Classroom Marginalia

June 24, 2015

For the past few years 32 Poems has partnered with a number of high school and undergraduate instructors to help introduce young poets and readers to the pleasures of contemporary poetry. Our editors visit classes in person or via Skype and in several cases students have had the opportunity to speak directly with the poets they’re reading. Some of our favorite collaborations have been with Christopher McCurry’s classes at Lafayette High School in Lexington, KY and this spring McCurry’s students responded to the work in 32 Poems 12.2 with a variety of essays and meditations modeled on the personal reflections we gather in our Contributors’ Marginalia Series.  Frankly, their work and their enthusiasm for the poetry blew us away, so today we’d like to share the responses of three students in a feature we’re calling “Classroom Marginalia.”

Below, you’ll find a reflection on Charles Harper Webb’s “We Rarely Mark When They’ve Occurred” from Laura Biggs, a graduating senior with fresh perspective on “lasts.”  You’ll also read Kyle Deaton’s “Translating MMA”; Deaton gives us a martial artists’ response to Ricardo Pau-Llosa’s “Reflections at MMA Masters, Miami.” Finally, you’ll see Aiden Ziliak’s dramatization of a late night conversation via text in which two students discuss Brittany Perham’s “Double Portrait.” We hope the contributions of students like these will become a regular part of the discussion we host here on the 32 Poems Blog.

We also want to make a special point of thanking Christopher McCurry for the incredible work he does to share poetry with his students and to celebrate those students’ own poems and essays. He’s the teacher we wish we had in high school.

(*Instructors interested in partnering with our 32 Classrooms program this fall should contact George David Clark,, for more information.)


A (Soon-to-be) High School Graduate on “We Rarely Mark When They’ve Occurred
By Laura Briggs

I am ten days away from my high school graduation, so it’s apparent why I was particularly partial to this poem when I first read it in 32 Poems. The first stanza’s blunt fragments steamrolled over me: “last pot roast… last blood red sunrise.” As I moved through the poem for the first time, I couldn’t help but see the piece in two different lights. First, there was the celebratory graduation experience, evoked by phrases like “each day is a new bride.” But there are unavoidable parallels to a much darker severance. Charles Harper Webb elegantly and concisely explores the treasured events and people that we, for one reason or another, cannot take with us “aboard the future’s 747.”

“Whack!” marks a definitive shift in the poem from the sentimentalities of the first two stanzas; the sharp transition mimics the fast and unexpected ways in which our lives are altered. When this “pole-axe” inevitably comes to relocate us, we clutch to our memories. Their garb of “brilliant tie-dyed tee-shirts” evokes a childhood summertime activity, a fabric drenched in dyes that fade with each trip in the washing machine. From the mention of these memories, Webb progresses into a poignant sensory description of his personal “lasts,” which appear to be specific to the scenery of his infancy—mentions of “papaya” and “plumeria” indicate that final experiences are not always due to death, but sometimes to a change in one’s environment.

The most precious aspect of this piece is its brevity and precision; every word and phrase carries equal weight. Just thinking of one’s “last healthy day” reminds us not just about our own mortality but also of the slow decay that accompanies the end of life, provoking a panicked frenzy that grows with each passing minute of aging. Each line of a stanza is indented further on the page, cascading towards the right margin before regressing back to the left with every new stanza. While this structure parallels the catharsis of a fresh start with every stanza, it also indicates the struggle to progress when one is attached to a previous way of life.

As the poem concludes, the parallels between celebratory and mournful transitions fade, and the final stanza ends on a note that suggests that ends are not only necessary but beneficial. The “satisfied” feeling of conclusion, even the conclusion of a poem, is vital to progress and a full life. Although the poem originally gave me “all the feels,” it actually left me inspired in the end. We can all wish that we knew when our “last home run” would occur, but to linger on these moments without punctuating them is contrary to our own best interests. This poem will hopefully give me wisdom as I walk across the stage and toss my cap into the air, putting a period (or preferably an exclamation mark) on one stanza of my life and capitalizing the next.

Laura Briggs is a native of Lexington, Kentucky. She will be attending Emory University in the fall to study chemistry and dance.


