Tonight I have a reading at The Book Bin in Salem, Oregon. This reading will be my first official reading from my new book, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press).
In honor of the reading, I am sharing the poem below which inspired the cover art by Ani Schreiber. Birds figure heavily in the new book, landing and taking flight like the few things I know about my father; their movement of coming and going also mirror the guesswork his absence puts into my hand.
I once worried about writing too many poems about my father’s absence, and family in general. This book – along with Small Fires (FutureCycle Press) and a newer, unpublished manuscript – serve as a kind of trilogy answer to this worry. Every poem serves as another moment in a large conversation about language and family, one in which family is language I am trying to understand. When a family member is missing in this world, the feeling is like a misplaced word. I write to turn over words for the family they show.
The Story of the Prisoner Who Made Friends with a Sparrow – José Angel Araguz
My father digging
for grubs and snails, eating
his bread only enough
to leave crumbs on his palm,
his hand out each morning
through the bars, holding out
whatever he has found
for the flutter that knows him,
the eyes that never meet his,
that look around him,
for him, a child’s eyes
almost, unable to place
or name a father,
what he can spare,
and move on.
I recently found myself returning to this week’s poem, “Station” by Sharon Olds, in conversation with students. Specifically, I referenced what happens in the poem as a way to describe the work writers have to do to find space and time to write. Among the themes addressed, the poem makes clear how the decisions made in balancing obligations and artistic ambitions aren’t always easy, but they are always necessary.
The poem presents a scene where the speaker has taken time away from parenting to write poems out on the dock by their house. The speaker describes the walk back with unapologetic clarity. The speaker’s unapologetic clarity reads like a response to being watched “with no / hint of shyness” by their partner. The tension between the necessity of the speaker’s act and the combined judgment of the partner plus the other work waiting for the speaker at home is anchored in the final line by the image of poems feeling “heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.”
Station – Sharon Olds
Coming in off the dock after writing,
I approached the house,
and saw your long grandee face
in the light of a lamp with a parchment shade
the color of flame.
An elegant hand on your beard. Your tapered
eyes found me on the lawn. You looked
as the lord looks down from a narrow window
and you are descended from lords. Calmly, with no
hint of shyness you examined me,
the wife who runs out on the dock to write
as soon as one child is in bed,
leaving the other to you.
mouth, flexible as an archer’s bow,
did not curve. We spent a long moment
in the truth of our situation, the poems
heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.
from Satan Says (University of Pittsburgh Press)
This week I’m sharing the third installment archiving my Instagram poetry project entitled @poetryamano (poetry by hand). This account focuses on sharing poems written by hand, either in longhand or more experimental forms such as erasures/blackout poems and found poems.
Below are the highlights from March 2017. This month found me moving from handwritten poems to erasures. Can’t believe I’ve been at it for over a year.
Be sure to check out the first and second installments of the archive – and if you’re on Instagram, follow @poetryamano for the full happenings.
Stay tuned next week for more of the usual Influence happenings. For now, enjoy these forays into variations on the short lyric!
3 word poems: An idea picked up from Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives.
One of my first erasures, trying to work out a surreal image.
In the spirit of the syllabic breakthrough I mentioned last week in the poem that inspired the title for my latest collection, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press), I share “A Letter to Su T’ung Po” by W. S. Merwin. Merwin has been an inspiration for over a decade. His lyric insight and meditative verve worked through in syllabics made me ambitious and had me counting mine own syllables regularly. The poem below is a fine example of how sometimes the words fall into place how we need them.
Revising from old journals earlier this week, I discovered the following note I made underneath where I had written out Merwin’s poem by hand. I share it now as a way to mingle with the time travel implied in the title and content of the poem:
I heard Merwin read this poem a week after filing for divorce from my first marriage. Ani was with me , both of us full of questions. This poem is a river in itself. The last line crosses centuries in a gasp, like one stepping away from the face of a river.
A Letter to Su T’ung Po – W. S. Merwin
Almost a thousand years later
I am asking the same questions
you did the ones you kept finding
yourself returning to as though
nothing had changed except the tone
of their echo growing deeper
and what you knew of the coming
of age before you had grown old
I do not know any more now
than you did then about what you
were asking as I sit at night
above the hushed valley thinking
of you on your river that one
bright sheet of moonlight in the dream
of the water birds and I hear
the silence after your questions
how old are the questions tonight
from The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press, 2009)
I’m happy to share that my third poetry collection, Until We Are Level Again, is officially out from Mongrel Empire Press! It’s available for purchase here.
This collection incorporates excerpts from my first chapbook, The Wall (Tiger’s Eye Press), into a sequence of poems that engages further with ideas of language, identity, family, work, and death. I am excited to have it out in the world and hope you check it out!
Special thanks to MEP editor Jeanetta Calhoun Mish for working with me on this project and to Anthony Frame, Robin Carstensen, and Octavio Quintanilla for their wonderful blurbs. Thanks as well to Adeeba Shahid Talukder and Brian Clifton for close reads of the manuscript in its final stages. Thanks also to Ani Schreiber for the digital sketch that adorns the cover.
To celebrate the book’s release, I want to share the poem from which the book title comes from. This poem means a lot to me on a formal and conceptual level: formally, it is one of my breakthroughs in my work with syllabics, a poem where all the experimenting feels like it pays off (at least to me). Conceptually, there is a clarity to what the poem says that remains complex. I’m not trying to praise my own work; rather, the last line was one that surprised me when I revised into it. It appeared on the page as if I had placed it there in another life.
The Broken Escalator at the Train Platform – José Angel Araguz
When something like this breaks, it means
we must swarm around the narrow
stairway, our steps slower, the pace
set according to our sighs. Each
glance and gesture becomes a word.
My looking down and waiting speaks
to the old woman next to me:
after you. All the stars left in
the sky, all the calls and blinking
messages, the wintered sorrow
of all passing thoughts must now wait
until we are level again –
wait as we take turns returning
to our lives. When something like this
breaks, it means the words I wanted
to write before are different from
the ones I have got down for you.
These words are older than you think.
originally published in The Boiler