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maps coverreview by José Angel Araguz

Treatment – Roberto Carcache Flores

If I could
I’d be your
therapist,
playing
smooth jazz
through
the morning,
one eye
on the clock,
another in
your folder.

I’d browse
through
all those cries
you scribbled
using watercolors
while waiting
for a ring,
to usher
you inside.

My hands
would shake
in yours
like swarms
of moths
around a
lamp shade
until you
grab a seat,
and look me
in the eye.

*

Reading through A Condensation of Maps (Dink Press), I found myself again and again impressed by a poetic sensibility capable of creating images that evoke physical and conceptual movement. In the above poem, this work is set up by the narrative implied in the title, “Treatment.” The speaker develops a brief hypothetical scene, the short lines driving home the intimacy of the address. While the first two stanzas navigate the title’s conceit strictly, speaking in the literacy of the therapist’s office, it is the third stanza’s turn that brings all this metaphor work to a human level. As the speaker’s hands shake in the you’s “like swarms / of moths / around a / lamp shade,” there is a double immediacy evoked, that of hands in hands, but also that of a dire need for direction. This need is implied in the moth imagery, and presents both the speaker and the you as driven by seeking. The empathy here is palpable.

Similar moments of visceral imagery happens throughout the chapbook. The first stanza of “The Fordham Sentinel,” for example, delivers a line by line revelation, one that develops and suggests itself as the six lines move:

Have you checked your bed
for all your fallen pens?
Did the blue stains
on your sheets
leave bite marks
the following morning?

The result is a compelling and unsettling synesthesia: as a reader, I am drawn into the narrative of “fallen pens” and “blue stains,” only to be startled by the implications of “bite marks.” When these elements come together, this stanza does the work of a surrealistic tanka, presenting a personal and immediate meditation.

In “Borders Left Behind,” Flores’ particular brew of imagery and lyric sensibility come to bear on the political. Here, the use of the word “borders” carries special significance. For a poet from El Salvador writing in English, each poem is an act of navigating borders of expression and sensibility. These undertones course through the poem, charging the meditation of the first stanza with an objectivity that is quickly subverted into the intimacy of the second stanza. The political becomes personal in a moment full of human risk and need for understanding.

Borders Left Behind – Roberto Carcache Flores

Imagine
stamping
a black seal
on a feather
every time
an eagle soars
too far from
its nest
or questioning
a vulture’s
motives for its
incessant travel.

The only borders
we should cross
lie across
the eyes
of two
strangers,
even as
we travel
on this bus,
your head
on my shoulder.

*

bookscoffee-2Influence Question: How does this collection reflect your relationship/history with the short lyric?

Roberto Carcache Flores: The collection is ordered somewhat chronologically. The first poems represent my earlier work. Initially I think my approach was much more ambitious. I often tried capturing the essence of places and even bits of history. This is especially true for my “El Salvador” poems, which attempt through longer verses to convey my impressions of different places in my home country.  I still look back at these poems fondly, but with reservation.

Later on, I tried to focus on shorter verses and poems in general. Hence, the collection ends with works that only contain a couple of verses and very little sort of context.  I think my goal now is to merely replicate a specific sensation or thought, trying to say more with less. It can be something like a type of sigh or the meaning of a certain smile.  For better or worse, I now find myself aiming for poetry that is less expressive and more definitive.

IQ: What writers/forms have influenced your sense of sentence, phrasing, and brevity?

RCF: Two specific poems come to mind, since the list of writers who have influenced me is all over the place. The first is a very short poem by Roque Dalton titled “Miedo” or “Fear”, dedicated to Julio Cortázar. The poem says “Un ángel solitario en la punta del alfiler oye que alguien orina.”.  The translated version goes something like: A solitary angel on the needle tip hears that someone is pissing. I believe Dalton wrote this poem while being a political prisoner. Either way, it has haunted me since the first time I read it and completely changed my views on how poetry should work.

I stumbled upon the second poem more recently. It’s an odd sort of poem by Robert Walser titled “Little flowers stand in the field”. The poem involves Walser walking through lovely gardens, drinking coffee, and eating jam and butter. Like most of Walser’s work however, the lightness of these verses foreshadow a precipice, a deeper insight into the fleetingness of these sensations. The final stanza of the poem brings everything back to its essence: “Earth is a house with passageways / and rooms where you abide, / it is the storm and stress in it / that hurry me outside.”

