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Prose Feature

How can a writer embody, and then describe, her mind as a rambunctious and ultimately unknowable animal, with shifts and a wildness that can be followed through poems, or resisted in them, but not controlled?

The partial answer, given deftly in Prayer Book of the Anxious, published by Elixir Press (2016), is that she might envision her mind as a performer itself (rather than just a transcriber), an animal of exotic origin, an unruly sort, sometimes unknown to itself, sometimes quite prone to using wit and humor, sass and learning, to survive the daily circus in both its midway glory and its folded tent dirtiness.

Yu’s prayerful place is where animals like us thrive— a circus, yes. A universal circus where no denizens are caged or whipped except by their own thoughts, desires, or losses thereof. In spite of Yu’s somewhat religious title, I might call her work in this book joyfully existential, yearning for a way to be here now, rather than a way to be saved up for later or for eternity.

In order to be here now, our animal natures must remain nimble, both existential and joyful, as in the poem “How do You Say,” where they leap between “the language of love and the language of possession /…lyrics in the same aria,” but then also “hum, just one uncomplicated bar over and over, /yet we hear the swelling of a symphony.” (57)

As Yu lays out the animal’s paradox in the poem “Narcissist Revises Tidal Theory,we see her struggling with the basic central aloneness that our minds create for us— it is so hard to be an animal that thinks, that has the ability to abstract us away from life. It is not difficult to understand again, when reading these poems, why some religions have decided that the animal parts of us, and all other animals as well, should be tamed, ignored, or made subservient – for those are the parts that cause us pain, or at least the mind in its echo chamber would have it so. Yu’s narrator in this poem walks an October beach, meshing her mind with the human leavings of the tide, which reveal us to ourselves through our garbage:

the tides are the metronome of my regret, powered
by perpetual hindsight. They set the currents spinning in a gyre
that collects the flotsam of my affairs—plastic spoons and condoms,

frozen dinner trays, snow globes, souvenirs, chewed pens, the
woven mesh of lawn chairs, a cooler lid (20)

But then the tides decide to get out of sync with this narrator, and they shift, begin to reveal the signs of natural processes of animal life, rather than the trash that is human-created. In the final stanza, the ocean shows the life of itself, the values it holds – it, the ocean, guides the narrator out of her human labyrinth:

…the tides fork over a drying branch of coral, some worthless
shells, or sometimes a small shark, half-buried in a shallow sandbar,
whose flesh, when pressed, has unexpected give and whose discrete
cerulean eye glints like an omen I should know how to read. (20)

The dead shark somehow comes to represent aliveness in this poem, the promise and the myth of the omen eye. The idea that even a dead animal has so much to offer this narrator comes to stand in as a representation of a creative act; just as humans create connection to the natural world by recombining its elements in new ways in art, so, too, does the narrator return to herself within the poem, paradox and all, by choosing to see the natural detritus on the beach as a form of connection to her art instead of to her loneliness.

Yu’s craft excels in language that is a roiling beast of bitter and fragile: modern psychology and its modest but persistent terminology of figuring things out is often added to the language of the spiritual life of a randy and ardent apostle, and all the resultant finely chosen words are caught up in the raw animality of the world, in the lonely yet crowded cacophony of the world. In the poem “Stopping for the Night at Motel 6,” a rush of imagery begins the poem, combining the human-made and the animal life: the mind let loose upon the world of night, entangled both in the body and in thought, has no resistance to sadness:

I push aside the hotel pillow on which
a woman’s hair might have dried
and lie stiffly, as she might have,
one of two bodies separated, a couple
with their backs turned. My heart groans
against the rusted springs of my ribs. (63)

The poem continues with an animal, a spirit animal:

In the storm yesterday, I watched a gull, exhausted,
trying to land on the ledge of a parking deck,
pushed back again and again by the gale. (63)

The internal gale in the passage then gives way to a tender moment between the narrator and the husband, who end up making love in the bed (full of ghosts) at the Motel 6, and what better way to understand relationships than by the uncanny sleight of hand that combines history, physicality, and solace for grief? Yu’s mind is a full one, a smart and well-formed animal, and one that is curious and skeptical about the realm of the spiritual life, a thoroughbred stomping its foot and refusing to race one minute, but off in a blaze the next.

Fitting, then, that Yu calls her own capacious mind into question in the first and last poems, which both use an unreliable narrator—a patient who lies to a therapist in the opener, “The Compulsive Liar Apologizes to Her Therapist for Certain Fabrications and Omissions,” and a writer writing about dreams in spite of having been told of the bad taste of such a choice in “Never Trust a Poem that Begins with a Dream”—is a liar who admits to lying the ultimate trustworthy figure? How much should we believe our own stories when we send them out as missives to our readers

The answer does not arrive by the end of the poem cycle, because Yu knows enough not to attempt an answer or a definition where longing is the characteristic that must endure. And what else can a prayer do but give comfort until that prayer is over, lingering then until the next prayer or poem begins? Josephine Yu is as smart as Denise Duhamel in her humor, and her clear-eyed intimacy may just put you in mind of a savvy post-modern Confessionalism, both personal and social: poems that an ex- nun who decided to leave the convent might write.

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Michele RozgaAfter working in theater, modern dance, and comedy improv, Michele Rozga relocated to Atlanta, GA, and eventually began taking poetry classes. One of the first poems she wrote was recorded as part of a soundtrack for one of the last dance performances she gave. For the past five years, she has lived in the coastal Georgia area as a full time college teacher. Recent work has appeared in an anthology based on Clash songs published by CityLit Books, and in The Comstock Review. She was also a 2015 semi-finalist for the Crab Orchard Open Competition.

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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 […]

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