The Writing Life: TV interview

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1This week I’m excited to share an interview I did over this past summer as a guest on Stephen Long’s show The Writing Life.

In this interview, I talk a bit about my history with the Spanish language, from it being my first language as a child and the one I learned to pray in and still speak with my family in, to finding my way into written Spanish. This relationship with moving between language on the air to language in print parallels the relationship I have between my two tongues.

During the interview, I share the poems “Thank You For Not Smoking: una traducción práctica” published at Hinchas de Poesía and “Speaking Spanish in NYC” published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry. The latter poem is also part of my latest collection, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press).

Enjoy!

 

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suggestion via Rita Dove

Suggestion is a key element to poetry. Whether it’s a matter of word choice, how using the word “broken,” say, suggests its opposite, “fixed”; or within the structure of a metaphor itself, the juxtaposition of two things bringing to mind a further connection, suggestion is one word for poetry’s ability to tap into language’s conspiratorial nature.

The poem below, “Flirtation” by Rita Dove, is a good example of what I mean. Dove takes the contextual framework of the title and aligns it right away with a variety of evocative images:

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.

First, the movements here of an “orange, peeled / and quartered” are said to flare “like a tulip on a wedgwood plate,” a parallel that works both on a visual and sensory level. This parallel implies subtle physical shifts, similar to one person becoming particularly aware of another. The type of attention described here is sharp and visceral.

peel-and-unpeeled-orangeThere is suggestion at work in Dove’s line break’s as well. The enjambment of the above lines, with line breaks on “peeled” and “flares,” creates tension as image and simile develop. This tension is broken by the following line “Anything can happen.” whose conceptual certainty is echoed in the use of a period to create an end stopped line.

A similar push and pull occurs later in the lines:

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

The line “across the sky. My heart” is especially effective as the enjambment and line break here both end and start a sentence, but also imply another parallel, that of a heart being like a sky. This deft way with the line creates a dizzying atmosphere, which brings us back to the title and its implied feelings. Dove continues to develop this atmosphere straight through to the poem’s elegant ending.

Flirtation – Rita Dove

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh–
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.

*

from Selected Poems (Vintage)

the road to a holiday video poem

The Light Between Us – José Angel Araguz

Before learning to read,
words are darkness.
What’s there
feels unseeable;
paper and ink, sure,
but nothing you feel
a part of.

The world around us
feels like this at times,
like darkness.
A harsh word, violence, pain—
we can’t read these things easily,
must wait for the darkness
to make sense.

Yet, we wait in light.
The same light
around each dark word
surges around us.

In light, we begin to hear
possibility, meaning.

A voice comes
in the light between us,
and we are surprised to learn

it is our own voice
that reads the darkness away.

*

The above was written as a first attempt at a poem to accompany a holiday video being put together by Travis McGuire, Kevin Curry, and Jeff Kennel of Linfield College’s Communications and Marketing department. I had been given a brief description of the project to serve as a prompt: To visualize a crowd of people holding either phones or candles gathering, with a planned overhead shot at the end. I was also given “light” and “darkness” as key words. I worked out the above draft with this in mind.

While I can’t speak to the merits of the above, I can say that I see why I was asked for a revision. The above, while delving into some of the prompt concepts, remains very individual, the turn at the end being a gesture towards revelation, but a personal, intimate one. In further correspondence and talks with Travis, Kevin, and Jeff, it became clear that there was a sense of community missing from the original poem, something that I kept in mind as I drafted further versions.

One of the aspects of this revision process that I enjoyed was working out a sense of “poem as script.” Behind each word choice and turn of phrase, I considered what this would be like performed as a voiceover. This consideration took me into a performance mindframe, similar to how I prepare for readings as well as to the writing process I had during my years of writing slam poetry. With performance in mind in any capacity, one is thinking about how the word lands in two ways, on the air and on the page.

Below is the final draft of the poem as well as the holiday video itself. I am proud to have collaborated with the good folks from Communications and Marketing as well as student Antoine Johnson ’19 who read the poem for the video. As the year wraps up, I feel that the message of this poem and the lessons learned between drafts are worth considering moving forward.

