Well, it’s because it’s the best way I can I can think of to introduce Philip Levine. He understands how that woman who works in the parking lot at Burger King feels about things. And he writes poems about it.”
Now, that introduction – so astonishingly apt, so unique in American poetry – has become Phil’s epitaph…
Kate Daniels is Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Vanderbilt University. Her most recent book is A Walk in Victoria’s Secret (LSU: 2011). It includes “Crowns,” a poem she wrote for Philip Levine.
Is it possible to know someone you’ve never met, someone who has been completely invisible to you in the flesh but has marked your life in an indelible way? This is my question in regards to the poet Paul Violi, a man I’ve never seen in person but one I’ve come to know through his Selected Poems and the descriptive, warm, and love-inducing stories shared by others who knew him for a long time or perhaps only shared a moment in his presence.
By the time I arrived in New York City, Paul had already passed away. I was studying in The New School’s MFA program, and his name was frequently heard throughout the writing classes and at poetry readings. Mysterious to me then, the goal soon became to figure out who he was as a writer and person, about his teaching style, and the way he viewed the world through an “an ever-widening hour, / where fountains in the rain / half frozen, half music, / shine with a dim dream of the sun.”
Many have written about Paul’s unusual influence; their stories are posted on this blog, and others are embedded in various writings. Memories of Paul circle around themes of gratitude, warmth, and sheer amazement at the poet’s unique capabilities. Those who sat in Paul’s classes tell of his intense focus during conversations, his generosity as both a sincere listener and a speaker who elicited “clarity drawn from darkness / song from thought.” One young man, who knew Paul only through writing, recounts how he reached out to the poet about a possible collaboration. Paul responded to his inquiry and suggested that the two have dinner. He later sent him several of his books, all in the spirit of goodwill and connection. I’m thinking of these lines from “One for the Monk of Montaudon:”
For it’s a pure and simple joy
to eat and drink with those I love,
to stay late and celebrate a few certainties
while confusion and scorn
and a few other crazy, weather-beaten guests
continue to roll across the cold floors
I love this idea of sharing a meal to fight back some of life’s crazy. It seems to be an authentic and real solution, to break bread and enjoy one another’s company amidst all our joys and difficulties. Yet, it also seems to be a rare thing in today’s world.
This was Paul’s mode of operation, though. He found happiness in connecting with others. Earlier in “One for the Monk of Montaudon,” the poet explains:
And I’m glad of a chance to meet people,
like Miss Ohio
(“five foot nine, eyes that shine”),
if for no other reason than the pleasure of shaking hands or the opportunity
of leaning into the distances
while a strand of smoke lingers, and rises,
and turns like an unheard but legible desire.
In these moments we lean into the distances with Paul. We meet others; we meet him. His scenes help us gain a tiny eye and an enlarged heart for what’s going on around us, the people whose lives are intersecting with our own.
Whether on a construction site, in a Nigerian village, or somewhere in his own thoughts, the poet’s life serves as an example of joie de vivre. In another posted tribute (there are dozens), one reader tells about the time Paul ran into the freezing North Sea wearing only his underpants, simply because the water was there and he was alive. This reminds me of his vibrant poems from Harmatan, which relay Paul’s experiences in Nigeria while serving in the Peace Corps.His work, life amongst the people, and keen observations come marching before us, instructing us to hop on the motorcycle behind him as two packs of wild dogs attack from the bush, “leaping over the handlebars, / all fangs and spit flying in strands”. There’s an intense uncertainty here, “alarm still ringing in your head,” and we question how the poet will navigate the rest of our ride.
As we think of poems, like “Index,” we see the writer splurging on language, venturing into what interests him most, things he's appreciating in the moment, the paths he questions, and even items that some of us might initially consider dull. For Paul, all of life was a poem waiting in the wings, a chance to put thoughts to paper, to expand his understanding through iterations and imaginings. Selected Poems is a memorial of the poet’s mind in motion, one that bares its musings – all of the things that can happen in an hour, the loves and losses, the knowable observations, and the darker uncertainties. His lines can bring us back to the surface, as they prompt, “Is life all you know?” Such questions remind us to breathe, to think beyond our ever-present worries. And we need these reminders, especially when we find ourselves disavowing our life’s work three times in the same day (see “Index” again).
Continuing to turn pages in Selected Poems, we see just how seriously Paul took the poetic possibilities within any situation. Poem after poem demonstrate his deep curiosity of small moments in time. It’s as if an idea twitches ever so slightly, and then the poet traces the thread, nourishing additional thoughts and fictional exploration. He takes it into something much larger and more imaginative.
