being more with w. todd kaneko

DWE_coverThis week I’m featuring a poem from W. Todd Kaneko’s powerful book The Dead Wrestler Elegies. Kaneko’s project – which takes the lives and deaths of famous wrestlers and weaves them across narratives of marriage, father/son relationships, and masculinity – conducts the kind of emotional and intellectual algebra that opens up worlds to its readers. The facts of a personal life lived are set against the facts of the mythic lives of wrestlers, each side richer for the connections made.

This week’s poem, “Be More Like Sputnik Monroe,” is a good example of what the book is able to do at its best. Springing off the braggadocio of the epigraph, the speaker goes into a personal narrative that deftly juxtaposes memory and description. As the poem progresses, Monroe is further and further established as a larger-than-life character, “a bad Elvis” who “mixed it up everywhere.” This narrative contrasts that of the speaker and their father who “shook [their] fists as [Monroe] broke rules / against guys who were easier to cheer.” These lines present an interesting dynamic: while Monroe’s star quality is based on bullying and swagger, the father and son, rather than feel emboldened by what Monroe represents, feel themselves at odds.

This moment is also where the poem begins its turn towards acknowledging the complicated nature of what wrestlers like Monroe imply about masculinity. What keeps the father and son on the side of “guys who were easier to cheer,” also keeps the father from fighting in the scene later in the poem. While this decision of conscience stays true to the fist-shaking disapproval of Monroe’s narrative earlier in the poem, the cost of this decision leaves the father at a distance from both the mother and the epigraph’s tone. Raising a fist, either in protest or to fight, remains a moral act for the father, a fact that grounds the speaker’s meditation at the end while leaving him to find his own answers. One returns to the phrasing of the title and wrestles with it as the speaker might: as a statement at turns troubling and searching.

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Be More Like Sputnik Monroe – W. Todd Kaneko

It’s hard to be humble when you’re 235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body women love and men fear. — Sputnik Monroe

When my father died, he left me a trove
of video tapes, a warped memorial
for those men he watched with my mother
before she left for parts unknown,
for those fights he relived once he was laid
off from the plane yards. We watched
men like Sputnik Monroe bleed the hard way,
shook our fists as he broke rules
against guys who were easier to cheer.
He was a bad Elvis, greased-back
hair with a shock of white, Sputnik Monroe
mixed it up everywhere, a rodeo
fistfight, a henhouse tornado. My mother
picked a fight in an Idaho truck stop
once, stabbed a man’s chest with her middle
finger, then stepped to one side
so my father could fight him in the parking lot.
Afterwards, my mother was silent
all the way back to Seattle, her disgust
with him — the way he wrapped his arm
around her shoulder, guided her to the car,
and sped back to the freeway — hanging
between them from that point forward.
Sputnik Monroe clobbered men
wherever he went, sneered at those fists
raised against him in Memphis.
Some nights, as my wife sleeps upstairs,
I watch my father’s video tapes and
imagine what I would have done that day
if I knew that my marriage depended
on what I did with my hands.

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Happy wrestling!

José

new poem up at tahoma literary review!

Just a quick post to share the release of the latest issue of Tahoma Literary Review which includes my poem “A Mu’allaqa for Clifton Avenue!”

This issue is available for free PDF download through the next week here.

This particular poem is a longer one for me, and engages the spirit of the Arabic poetry form “mu’allaqa” in order to express a statement of life, place, and time.

Special thanks to Kelly Davio & everyone at TLR for providing a home for this piece!

See you Friday!

José

new poems & column!

Just a quick post to announce the release of the latest issue of Apple Valley Review which includes my two poems “Small Talk” and “Waiting!”

This issue also includes great work by Amorak Huey and Sandra Kohler among others.

Check the issue out here.

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I also wrote a bit about how introversion & extraversion relate to poetry in my latest What’s Poetry Got to Do With It? column for the Cincinnati Review blog. Check out how Emily Dickinson is even more complicated that you thought 🙂

See you Friday!

José

celebrating okla elliott

In the Days of New Wonder – Okla Elliott

Nikola Tesla watched a brown bear
climb the persimmon tree
and shake her snout
at the sour bites she took.
He nursed
his sickness
by an open window,
seeing death in stellar signals.
The brown bear
climbed down and gamboled
to Tesla’s darkened frame and snorted
her animal displeasure.
This is why
he did not sharpen the razor
purchased secondhand for loneliness.

This is how electricity made a home
in his disintegrating mind.

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okla2This week I’d like to use this space to celebrate the work of poet, translator, essayist, and critic Okla Elliott who passed away earlier this week. While his death was surprising, the outpouring of fond reminisces and informal testimonials to his enthusiasm and belief in writing more than reflect the man I knew briefly.

