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acevedoI agree with those who hold that one of poetry’s major ambitions should be to refresh the language. Through engagement and interrogation of words shared in common, poems can bring us closer to meaning what we mean. An example of the kind of interrogation I mean is evident in this week’s poem from fellow CantoMundo poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s new chapbook, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books).

In the poem below, Acevedo turns a “shitty pick-up line” on its head. The poem’s engagement with the phrase “the body is a temple” quickly turns a confrontation with a stranger into a meditation on language. This move opens up a rich territory of lyric meaning; in subverting the phrase, the speaker is able to both contradict its “pick-up line” intention while also raising the words to a higher meaning. By the end of the poem, the space of tired language and cliche is reclaimed by the speaker as a personal respite for “the pure / holy of instinct.”

*

Stranger Tells Me My Body Be a Temple – Elizabeth Acevedo

and so I show him where
I have stuck my fingernails
beneath this chipping paint

spat on the stained glass
used crooked backbone as scaffolding
knowing it won’t hold up a broken ceiling.

I tell him, I’ve glugged down
          the church wine and given sermon.
                    Men flock but they never seem to come

 for their spirits. If it were up to me
          I’d burn this altar nightly
                    and dance alone in the rubble

pray that shitty pick-up line elsewhere.
Because if anything this body is the pure
holy of instinct

like closing your eyes
and guiding an earring
into long ago pierced flesh.

*

Happy beasting!

José

P.S. If you’re in the Cincinnati area next week, make sure to check out Elizabeth Acevedo’s performance at Xavier University:

Time: 7:00 PM until 8:00 PM
Date: Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Location: Xavier University, Gallagher Student Center

To find out more about Elizabeth’s work and upcoming performances, check out her site.

 

amolotkov1Just a quick post to announce that my latest microreview & interview for the Cincinnati Review blog is up!

This time around, I do a close reading of moments from A. Molotkov’s upcoming collection, The Catalog of Broken Things (Airlie Press).

A. Molotkov edits The Inflectionist Review along with John Sibley Williams.

Find out more about A. Molotkov’s work at his website.

See you Friday!

José

 

I don’t remember when exactly I learned the word “engrossed” but it quickly became associated with the act of reading. When I worked at bookstores, engrossed is what people became when they found themselves not just leafing through but reading a book. All small talk and random gazing ceased; all thoughts of good posture thrown out the window. I know I myself have sat/stood/squatted/knelt in all sorts of manners, all because a page has taken all my attention. This is when literature becomes virtual reality, when it takes you as a reader to other places. It’s not escapism, more an activity of elsewhere.

bookstore_eugene_oregonThis elsewhere territory is exactly the terrain explored in this week’s poem “Dear Reader,” by Amy Gerstler. Through a series of questions, Gerstler undergoes a meditation on the space one enters when reading. The choice to form the narrative around questions compliments the imaginative work involved in reading. The questions also take the attention off the speaker, while simultaneously and indirectly giving us much of the speaker’s character. When the speaker does finally ground the narrative in themselves, it comes as a pleasant glimpse into another life.

*

Dear Reader, – Amy Gerstler

Through what precinct of life’s forest are you hiking at this moment?
Are you kicking up leaf litter or stabbed by brambles?
Of what stuff are you made? Gossamer or chain mail?
Are you, as reputed, marvelously empty? Or invisibly ever-present,
even as this missive is typed? Have you been to Easter Island? Yes?
Then I’m jealous. Do you use a tongue depressor as bookmark?
Are you reading this at an indecent hour by flashlight?
plenty of scholarly ink has been spilt praising readers like yourself,
who risk radical dismantling, or being unmasked, by rappelling
deep into sentences. Your trigger warnings could be triggered every
second, yet you forge on, mystic syllables detonating in your head,
the metal-edged smell of monsoon-downpour on hot asphalt
raising steam in your imagination. You hold out for the phrase
with which the soul resonates, am I right? Reading, you’re seized
by tingly feelings, a rustling in the brain, winds that tickle your scalp,
bubbles erupting from a blow hole at the back of your neck.
You forget the breathy woman talking softly on TV across the lobby
(via TiVo you’ve saved her for later.) Birds outside are cracking jokes
and cackling. Reader, smile to yourself, rock the cradle, kiss
everyone you wish to kiss, and please keep reading. It beats
fielding threatening phone calls for $15 an hour which is what
yours truly is meant to be doing right now, instead of speculating
on the strange and happy manifestations of, you, dear reader, you.