So what has the poet-scholar taught us on our first day of class? If we’re willing participants, we see that there is always something on the other side. Violi left the door open for connection and further questioning. The hour widens as we sit with him, contemplating both light and weighty things, all of which seem weightier by the end of our time together.
Selected Poems will continue to transmit the teacher’s voice. I’m reminded that “it’s a good day / when the wind is pure sensation” and I can stretch out with the writing before me, meeting the poet who hummed each line, breathed each thought. At the beginning of his day, I can almost see Paul stepping out of his house in Putnam Valley, his teacher’s bag full of students’ papers and his comments. It’s early in the morning. He puts one foot past the threshold and calls forth any new or unusual thing. He’s asking someone or something to cross his path, to make itself known in a small or quiet way, and he’s smirking ever so slightly.
This week we celebrate Paul Violi’s life as a friend, poet, and teacher. On behalf of David Lehman and The New School’s Writing Program, we invite you to attend a special night honoring the poet. Please join us this Wednesday, February 11 at 6:30pm at The New School’s Wollman Hall (65 W. 11th Street). Find more information here.
Alex Bennett received her MFA from The New School in 2013. Her work has appeared in the Sosland Journal, The Best American Poetry Blog, the New School Writing Program blog, Insights Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Parsons.
Kristina Marie Darling: I have always admired the way that your texts exist in spite of, beyond, and against traditional genre categories. Your work has the denseness and lyricism of poetry, with gorgeous and fractured narratives surfacing and resurfacing. In many ways, you question genre boundaries while appropriating the conventions of existing literary genres, a project that's wonderfully ironic and subversive. To what extent do you see genre categories as gendered? Are there larger power structures in the literary community, and in the academy, that dictate genre boundaries? Is writing against them and beyond them a feminist act?
Molly Gaudry: I’m wrapping up my coursework now as a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where I’ve been spending a lot of time interrogating everything I thought I knew about genre. Is it multi-genre or mixed genre? Are these different from hybrid texts? Or non-genre texts? Do generic boundaries even exist, and, if so, where do they most rigidly appear and why? Is a crossover an invasion, a breach, a misstep, a test? Is it always transgressive? Or is it an attempt to erase, blur, break down walls? To what extent can the common reader learn to accept and appreciate that these boundaries and borderlines are, and have always been, invisible? I am struggling to answer these questions for myself.
I read something interesting recently in an anthropology essay about liminality. “Vermin” was used as a metaphor for boundary crossers. Rats and other critters that sneak into our homes, where they don’t belong, have breached the social contract. They are pests that must be taken care of, must be returned to their place. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to so many invisible boundaries socially constructed around us. The metaphor works for just about any marginalized individual, group, or social structure that attempts to move. I’ve only just begun to wonder about the broad-spectrum potential of what more play in literature might mean, what might come of more widespread generic boundary crossing, because if we can learn to be more willing to allow these shapes and forms to shift and mutate then perhaps we’ll be less rigid in other areas of our lives, too.
I’d like to continue to talk about "feminist acts.” When did you first begin to recognize, in your own work, your feminist investments?
KMD: I definitely agree that writing against genre embodies many forms of resistance, since it is often those in power who delineate genre categories. And it's frightening how these generic categories shape cultural production and the ways that we inhabit language.
I first began to recognize my feminist investments as an M.A. candidate in continental philosophy at the University of Missouri. Many of my colleagues were working within the analytic tradition, and their work drew heavily from logic and the sciences. I was immediately struck by the strict genre conventions that bound their work, and as a result, their thinking, and what was possible within their writing. Research papers always came in preferably five sections, with a clearly worded claim, a tripartite argument, and extensive footnotes. Either that, or the papers didn't make it to conferences, didn't get published, and couldn't be used as writing samples. I admired the mental discipline of these philosophers, but it was difficult not to notice one thing: out of twenty or so students in my year, I was one of two women enrolled in the program. It became cognizant of the fact that one must have access to training, and forms of writing, in order to take part in this particular conversation. And women were frequently denied access to those academic forms of writing, and the training needed to inhabit them with confidence.
In part as a result of my work in philosophy at the University of Missouri, I became interested in rendering these academic forms of writing more inclusive. My work often takes the form of footnotes, appendices, and indices, which are often filled with decidedly non-academic content (including autobiographical writing, aestheticized language, etc.). It seemed problematic to me that these academic forms of writing privilege what have always been hailed as masculine values: logic, rationality, and a scientific mindset. In many ways, my work is a small effort to carve a space for the feminine within academic forms of writing.