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Special thanks to Roberto Carcache Flores for participating! To find out more about Flores’ work, check out his siteA Condensation of Maps can be purchased from Dink Press.

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lewis hs

review by José Angel Araguz

Drawing inspiration from German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which “states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa,” Susan Lewis’ latest collection, Heisenberg’s Salon (BlazeVOX [books]), presents a prose poem collection that evokes the form’s surrealist traditions while expanding on its logic-making means.

One can see this idea of position and momentum reformulated in poetic terms in these lines from the title poem:

Every time she turned her back, the apartment rearranged itself. Each version created a home for another way of life.

From there, the reader follows the main character adapting to her constantly rearranging apartment, curling up and reading Victorian fiction when she “[discovers] the couch under the picture window,” and setting the next meal when “the dining table was there instead.” In a similar manner, the reader of this collection adapts to each poem’s engagement with and rearrangement of familiar linguistic territory. The aptly named “Indeterminacy” is a good example of adapting to rearrangement:

Indeterminacy

It was time for something, although she could not for the life of her imagine what. So she assumed her post on the stoop & waited for the future to declare itself. A tattered bird of dubious provenance landed on the banister & inspected her with his ancient gaze. She exhaled with emphasis, but otherwise managed to keep her preconceptions to herself. The old fellow cocked his head & screeched. Terrific, she said. How am I supposed to know if you’re the one I’m waiting for? Terrific, he squawked. How am I supposed to know if you’re the one I’m waiting for? I get it, she said, bravely extending her arm. I get it, he echoed, latching on with admirable decision. It was the last conversation they ever had.

Here, the first half of the poem positions two characters in places of waiting. There is a push and pull between interiority and meaning at work; because “she could not for the life of her imagine what” it was time for (keyword here being imagine, an act of interiority), she is forced to look outside herself. Thus positioned, the conversation that takes place in the second half of the poem works as momentum, giving the scene the urgency of question and response. The phrasing of a “tattered bird” also leaves things ambiguous; one can envision a parrot playing out the conversation that follows, merely echoing the other character. And yet, the choice to not be specific about the kind of bird it is leaves room for the fantastical. From this uncertainty, the imagining the other character was incapable of on her own becomes an outer moment of imagination via this “conversation” with the bird.

This transformation via uncertainty plays out for the reader much like the conversation plays out for the characters, strictly in the moment, in the rush as the pieces of the poem come together. There is a thrill in this kind of poetry that speaks of a sensibility awake to the materials at the core a poem, how to get the “tattered bird” of familiar language to say something new. As plot requires conflict, these poems point to lyricism as its pulse.

One of the ambitions of this collection is learning how to be awake to this lyric pulse. The reading act is itself a combination of position and momentum, holding words still in the mind while moving towards the sense implied. In a way, the reader of Heisenberg’s Salon is in the same position as the boy of “One Day” (below) who finds himself literally embodying change, watching the world evolve as the poem develops. Certainty and uncertainty, this collection posits, both happen suddenly and simultaneously. As in the uncertainty principle, one is reckoning with ideas of position and momentum in these poems. Yet, because they are poems – poems whose essence can only be located within the act of reading and being heard, thus, in motion – the interplay leads the reader to a fruitful uncertainty, and, one could say, a lyric certainty.

One Day

grass started growing form the young man’s chest. Everybody changes, said his mother, surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes. But the boy, who was wise beyond his years, felt delicate roots tickling his sternum & knew it was a matter of time before they’d probe his lungs & entwine his heart, crowding the space it needed to expand & contract in its steadfast commitment to preserving his options. As the weeks passed, graceful green strands sprung from his armpits, between his legs, & even, in the finest possible wisps, from his upper lip. One morning he awoke from a luxurious dream of water glossing boulders as smooth & warm as flesh to find a starry sprinkle of tiny yellow blossoms adorning his burgeoning tufts. He had only to be still & tiger swallowtails floated around him, sipping his nectar. Unable to deny the inexorable slowing of his breath, he was content to observe himself contemplate the ramifications of his personal evolution without emitting a watt of excess heat or other sign of agitation.