*

Happy reading!

José

p.s. For further “engrossment” here’s my poem “Engrossed” published at Qu Literary Magazine.

house-cover-front-72dpi-jpg1-e1455655447284For this TFI microreview & intetrview, I present close readings of two poems from fellow CantoMundista Emily Pérez’s collection, House of Sugar, House of Stone, as well as share some insights from the poet in their own words.

*

To the Artist’s Child – Emily Pérez

Sweet unwanted one:
seek out a new address.
Like the squirrel cared for
by cats, the deer nursed
by a dog, find a corner
in a nest of a kindly
mother hen, one who knows
no other love or job. Go
before this woman turns her head,
before ambition starts to snarl
and pull. Go before the house
grows hot with urge,
with inspiration. Go before
her silence sheathes
instead of sloughs,
before she shuts herself
into her room, pregnant with new
creation: the kind that will
sit still and never utter,
the kind that brings deep
feeling but not trouble,
the kind she can, if she’s
not satisfied, start over.

*

Several poems in House of Sugar, House of Stone draw from the world of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and ingeniously connect that world of fantastical circumstances and consequences with contemporary family life. Reading through the collection, I found myself noting the influence and color these poems lend to other poems grounded in meditations on more personal and local circumstances and consequences. Both realms of narrative deal with possibility and ideas of accountability. The more personal poems, however, present a struggle with artistry and responsibility that is all the more relatable for its directness.

 In “To the Artist’s Child,” the language of fairy tale is incorporated from the start in the tone of the first line “Sweet unwanted one.” This borrowing of tone is continued in the conceit of the poem, an extended address that sifts through what easily could be material of fairy tale narratives in order to make a human connection. The animal relationships mentioned in the poem have an innocence shared with the child of the title. The poem frames these relationships as examples of selflessness in order to set up a contrast to the role of the artist, which is deemed as being necessarily selfish. This turn pushes against the romanticized conventions of the artist creating in an inspired solitude, recontextualizing the connotations of sacrifice and dedication within the terms of parental love. This push, rather than diminish the value of either side, presents the stakes of being both a parent and an artist in a clear and vivid manner. By evoking the emotional consequences of both roles, the push and pull of what matters in the world of these poems is redefined.

This exploration of the tension between familial obligation and artistry continues in “Pre-Term,” the poem that directly follows “To the Artist’s Child” in the collection. In this poem (shared below), the animal imagery of the previous poem is carried over, only this time it springs to mind in the form of apprehension as the speaker mulls over the implications of the desire to write during prescribed bedrest. As the speaker engages their conscience via the lyrical momentum of the images, the possibility behind each “if” utterance is charged not only with a sense of accountability but also the emotional split of wanting to honor two kinds of creation.

The dynamic tension and interplay between these two poems represent one of the most insightful and moving moments in the collection. Where one poem achieves a space of reckoning indirectly via metaphor, the poem that follows dives right into that reckoning with the kind of unflinching honesty and human clarity that one finds in the best lyric poetry.

*

Pre-Term – Emily Pérez

And if he comes in the seventh month
before the thirty-second week. And if he looks
more newt than squirrel, lids still fused
and head enlarged, pink hands
just shy of webbing. And if his skin
hangs off his bones, still wanting fat.
And if those bones are cheese, not stone,
more air than marrow. And if his lungs
are zippered shut, alveoli suction cups.
And if his little body, lighter than a new potato
vined in tubes and cords, a heated lamp
to keep it warm, is borne away to another room
for close revision, and you still chained to your own
blank bed, then, then, will you still wish
you’d defied their orders: risen, written?

*

perez-author-photoInfluence Question: These two poems, in their respective ways, explore and say complicated things about the high stakes involved in both the artist’s life and motherhood in an open and engaging manner. What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Emily Pérez: I wrote “To the Artist’s Child” when trying to conceive. In our house, I had a writing room slated to become the baby’s room. The baby would literally “take the place” of my writing; the two would be competitors. Writing was the selfish act, the act over which I had control, and I feared that I might prefer it. I feared also for this hypothetical child; this poem was a warning.

Years later, three months before my second son was due, I started having contractions every time I sat or stood. The only hope for my son reaching a healthy birth weight was eight weeks of bed-rest. I decided to interpret my captivity as a gift of time to write, but I was stressed and uncomfortable, and my brain was mush.