MG: I’m really interested in your desire to carve space for the feminine within academic forms of writing. I like to think that my own writing is “feminine,” and I feel that it is (in a Marguerite Durasian kind of way, which is quite complicated and problematic in many ways). Still, I would like to have a better idea of what I actually mean when I say, or feel, that the “feminine” is part of my overall project. I love how you say that you’re claiming the spaces of footnotes, appendices, and indices, and feminizing these constructs. I wonder how you feel about the body of the work, traditionally privileged as the primary space of the text. How important is it to you to claim it for yourself? Or, conversely, to what extent would you want to reject it? What does it mean to you to rethink and reenvision these secondary spaces, like footnotes, which traditionally function to support the primary text, or even tertiary spaces, like appendices and indices?
KMD: That’s a great question. For me, the desire to privilege the body of the work over marginalia reflects many of the implicit hierarchies within language. I’m very interested in what happens when the hierarchies are reversed, when the margins become the main text. In this sense, I suppose I am claiming the main text for myself, but in other ways, I’m trying to redefine what we think of as the main text, to shift the reader’s attention to things that currently only occupy the periphery of their field of vision.
Some readers could certainly see this use of form as a feminist statement about women’s voices being pushed to the margins, but I’m more intrigued by what is possible within those marginal spaces. When the individual subject is (socially and formally) marginalized, they have nothing left to lose, and there is a kind of freedom in that. They are not burdened by the pressures of inhabiting the main text, as they do not have to create a narrative arc, a logical sequence of events, or speak in a way that we recognize as legible. For me, this reversal of main text and marginal text affords the possibility of working outside of accepted ideas about logic, coherence, and narrative structures. It is a subversion of not only hierarchies imposed upon language and various types of cultural texts, but it is a subversion of reason itself. I think this is why I’m so drawn to academic forms of writing. They represent our definitions of logic and legibility, but also the structures of power and authority, and the social inequities, that our ideas about reason give rise to.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about the relationship between your life as an academic and your wonderfully experimental work. In what ways do your scholarly interests intersect with your creative work? To what extent do you find your creative work resisting, or reacting against, aspects of academic culture? I'm thinking of the strange genres one must learn and make oneself fit into (like the job letter), as well as the connection (even though we all try to deny it) between these academic genres and structures of power and authority....
MG: I love what you said there about being intrigued by what is possible within marginal spaces and not being burdened by the pressures of inhabiting the main text. There really is a freedom in that, isn’t there?
I’m about to begin my last-ever semester of being a full-time student. I’ll be taking Lance Olsen’s Experimental Forms, and I’ll be sitting in on Melanie Rae Thon’s Narrative Theory and Practice. Both of these professors used the word “liminality” in their syllabus, and between now and the end of the semester I hope to have a much stronger grasp on what this means and how it might be applied to the literature I’m most drawn to as a reader, and how it applies to my own work, which I hesitate to call “experimental.” It’s interesting, actually: before the PhD, I would have used the word “experimental” quite freely, but I’m a lot more cautious with it now. This is a result of Michael Mejia’s fiction workshop, during which I began to wonder to what extent we might generally think of “innovation” as the goal or successful outcome of “experiment” (and perhaps it is the experiment, then, that is our most valuable practice). I’m not sure, though, that I’m ready to call my own work experimental (and if it’s not an experiment, then it’s not by this logic innovative), because although it may look illegible on the page, it still privileges characters’ psychological logic-making abilities, and, as a result, it is concerned with overall legibility and accessibility. In short, I write novels. I inhabit the main text. I work hard to create narrative arcs and characters with deep psychologies. All I am doing is reshaping the novel form, which is nothing new, if we consider the novel’s history to be monstrous and all-devouring, and so to turn to poetic forms that predate novels and recall even older traditions seems in some ways backward-looking as opposed to forward-looking. I don’t know. What do you think?
KMD: I'm fascinated by your definition of the experiment as a text which strives for innovation. So much of the time texts are lauded as experimental when they simply reproduce familiar structures of thinking and writing. But I think that there's more to innovation than just the text. For me, part of innovation is the relationship a text creates between the artist and his or her audience. Many of the books that I consider the most innovative, or the most experimental, imagine the story, or the poem, or the novel as a collaborative endeavor, in which the reader participates actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. This collaborative relationship between reader and writer, text and audience is something that the Lit Pub represents for me (and of course, your novels represent this as well). I think that your work is especially fascinating in that it prompts us to re-imagine the boundaries between text and reader, and between self and other. The text, or the magazine, or the press, represents not just a message or an overarching narrative, but a community. This is innovative, in my opinion, because it privileges process over product, allowing one to exist in a constant state of becoming.