Translating MMA
By Kyle Deaton

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of martial arts is that at its very base, it is a form of poetry. Avid fans of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) are usually transfixed on the physical savagery of the sport: the blood, the broken bones, and of course, the constant cycle of humiliation/exaltation as legends lose and underdogs win.  Reading through this compilation of poetry I was enraptured by the elegance of Ricardo Pau-Llosa’s “Reflections at MMA Masters, Miami,” and his translation of the true beauty of martial arts.

One would find it difficult to fluently understand this piece in full if they were not very aware of whom “Bellows”, “Ballanchine”, and “Rilke” are and what they do. Instead of inundating this text with biographies, it should suffice to say that the first listed is a painter, while the second is a famous ballet choreographer, and the last a poet. Each allusion grafts martial arts into the larger landscape of art: part dance, part poetry, part painting.

Ricardo describes the art of MMA, “a plosive clap”, “stone torsos ride the wheel of blurs”, “bodies jitter and glide” as the collision of vehemently programed men interlock their training and prowess in physical altercation. These men contrast their ability of attacking, counterattacking, and trapping all at once. The art is in the person’s ability to instantaneously translate the memories of constant drills into an applicable response to the opponent. Ricardo shows the striking similarity to painting along with dance in that paint is the art of translating a mental picture onto a canvas and dance is the art of turning emotion into physical expression.

His last two stanzas beautifully articulate what every martial artist knows all too well physically:

“They stop to think their suddenness, wrap tight

their wrists, and resume to bleed all chance
from the coming battle. For this they yearn to endure
the timeless sharpening, to promontory from the fog
of the quotidian and earn a victory that will not hide
in hope or prophesy. A fairer art, to fight.” (15-20)

A fighter goes through constant agony from drill after drill in hopes that all that he or she learns can be put into actual competition against someone else who has taken the same exact measures to obtain the exact same goal. That is, to see to it that all prophecies of your victory will come true and those who spoke them are not false prophets. A victory that will no longer “hide in hope or prophecy” but that will emerge from the “fog” of numbed repetition. Pau-Llosa’s rhythms remind us of the fighter’s assiduous process of sanctification. Everyday is spent on mats tediously ironing out reaction time, strength, and pain resistance. All serious fighters train to perfect their combat art in focused ambition.

What Ricardo truly does here is not restricted solely to fighters. All art perpetually drives the walls of originality in poetry outward into unexplored realms including the world of mixed martial arts.

Kyle is going into his freshman year at Asbury University and presently has 14 years of martial arts experience.


On Brittany Perham’s “Double Portrait
By Aidan Ziliak


/have you heard of Brittany Perham/

\not really\

/the poet?/
/she’s good/
/read Double Portrait, it’s on


\that was good\


\i liked how it wasn’t about how romantic the ‘old way’ was\

/yeah nothing’s changed/

\but also how dumb it is that we obsess over texting back\

/I dunno/
/I feel like her point wasn’t that it’s dumb/
/just that it’s the same really/

\but the woman in the past “arrived at a moral”\
\which you can’t do after only an hour of waiting for a text back\

/I think that ‘moral’ thing is totally ironic/
/she doesn’t even imply what the moral is/
/it’s making fun of stupid didactic Romantic stories/

\i guess\
\the whole poem is super ironic\
\that’s why I think she’s making fun of the constantly-in-contact culture\


/”White-Sailed Ship”/
/and “Tropical Paradise” versus “Promising Pioneering Paradise”/
/she gives them names like brands to lampoon the symbolism of rebirth and opportunity/
/because it’s not really a rebirth for the protagonist/
/it’s a burden/

\but the way Perham relates it to the present\
\it’s like the experience is silly, but valid\

/the speaker seems to relate the experience to a teenage romance/
/”but she didn’t die.  She got older.”/
/it’s anti-Romeo and Juliet/
/stupid teenage assholes/


\I don’t know if it’s really anti-Romeo and Juliet\
\because she doesn’t dismiss the validity of the relationship\