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Susan-LewisInfluence Question: How does this collection reflect your relationships/history with the prose poem? What writers have influenced your sense of sentence and story?

Susan Lewis: I love the prose poem! Brevity and density are its challenge and its promise. To paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes — like the power to embrace or eschew narrative, meter, syntax, and even the sentence itself.

I began working with the more narratively driven poems in Heisenberg’s Salon as a kind of emotional and intellectual R & R after being immersed in another collection of prose poems (currently called Zoom) which are far more abstract, fragmented, and entangled on the lexical meta-level. This was not my first time exploring this sub-genre: my book, How to be Another, gathered a group of tale-like creatures in the section called e.g. (reflecting my notion that narrative proffers examples, rather than, say, arguments, restatements, or prescriptions — like the other poems assembled under the headings vis, i.e., and Rx).

The rhythms, architecture, and verbal texture of these poems, however, are quite different than those earlier pieces. And my critique of categories, boundaries, and borders has intensified (in the geopolitical context as well). A fish confined to a small container stays a small fish. The same can be said for a psyche. Any insistence on us vs them deprives ‘us’ of the (sometimes challenging) benefit of ‘their’ company and perspective. For this book, I found a kind of metaphorical support for this principle of inclusivity in quantum indeterminacy.

My love of the prose poem dates back to my introduction (thanks to my friend and mentor Chuck Wachtel) to Julio Cortázar’s seminal The Lines of the Hand, and Russell Edson’s Dinner Time, both of which can be relied upon, in a pinch, as complete guides to writing of any kind — be it short story, novel, or poem. (Which is to inveigh, once again, against the unhelpful constraints of such categories).

Cortázar’s other very short works, like many in Cronopios and Famas, and all of Edson’s oeuvre, have wormed their way into my sense of timing and ‘turn.’ Their compressed journeys draw an arc from premise, to ramification and extrapolation, to conclusion — which in different pieces might be more or less conclusive, and more or less shocking, or absurd. They model a kind of imaginative and investigatory digging — deeper, absolutely, but also laterally, towards new terrain — which ends up yielding a skewed and oddly clearer view of their starting positions.

The poems in Heisenberg are also deeply indebted to the work of Lydia Davis and James Tate, both of whom transform the ordinary into the extraordinary by penetrating, judicious, and genuinely inspired elisions, containments, and departures. And Kafka looms over all of us who touch on the surreal in the hope of exposing the tragic absurdity of the real.

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Special thanks to Susan Lewis for participating! Find out more about her work at her siteHeisenberg’s Salon can be purchased from BlazeVOX [books].

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body

review by José Angel Araguz

In his chapbook To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), Steven Sanchez brings together a series of poems that explore the ways in which the body learns what it means to be present. In unpacking moments of conflict and joy, To My Body becomes an ode to both the physical body and the body of experiences lived through.

One of the main engines in which this work is done is imagery. Sanchez’s eye for building up to apt and compelling images that speak volumes is evident throughout. In the opening poem, “Homophobia,” for example, a childhood memory of being shamed by a father for being “afraid // to let go” while hanging from monkey bars, ends:

you fall
in the sand and I hear

you sniffle.
You grab sand and squeeze
your hand, each grain

sieving
through your fingers
like water.

This image of moving from “sniffle” to the image of a hand squeezing a fistful of sand works on two levels. First, the grabbing after sand is an act of reaching for and wanting connection; that what is literally close at hand, sand, is something gritty and difficult to keep hold of, however, evokes how distant and unavailable that connection feels. What is being depicted is no less vivid for being a memory; time itself, evoked through the image of falling sand, creates its own grit. Secondly, the speaker interprets this image as moving “like water,” a simile that fruitfully juxtaposes disparate elements. That something rough and solid like sand can move and evoke water places in the reader’s mind a symbol for how fear works. The distance fear creates between people – here, the father and son, but also the son and themselves – often forces people to live parallel lives. The speaker is being asked in this moment to understand the hardness of difference, to let go of the hurt they feel while it is undeniably physically and emotionally present.

Similar image work occurs in the poem “Paleontology” whose opening lines set up the following scene of domestic violence:

My father threw second hand encyclopedias
at my mother’s back and she blanketed me

between her and the mattress…

This image of a mother protecting her child with her body is then unpacked by the speaker through further connections as the speaker recalls:

…the book splayed open

on my bed where a Tyrannosaurus Rex
assumed a fetal position, her spine

and tail arched into a semicircle,
skull tucked between claws

and into what was left of her chest. Her ribs
pierced the eye sockets of her offspring.