Thank you, as always, for reading!

Holiday Poem – José Angel Araguz

The world around us
is dark at times.

Harsh words,
violence,
pain
leave us feeling alone,
isolated.

Stars, too, are isolated.
Each hangs in its own light.

The night, then, is darkness,

but when the light
from these separate,
distinct points
comes together…

When new understanding
brightens our lives,
darkness recedes.

When we come together,
we shine bright enough
to see tomorrow.

 

one more from Minadora Macheret

lovemeanywayIn my recent microreview & interview of Minadora Macheret’s Love Me, Anyway (Porkbelly Press), I spent time unpacking the collection’s interrogation of disbelief and the role it plays in living with disability. From the disbelief of medical professionals too quick to dismiss a person due to age and gender, to the personal disbelief of someone with PCOS struggling through the body and life changing symptoms, Macheret’s poems track the path of coming to terms with this condition. In delving into her experiences with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), Macheret makes use of context and phrasing to create poems whose clarity is charged with human consequence.

The poem “Woman with PCOS Describes Aversion to Tests” (below), is a good example of this kind of clarity. Here’s the second stanza:

Nurses prickly and sweet
stick needle after needle
into scarred flesh. There is no blood left,
no room to take me into,
where my hormones are not abnormal.

Here, the first three lines do two different things. First, they present wordplay in the way nurses are perceived as “prickly and sweet,” language that suggests the act that follows of having needles stuck into “scarred flesh.” Second, this wordplay is layered over the direct imagery of these lines, providing an emotional charge along with a clear visual. This clarity is then developed further in the following lines. Specifically, the logic of there being “no room to take me into, / where my hormones are not abnormal” is a powerful statement, made so through the contextual work the phrasing is doing. While the immediate context of the poem is a doctor’s office, the phrasing of these last two lines evokes a much larger context and makes clear the weight of the speaker’s experience, not just in the moment, but in her life.

This work is echoed in the closing lines about the heart: “this muscle beats irregularly / as long as it doesn’t stop, I’ll be fine—” Here, there is a mix of speaking of the heart in medical terms in one line and speaking of it in more ambiguous terms in the second. Yet, this ambiguity, instead of obscuring what is meant, adds richness and depth. Ambiguity is invited into the poem through phrasing that makes clear the high stakes involved for the speaker. The phrase “I’ll be fine–” here is disrupted from its typical casual meaning by being part of a line that reckons with mortality. Having life and death in one line, then, parallels the speaker’s experience and brings us back to the title. Here, the tests are the practical medical procedures, but also the tests of living with a hard-earned clarity.

Woman with PCOS Describes Aversion to Tests – Minadora Macheret

Each cold chair haunts me,
staples past bodies & decisions
to the over-waxed floor.

Nurses prickly and sweet
stick needle after needle
into scarred flesh. There is no blood left,
no room to take me into,
where my hormones are not abnormal.

There never is an answer
just test the body, so the doctors know
it’s still living.

My breathing is slow,
as the stethoscope pierces my heart
this muscle beats irregularly
as long as it doesn’t stop, I’ll be fine

*

Copies of Love Me, Anyway can be purchased from Porkbelly Press.

microreview & interview: Love Me, Anyway by Minadora Macheret

review by José Angel Araguz

lovemeanyway

The First Time PCOS Spoke – Minadora Macheret

The doctor didn’t believe my periods had disappeared.

Most months were painless
as I watched all the other girls clutch cramps and bloating—
I wanted that too. I was different enough
and every 28 days I begged my uterus.

Medicine wrestles pubescent girls into journal articles
amenorrhea is due to over activity (at this age).

Please gentle the body—
thicken it with sleep.
When you slow down,
you will be
a woman,
again.

