clarity with Chuck Wachtel

I’ve been revising in an odd style lately, keep writing notes to myself like: more of this Objectivist vibe, or: you’re not Williams, sorry. A lot of the poems I’m working on in this way are written in short lines, with close enjambment, definitely in the style of the Objectivists, a group which includes George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Lorine Niedecker. William Carlos Williams (the Williams of my earlier note) is loosely related to the group, his no ideas but in things influencing this group via the work of the Imagists.

I share the above to do two things: 1) To share a bit of the histories/traditions with which I sit down at the page with; and 2) To introduce this week’s poem, “Old Sycamore” by Chuck Wachtel, a poem that takes after Williams’ style in an instructive and illuminating manner.

SycamoreReading Wachtel’s poem is an exercise in focus; in its own distinct fashion, the poem moves forward in its short lines with a surprising use of enjambment. While the poem’s meditation is straightforward, the enjambment draws the reader’s attention closer to the words in such a way that the meaning builds and blurs alongside the clarity of what’s being said. It’s a favorite poem of mine because the language creates exactly what the speaker fears is unattainable. Lyric glimpses like this one, of possibility and meaning, are a gift.

Old Sycamore – Chuck Wachtel

in memory of Joel Oppenheimer, 1930-88

The slender young
sycamores of Rutherford,
New Jersey, are fat

now, trunks
scarred, half-dead,
no longer

there. The poems
Williams left

behind, always new
in themselves,

are old
too. What I fear
is that our
language,

possessed
of so much

light that it
has filled
the world with

things
we must be
told of,

now
battered by
decades of
persuasion,

can no longer
make a thing
so clear I am

overwhelmed by
its clarity, can

no longer make
a thing into
a word spoken

once and within
that single
utterance

repeated over
and over, until
it reaches, then

exceeds its own
self-meaning
and we lose

sight
of it, begin
to see instead
everything around

it – a whole
world of new

things made from
an old thing
brought into

being in one
single beat

of existence
— the offering,
then, of a

thing
left behind.

*

from Visiting Doctor Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams

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one more from Griselda J Castillo

In my recent microreview & interview of Griselda J Castillo’s Blood & Piloncillo (Poxo Publication), I wrote about Castillo’s collection in terms of its rich and complicated relationship with praise as well as its distinct take on ideas of attention and reckoning. All of these elements can be found in this week’s poem, “Trade,” from the same collection.

In this poem, Castillo’s singular approach to the poetic line is applied to cultural critique. The poem presents the meditations of a Mexican-American speaker thinking of Mexico while living in New Mexico. The speaker’s narrative guides the reader through the echo and change beyond the place names, and delves into the differences between those two places as well as the difference between memory and present reality.

Castillo chapWhat happens as these intersections are explored is critique via the performance of language. Castillo’s poetic sensibility invites the reader to play close attention not just to line breaks but to choices in capitalization and idiom. The way, for example, in which “Mexico” is capitalized in the third stanza, where as “american” is not in the second stanza, provides a visual cue of what the speaker is wrestling with. However, it is not a simple gesture of dismissal, but rather a nuanced reaching into memory. One gets the impression that for the speaker this “new” Mexico feels “watered-down,” and that the only way to push against this feeling is to emphasize memory in whatever way one can, in this case via typography.

The use of Spanish in this poem is also performing emphasis. The few Spanish words that appear in this poem do so without calling attention to themselves with italics or translation. This move in Latinx poetry always feels like a necessary one, a gesture of saying something in the only way it can be said, and trusting the reader to take out their phone and consult Google translate if necessary. But more than translation, what Spanish is performing in this poem is presence. Among the English of the majority of the poem, the Spanish words foreshadow the “poor cutting” at the end of the poem, transplanted words that reflect the transplanted speaker. Indeed, the way “poor cutting” brings together both subject and the speaker’s feelings is a an example of Castillo’s accomplished and engaged lyricism.

Trade – Griselda J Castillo

my tacos get cold
and homesick
outside the burrito place
beneath red and yellow umbrellas

someone’s tin foil american flag
flaps against an old cottonwood
bullied by the winter wind
rushing the gray day along

in Mexico it’d be a hot
october day frying under the sun
in its delicious way
caressed by street chatter
from vendors and cockfights
in the alley

papel picado frames a world seen
from under my father’s mustache
my hands swallowed
in his never-ending palms
as he lifts me onto
a carousel of hot afternoons
warm rains
fertile earth birthing
green hackberry leaves

mango trees sigh through an eternal
summer of mom cotorreando
watering temperamental bougainvillea
and exuberant hibiscus
her cooing echoes are the memory
of our backyard

but this is new mexico
where an arid adaptation smothers me
in unfamiliar chiles

where snowy dry roasted mornings
are so cold even yucca and piñon
hunker down
thorns muffled under a cream blanket