/I dunno/


\Perham’s narrator is a romantic, I think\
\but she’s also a Millennial so she’s self-aware\
\like how the poem transitions from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to ‘Sex and the City’\
\”grand furnishings dark rum an infinity pool”\
\she’s emphasizing the vapidity of the experience\
\the same experience that’s keeping the speaker’s significant other from responding\
\rather than actual physical boundaries\
\it’s just the boundary between the two people\
\so it’s more intimate but also less so\
\because the list is irrelevant\
\there are no ships with letters or lovers\
\just indifference\
\so the speaker’s really sincere about the grief in this texting process\


/”same moon!”/
/dat me lol/
/it seems more self-aware than romantic tho/
/it’s an ironic grief poem/
/where the “CambridgeMassachusettsInWinter-Gray window” is just a symbol for the absence of the object of ur longing/
/and the “widow’s walk” could just be the walk from your bed to the toilet/
/and the whole grief process with the whiskey and dying expectation of the letter could just be in a few minutes/
/it’s a skeptic analyzing her own behavior/


/like I see myself in this/
/if someone doesn’t respond I feel like the lover sending texts via “the Very Next White Ship”/
/and I know that it’s dumb that I feel that way/
/which is how I think Perham’s speaker sees it/
/the feeling is honest but the speaker knows it’s dumb/


/are you reading this? will you be writing back?/

Aidan Ziliak is a senior at Lafayette High School, class of ’15.

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Eric Linsker’s Iowa Poetry Prize-winning La Far is a rare type of book that, while innovative both formally and conceptually, feels immediately familiar through its deft engagement with a common poetic concern: the operation of written language in the material world and how this language both bolsters and challenges our perceived and lived-in reality. To do this, many of Linsker’s poems strategically introduce more transgressive techniques, such as the bracketing of words and lines, or the repetition of a single title for a succession of multiple short poems.

Through Linsker’s fascination with linguistically-formed objects (such as the sections of “Dongzhou Sea,” each of which maintains an interrelated autonomy from the surrounding sections) and the slippages that occur among and between these objects, the poems in La Far argue that the primary existence of and interaction with objects takes place within the mind of a conscious perceiver. Lexicons (largely unique to each individual poem, as quoted and described below) establish a discursive space for each poem; repeated sounds and words engender this space, which is both sonic and conceptual. The specific lexicons act as a generative constraint upon both poem and reader. The discursive element emerges as the poems ask each reader to engage (via Linsker’s already established lexicon) with the deliberately constricting sonic and linguistic space of the poem. The poems of La Far, then, place the reader’s imagination in a verbal and sonic box, and ask the reader to find meaning without reaching out of this limiting space. In “Facts after Baudelaire,” Linsker writes,

Where a sleeping man drew a clear theory
Like a fresh shape in wet sand

Dropped more shapes over sand
Than ever and they give us more drugs
What if you published our trains
Of thought in prominent ally-like theory
Would you find the mind a sleeping pentagon
Drugs drugs drugs drugs there

The repetition of “theory” and “drugs” establishes a discursive space for the poem, within which slides and rotations of language and objects occur. From the section’s initial “draw[ing]” in wet sand, which occurs in the horizontal dimension, it moves into a vertical space: “dropped more shapes,” which then shifts into an immaterial space indicated by thought and the “sleeping pentagon” of the mind. In nearly all of Linsker’s poems, the mind retains primacy over both language and object. His poems provide the reader’s mind with enough linguistic traction, stability, and repetition (recalling the discursive lexicons mentioned earlier) to navigate the book’s experimental abstraction. Yet the poems are often abstract; objects float through them and are moved by language. The poem calls the mind not to dominate language and object, but to navigate them in a manner dependent on reason and interpretation. Repetition, concepts (trains, motion, momentum), and sounds enable the mind to move through and find meaning within “Facts after Baudelaire,” and La Far as a whole relies upon the mind’s perceptions and its control of language and object to draw out layers within each poem.

“Irreversibility Ode” likewise displays Linsker’s dexterity with controlling the fluid geometry of poems. The long poem is divided into twelve sections, and section four begins:

aerial limning
trees are all my consciousness allows, and branches
compensatory effects of power
I again have nothing and am running into such resistance

While this excerpt refers to few physical objects (“trees” and “branches”), it presents them as accessories that the conscious mind of the poet translates and permits. The “compensatory effects of power” may refer to power immanent in the natural objects, or in the mind itself—either way, nature is keyed to perception, and phenomenological awareness guides the course of the poems. Here and elsewhere, Linsker uses sound to gesture and transition in his poems—in this example, the frequently recurring “s” sound, prevalent in the second and third lines, is all but absent in the final line, paralleling the speaker’s lack of possession and “resistance,” as the persona is, perhaps, unable to fully articulate and rotate the “trees” and “branches” of nature into consciousness.