In this respect, I think that we have a lot in common as publishers and cultural producers. I see my small press, Noctuary Press, not as a group of texts, or a project with an overarching message, but rather, as a forum for a dialogue. Noctuary Press is a starting point, a touchstone for conversations about what constitutes genre, the dangers of genre categories, and the gender politics inherent in our definitions of genre. I love being surprised by reviewers' interpretations of Noctuary Press books, as well as creative responses and collaborations that our books have given rise to. Pank Magazine published a wonderful creative engagement with Carol Guess's F IN, a review by J/J Hastain, which is a wonderfully innovative text in its own right. And I'm always happy to hear about our texts being taught in creative writing classes.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your work with the Lit Pub. How did you envision your contribution to the publishing landscape initially? How did this vision change shape after you had started publishing?
MG: I’m interested in what you say about the relationship between writer, text, and audience. I’m thinking of Iser’s field of play, and where we as authors attempt to position readers, from page to page, or even from line to line, particularly with ergodic texts like yours, privileging rhetorical metalepsis, paratext, and even parody (or reclamation) of paratextual spaces. And texts that, in both of our cases, play with readers’ desires to fill in narrative gaps, what’s left untold and unsaid (and where, and why). So even as focalization may not be first and foremost on my creative agenda, it’s definitely there in the process of struggling with the creation of a text that problematizes both overreading and underreading, even as I (think I) privilege voice.
As for Noctuary Press and Lit Pub — actually, let me just jump in here first and further praise j/j hastain as an inspired writer and critic — I see Lit Pub, as you see Noctuary, as a starting point. Where you say Noctuary offers up a starting point for dialogue, I add that Lit Pub is a starting point for authors, a launching pad for careers on the rise, a place for mostly first books to emerge. Previous titles do influence what the catalog has room for in the future, which means I’m always looking for something new, something the catalog doesn’t yet offer. In this way, there is room for dialogues about the texts, but what those conversations may be surprise even me from book to book, author to author.
Actually, this brings up another point I’d like to talk about — you are a powerhouse in terms of your own academic and creative achievements alone, but add to these your literary citizenship, your press’s and authors’ contributions to the contemporary literary scene, and the countless awards, residencies, and fellowships you’ve earned, and I have to ask you a question I’ve often been asked: How do you do it all? And a followup I’m rarely asked: How do you balance your public and personal lives?
KMD: Thank you for your kind words about my work and Noctuary… It definitely means a lot coming from a writer as accomplished as you! I think your questions are great, too, and professionalization is something that definitely doesn’t get talked about enough in graduate school.
I do get asked from time to time how I’m able to go to residencies, publish books, etc., especially at a relatively young age. My answer tends to be very anti-climatic and unpopular. Most graduate students enter an MFA or a PhD program and feel an intense pressure to professionalize once they start the program. But I started sending out work when I was in eighteen years old, and started applying for residencies and fellowships when I was an undergraduate. In retrospect, this was a good thing to do, because once I entered a graduate program, I didn’t have to learn the forms of academic and professional writing (like artist statements, cover letters, and project proposals). I already had application materials ready to go. Now applying for residencies, fellowships, and other opportunities seems manageable, since it’s a fairly familiar process. The practice I had early in my career really helped.
But this doesn’t mean that I’m a good planner, or that I look ahead. I took a poetry workshop when I was an undergraduate at Washington University and it just ran away with me. I loved everything about it and couldn’t wait to be part of the poetry community. I wanted to start reviewing books, going to residencies, and meeting other poets right away. I’m still very engaged in the literary community, and it’s out of sheer love for what I do every day. And how many doctors and stock brokers can say that?
In terms of balancing personal and professional lives, I don’t think the two can really be separated. Many professional opportunities have led to great friendships. For example, I met Carol Guess when I was promoting my book, Melancholia, and now consider her a friend and terrific mentor. I met my friend and collaborator, Max Avi Kaplan, at a residency at Vermont Studio Center (something that I saw as a purely professional opportunity at the time). I really believe that if you love what you do, you will love the people you encounter, so it’s never really been a challenge to balance personal and professional lives. I do wish, though, that I had a few more hours in every day.