I pour watered-down horchata
around dismal flip-flops
throw limp tacos at
a weathered potted plant
and think

poor cutting
never considered
what it would endure
embedded in foreign sand

*

Copies of Blood & Piloncillo can be purchased directly from the author at: griseldajcastillo@gmail.com

microreview & interview: Griselda J Castillo’s Blood & Piloncillo

review by José Angel Araguz

Castillo chap

Often I find myself discussing poetry as awkward human utterance, that what we are after as poets is being able to say things in a way only we can say them. In Griselda J Castillo’s chapbook, Blood & Piloncillo (Poxo Publication), this work is done distinctly at the level of word choice and line break. In the poem “Taking Inventory,” for example, we have these opening stanzas:

the garden has two fig trees
a stuttering blackberry bush
i stole from
surprised by the moody jolt
that dripped down my fingers

there’s a short peach tree
a pear with a few years yet
to fruit
lettuces and chard
3 honey bees enthralled
in a yellow squash blossom

What is great about these lines are the way the navigate through the inventory of the title, listing what is in the garden, but also keeping the reader close to what each detailed thing evokes. Narrative and meaning flow out of each line. The speaker’s inventory in the rest of the poem develops naturally into a meditation on trespass; the speaker contemplates not only the abundance of what she finds but also what her human presence means, asking “can i really have it all” at one point, only to end by asking:

or does it come
at the cost
of red ants clamping
their jaws into my feet

a reminder that nothing
in this life is free

On the page these lines move in a way that makes me think of William Carlos Williams – the clarity of image and emphatic, clean phrasing – as well as Gary Soto and Francisco X. Alarcón. These three poets are known for their respective minimalist approaches, working out big ideas via short, intense, concentrated lines. What makes Castillo’s work with the line stand out is her movement from attention to reckoning. In this poem’s ending, the speaker’s question leads not to an answer but to an image of pain. In doing so, the poem remains grounded in human experience and imbues even this last image with the feel of praise.

This rich and complicated relationship with praise can be found in other poems. In “Sardines,” the reader is given a profile of the speaker’s father via a contemplation of food. The poem begins:

headless in oval
tin cans
bobbing in tomato sauce

sardines
remind me
of my dad

five packed blue backs
silver belly to silver belly
tiny collars curved

like his back at the table
or the ends of his
mustache starting to grey

Here, there is a back and forth going on between stanzas, alternating between images of the sardines and memories of the father. What this alternating movement does is compel the reader to enter a space where the two subjects of the poem are blurred in a similar way as they are for the speaker. This blurred feeling is made purposeful and direct in the way the imagery of the third stanza suggests the imagery in the fourth. The poem continues in this way, navigating between memory and description. The result is memory uttered on the page in a way that feels present and immediate.

The poems of Blood & Piloncillo present the attention and reckoning Castillo has paid to her life as a Mexican-American, the intersections of culture and family, womanhood and youth. How this attention and reckoning play out on the page speaks to the nuanced navigating required by survival. The poem “Laundry” (below), is a good example of what I mean. The narrative elegizes someone who has taken their life, but in the complex spirit of praise of this collection, this elegy looks at the life around this loss clearly, uttering the human meaning of what is left, and doing so without flinching.

Laundry – Griselda J Castillo

there is small talk
about the warranty

about the years they’ve
gotten out of them

the expected laundering of words
swirl nervous in our tin mouths

we kept the machines
in the garage until

one broke and we
cut it down

then you hung
yourself up

a wet blanket
on Mother’s Day

someone else
had to cut down

waiting for the load
my sister sits

on the cooler
used as a step

cracks a beer
the same beer

you two drank
to kill time

when you’d be here
washing clothes

*

Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Griselda J Castillo: We are blessed to live at a time where we can arrive at poetry or create it in many different ways. I am not too preoccupied with what poetry is or can be, but I am definitely enamoured with the fact that it exists. The best poems are the ones that move you and, at a high level, that reflects what poetry is to me and what I think it can do.

Poetry can at once be challenging and complicated and still also beautiful and engaging. It encourages me to dig, to learn by feeling, to get to the root. When I finally started to do the internal work of figuring out where I write from, poetry allowed me the freedom to tackle difficult experiences with reverence. Poetry offered me several opportunities for grace. This collection helped me to examine my life not carefully for answers but with tenderness for meaning. I think poetry help us find meaning.

This chapbook captures moments from the last decade that were impactful to me for many different reasons.

The poems are summaries of lessons in life that either took or gave me lifeblood and morsels of sugar. Separately, the poems work through boundaries I have traversed or let confine me. I’m a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up on the border of Texas and Mexico, so this isn’t surprising. The poems use Spanish words for which I offer no translation and mixed imagery. They contain undercurrents of values I may not immediately relate to but carry within me just by sheer luck of having Mexican heritage. All this to say, they can be difficult to get into. I hope they inspire readers to get to know my culture (and others!) more in order to reach understanding.

