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32 Poems

Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of the memoir Bring Down the Little Birds and four poetry collections: Milk and Filth, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. Milk and Filth was a finalist for the NBCC Award in Poetry. She is the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award, the 2011 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and a 2011-2012 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Howard Foundation. She recently co-edited the anthology Angels of the Americplyse: New Latin@ Writing (Counterpath, 2014). A CantoMundo Fellow, and she is the publisher of Noemi Press. She teaches in the creative writing MFA program at New Mexico State University.

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor: In your long numbered poem “Parts of an Autobiography” from your most recent collection Milk and Filth, you write: “My mouths don’t speak the same language.” I’m compelled by the idea that there’s a kind of untranslatability within all of us, between our thoughts and actions, our motives and our excuses, the language we first experienced as children and the language we now speak. Would you mind talking a little bit about this poem? Also, do you see yourself as having more than one means to speak? What are these languages, literal and figurative?

Carmen Giménez Smith: In Tongue Ties: Logo-Eroticism in Anglo-Hispanic Literature, Gustavo Perez Firmat (h/t Rosa Alcalá) distinguishes Spanish for the bilingual speaker, as lengua, idioma, or lenguaje. The differences he describes are both political and personal. He writes, for example, “Whereas a speaker possesses his tongue entirely, an idioma, no matter how native, is possessed incompletely.” I have intimacy with Spanish, my mother tongue, which is the language for most of my emotional life. I also know English through Spanish; I see the etymological, and thus historical, relationships and implications that Latinate words. For a long time, English was a mountain I had to conquer. Add to that the ideas regarding inscribing the female body that I learned in college, and you’ve got a cacophony of discourses that, as a poet, I attempt to synthesize and illustrate. “Parts of an Autobiography” is a poem that tries to integrate these discourses into a singular lyric voice, whose historical backdrop is the confessional poetry of second wave feminists. Poets like Anne Sexton or Adrienne Rich were willing to write about how their private lives were shaped under the dominion of patriarchy, and both of them were hugely formative poets for me. Add to that the complex class-based dictions we use in the U.S. as currency—the language of the academy, the language of the intellectual—and how I, a daughter of immigrants, integrates and resists them playfully and deliberately, and there you have my various languages. I grew up seeing (a very specific type of) English as a key that opened doors my parents were unable to open, but as a poet I can play with how I inscribe myself, which is a big part of the poem’s ambition: the autobiography of my feminism.

EP: The idea of an autobiography of belief is compelling. For me, language itself is a kind of belief system, in that it’s based on habit. Repetition, however, has the potential to anesthetize the meaning of the action. Have you ever done anything to shake up your language before starting a new poem? Listened to records backwards or read earlier incarnations of language? How important is it for poets to constantly reposition themselves in their relationship with words?

CGS: I constantly try to re-position my relationship with language, so for example, I try to imagine the directions that syntax can take, especially if I use it as music. I teach a lesson (that appears in the Wingbeats II book published by Dos Gatos Press), in which I write a poem backwards, thinking in part of Emily Dickinson who said: “Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you?” Bringing basic syntactical order consumes my frittery brain and in the meanwhile my subconscious constructs a tentative logic. An image system might be reversed, which can be interesting. I get excellent raw material this way. Lately I’ve been working on poems that approach the lyric subject using spoken word and testimonio as models.

EP: Could you tell me a little bit more about how spoken word and testimonio influence these new poems? How do you go about writing them? Do you find the lyric subject morphing under this approach?

CGS: When “literary” poetry talks about spoken word they often elide over the politics, particularly the identity politics, which underlie it. I did that a lot too, although I knew there was something about the bearing witness part of it that always drew me to the music and rhythm of a lot of this work. My thinking about this was very diffuse for a long, and then I went to the CantoMundo Conference in Austin, which brings together a wide range of Latino poets together—all of whom have very different aesthetics— to write and talk about poetry for a few days. I hadn’t ever had an experience like that, which is why I keep returning. Besides meeting and spending time with enormous talents, I also got to hear some amazing spoken word artists like Leticia Hernandez, Denice Frohman, Peggy Sue Robles, Urayoan Noel, and Elizabeth Acevedo. I felt like there was something more electric in those readings, a charge that I tried to bring to my own reading of poems that suddenly felt a little stale, a little stuffy. Along with my desire to really investigate and create new pressures for the lyric self, I used the influence of these poets and also the idea of testimonio—community, orality, and history—to write poetry that might possibly speak to and/or respond to crisis and trauma. The lyric is an oral tradition, after all, and we’ve lost touch with how the texture and proximity of the human voice is exactly what poetry needs to be a tool for change.