When that six-mile asteroid plummeted
from the sky, did the mother devour him whole

protecting him the only way she knew how
or did she fall onto him after impact…

These lines do a great job of unpacking the complicated implications of the opening image. Present day violence and protection is reframed here and placed within the wider context of existence, which is essentially what is at stake. Through the parallel image of an extinct species in a pose of bodily protection, Sanchez makes clear the dire nature of this moment between mother and son without any loss of the risk, danger, or love that existed simultaneously.

Ultimately, the poems of To My Body present a poetic sensibility able to honor and understand what it means to live through physical and emotional circumstances, to render them for both their darkness and light. In the poem below, one sees this sensibility in the service of coming to terms with one’s self. The speaker’s narrative develops through images of bodily knowledge (“skull’s tenor,” “the dense beat of a palm”), and through these images comes to an understanding, not to say peace exactly, with what it means to live with the dual nature of difference. Where the earlier image of sand falling from a child’s hand evoked conflicted and hurt emotions, this poem’s speaker presents its closing image of shark gills with an edge. To be in possession of “two halves of a sonnet / that can turn an ocean into breath” is to be in possession of a whole expression, two parts of an argument that can both overwhelm and sustain life.

The Anatomy Of Your Voice – Steven Sanchez

Only you can hear the rattle of bones
inside your voice, the skull’s tenor

tucked around the alto of your vocal cords
like the drumhead of a tambourine,

the dense beat of a palm striking skin.
At ten years old you hear yourself

on an answering machine and realize
why kids call you fag–your vocal cords

aren’t strings on a cello and aren’t steel
braided cables suspending a bridge,

they’re membranes slit in your throat
like silver zils in a tambourine ringing

whenever you speak.
Remember to inhale

as if through the gills
on either side of a shark —

seven and seven, two halves of a sonnet
that can turn an ocean into breath.

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

Steven Sanchez: I’ve never had much patience. When I was little, I’d untie my shoes in a hurry and usually end up with a tight knot I couldn’t get out. Sometimes my parents helped me out, and sometimes I cut it. While I’ve gotten better at untying my shoes, there’s still this knot I feel inside my stomach.

Up until a few years ago, if you’d asked me what I wanted more than anything in the world, I would’ve told you two things: to be straight and white. I didn’t learn the terms for these desires until grad school, and that’s when I realized how much society had made me internalize homophobia and racism. But the knot I have isn’t learned self-hate, it’s the effects of that prolonged self-hate, and it’s also anger. When California passed Prop 8, it was the first time I felt that knot in my stomach—not so much because of the prop itself, but because everybody around me, at best, was nonchalant. And as time goes on, as more headlines point out everyday injustices, people remain calm, and the knot gets tighter.

The knot never leaves and that was the hardest part was about writing To My Body.  I wanted to unravel that knot, to get rid of it so I could move on to something else. I was hopeful that these poems could be something like a spool, winding up my experiences so that somebody else could use them, but more often than not, the poems ended up tightening the knot. I started becoming frustrated.

Part of my frustration was because I definitely wasn’t ready to write these poems; the other part was that I felt like I kept failing because people said my poems were “political,” which people often used as a euphemism for heavy-handed. What really helped me work through that was reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. They taught me how the personal is political, that simply existing is a political act, that every poem is political. I struggled so much with the negative connotations of “political poetry” that I’d forgotten how empowering it could be.

Changing my perception about the term political wasn’t enough. I knew that my poems still didn’t do what they needed to; they didn’t surprise me and they didn’t feel natural. At a craft talk, Eduardo Corral mentioned that coming to the poem with a pre-set message you want to convey doesn’t work because you’re not allowing yourself to be caught off guard. Also, Adrienne Rich wrote about the two kinds of political poems: good and bad. Bad political poems create an argument. Good political poems create an experience. I started realizing that because I had a pre-set message I wanted to convey, I approached them like an argument—here’s my statement, here’s my image supporting that statement. Instead, I tried re-creating formative moments in my life on the page without worrying about making a statement, without worrying about resolving those moments, and the knot started to loosen.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! Find out more about his work at his siteTo My Body can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

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For this microreview & interview, I present close readings of two poems from JM Miller’s collection Wilderness Lessons (FutureCycle Press, 2016), as well as share some insights from the poet on the work in their own words.

wilderness-lessons-book-cover

Field Notes (The Arcade Poem) – JM Miller

For fifty cents you can sharpen a fang,
sink your claw around the rifle’s trigger.