*

Reading through the poems of Love Me, Anyway (Porkbelly Press) by Minadora Macheret, one encounters a poetic sensibility capable of exploring the intersection of disability and being a woman in ways that interrogate the misguided narratives around both. The first line of the poem above (“The doctor didn’t believe my periods had disappeared”) begins this work within the context of disbelief. Here, it is disbelief not only of what is stated, but also an implied doubt due to youth and gender. The poem then builds from this initial disbelief by adding to it the speaker’s own disbelief in the workings of her body. The difference between these two disbeliefs is stark: the doctor’s disbelief is authoritative, while the speaker’s is grounded in vulnerability and fear. This starkness is furthered by the third stanza, where the medically-informed disbelief is seen as “[wrestling] pubescent girls into journal articles,” phrasing that evokes what it feels like to have a personal experience reduced to objective terms and analysis.

By the final stanza, the turn to the language of prayer (“Please gentle the body— / thicken it with sleep”) is a surprise on several levels. First, authority is subverted and, while still distant, it works now in a different tone, a tone that reads first as “gentle” but proves itself controlling by the end. Secondly, this subversion exposes the condescension and harm of the doctor’s disbelief; their authoritative advice is prescriptive in both a medical sense but also in a sense charged by gender bias. In a way, this last stanza could be read as a command to the speaker, a woman, to “slow down.” Lastly, returning to the title, these last lines can also be read as PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) itself addressing the speaker. Because it echoes the medical authority in tone and advice, this address becomes a betrayal charged with vulnerability.

This engagement with disbelief through lyric (re)imagination is at the heart of Love Me, Anyway. The PCOS experience is shown as a human experience that affects both a woman’s body and identity. Throughout the poems, Macheret evokes the struggle of identity through poetic acts of (re)definition. In “Remembering Girlhood,” the speaker reckons with the identity-shaping effects of the schoolyard:

…I am other Watch the girls point inside themselves to understand the outside of me Listen to their words mouth traitor…She can’t be a woman there is no moon inside of her to wax and wane Follow the porcupine quills on her face and breasts She is of men not of women Turn away turn away turn away

What is compelling here is how the context of the schoolyard is subverted by, first, being informed by the disbelief of other children, and, second, by how this disbelief is channeled through a formal, high diction. Phrasing like “there is no moon inside of her to wax and wane” and “She is of men not of women” is charged with a severity that drives home the damning effect childhood bullying has.

In “To the Bearded Lady I Am (Age 26),” the speaker begins by sharing:

I spend my days mirror-bound. Farm the angles of my face with tweezers. Lately, I can afford laser treatment. Each pulse of light burns hair follicle clusters.

Here, we have the clarity and directness found in other poems, metaphor being used to set the scene. The poem develops to these ending lines:

The anxiety of hair growth strangles my days to slip into nights. I’m like a teacup left out, dust covered, a chip in my side.

The clarity of the opening lines grounds the poem in the speaker’s reality; coming to these closing lines, metaphor works in a different, richer way by showing a further depth to the speaker’s reality. Not only is anxiety acknowledged as part of the self-conscious act depicted, but there is the effect on identity. In seeing herself as a “teacup left out, dust covered, a chip in my side,” the speaker evokes ideas of beauty and purpose as well as neglect. A disease’s ability to make one feel “other” (as noted above) is presented here in literal object-ification. These lines are another example of how working past otherness and imposed narratives comes at the cost of a shifting sense of self.

In this last poem, the idea of disbelief—both that of others and one’s own—is answered by a clear reckoning and acknowledgment. Disbelief, by being present, implies the possibility of belief. The poems of Love Me, Anyway argue, ultimately, that sometimes all one has to believe in is one’s own experiences, one’s pain and survival. These poems embody one of the gifts of lyric poetry, specifically the ability to evoke struggle and the life found through it.

In the title poem (below), this idea is worked out as a hard-earned belief. (Re)definition appears again in the opening lines—“Settle into my skin, / show of nature gone awry,”—but is accompanied by conscious (re)action “make-believe the parts are working.” The poem continues through admission, creating from honest acknowledgment a lyric space where the speaker is able to fully voice and feel, and, thus, fully exist.

Love Me, Anyway – Minadora Macheret

Settle into my skin,
show of nature gone awry,
make-believe the parts are working.