They are also imperfect. There’s a bit of an inevitable contained mess in all of them which is another reflection of what poetry is or can be to me. I’m in my 30’s and still learning about myself and life so some clumsiness is bound to comes through. Poetry allows room for that too.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Griselda J Castillo: The biggest challenge was writing about my family. They are all still alive and some of the topics are still raw. My brother-in-law’s suicide was never really talked about. We don’t talk about our support for immigrants freely. Subjects of infidelity, love, and homesickness are treated coolly. In a way, building this collection of poems helped me to understand the intensity of these moments and how they shaped me. I had to deal with them somewhere.

The poem “Sardines” is about my dad who, after having heard it, will never attend one of my readings! There’s no bad blood between us, but I know I crossed a boundary. My sister won’t attend a reading because of the poem “Laundry.” And she LIKES the poem! They don’t enjoy being exposed. Who would?! So, that was a new and interesting thing poetry taught me. I saw how it affected my immediate family and the poems showed them how they affected me. I hope despite all that they are still proud.

The only way I knew how to overcome this challenge was to do the work. To actually do the physical, mental, and emotional labor and make the poems. But, getting to the desk was also the hardest thing for me to do. It took so long to refine these and get them out into the world. I write for a living and sometimes there was just no more energy in me. I wish I had the stamina, concentration, and resources to have a higher output and write more.

*

Special thanks to Griselda J Castillo for participating! To purchase a copy of Blood & Piloncillo, please contact the author directly at: griseldajcastillo@gmail.com

Castillo picGriselda J Castillo is a bilingual poet and creative nonfiction writer from Laredo, Texas. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, a first-generation American, and explores her bicultural identity through poems and stories. Her work is featured in Ocotillo Review, Chachalaca Review, and Sparkle + Blink. She also performs her poetry as part of a improvisational art and jazz collective. She received the 2018 Premio for Best Poetry Book from the National Alliance for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas Foco for her first poetry collection, Blood & Pilloncillo.

how i write

This week’s post consists of two parts: First, a blog post I wrote for a journal a few years ago that, for one reason or another, wasn’t used by them. The prompt was to describe your writing space and how you write, and also to include a picture of that space. The pencil sketch that constitutes the “picture” of my writing space was done by Ani Schreiber (@anischrieberart).

The second part of this week’s post is a poem of mine, “Engrossed,” which I thought would be a good complement to my discussion of engrossment and how I write.

Most of what I talk about in this piece still applies to my process now. The cities may change, but the page, the page is always present (presence).

Enjoy!

*

HOW I WRITE – José Angel Araguz

The short answer to where I write is always: Anywhere I can. From subway trains to park benches, as long as my notebook is with me, I’m good to go. The answers to how and when are also short: By hand, and daily. I try to take at least thirty minutes a day to work out a few lines as well as to revise and jot down some notes on daily life. I prefer to write by hand because it keeps me close to words, to the messiness and pressure. I mean literal messiness, as my palms are often blotted with ink after a writing session. I usually find time in the morning; if not, I’ll steal some time between tasks later in the day. I also keep a bullet list going of things to write about later. If I keep at it, the list never lasts too long, and it also helps focus and do some memory work: What was it about the squirrel with half a tail that I wanted to say?

At my desk sketchThe pencil sketch of me at my desk was done a few years ago by my wife. What is shown in it points to the thread between the various where’s as well as the how and when. There is a particular engrossment that I fall into when I’m writing, and it is the source of a lot calm and excitement at the same time. In the sketch, I am at my present desk, a mess of notes on my corkboard, stacks of papers at my side. These are expected details, in a way, part of the writer-hamster wheel.

What I mean by engrossment, though, can be first seen in terms of what my body is doing. Only one leg is on the ground, barely; the other is up on the chair, tangled under me in what I’m sure is an unhealthy sitting position. Also, though I write with my right hand, my left shoulder is for some reason raised. Sometimes I rock a bit while I write; couldn’t tell you why, except that it is unintentional, and something I only catch after I’ve been doing it for a bit. The other thing to observe in the sketch is that I’m shirtless and in my boxers. This is kind of embarrassing to share, now that I think about it. But that’s just it: When I write, and how and where, all come together to get me to a place where I’m not thinking, where I’m lost in reverie or revelry to the point that I don’t even notice the scratch of my wife’s pencil behind me.

*

Engrossed – José Angel Araguz

Grabbing a raincoat, I find a moth and ask:
What do you do here in my closet,
what of your light

to which he says: At the end of each night,
my light goes into my soul, what of
yours? The day is then

the weather’s blue colors, mirrors and rain,
that almost white where a thick darkness
blurs with a thick light.

Standing there, I see myself almost a man,
almost a moth, pieces of
a remembered face

brought up, overlapping, as if the changing face
were on old film, and that old film
played across moth wings

holding their position. Almost myself
frame by frame and without sound,
imposed on dust

for an audience. Almost my face holding
still, and face turning away. Face
of wing-wilt and wend.

Grabbing a raincoat, I found a moth and asked
myself about light, and myself answered
light; a moth

throbbed at having been found. When
my words had flickered aloud, the moth,
too, flickered,

an unknown face caught cringing, unfolding
face laughing, face
forgetting its name.

originally published in Qu