Take cover behind the bush, resist the rosemary’s
aroma, and sidle the plastic butt firmly to your shoulder.

Programmed sunset drips in the background, breathe
an arrow down the gun’s sight, you’ve been here before.

A deer hops through the pasture, nibbles oat straw,
looks straight up the rifle’s barrel.

Confess you love the composition, the way
it eases your senses into a finely tuned fork

banging against flawless crystal.
Confess you loved that talented seal on TV who gripped

drum sticks, beat Sweet Caroline into trash can lids
in David Letterman’s uptown studio.

The seal’s name was Henrietta and you wanted to accompany her
with your bamboo recorder like the solo performance

in the lunchroom when you were ten. All red-faced,
asphyxiated, and wanting to die. We were all dreams then.

Shoot the deer. You shoot the deer, drop the rifle,
and leave the bar. Who knew she’d come prancing out—first right to left

then so innocently left to right, begging to be seen.
The landscape drew you in, made a promise.

You became the animal you were meant to be.

*

Miller’s speaker here wastes no time in bringing the reader into the details of the scene. Yet, it is the diction and the subsequent character of narration where the scene comes to life. The phrasing of “sharpen a fang” and “sink your claw” frames a casual first person shooter at an arcade into animalistic transformation. In doing so, the poem amplifies the reality being replicated in the arcade game and immediately points to its problematic nature.

This high stakes approach is pursued as the poem goes on describing the “Programmed sunset…in the background.” The vividness of description is echoed in the speaker’s statement, “Confess you love the composition,” making use of the intimacy of narration to highlight the seduction inherent not only in the play of the arcade game but in the images as well. If “fifty cents” allows one to tap into a more animalistic state, then it is a (re)turn to something already inside human nature, something as tied to human experience as a childhood memory. From the pixellated scene of the game to a pixellated scene of a seal drumming on late night TV, the poem shifts into a parallel that further complicates its meditation on play and performance. Here, the line “The seal’s name was Henrietta and you wanted to accompany her” is telling; in one line, the speaker both humanizes the seal-turned-spectacle but also lays bare a feeling of being caught up in the spectacle (much as the speaker is caught up in the game early in the poem).

Thus, the speaker’s narrative is charged with a mix of culpability and innocence which points to an awareness of the stakes behind man-made “games” and “shows,” and what they trigger inside. In this light, the speaker’s admission that “We were all dreams then,” feels both like an explanation and an excuse. When the speaker admits, “You became the animal you were meant to be,” a note of betrayal and conscience is struck that rings out beyond any pixellated screen.

This note of mortal reckoning is picked up at several points throughout the collection. In the poem “Desert Autopsy (2012),” Miller announces that “the poets have arrived…[to] stand here in the hollowed tree, / language unfolding like children.” The phrase “language unfolding like children” speaks to the sense of witness that poets seem capable of, a witnessing that keeps things new and fresh. An example of this “unfolding language” can be seen mid-poem when the speaker states:

What is the effect of drought?
ask the government buildings
drawing blueprints to save the world,

while a pinyon tree simmers in its bark behind a plexi tower.
It shrivels, starves, lets its branches down.

By placing the question in the mouth of the concrete, inorganic presence of “the government buildings,” Miller is able to work a startling juxtaposition into human terms. While the question’s rhetoric places drought in the realm of the abstract and theoretical, the poem’s emphasis on the pinyon tree image brings us back to solid, living material. In these two stanzas, the image of government buildings and trees sound out the physical absence of humans as well as the full presence of human development.

As in the previous poem, the speaker here is aware of their implied role in this scene. Yet, in this poem, the speaker is able to point to the possibility of expanding their role as witness when they answer the question regarding drought with their own: “I can’t climb this picture, but can you imagine it?”

This second question is a compelling and engaging moment in a poem, and collection, that shows the value and power of such imagining.