EP: There’s an idea floating around that most contemporary poets write for the page rather than the voice. When you start writing, do you go with a bit of language—sound—or a shape on the page? Or at what point do you negotiate form with sound in your poems?

CGS: Form for me is driven by syntax, by the length of a sentence, so I suppose I don’t often write for the page. White space makes me nervous, and I like the clutter of a dense poem. I do think that I determine different stanza lengths and shapes as the rhetoric of the poem becomes clearer through revision. The very first outburst is often a strongly-worded claim or image that I examine and put into different contexts and settings. I aspire to write bold shifts and so there seems to be an inherent amount of establishing fertile ground for them (the shifts) as a poem progresses. And I also imagine there’s a certain measure of time and sound when leaving the poem, so sometimes I’ll write XXXXXXX, which means I don’t have the words yet, but I can sense the pace.

I’ve tried being a thinkier poet, a poet with more air and clouds and logic, but I love chaos and not-knowing in poetry. I’m rooted in the body, so I write for a human voice.

EP: Does your rooting in the body play into the use of persona?

CGS: Absolutely. I think the (Latina) body is a persona in Milk & Filth; its eros, temperature, topography, and becoming are depicted in complex and sometimes problematic frames that I contest in several of the poems. It’s also a reckoning with myself. Like many women, I struggle with what my body looks like in the world, and as a feminist, that struggle is also political. The body could be the final and most difficult sites for feminist revision, so I don’t think I’m done working through the body.

EP: I can’t help but think about one’s “body of work” and how we personify our writing when we talk about it. We “get to know” a piece. We talk about the “conversations” between texts. I know writers who talk to their writing during the drafting process. A poem might “insist” something to the poet. It wanders. It comes back to us. Do you see your poetry as having a separate personality, its own life? Is a poem a kind of body?

CGS: I sometimes think about poetry being a place in flux, with both light and no light, and the actual work of poetry is charting that place, of which we (hopefully) know little about. Negative capability is where the light goes out and the poet has to navigate through her other senses, and it’s where the very best moments of a poem are. BTW, I’m thinking about both the narrow Keatsian NC centered around the epiphany, and also those moments of acquiescence during which a writer/artist/what-have-you gets past the urges of her own will. In this way, my does have its own life, and its own force insofar that I let it capacious because that’s always to my advantage. I sometimes like reading a poem in order to deduce where the poet experienced negative capability, where she responded to a counter-logical insistence.

EP: When you read a poem that is really working for you, how does it make you feel? Does it get you like a good beat in a song? Does it take over your emotional state?

CGS: There’s this (probably made up by Wikipedia) state called autonomous sensory meridian response, which people often experience through music, although it could be felt in lots of contexts. It happens when I listen to Whitney Houston, for example. I get goosebumps and I’m washed over by this tingle that tells me I’m confronting otherworldly goodness. I get it from poetry too. Many poetry books take over my emotional state, but I’m a pretty willing accomplice. I’m very evangelical about what a great poem (the word great is shitty, but I didn’t want to say transcendent) can generate, so when I read a great poem, I’m also immediately looking behind the curtain to determine how the poet did what she did. Since I was a kid, every word has looked to me like what it represents, so reading is very visceral, it absolutely consumes me. When I was an undergraduate at San Jose State University, I saw Lucille Clifton read her Shapeshifter Poems, and the room was like a church and several people were weeping, including me. I thought, yes, (only) language can do this.

EP: What’s your (current) favorite poem you’ve ever written? Mind reproducing it in part here and taking us through the poem? Why do you like it? What does this poem offer you that nothing else can in your life?

CGS: I think the most proximal and most vexing poem to any poet is the favorite because it keeps us interested, busy. Right now I’m finishing work (if that can happen) on a long poem called “Post-Identity” that started a few years ago as an exercise in anger and lyric, but has become more complicated. I wanted to see how much syntax I could pull out of the lyric to get at the music and see how much subjectivity comes through. That might just be a fancy way of saying it’s a repetitive poem, but I do like the idea of incantation and insistence. I’ve also opened myself to a wider field of influence: poets like Edwin Torres, Urayoan Noel, and Lety Hernandez Linares who engage with performance and culture in ways that seduce me, frankly. I’ve really had to push myself out of a certain affect that feels attained and rewarding, but attained and rewarding sounds like retirement. I’m an impulsive and restless person, and although that hasn’t always served me well in life, it certainly has helped me push myself as a poet, and this series is very different for me. I’m always going to be a lyric poet, so I felt like I wanted to see what was possible. I hope I get to get to do that for a long time. Here’s a little bit of it the poem, which appeared in VOLT:

