poetryamano project: july 2017

This week I’m sharing another installment archiving my Instagram poetry project entitled @poetryamano (poetry by hand). This account focuses on sharing poems written by hand, either in longhand or through more experimental forms such as erasures/blackout poems and found poems.

Below are highlights from July 2017. This month found me going further with erasures. Along with working out of a true crime book, the last one is drawn from a book by Yasunari Kawabata.

Be sure to check out the previous installments of the archive – and if you’re on Instagram, follow @poetryamano for the full happenings.

Enjoy these forays into variations on the short lyric!

july 2017 1
An erasure that reads: “The news of lightning. No front-page its arch-rival.”
july 2017 2
An erasure that reads: “during the latter part of a few melodramas perception.”
july 2017 3
An erasure that reads: “like weaving a tapestry until the woven piece is finished the small, seemingly insignificant pieces complete with fingerprints”
july 2017 4
An erasure that reads: “an ambitious practice employing each word as a chisel, able to adapt instantly to any changes”
july 2017 5
An erasure that reads: “surrender as a cloud-strewn sunset”
july 2017 6
An erasure that reads: “some outstanding poison or drug that cryptic remark.”
july 2017 7
An erasure that reads: “doubt and conviction based on the turn of a card”
july 2017 8
An erasure that reads: “grasshoppers, remember tonight’s written in green by you”

microreview: Cenote City by Monique Quintana

review by José Angel Araguz

cenote city

Monique Quintana’s debut novel, Cenote City (Clash Books), is a stellar addition to the Latinx storytelling tradition of texts born out of exploring the intersections where folklore, politics, cultura, and literature meet. Told through fable-like short chapters, Cenote City presents the story of Lune whose mother, Marcrina, cannot stop crying to the point that she has become a tourist attraction, relegated to the nearby cenote, a natural pit or sinkhole that contains groundwater. In the character Marcrina, one can see a variation of the folklore figure of La Llorona (whose own tale has her become a ghost forever crying by the side of rivers after drowning her own children as an act of revenge due to her husband’s infidelity). Quintana draws from this connection and creates a character imbued with a similar sense of sorrow and mortality. What distinguishes Quintana’s Marcrina is the empathetic role she plays in the lives of the community of Cenote City as a deliverer of stillborns. Mediating the humanity of this motherhood experience in one role and serving as a human avatar of endless sorrow in another, Marcrina stands as a symbol of resiliency and depth against The Generales, the police force entity of Cenote City.

Marcrina is just one of a number of characters that inhabit the world of Cenote City; others include a clown able to make children disappear, and a “tiny coven,” one of whom’s members is able to set up a mannequin’s hair into a beehive style and then cast a spell that makes bees appear from it. With radical poetic impulses and flourishes reminiscent of Arthur Rimbaud, Quintana moves the narrative along mainly through the impressions evoked from images and the inner world of her characters. This approach allows her to make full use of the rasquachismo aesthetic, a Chicano sensibility that works to “[transform] social and economic instabilities into a style and a postitive creative attitude.” This aesthetic makes use of collage and places at the forefront the struggle of the oppressed. As a form of storytelling, rasquachismo offers Quintana the use of fruitful and evocative juxtaposition. While this approach at times leads to a dense prose style, the risk is ultimately worth it for how engrossing and captivating the reading experience becomes.

An example of what I mean can be seen in “The Daffodil Dress” (below). In this chapter, readers are presented with a memory of Lune finding Marcrina floating in a pool of water as well as the ensuing panic and recovery. One choice use of juxtaposition occurs around the images of insects coming out of the mother’s mouth. Having insects stand as words in the text lends the narrative a startling new understanding of language. Even when Lune cannot hear what her mother and father say between them, the presence of words is seen as alive and restless.

*

Monique Quintana

The Daffodil Dress

The spring after Lune’s father left them, she found her mother in the backyard of their house, floating in a plastic baby pool, her dress blooming around her body like a daffodil. Lune had been to a birthday party in Storylandia. She began to scream and tried to pull her mother out of the water. The warmth of the water was a shock to her hands and it soaked her party dress, making the skin on her legs burn and itch. She clawed at her own skin with her nails, painted pink by her mother with care. If the clouds could bear witness to that afternoon, they would say that Lune was a swirl of ribbons and brown skin, her kneecaps scraped by the sea of grass, bluish green and bleating, not willing to give up their secrets.