La Far rarely falters, but on the few occasions that it does, the book suffers from an over-extension of its own methods of language-manipulation and alteration. Linsker’s writing commonly defamiliarizes the subject material and articulation of his poems; as many have theorized, defamiliarization often forces the reader to fall back into a generative space of interpretation at the levels of language, motion, and perception. But some poems lack efficacy when they draw out the process of defamiliarization. This results in primarily conceptual pieces such as “We’re So Social Now,” whose energy seems already depleted as the poem begins to deconstruct itself. “We’re So Social Now” begins with a series of brief, declarative lines (“We’re so social now / SO SOCIAL / SO SOCIAL”) that then lengthen and begin to switch and intersperse words and letters, until the lines are intentionally illegible:

new is job
Muddy candy w. Newbe stow efn new is job
Dental cost who pro irons
sfhfjn lnrpwlxamsnt z fond

While this is a fascinating experimental technique, it’s indulgent and poorly paced; the exercise holds more interest than its implementation, and the poem does not substantially add to La Far’s ambitious project. Unlike the majority of Linsker’s other poems, “We’re So Social Now” prioritizes the experiment above the poetry, and the piece consequently focuses excessively on its own method. As the poem exhausts its own energy, so it excludes the reader from participation in its unfolding thematic work. Lines become (intentionally) jumbled and difficult to read—not an inherently exclusive technique—but the poem has already taken too long in making its point and repeats its method without engaging the reader’s interest by adding new methodological or conceptual material. “Figure,” another of Linsker’s longer poems, handles the form more successfully—the poem introduces new linguistic functions throughout its eight pages, does not exhaust the limit of any formal or experimental devices, and consequently does not feel that it has “arrived” before its own conclusion. The poem’s lines differ in tone and content; lines range from the direct and philosophical: “I can only observe the other [it used to be]—I would have to begin / as the object,” to the evasively abstract: “[what we call describing a technique] / [what we call nor to tell time] / [the voluntary] [one slick side].” Although the language of “Figure” resists normative syntax and composition, it engages with more than its own decomposition, and draws the reader into a compelling meditation on images and subjective perception.

Despite the occasional minor misstep, La Far stands as a lasting poetic landmark. Linsker’s bold forays into language and object manipulation, while maintaining a firmly grounded lexicon, press our understanding of poetry and of the mind in relation to externality. La Far advocates not a blind or negatively controlling engagement with objects outside of the mind, but rather a generous and permissive awareness of the inherent difference of objects and the manners in which we guide and alter them. Linsker permits us to treat the world with imagination and allows a theory of mind, an autonomy that resists domination, to pervade objects and others outside of ourselves and our poems.

—Connor Fisher

Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He received an MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.


Prose Feature: “A Place of Could-Have-Been”: An Interview with Brittany Cavallaro by Emilia Phillips

May 29, 2015

Brittany Cavallaro’s first collection of poems, Girl-King, was the Editor’s Choice for the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Akron Press in early 2015. Individual poems have appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Gettysburg Review, and the Best New Poets anthology, among others. The recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the […]

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Prose Feature: “The Genius of the Medium: Identity and Alterity in Poetic Practice” by Bruce Bond

May 15, 2015

by Bruce Bond When I was an undergraduate at Pomona College in the mid-seventies, the question of the authority of personal narrative in poetry versus a less “I-centered” approach was still a matter of some controversy. On the one hand, Sylvia Plath was hugely popular, as was Allen Ginsberg, and on the other hand, the […]

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32 Cento

May 11, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Brittany Perham on 32 Poems 12.2. 32 Poems, Volume 12, Number 2, came in the mail on a winter afternoon, which, where I am in San Francisco, means fog coming up from the beach, over the tops of the houses and down into the streets. I read the issue straight through at the […]

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