Am I just a brown-winged dove    and can you modify your art
to accommodate my precious otherness    I can do that too even
outside of chicanery   and yes we’re friends tho I’m possibly that friend
you tally on your list of goodwill thank you when you domesticate my
otherness btw     but when we do integrate take it to the next level and
stop pretending that your gesture isn’t wan phoned-in slightly scared
of its potential to offend the august king    those other ones pretend
since they’re still false hope and Woodstock  and bobo  hocked our asses
for universe colonization a fountain of youth into nostalgia with somebody
else’s bootstraps and blood but lamenting with zombie bags of flesh even
gated communities can’t keep out what can I surrender and in return
when do I pierce my daughter’s ears that mutilation I privilege

So I hate questions in poems, but I wanted to understand that hate, and I realized that questioning rhetorically is boring but interrogation, insistence had power and momentum. The trick was I didn’t want to use punctuation because that’s a kind of rhetoric too (going back to dismantling the syntactical rhetoric of the lyric), so I had to create little fragments that were discrete but also could handle the sequence. And finally, I had to balance my desire to talk about my beef with American racial and class politics. My parents left a country that sounds a lot like the country this is becoming.

Oliver Bendorf*: A messenger owl is on its way to you right now. Who sent it and what does it bring?

CGS: I’m fairly certain my grandmother is in a level of purgatory that’s like a cozy Catholic lady’s sitting room with a TV playing Star Trek and In Search Of (because of her love of Leonard Nimoy) and over the last twenty years she’s written down all the amazing stories about all her suitors, and her grief, and her family’s complex European roots (maybe because I’m reading Valerie Mejer’s This Blue Novel and admiring how she mines family mythologies), as well as the little jade Buddha on a chain she wore all her life wrapped in one of her housedresses from K-Mart.

EP: Thank you, Carmen, for making my last interview at 32 Poems such an incredible experience, and thanks also to all of our readers who have followed this interview series since 2013!

Emilia Phillips, Poet, 2015. Photo by Tracy Tanner.Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere.

Note: This is our final interview installment with prose editor Emilia Phillips. To view all of the interviews Emilia conducted February 2013–February 2016, please visit the “Interviews with Emilia Phillips” blog category page. With Emilia’s departure, Cate Lycurgus will step up as the new interviews editor. Stay tuned for new prose features, including interviews, right here on the 32 Poems blog.

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Oliver Bendorf is the author of The Spectral Wilderness, selected by Mark Doty for the Wick Poetry Prize. Recent and forthcoming work can be found in Alaska Quarterly Review, diode, The Feminist Wire, Southern Indiana Review, and Sycamore Review. He holds an MFA and an MLIS from University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he held the Martha Meier-Renk Distinguished Graduate Fellowship in Poetry and taught creative and expository writing and comics, zines, and other visual literacies. He lives in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Fid Thompson)

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor: Your first collection The Spectral Wilderness recently came out from Kent State University Press. Talk to me a little bit about the idea of the wilderness and how it functions as a setting or metaphor for the collection.

Oliver Bendorf: For me, the wilderness in these poems functions as a mirror for the wilderness inside a person, unpredictable and even desolate, but also full of things becoming other things, in a matter-of-fact way. A tadpole becoming a frog, for example, like in the illustration on the book cover. That matter-of-factness of material transformation in wilderness was comforting to me in the face of becoming a man.

The spaces between—between girl and boy, boy and man, love and loss—are lawless, no ranger no map no path, and there is both pleasure and confusion in that, often simultaneously . . . and the pleasure is confusing, and the confusion can be pleasurable . . . So much is possible, and that is both happy and sad. You can’t take everything or everyone with you into the wilderness, and you enter without knowing how long you’ll be in the forest or where you’ll emerge, only that it won’t be where you entered. I guess this is the feeling I was writing from, being on the brink of transition, and the wilderness gave me a system of images and feelings through which to play out these dynamics. I go in and I search for my own reflection in the wild—in spiders, in tomatoes, farm equipment, goats, effigy mounds, pine dust, ice, fields of corn, canine apparitions . . . . I grew up in Iowa and I live now in Wisconsin, and often these were very real encounters.

Another thing about the wilderness is that it’s easy to idealize it from afar as a place where nothing hurts, but that’s not true. My parents live in the country and there’s a lot of death, a lot of loss, “a tumbling sense inside me / that everything has to transform eventually.” The Spectral Wilderness is haunted, but the ghosts are sometimes friendly.