There will be days
anger currents keep me upright
as anxiety locks me to the bed
and the safari of my skin
full of brush
stains the covers fluorescent-red

the Nile is deep and endless
as the mechanism syncs
to the monthly flood-watch.

And on the mornings
I am barren
for a day more than I can handle,
please love me, anyway.

*

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

Minadora Macheret: This collection reflects what I see poetry can do and/or can be because it is giving voice to invisibility, to disability, to the liminal spaces that make us more human than we care to admit. Through the manipulation of white space and use of lyric images to guide a narrative that is searching to understand itself, this collection allows for the reader to gain an emotional glimpse into a body haunted by grief, by disease, by an inability to function “normally.” Also, there is the blending of language/translation, of culture, of folklore/myth (Baba Yaga & Demeter make appearances), and how those elements of identity also play a foundational role into understanding the body and how to recreate the self and the stories told on the page. Most importantly, this collection is another avenue for political poetry and social justice because it is asking the reader to see how the patient is gazing back at the doctor, the clinic, the world they inhabit, especially as it considers the disabled body, the diseased body, the female body. Poetry also has the capacity to breathe new meaning and understanding into the undefinable and this collection is pushing against the ways in which doctors engage the female body and struggle to offer support and/or treatment for diseases they think they understand.

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

Minadora Macheret: Some of the challenges in writing these poems came through translation. What I mean by that is not just the translation of disease from scientific literature to something accessible, but in the actual act of thinking in Russian (my first language) to writing it in English. Because I think multilingually (and grew up in a household of polyglots) I struggle with translation at times and though poetry has the capacity to hold a multiplicity of languages and their conversions/inversions, I would need to have trusted friends look at the syntax and/or grammar at times of what I was saying for clarification. Another challenge was how to talk about a disease that is terrifying, that disintegrates the body from the inside out without just glamorizing it or making the disease beautiful. I worked very intentionally with balancing between the horrific/grotesque with lyrical images or use of musicality/sound to show the duality of disease and its affect on the body. In particular, I am thinking of my “Self-Portrait as Mythos” poem that is using beautiful language and imagery to show the realities of a disease that causes infertility among a host of other issues. Lastly, something I struggled with is how to balance the grief in the collection without ending on something inspirational. I tend to turn away from the inspirational because I wanted to show the lived every day experiences that many people go through as grief/disease/disabiltiy becomes a facet of their lives. One way that I dealt with this is to not shy away from (my) truth of the experience and to let myself sit in those images/experiences as they were.

*

Special thanks to Minadora Macheret for participating! To learn more about Macheret’s work, check out this interview with her at Rogue Agent Journal! Copies of Love Me, Anyway can be purchased from Porkbelly Press.

m macheret*

Minadora Macheret is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow at the University of North Texas. She is a Poetry Editor for Devilfish Review. Her work has appeared in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Red Paint Hill, Rogue Agent, Connotation Press, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook, Love Me Anyway, from Porkbelly Press, 2018. She likes to travel across the country with her beagle, Aki.

writing prompt: Stafford’s four elements of daily writing practice

For this week’s writing prompt, I’m revisiting my time presenting at and attending the Oregon Poetry Association conference in September. While I have devised mine own daily writing habits over the years, it was at this conference where I learned the practices of one of my go to poets, William Stafford.

Stafford’s son, Kim Stafford, was this year’s keynote speaker, and along with some compelling insights into his current poetic life, he shared with us his father’s daily writing practice. From my notes, here’s how he broke it down:

Four Elements of Daily Writing Practice

1. Write the date. Kim Stafford said this was simple enough, then quoted his father: “Once I write the date, I know I’m okay. “

2. Write a paragraph of boring prose. Stafford said this could be in the realm of “Dear diary…” language, straightforward observations from everyday life. He also framed this step as “writing before you have to write well.”

3. Write an aphorism. This step involves writing a one sentence observation on life or idea. Doing this also involves stepping back and seeing a pattern in your “boring prose.” In practice, if step 2 feels like boarding a plane, checking the luggage, etc., then this step is like taxiing on the runway.