Okla and I became friends when I reached out to do a review of his book of translations. Since then, we corresponded via email and social media. He was always encouraging about my review work, quick to emphasize the value of doing the work of literary citizenship and community. It’s the kind of encouragement that keeps one from feeling lost in the world. I remain ever grateful for that.

The two poems I share this week highlight some of the range Okla explored in his poetry. In the poem above, the directness and subtle richness of description quickly moves a narrative about the inventor Tesla into the realm of something fantastical. The reader follows the lyric’s logic and is left with the “electricity” of the poem in their minds, a sense of something almost glimpsed, and charged with meaning.

In the poem below, rich detail plays a central role again. Here, however, what the poem would have us glimpse is made clear. The image of the blackbird “[screaming] out from memory” parallels the speaker who claims he has “everything / I could wish for — this air, this sea, this night.” Where the Tesla poem in a way reaches after the ineffable and unsayable, the speaker in this poem is striving to not say, but rather to be, like the blackbird, “pleased / with its sour chirping.”

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Tilting Toward Winter – Okla Elliott

The air is gray and quiet as the sea’s
wet-dying warmth. A blackbird
screams out from memory and, pleased
with its sour chirping, keeps at it undeterred
by the browning season. I have everything
I could wish for —this air, this sea, this night.
We tilt toward winter, though the sand is spring
sand, erotic and youthful. Spirits are light
as May lasciviousness. But blood swells
to shore in cool disintegrating waves—
gone summer and gone winter aren’t real.
I walk into the unwarm froth, say farewell
to my selves that have died and pray for those still
to die — their wet wombs, their thick-salt graves.

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Happy chirping!

José

new poem at tinderbox poetry journal!

Just a quick post to announce the release of the latest issue of Tinderbox Poetry Journal which includes my poem “Pantoum for the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe!”

This poem is cousin to my recent microessay published at the Letras Latinas blog.

This issue of Tinderbox also includes powerful work by Su Hwang, John Sibley Williams, and Anuradha Bhowmik amongst others. Check it out here.

Special thanks to Jennifer Givhan & everyone at Tinderbox for putting together such a great issue.

See you Friday!

José

 

story work with naomi shihab nye

Building off of last week’s theme of story work, this week’s poem – “The Story, Around the Corner” by Naomi Shihab Nye – presents another side of stories.

Here, a story takes on human attributes, including free will. The logic of the poem develops the idea of a story as being out of our hands, being made up of “[riffs] of common talk.” This logic then deepens; lines discussing “a city you don’t live in, where people / might shop forever or throw a thousand stories / away” have great yet nuanced implications. The story as entity is a creature of chance and circumstance, much like ourselves.

japan-217882_960_720Because the language remains nonspecific, we are in the position as readers to intuit the “story” of the poem in our own way. It’s the kind of poem I like to meditate on during stressful times because it speaks at a register that is heard before I can resist. Not sure if that make sense. What I’m getting at is that at the end of reading the poem, I am left with my own idea of the “story” knocking and waiting for an answer — and, for a moment, I glimpse what it would it would be like to give one.

The Story, Around the Corner – Naomi Shihab Nye

is not turning the way you thought
it would turn, gently, in a little spiral loop,
the way a child draws the tail of a pig.
What came out of your mouth,
a riff of common talk.
As a sudden weather shift on a beach,
sky looming mountains of cloud
in a way you cannot predict
or guide, the story shuffles elements, darkens,
takes its own side. And it is strange.
Far more complicated than a few phrases
pieced together around a kitchen table
on a July morning in Dallas, say,
a city you don’t live in, where people
might shop forever or throw a thousand stories
away. You who carried or told a tiny bit of it
aren’t sure. Is this what we wanted?
Stories wandering out,
having their own free lives?
Maybe they are planning something bad.
A scrap or cell of talk you barely remember
is growing into a weird body with many demands.
One day soon it will stumble up the walk and knock,
knock hard, and you will have to answer the door.

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Happy answering!

José

microessay & microfictions!

Just a quick post to share the publication of my microessay “One Broken Line at a Time: Notes on Poetry and Migration” featured at Letras Latinas earlier this week.

During the month of March, Poetry Coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers as part of the project Because We Come From Everything: Poetry & Migration (#WeComeFromEverything).

My essay brings together ideas on the poetic form haibun and the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe into conversation, along with some reflections on both from my personal experiences.

Special thanks to Barbara Curiel & Francisco Aragón for including my work in their project!

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I also wanted to announce the release of the latest issue of Star 82 Review, which features three of my microfictions: “Over the Sink” “At the Table” & “Pallbearer.”

This issue includes work by Devon Balwit and Natalie Campisi amidst some other stellar writing. A warm thanks to Alisa Golden for featuring my work!

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See you Friday!

José