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Desert Autopsy (2012) – JM Miller

The harbor pulls in, pulls its sheet tight, pulling
the ground under.

Wintering conifers lean over the banks examining
barnacle-pendant, seaweed-swimsuit.

I, too, bend my body in the lean
for wild. To walk away from the sea
is to be naked at wartime,
a gazing body.

I remember the wrecked season, white bone
of drought, fire opening its giant jaws in the west,
gypsy moths spinning cocoons of sorrow.

On the last day of the year, pinyons and junipers are dying.
Fences in Los Alamos still breathe fire.

What is the effect of drought?
ask the government buildings
drawing blueprints to save the world,

while a pinyon tree simmers in its bark behind a plexi tower.
It shrivels, starves, lets its branches down.

I can’t climb this picture, but can you imagine it?
You’ve seen the pinyon grow, twisting like wet laundry
devoted to the wind sculpting mesa and valley.

I’ve heard the trees roam at night, calling with their voices.
What was it, the solemn whisper,
What calling rubbed the wind, combed the wintering
pencils of grass, laid bare the open spaces. And then I knew

it wasn’t for me, not me on the wind, not for me
were the long shadows, invisible xylem of veins,
not mine the forged silver, fortune of stars.

Army, the poets have arrived, call your horses, call
the cavalry. Lick your feathers, stick them to the dying.

We stand here in the hollowed tree,
language unfolding like children.

*

 

jm-headshot-2016

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

Poetry is an invitation to walk into an empty space of being. I wanted Wilderness Lessons to feel like an opportunity for a reader to walk into their own space and find themselves: their purest, most vulnerable self.

As a trans-writer, it is urgent for me to find myself in my work, it is a form of survival. I am looking for the self beyond labels and projections – the one free from attachments. When I started writing Wilderness Lessons several years ago I discovered a liminal space for existence. This would become known as the “Unbetween” – a place without relationality. I had been immersed in Brenda Hillman’s collection, Loose Sugar, and the poem “Unbetween” was a way for me to have a conversation with her work.

My hope is that “Unbetween” – which is not a space between things, but a liminal space, a nothing space, a no space – invites a reader’s pure spirit and phenomenology to the surface.

I remember reading a phrase from Adrienne Rich, that “poetry is not a healing balm,” nor many other things. But it does heal. It heals through a unique listening, an absolute presence. And it is my belief that as we heal ourselves, we gain the power to heal others, to heal the broken systems of our civilizations that enact oppression and violence against marginalized people and the planet and its beings.

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

I got in my own way a lot throughout the writing of Wilderness Lessons, and most of that had to do with the need to dismantle the restrictions of what a poem can be or do. For instance, I admire ecstatic imagery and rational rhetoric, and I looked for ways to use them together in a lyric poem. Also, it seems like Round 7 of “End of the World” was the background hum to this collection. I was nearing a poetics of urgency, but still trying to have faith in representation and the lyric.

This book also marks a time of profound transformation in my life: getting comfortable with my trans identity, beginning to dismantle my white privilege, getting married, dedicating myself to teaching, living in a city and finding my way toward becoming an environmental activist. It was an urgent time, one of immense uncertainty. These poems were my way through the times in one’s life in which everything shows up and could be lost. These poems held; they found me and held on.

***

Special thanks to JM Miller for participating! Find out more about Miller’s work at their site. Wilderness Lessons can be purchased from FutureCycle Press.

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Goodreads Book Giveaway

Everything We Think We Hear by Jose Angel Araguz

Everything We Think We Hear

by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends December 04, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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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.

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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.

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After having done a couple of “microreview & interviews” for the Cincinnati Review blog, I have decided to incorporate the form into The Friday Influence. Essentially, I’ll highlight a couple of poems as well as responses from the poet to a question or two specifically about influences. My goal remains centered on sharing things I’ve read and want to share with the community of readers of this blog, as well as to promote specific poets and be a poetry ambassador in general.

I plan to do one microreview & interview about every two months, posting on Mondays typically, except for this first one which I wanted to highlight today.

Below is the first official TFI microreview & interview featuring Jeff Sirkin’s Traveler’s Aid Society.

suitcase

Another Repair – Jeff Sirkin

How long will I wait at the garage
knowing the seals are shot
and thinking about the plumber
again with his hand out
always on his way?