4. Write whatever comes next, a poem, a story, etc. Having been warmed up by the previous steps, you’re ready to take flight.

While William Stafford himself was famous for his daily writing habits, seen with a kind of awe, he was also the first to point out that it was a humbling habit. I can verify that writing every day doesn’t necessarily lead to gold; more often, you have scratches and inklings. But, for me, it’s all about the attention to language, being able to stay close to the heat behind turns of phrase and word choice – that’s the value of daily writing.

However you choose to get into this process, be sure to make it your own. If not daily, weekly even. What matters is you and your words.

Here’s a blog post by Kim Stafford where he elucidates on the process further.

OPA freewriteBelow is my own first attempt at Stafford’s practice. Because this first attempt was written at the conference itself, my boring prose is short. As for the poem, I did what I often do, which is pick a number of words per line as a structural guide (here, it’s 4 words per line). I had in mind two new friends of mine that I had just met at the conference.

Let me know if you end up trying your hand at this practice. Would love to hear from y’all! [ thefridayinfluence@gmail.com ]

Daily Writing freewrite – José Angel Araguz

  1. 09/29/2018
  2. I have driven to Eugene to present and be uncomfortable it seems.
  3. Poets don’t ask for credentials, not the real ones, they ask to hear about the work we share.
  4. (Poem):

Meeting a poet after
walking and not speaking,
not making eye contact,
not knowing what I
matter to or what’s
a matter with me,
we begin to talk
of language in language
we’re fond of; there’s
others walking around us
but the words between
us, who has placed
these words between us?

one more from José Olivarez

olivarezIn my recent microreview & interview of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal (Haymarket Books), I noted some of the ways the collection interrogates the multiple dualities of the Latinx, specifically Mexican-American, experience. Through word play and rhetorical moves, Olivarez uses his gift of speaking about narratives that often get neglected to present the nuances of language as well as life.

In “My Parents Fold Like Luggage” (below), the speaker is in story mode, presenting a fabulistic interpretation of his parents crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a narrative of risk as much as deception; these two sources of tension are presented through the speaker’s point of view through the metaphor of folding. Informed by memory, distance, and imagination, this folding turns out some rich moments of language:

my parents protect this moment. this now.
what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke.

Here, human breaking is folded into financial breaking. So much is riding on this fraught vulnerability, both in the moment and in the larger picture. The distinct punctuation and use of variations on “break” do a great job of evoking what is at stake. One finds a similar turn in the poem’s ending:

from the sky, it is impossible
to hear whether my parents cheer or pray
as the car steals north.

The key word here is “steals,” a word that nods toward the risk and deception of the narrative. Yet it’s the context, “from the sky,” that renders this ending heartbreaking. Not being able to “hear” from the distance of memory creates an engaging ambiguity. In not knowing if they “cheer or pray,” the poem allows those words to live side by side in the poem and moment.

My Parents Fold Like Luggage – José Olivarez

my parents fold like luggage
into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel.
stars glitter against a black sky.
from the sky, the Tercel is a small lady

bug traveling north. from the sky,
borders do not exist. the Tercel stops
in front of a man in green. stars glitter
like broken glass. the night so heavy

it chokes. in the trunk, it is starless.
my parents protect this moment. this now.
what folds them into the trunk of a Tercel.
the belief that the folding will end.

it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents
near breaking. broke. they protect what might
unfold them to discover they are six:
a family.  if the man in green opens the trunk,

the road folds back. this moment & everything
that follows disappears into the ink of a police report.
why doesn’t he open the trunk? my parents say
god blessed us. maybe they are right,

but i think about that night & wonder where
god was—a million miles away in the stars,
in the shared breath between my parents, maybe
everywhere. maybe nowhere. from the sky,

the man in green is so small it is impossible
to see him wave. from the sky, it is impossible
to hear whether my parents cheer or pray
as the car steals north.

*

To learn about José Olivarez’s work, check out his site.