Lune’s screams were loud enough to bring the neighbors, to bring the ambulance, to bring the police, to bring Lune’s father. The paramedic, a young woman with slanted eyes and bright hair administered CPR, while the next-door-neighbor clung to Lune in the sway of bodies, and Lune held her hands in a fist, ready to curse anyone who would let her mother die. The red haired woman hovered over Lune’s mother like she was a kite, blowing the air, willing her to live. Lune’s mother had full round breasts buried under the daffodil dress, and her hair was matted to her mouth like clods of dirt. Lune thought she could see insects fly from her mother’s mouth and ears, when her father appeared and knelt beside her mother and the paramedics. The paramedic’s hands were shaking on Marcrina’s face when Marcrina began to cough up water, the baby pool tipped over and made a bigger pool in the grass, barely touching Lune’s toes again, the tight leather straps of her sandals burning her ankles. She clawed at her own ankles, pulling the sandals off her feet.

Lune thought that her mother had been dead and had been revived because her father had returned to them. There was a tourniquet wrapped around Marcrina’s arm and a stethescope placed at the rise and fall of her breast. Lune thought that her mother’s dying would make her skin turn blue, but it remained as brown as ever, and the daffodil of her dress lay shaking on her hips and her breasts. The paramedics tried to make Lune’s mother go to the hospital, but her father wouldn’t let them take her. He undressed her in the warm glow of the bathroom, the light of the ceiling, making new daffodils on her body. Lune saw her father put her mother in the bathwater, saw him pull her hair away from her face, her shoulder blades shuddered at the touch of the water. Lune could hear them whispering to each other and those whispers became the things that flew out of her mother’s mouth like insects. She tried to make out the lines of the wings and the plump black segments of their bodies, but the insects were hazy and only the buzz of letters could be recognized. No full words. Just moving mouths and shoulder blades and the slow crashing of bathtub water.

After he helped put her mother to bed, Lune’s father heated up cold cocido in a pot and they ate together in their kitchen nook. Lune’s father put his wife’s insects in his mouth and ate them. He ate the secrets and Lune and her father ate the soup together, and they were happy that she wasn’t dead.

*

To learn more about Monique Quintana’s work, visit her site.
Also worth checking out: Blood Moon Blog, where Quintana writes about Latinx literature.
Copies of Cenote City can be purchased from Clash Books.

microreview: Slingshot by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

review by José Angel Araguz

SLINGSHOT

There’s a moment toward the end of the sequence “a machine of mahogany and bronze I” in Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s debut poetry collection Slingshot (Nightboat Books) where, in the aftermath of a protest demonstration broken up by police brutality, the speaker is asked “You heard about the storm comin’?” which prompts them to meditate on:

The same storm slicing
through every inch of armor
my binder becoming more unbearable as the sun sets.

Yes. I knew about the storm coming.

This admission coming when it does at a moment of reflection and recovery is charged with an awareness that the literal storm of the poem runs parallel to the metaphorical storm of the political moment they are living in. The articulation of this awareness, here and elsewhere, is tinged not with resignation but resolve. This mix of awareness and resolve runs through this collection in stunning and complicated ways.

Whether awareness and resolve play out in expressions of self-presence, as in “false sonnet embroidered w/ four loko empties” which opens the collection and whose ending states: “I’m a full grown / whatever-the-fuck, and I will devour any / attempt to subdue me with monstrous animality,” or in poems troubling current staples of pop culture (as in the poems “a review of Hamilton: An American Musical” and “chewbacca was the blackest part of The Force Awakens“), Johnson enacts a lyric presence that engages through juxtaposition of tone and phrasing. In “chewbacca,” for example, the speaker riffs on the Star Wars mythos, braiding in commentary about race like “When we colonize the stars, everyone will be beige, / white folks sometimes say, or orange” and placing them next to others like “Chewbacca was the blackest part of The Force / Awakens. Always moaning & never understood. Always hunted & never going home.” This braiding makes the speculative nature of science fiction all the more human while also interrogating the implications of George Lucas’ vision. The projection of blackness onto the Chewbacca narrative, which is one of survival, parallels that of the speaker who shares at the end, “…I am just too tired. Too vengeful to go anywhere anymore.” This statement’s honesty is a surprise as it comes at the end of a poem that strips away much of the fiction of the film in order to get at the deeper implications for the speaker.

Awareness and resolve in the service of self-revelation, ultimately, is where Slingshot lives. My sense, though, is that Johnson would have readers be mindful of the difference between self-revelation and traditional ideas of confession in poetry. While the poems evoke the trials and tribulations of sex work and the intersections of being black, disabled, femme, and genderqueer, these poems work toward a visceral clarity. Rather than hold the reader’s hand and explain the complexities of the world they’re drawn from, these poems present themselves on their own terms and trust the reader to keep up. It is in this aspect that the poems point back to the title, in a way, each one a stone shot out to strike at the consciousness who hears it.