We’re entering a dark place
but can’t we just stand
with the company to whom
we’ve committed ourselves?

And someone turns up
the ever-present television
(a bad plot device I think),
Cable News like an epidemic
blaring the failure of the new
administration to eliminate Mexico
The mechanic wiping his hands
Maybe if you changed the filter
every once in a while, he shrugs,
you’d have a chance

But I’m not, I assure him,
one to play the odds
unless you count the Folger’s coffee
burning away in its pot all morning
a product of Proctor and Gamble
my hometown’s biggest employer
a source of pride and soap.
They’ve kept the city afloat
for a century.

You must realize, he continues,
it’s hopeless. Meaning “No future,”
I translate, eyes on the TV footage
of another immigration crisis.

I’ve heard it before
and seeing as I’m not going anywhere anytime soon
I’ll hear it again.

What do you think? I ask.

Well, he offers, the coffee’s always terrible.

No, man, try to keep up,
Will I make it home?

*

I chose this poem specifically from the book because it serves as a good example of the way Sirkin is able to blend intimate intellectual insights with moments from day to day life throughout Travelers Aid Society. The language and phrasing of the second stanza, for example, is the kind of poetically charged statement that points beyond its meaning within a narrative. The words “a dark place” and “company” have their place in terms of politically conscious tone of the poem, but implied also is human company as well as the corporate type (like Proctor and Gamble mentioned later). A collection whose “home” ranges from the poet’s experiences in El Paso, Buffalo, and Cincinnati, this kind of linguistic friction works to humanize where the poet is at, mentally as much as geographically.

Waiting in the garage for something to be fixed, this speaker’s meditation is quickly colored by the “bad plot device” of a TV in the background. This self-aware move on the part of the poet does two things: 1) shows an awareness of the kind of narrative his speaker has entered, but also 2) serves to reach after a way to control and subvert that narrative. I read the way each narrative element in the poem – the waiting, the TV, the small talk between mechanic and speaker – end up tumbling together by the end as making this kind of subverting necessary. Through juxtaposition of thought, detail, and dialogue, the poem itself seems to be trying to respond to the urgency behind the speaker’s words at the end when he says, “try to keep up.”

This feeling of trying to keep up via poetic means remains constant throughout the collection. What the poems try to keep up with for the most part is history, both in terms of personal memory and the history forgotten/neglected in documents and archives. The title poem, included below, is a good example of the way these two sides of history can be in dialogue in a poem. In the crucible of the poem, memory and archives help create a space outside themselves that allows for history to move beyond its own established narratives.

Travelers Aid Society – Jeff Sirkin

The hill falls, the daily paper shrinks.
In the kitchen Dad laments the collapse
of state funding for public institutions
and calls out headlines over morning
cereal. “Smog Alert in Effect.” “Streetcar
Called Waste of Taxpayer Money.”
We chew on our toasted oats
and pretend the coffee’s better
because of the new machine.

I remark on the efficiency of the
shower drain, the empty gates
at the shuttered airport terminal, my research
plan for the Historical Society library.

The coffee demands empathy.
The meteorologist predicts
more of the same. Dad claims
he speaks from self-interest.

“Youth Police Cadets in Training.”
“Drought Cited in Fireworks Ban.”
“Bankrupt Airline asks Fed to Assume Responsibility
for Pension Promises.”

Call it my empire of repurposed
paper. My network of convenience packaging.
My ruin in reverse.

At the research library I search for traces
of Jeff Davis, the self-proclaimed King of the Hoboes,
but find outdated property maps and lectures
lamenting the great surplus of excellent projects
seeking capital.

I search for The Jungle Scout. The Hobo News Review.
The Travelers Aid Society.

I find a scale model of the old baseball stadium
and snap a photo from high-above the left field fence,
but no one cares to comment.

I read about railroad speed, railroad case,
and railroad convenience. I find notes
from shareholders meetings
of a hundred defunct railroad companies.
Danville and Pottsville. Greenville and Miami.
Sunbury and Erie. Hillsborough and Cincinnati.

The first in the West is the Little Miami,
incorporated 1836, completed 1846. It runs
along its namesake river on the east side of town
north to Springfield, surviving
as a corporation until 1981, when it is
merged out of existence, the dormant rails ripped
from their beds, the right-of-way developed
into a bike trail.