EP: Do the ghosts act as an embodiment—less body rather, than traces thereof—as a kind of muse? I’m thinking of the classical Muses and the romantic Muse here; they must be called to the writers’ side, must be invoked.

OB: Maybe a muse; maybe an all-purpose metaphor, or an event. Less the ghost, more the ghostings. Unbearable nostalgia, and the body’s relationship to its past. Being visited by. Etc. All of this of course having to do with creativity! The muse may be at your side, but the ghost is inside of you. The ghost is hangry, it’s bad at boundaries, and it won’t go away until you talk to it. A few months ago, I created and printed a comic-zine called How to Talk to Ghosts. I think I made like 30 copies and I have 10 or so left. If anyone is interested in how to talk to ghosts, or barring that just interested in comics, please write with your address and I will happily snail mail you a copy while supplies last.

EP: I want a copy!

Two things about what you just said . . . first, that “less the ghost, more the ghostings” makes me think about nouns instead of verbs. Are verbs—that is, movement—the real “thingness” of/in poetry?

Second, that “unbearable nostalgia, and the body’s relationship to the past”! Most of us would probably attribute nostalgia to the mind or, for those that believe in it, the soul; your sentence almost links nostalgia with the body. Talk to me a little about that connection, and do you think that the relationship between the body and the past is the reason we write poems? Is the poetic body a body that can time travel? Maybe I’m getting a little quantum humanities here.

OB: Quantum humanities! That is fresh.

I like the idea of movement being the real “thingness” of/in poetry, though maybe rather than “real,” I’d say that something must feel true about them right now. What would it look like to not be in motion?

I think there is some danger to telling every story through its movement though. Rob Nixon writes about this problem in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Like, Baltimore had been in slow violence for a long time before the fast violence of Freddie Gray, and slow violence is harder to see, harder to feel as real. Some things probably do need to be named with a noun. Black Lives Matter has everything to do with thingness, with matter mattering, lives as nouns, lives as matter.

I think the relationship between the body and the past is exactly why some people get tattoos and also exactly why people other people don’t. I don’t know where nostalgia is linked, whether the body or the mind or whatever, the heart, and for me that’s part of its unbearability, not knowing its comings and goings and what it is that bears it. I hardly know my body from my mind from my heart, but I’m working on it. To me there is always a way about nostalgia where it’s hard to pin down. I get nervous about the body because I get nervous about materiality. Excited about them both as well. The desire for the body to be more than Tupperware, but the very real fact that our skin is our main barrier, both to keep the outside out, and the inside in, but it’s also so permeable. Sweat, for example. Tears for example. So the body is and it isn’t. But it must be. And sweating and crying lead us back to verbs. I definitely experience poems as bodies. I’m really into parentheses right now, parentheses as and holding thingness.

EP: This idea that some things need to be named with nouns in order to support their thingness is so compelling. Especially because actions, for the most part, end. I always tell my students that I prefer poems that move, continue moving, at the end of their poems, but it now occurs to me that some poems need to end at their closure. They need to stand monument or they need to stand, without flinching, witness.

Could you talk a little bit about how you feel that poetry should stand witness to the social issues of our time?

OB: I think that the act of witnessing is one of the most important things a human can do for another human. To not look away. There are a lot of ways to do that and they need not all be poetry. Standing witness is so powerful. We know that because of the resistance to it by those in power: resistance to filming racist police, for example.

A couple years back, I was lucky enough to meet Jake Adam York, and he inscribed my copy of Persons Unknown, “In silence, through silence, out of silence.” These are difficult times to live in. I’m not sure if every time is a difficult time to live in but I do know that ours is. And I also know, from experience and hard-won survival, that creativity is necessary most of all in difficult times: not a luxury that can be trimmed away when shit gets real, but as something that must be central; as a way to imagine a different future, as a way to cope, to stay alive. I feel pretty strongly that it is the moments in which we feel most that language does not suffice that we must grapple with it, must try, must bend it even when it seems that it will never possibly be enough, must wield it for justice, out of silence, and not always comfortably.

I think poetry can help us imagine different worlds by helping us be inside the one we are in, and this is not escapism but rather its opposite. Consider Fred Moten’s “The Gramsci Monument”:

if the projects become a project from outside
then the projects been a project forever. held

in the projects we’re the project they stole. we steal

the project back and try to give it back to them.

come on, come get some of this project. we protect

the project with our hands.