To return to the sequence “a machine of mahogany and bronze I”: The line “we will hold the line as a practice of freedom” is said by the speaker mid-protest. This collection shows Johnson holding the poetic line in a myriad of ways that open up the nuances of awareness and resolve. In the poem below, “jersey fems in the philly zoo,” this work is done through image and imagination, each surrealistic turn interrupted by a harsh reality. By the end, it’s clear that fear is one of the many things Johnson holds the line against.

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
jersey fems in the philly zoo

a flamingo knows,
even without pink lipstick,
fem is a feeling.

black boots. Raritan
tap water memories flow.
murderous brown geese

fly from Johnson Park,
arrive, then turn up their beaks
‘fuck dis sposta be?’

they inquire. I
find cover in the leopard
print fem next to me

because here, always
someone’s looking, someone’s stares
caught in plexiglass

refracting the light
in your life. no. it’s not you.
they look to consume.

especially spring,
and when the ice cream melts
before it’s lapped up.

Philadelphia
is lilac and lightning strike
before a great storm.

electric strangers
cuff biceps unexpected
back draws straight — horror.

they look to consume.
they desire to control.
predatory birds;

eagles, owls, all.
swooping down with catching claws,
no glass to hide you.

I want my armor
an exoskeleton, tough
hewn of crushed velvet

bristling with defense
a kevlar of tenderness
enveloping me.

this is what happens
when the tree blooms: the axeman
runs to chop it down.

this is what happens
when creatures meant for the deep
somehow crawl ashore:

they will be lapped up
by the hot eyes of the sea
pulled tight by strange hands

knives licking their necks
the scent of wisteria
fireworks: flash/bang.

flash fire, roll flame
clip wings from those who maim us
declaw them all, bare.

maybe they will burn
corralled, while lights dance in sky.
steaming macho ash.

and if they must live
then make me invisible.
hide me. erase me.

*

To learn more about Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s work, visit their site.
To read an interview with Johnson where they discuss the poem above and Slingshot in general, go here.
Copies of Slingshot can be purchased from Nightboat Books.

José & the unintended hiatus + interview

First and foremost, apologies for the radio silence. Totally unintended. A lot of life has happened, good and bad. It has been strange not being here in this space. I look forward to doing a bit more now that I’m getting life in order. I’ve got a few reviews in the works as well as some posts.

For now, please check out this interview at Mass Poetry where I talk about my latest collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness, as well as disclose my love for Netflix’s The Witcher.

Más soon!

José

into the octaves part three

araguz coverThis post is the third and last of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD (check out the first post here and the second here).

For this final post, I’m sharing a sequence that did not make it into the book. It’s a sequence strictly written around the life of E. A. Robinson, with some braiding of my own narrative in there. I share them, flaws and all, in the spirit of craft lessons as well as a kind of fan fiction among poets.

On the craft side, one can see the moves I was trying out. The word “untriangulated” comes into play, for example. There are distinct syllabic patterns throughout these as well. As for fan fiction, I do borrow from Robinson’s own mythic Tilbury town and mention a number of his characters. Even if you haven’t read his poems, however, there is at least a sense of a lonely dude being written about.

This last bit might be at the heart of both these posts and my book. Facing and acknowledging the loneliness that the death of others leaves us in. And also the loneliness of mortality, of living on. In conversation with a friend, I surprised myself by calling this my most vulnerable book, mainly due to how stripped the poems are, eight lines per page, no title even. Whatever flaws in the lyrics below, what I hope comes through is the effort to push beyond sentimentality into clear sentiment and human gesture. Ultimately, in lyric poetry, and especially when it comes to elegiac material, human gesture is what we’re after.

Octaves for E. A. Robinson

His medicine was stronger than any
supplied to him.  It waited for him to sit
alone, and drew from him its strength the way
the sun and moon divide the sky, pulling
the light between.  The days of sun would burn.
The days of moon returned to count the hours,
the body for him especially a thing
irreparable: grit turned on itself.

*

He stood with them in the moonlight as though
walking on air – that’s how it comes to me
at least, this poet of images like rare and vague
Bible curses slipped through codes and tongues,
and only registered by some to have
a cursing power.  Many read his words
and puzzled, but never called it puzzle: the air
in which they read, the moonlight he stood in.