While we’re on the subject of literature and community… I’ve always seen you as someone who is an exemplary literary citizen, contributing exciting work while giving back to others and supporting projects you believe in in multiple ways (publishing, promoting, collaborating). How did literary citizenship begin for you? How did you see yourself in relation to a larger community when you began writing, and how did that relationship you envisioned change over time?
MG: That’s a really nice way to look at the intersection between the professional and personal. As for my own literary citizenship, it really came into focus for me in 2008, when I read Blake Butler’s blog post, “Where did Lucy purchase her new vagina?” Overlooking the problematic title, I offer that the post itself is a call to action, a list of to-dos anyone can do. I’m not sure if I was already editing online journals before that post, but I know I felt empowered when I read it, and I always trace my own service back to Blake’s. He served as a model for me, back in 2008, and inspired my own writing and my ideas of why I should be engaged with others’ writing.
And, to answer your question: when I first began writing (as a creative writing major at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the nation’s only public K-12 school of the arts), I wasn’t even thinking about publication, for instance. Even as I made my way into an undergraduate English major, I was pretty intensely focused on the work (arrogantly so, at that), and I’m not sure I even knew a larger “writing community” existed. I probably had some conception of the “publishing industry” existing solely of Cheever types, and that, if lucky, maybe a young writer would get a story in The New Yorker followed by a Random House book deal. It really wasn’t until after my early interactions with Blake and others in the online community that my perception of what writers, and writing, and publishing could be — truly, an interconnected network of readers and writers of all ages everywhere exemplifying the best attributes of the spirit of from-the-ground-up, community-focused, Internet-enabled grassroots culture-shifting movements.
Julie Babcock's stunning first collection of poems, Autoplay, offers spare, carefully crafted lyrics that are as familiar as they are uncanny. By invoking the seemingly tame imagery of Midwestern cities, the poems in this striking collection lull the reader into a sense of complacency, only to skillfully undermine this expectation that they will encounter a familiar narrative. As the book unfolds, Babcock excavates violence, discontent, and enchantment from beneath an unremarkable exterior—marked by "the green hills of the gold course," "baby-sitters," and "breath against the mirror"—restoring a sense of both danger and wonder to everyday life. In doing so, Babock offers the reader a perfect matching of form and content, particularly as her stylistic dexterity illuminates and complicates the content of the work itself.
With that in mind, Babcock's use of received literary forms to deliver unexpected content is particularly impressive. She draws a parallel between inherited modes of writing (of which couplets, tercets, and quatrains are only a few examples) and the Midwestern cultural landscape, suggesting that both have been made to seem inhospitable to creative endeavors, but can give rise to stunning imaginative work if we allow them to. She writes in "Ohio Apologia,"
A twin can never divide her wealth.
I planned to go where I'd never melt
into a mold of virgin or slut.
I wanted to love you to love myself.
I crossed the rivers with my bag of stealth
my story line revised and trussed,
but a twin can never divide her wealth.
Here Babcock simultaneously inhabits a traditional literary form and received ideas about femininity, suggesting that one can work within these bits of inherited culture to expand what is possible within them. In much the same way that the speaker herself is "twinned," her story line is "revised and trussed," suggesting the inherent instability of both literary traditions and narratives of identity. Autoplay is filled with beautifully crafted poems like this one, which offer a carefully constructed relationship between style and content.
Along these lines, I found Babcock's use of domestic imagery compelling and provocative, especially as she suggest the violence inherent in being confined to a given place. She creates a wonderful tension between the confines of formal poetry and the volatility of the images contained within these formally pristine edifices, suggesting the inevitable discontent with one's origins. Consider "Autoplay,"
I am the baby-sitter. She
is snuggled so close
we might be one.
We hear a noise
and flee the house.
"We're safe," I say, as we jump
on the outdoor trampoline.
For Babcock, a particular place entails not just mere surroundings, but specific gender roles, modes of communication, and narratives of identity. In much the same way that the speakers' voices are contained within neatly presented tercets, couplets, and pantoums, the violence inherent in narratives of place is also subsumed within these orderly forms. What's fascinating about this tension between style and content is the way that Babcock subtly suggests that conflict, and contradiction, can reside beneath a seemingly un-rippled surface. Like many of the poems in Autoplay, this piece is as beautifully crafted as it is self-aware. This is a stunning debut, and Babcock is a poet to watch.
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.