My teacher Lynda Barry says, “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.” We create to be able to stay. And when that becomes too hard to do with words, well, then, there are images. There are many ways to stand witness, to bear it, to make it.

EP: Perhaps one of the most important imperatives for poets, I would say, is to witness through listening. Are you ever spurred on in writing through listening—to music, to overheard conversations, to other poets?

OB: Definitely. When I’m writing, I know a poem or essay is done when I can’t hear it anymore. Sometimes when I come back to it later, I can hear more, but sometimes not. I think deep listening, not simply waiting for a pause in which one can jump in, but really truly listening, is one of the most loving acts we can perform, as friends, partners, teachers, students, poets, and humans. This is true also of listening to and for ourselves. The poetry manuscript I’m working on right now is tentatively called Voice Lessons, and it’s a study of the body as an instrument, through lyric and narrative, occasionally experimental, poems that assume as a lifelong process the work of coming into one’s own voice, both literally and figuratively. My own voice dropped in register as a result of transitioning with hormones, and I did take voice lessons, briefly, to relearn my register and be able to sing again without my voice cracking on a high note. I’m interested in experiments in utterance, in sound, in what happens when we admit that this thing about learning how to speak, how to say things, how to sing, continues throughout our lives.

But back to listening: Lynda Barry used to have us eavesdrop, and I found that pretty generative. It can be hard to stop, once you get going, taking notes. And I always know I’ve been to a great reading when I can’t wait to get home afterwards and write. If it’s a great reading, I’ll be able to hear that poet’s poems eternally in their own voice, for years afterward. I saw Kate Greenstreet read at Prairie Lights in maybe 2007 or 2008 and I still can’t get her voice out of my head. It’s inspiring.

EP: Have you ever had a poem stuck in your head like a song’s hook? (I get Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” in my head every now and then.)

OB: We must admit there will be music despite everything. I touch myself, I dream. The first day it feels like fall, I want to tell my secrets recklessly until there is nothing you don’t know that would make your heart change years from now. We project the project with our hands. Sometimes it’s the rain and the radiator, sometimes it’s the sun god. What did you think, that joy was some slight thing? I’ll tell you what I’ll inherit. Knot the tie and go to work. Unknot the tie and go to sleep. Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.

(In order: Jack Gilbert, Richard Siken, Stacie Cassarino, Fred Moten, Ada Limón, Mark Doty, Anne Carson)

EP: Do you think of your most recent poems as an answer to the poems in The Spectral Wilderness? Are there ever any questions—explicit or otherwise—that come up in poems that you can’t answer except in later poems?

OB: Not an answer so much as a layer. They drop down into the body, into voice, and I think they’re a little darker.

EP: Does that make the poet a vessel for a poem, not the maker of it?

OB: Maybe a ship kind of vessel. Maybe a vector. I do think of poets as makers. “Make it,” we say, to endure, to manage, to survive, to create.

Diane Seuss*: What material, outside of the poetry/writing realm, has had the most influence on you and your aesthetic?

OB: Color. And teaching, and gender, and dreams. Color interests me in its presence and its absence. I think learning colors is lifelong, not just something that happens once as a child. Same with gender! The slippery space of dreams and the form and syntax our language takes when we try to recount them to ourselves or others is a constant source of inspiration for me– same with eavesdropping, a habit I picked up from Lynda Barry. And teaching creative and expository writing– being a reader and engaging with a student in a constructive way– is in a constant loop for me with being a writer.

EP: Now, Oliver, please provide a question for our next interviewee.

OB: A messenger owl is on its way to you right now. Who sent it and what does it bring?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com

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Diane Seuss’s most recent collection is Four-Legged Girl (2015, Graywolf Press). She is also the author of It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press) and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, which won the Juniper Prize. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl is forthcoming in 2018 from Graywolf Press. Seuss was raised […]

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Literary House Party AWP

February 3, 2011

Come one and come four. 32 Poems, Drunken Boat, Born, Defunct and Tuesday: An Art Project meld minds and join forces to offer a literary house party during the AWP 2011 Conference. Date: Friday, February 4 · 8:00pm – 11:00pm Location:The Biltmore, 1977 Biltmore St., DC (5 minutes from AWP) With performances by Daniel Nester, […]

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Give Lit for the Holidays!

November 21, 2010

Yesterday, while in the mall, I overheard a sales clerk say, “See you back here next week on Black Friday!” And, I thought, it’s Thanksgiving next week! That means the holiday shopping season is on us. I know, some of you have already bought all of your presents but not me. Why? Well, I don’t […]

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