The museum laughs. The archive
pleads for mercy. I make an offer
to the stationary loop
of the evening commute.

Billie Holiday sings,
“I’ve been around the world in a plane,
settled revolutions in Spain,
the north pole I have charted,
but can’t get started with you.”

Out on the interstate
three black me balance
against the highway embankment
hacking weeds and sowing seed aggregate
to arrest the sliding soil.

Over their heads the sagging fence beckons,
the family-friendly chain restaurant glowing
just out of reach.

*

Influence Question: There is an interest in the title poem and elsewhere with researching hobo culture. Can you speak a little about this interest as well as the overall political framework of this book?

toddler-town-bw-smallJeff Sirkin: “My interest in hobo culture emerged from several things. One of these was Kerouac’s On the Road, which I’ve taught a number of times over the past several years, and which, despite its flaws, I continue to find compelling. Among other things, the novel creates a spectrum of different character types found “on the road” (from commuters, to tourists, to college students on summer adventures, to itinerant workers). Of these, hoboes are regarded as the most pure, having achieved almost a state of grace in their rootless wandering. As if, having committed themselves to the road (and thus movement) instead of some tenuous dream of property and “home,” they’ve separated themselves from the consumer capital/ industrial/ modern world, and thus exist almost as holy ghosts, skirting the edges of our reality and perception, visible only to those open to seeing beyond the reality of workaday life. Free, in a sense of the ideological frames and boundaries refracted in and through our bodies as our daily lives and dreams.

“Secondly, in April 2011, just as I was really getting started on this book, a friend of mine from Cincinnati—a musician and wanderer and free spirit—was shot and killed by a police officer in Cincinnati under confused and suspicious circumstances. I discovered only after his murder that he had lived as a hobo at one time. The idea of the hobo had already come up in some of the poems, but this incident brought to the fore some of the issues and themes I was already starting to think about: frames and boundaries; property; what “inside” is and means; what it might mean to be “outside” and what the cost to transgress that border; the structures of power that create and hold us as subjects. And this is not to forget what the cost for those who by virtue of the color of their skin or nationality or background or sexual orientation or identity or expression aren’t given the option to ‘choose’ their own relationship to culture, whose status as “outlaw” is imposed upon them from the start.

“Finally, early on as I was researching both hobo history and Cincinnati, I discovered that Cincinnati was, in the early part of the 20th century, an important locus for hoboes and hobo history. Jeff Davis—self-styled “King of the Hoboes” and founder of a chain of cheap lodging houses in cities across the U.S. called “Hotel de Gink” (“established, ran by, and for hoboes”)—was born in Cincinnati in 1883. He hit the road at the age of 13, traveled the world as a hobo, and was a leader in hobo culture, working tirelessly for hobo rights (and labor rights), founding and leading the Hoboes of America organization for many years. He died in his hometown of Cincinnati in 1968, at the age of 84. It remains curious to me, having grown up in Cincinnati and having lived there as an adult for many years, and then returning to do research there, not only that I’d never heard about Cincinnati’s hobo history, but that I couldn’t find a trace of it. Maybe it was never recorded; maybe it’s been forgotten; maybe intentionally erased. For me, it became a ghost whispering about a city that may or may not exist in the shadows of the one I think I know.

“There is a mythology surrounding hoboes and hobo culture dating back to their heyday, the turn of the last century (at least), in which hoboes represent freedom, escape, and living a heretofore unrecognized alternative existence. I was interested in that mythology, as well as its real connections to the city I was writing about. In the book it becomes a kind of limit, I think, or maybe a faulty utopian dream, a big rock candy mountain that, despite its romantic appeal, might also function to mystify us to alternative ways of thinking freedom.”

*

Final thoughts: Reading this collection, I admired how the layers of memory and fact kept being acknowledged and explored throughout. One of the poetry’s responsibilities, according to these poems, would seem to be listening in on and recording what we can of the ghosts around us. Poetry, then, can be seen as one way to resist settling for the prescribed narratives expected of us and also a means to finding one’s own path to the rest of the story.

*

Travelers Aid Society can be purchased from Veliz Books. Special thanks to Jeff Sirkin for participating in this microreview & interview! To find out more about his work, visit his site.

Happy aiding!

José

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