Frustrated at not fulfilling my ambitions, frustrated that I even had ambitions beyond protecting my baby’s health, well aware of the irony that I wanted to be “more productive” as I “produced” a child—I was battling myself. I feared the conflict would adversely affect my unborn son. I started “Pre-Term” during this period. Though that baby is a healthy, beautiful four-year-old now, the trapped writer-self in that poem still rattles the mother-self.

I want to be honest in my writing even when the ideas scare or shame me, to acknowledge that my ambitions are important, even in a world that says mothers should value children over everything else. While “To the Artist’s Child” was a thought experiment, “Pre-Term” is about an actual child who will one day read the poem. I am not too concerned about him feeling betrayed; I imagine that when he reads it, he will recognize a mother he already knows. I am more concerned about the ongoing tension within myself, a tension familiar to many parent-artists: how to adequately honor and tend to both the children and the work.

When I wrote these poems I was right that there would be ways my children and my art compete, especially for how I use my time. The thing I did not imagine then was how my children would feed my writing and how, as they become aware of me as an independent person, my writing would feed my children.

***

Special thanks to Emily Pérez for participating! Find out more about her work on her site. House of Sugar, House of Stone can be purchased from the University Press of Colorado.

disinheritance

I was recently asked to participate in an experiment of sorts in promotion of poet John Sibley Williams’ latest collection, Disinheritance (Apprentice House Press). John has asked fellow poets to record readings of their favorite poems from the new collection, all with an eye/ear towards how other poets interpret and perform the work. I found the concept fascinating and am happy to present my own contribution to this reading “tour” of the book.

For this project, I chose “Things Start at Their Names,” specifically because of how the poem performs on the page. While the poem starts off with the image of ice locking “the river in place,” everything that follows begins to push against being locked. This push gesture is furthered in the select italicized words, each phrase used as a name in the poem’s argument. What this move does both typographically and conceptually is push the lyric towards speech and voice, as if wanting to “unlock” from ink and rise. A name is what one is “called”; here, each italicized name calls out and summons specific colors to itself and to the poem. One calls out a name in hope of a response; reflecting on the title, a name can be seen as the start of this hope.

In performing this poem, I found myself going at a slower pace than usual. There is something in the construction of the poem that, when read aloud, seems to want to echo the locked ice image and the metaphorical pushes against it. Each time I practiced it, I found myself halting at different times, different phrases; eventually this energy began to feel inherent to the poem.

I want to thank John Sibley Williams for the invitation to participate in this promotional project. I can only hope my reading of it does it justice.

Things Start at Their Names – John Sibley Williams

Ice locks the river in place and my heart
is static for the season and traversable.

Sometimes a boy about the age
my son would be adventures

half way across me before remembering
the duty to destroy the one thing

beneath him. He writes his name
on my rib; it says Curiosity. I reply

with the name I’ve learned to wear:
Distance. A fluster of bluegill follows his body

downstream to where it meets the Columbia,
in time the ocean, which I cannot make freeze.

Next spring I will snare the things that still move in me,
beat them against stone, and eat until empty. I have

his name written all over my body; it says Forever
be Winter. My wife calls him Gabriel; after all these years

she still calls him Gabriel, and sometimes from the shore
she calls to me: Thaw.

*

*

Happy disinheriting!

José

P.S. To learn more about John’s work check out his site . John also runs one of my favorite online journals, The Inflectionist Review, which he edits jointly with poet A. Molotkov.

Just  a quick post to share that my poem “Blade” can be read at Poets.org. This poem was selected by Carl Phillips and awarded the Academy of American Poets Graduate Poetry Prize this past Spring.

The first draft of this poem was written during my time tutoring and teaching at Del Mar College in my hometown Corpus Christi, TX, and was later influenced by my time living in Jersey City  and commuting to work in Manhattan. Some of these miles can be found in the second stanza’s focus on walking in the dark.

Thank you to Carl Phillips and to everyone at Poets.org for making the publication of this poem possible!

See you Friday!

José

William Carlos Williams Selected Poems ND

The true Carlito’s Way!

Just a quick post to share my latest installment of “What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?” over at the Cincinnati Review blog.

In this post I do a short survey of three Virgo poets: Charles Wright, Kay Ryan, and William Carlos Williams. Could be that working on this CR post last week is what had me with Williams on my mind for last week’s Influence.

Enjoy!

José

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