*

No readings, talks or lectures: no voice, then,
one would think, reading on the poet.
Time was always set aside for words,
for words and drink.  He drank the words, the words
drank him.  His writing like water passing
from one glass to another, the same volume
kept, the same clear substance moving.
A restlessness you could almost see.

*

I walk the city where you stumbled, stumble
myself a few  times. I do not have
your untriangulated stars only
a vague idea where they are. The lights
I walk under are different from the ones
that lit your way. You stumbled in the dark.
I am blinded on my way between
the page and working for the page, the stars.

*

They dropped names into a hat
and picked yours out. The winner
was from Arlington, so there
your middle name. The words came
slowly. Whatever the sun
did to the sand, whatever
filled the air that day: laughter,
broken waves: each has named you.

*

You gave them drink, Win,
gave them Tilbury,
the house on the hill,
the mill and no one
there anymore, gave
Flood and Stark, Bright tore
down the slaughterhouse,
you did not give, Win.

*

Had I your nerve South Texas
would be riddled out, riddled
with faces over bottles,
riddled with birds, wingspans wide
as palm trees. I’d follow down
each crack on the face the Sphinx
sits there holding, be part of
the wearing wind howling through.

*

Black diphtheria: two words
to end a life your mother’s
body left for her sons to
care after to carry out
past the porch where the preacher
prayed at a distance down to
where two brothers dug and you
clung to life you’re supposed to

*

you loved your brother’s wife like
Lancelot loved Guinevere
you fell into your stories
drank Tilbury dry drank Flood
would’ve drunk the moon could you
see straight into yourself as
the bullet through the head which
has not landed since it shot

*

just a person in the crowd
or in Hood’s sketch a man too
busy reading to look up
every curve and shade around
the pages made them seem set
for flight but not yet one more
turn of phrase what sentence then
for the silence you’re drawn in?

*

Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.

into the octaves part two

araguz coverThis post is the second of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD (check out the first post here).

Around the time of putting the early drafts of these sequences together, I remember having a conversation with a friend about Donald Justice and the work he put into having Weldon Kees’ poetry be more well-known. I remember saying that it’s what we do as writers: carry each other forward, whether in memories, stories, or creative work. Always advocating for presence on some level.

This thought shaped the collection in a lot of ways. An influence and example of this type of carrying each other work is the sequence “Twelve Poems for Cavafy” by Yannis Ritsos. In this powerful sequence, Ritsos pays homage to the poet Cavafy through distinct lyric meditations. The ones that move me the most are the ones that focus on the every day life of the poet, honoring the things that lived around the poet and his poems.

The poem “His Lamp” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Ritsos uses Cavafy’s lamp as a jumping off point into a meditation on mortality. Similarly, the sequence “for Dennis Flinn” in An Empty Pot’s Darkness chronicles moments of my friendship with Flinn, specifically during a summer in which I lived at his house. He lived without electricity, and offered me a room during a tough period in my life. We survived in the dark together, often talking or writing by the light of kerosene lamps ourselves. In the excerpts below, I do my best to honor Flinn’s armchair. It’s the kind of thing you don’t realize plays a large part of the experience of living with someone until that person is gone.

excerpt from “Twelve Poems for Cavafy”
by Yannis Ritsos

2. His Lamp

The lamp is peaceful, serviceable; he prefers it
to any other lighting. He adjusts his light
to the needs of the moment, to the age-old
unavowable desire. And always
this odor of kerosene, this subtle presence,
very unobtrusive, at night, when he returns alone
with so much fatigue in his limbs, so much futility
in the texture of his coat, in the seams of the pockets,
that every movement seems useless, unendurable —
once more, to distract him, here’s the lamp — the wick,
the match, the flickering flame (with its shadows
on the bed, on the desk, on the walls), but especially
the glass cover — its fragile transparency
which, in a simple and human gesture,
once more involves you: in saving yourself or in saving.

**

excerpts from “for Dennis Flinn” sequence — José Angel Araguz

You spent afternoons in your armchair,
in and out of sleep. You’d call my name
to see if I was around. Evenings,
you’d go housesit, leaving me the dark.

Since you died in someone else’s house,
no one’s explained it to your armchair:
He is sleeping in another life.
When he wakes, you’ll know it when you creak.

*

No plot then, no arc, no denouement.

The day you turned ash, I wasn’t there.
I can only tell it like you might
through white, gray words: You rest in pieces.
Perhaps you’d laugh. You merely left scraps.
A chuckle. A crackle in your throat.
You left life as broke as you had lived.

I can almost hear your armchair creak.

*

Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.