new work & book review!

Just a quick post to share that the first chapter of my hybrid memoir, A Personal History of Want, was published this past November in The Acentos Review.

Read the excerpt here.

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Also, wanted to share the release of my latest creative review for The Bind. For this one, I spent time with Khaty Xiong’s collection, Poor Anima (Apogee), 2015) and created a cento around the Rimbaud’s idea of the self/I.

Read the creative review here.

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See you Friday!

José

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between seeing & feeling: Jenny Sadre-Orafai

MalakIn my recent microreview & interview of Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak (Platypus Press), I spoke about the collection’s theme of divination and how poetry itself becomes a similar source of insight and perception for the speaker in a number of poems. This week’s poem, “Queen of Cups” also from Malak, is a good example of this poetic perception.

The poem develops through juxtaposition, following a story about where Queen Elizabeth was when her father died with a story of where the speaker’s father was when his mother died. The speaker then details where she was during the latter, the death of her grandmother. The turns within this juxtaposition, the move from historical fact to personal memory, create an intimacy that pulls the reader in while simultaneously disorienting them in a fruitful way. The poem then pivots into its ending, using the created intimacy as an imaginative space.

So far, as readers we are brought into what is happening because of narrative, but we become invested in it because of what is evoked from the images that follow. From hallucination to the comparison to a movie, the speaker’s narrative becomes driven by an urgency to see further into the memory while not dictating or forcing any straightforward understanding. The stakes behind this urgency become apparent in the final lines of the poem as the speaker considers whether Elizabeth was “instructed not to cry.” The return to the image of Elizabeth watching elephants up close parallels that of the speaker trying to see further into the large animal that is grief; this last juxtaposition ends the poem with the emotional tension of being torn between seeing and feeling.

Queen of Cups – Jenny Sadre-Orafai

Queen Elizabeth was with Philip in Kenya
when her father died. She was watching

elephants from her hotel within the trees.
My father was with his three sisters when

his mother died. I was with my bed,
hallucinating a fox. After the fox left,

I called him, but he was taking a shower.
Like a movie, the protagonist crying

surrounded by water, lots of empty cups?
Was Elizabeth instructed not to cry?

It will shake this tree.
The elephants will trample this nest.

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Find out more about Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s work at her site.

Also, here’s more from Sadre-Orafai on this particular poem.

microreview & interview: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak

review by José Angel Araguz

Malak

Autobiography at Fifty Feet – Jenny Sadre-Orafai

We’ll write our autobiography when we’re teenagers,
before we grow into our teeth. Before we meet
people who will laugh at us for reasons we’ll talk about
when we’re older and divorced. And we’ll both still know
our exes because we have to, not because we want to.
We’ll write our autobiography just before we kiss
in the log flume tunnel, our log smacking against the rail,
and we’ll pretend, for that part of the ride, we are old and blind.
We’ll write that I squirmed next to you when you said
there were snakes and that they’d launch themselves
like canned confetti into our log, that wasn’t really a log
of course, that the kids, somewhere behind us, said
the water smelled like urine. We’ll tell everyone
in our autobiography that our teeth glowed
in that darkness when we laughed.

One of the great pleasures of reading Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak (Platypus Press, 2017) is engaging with the balance between urgency and seeing at the heart of these poems. The poem above, for example, uses the future tense phrasing of “we will” to dip both into the past and then that past’s future in a compelling way. This play with verb tense creates the feel of one looking in several directions for pieces of a story. As the poem develops its narrative of past and past/future, details of hurt and lost love are doled out, leading up to a scene on a log ride as the log enters a tunnel, a literal plunge into darkness. This image of the speaker and the you being carried into the dark brings together the implications so far in the poem; that there was hurt in both the past and later past of this couple, and that they will have found each other by the later point of the poem’s creation. What is being sought by looking in several directions around this story becomes clear when the last line reclaims laughter; something that at the beginning of the poem was a source of hurt, is, in the last line’s remembered, re-narrated moment, into a instance of brief light.

This balance between urgency and seeing plays out in the collection in a number of other ways. One key way is in the form of poems dealing with the poet’s grandmother, whose name, Malak (the Arabic word for “angel”), gives the book its title. The significance of the name Malak is further charged by the grandmother’s gift for divination. In “Company,” the reader learns:

Malak hears futures in cups the way we
hear oceans inside shells. Families we know rush
through Turkish coffee, scalding their throats.
They wear black stripes down their tongues like
Plains garter snakes

This brief excerpt presents both Malak’s natural ability as well as the urgency with which she is sought out. Here, the ability to divine and read coffee grounds is described as hearing, which expands the word “seeing” as I have been using it. In the world of these poems, seeing is something that occurs via a variety of senses, and, as in the case of “Autobiography at Fifty Feet,” tenses. Whether seeing or listening, picking up on what is yet perceived and what it means is the crux for both grandmother and poet.

In “Listen,” one sees the speaker engage with their own attempts at sussing out meaning from the elements of the world:

We found the first bird behind the museum near Sixteenth.
We held hands and it wasn’t vulgar until we were standing

at a funeral. Yes, I let go first. My wings pulled in tight.
Death is the most comfortable suit.

And I wanted to take its picture like the bird was going off
to its first day of school.

Here, the speaker draws a number of meanings out of a scene of discovering a dead bird. One is the subtle pivot into the “vulgar” which occurs upon the realization of the bird’s death between the first and second couplet. The nuanced phrasing between stanzas evokes the way human actions, such as holding hands, can be recast by death. When the speaker later admits to wanting to “take its picture” as one would a child on the first day of school, there is a pivoting of an image of death back onto life. Again, the reader is presented with a poem that lyrically veers between two planes of meaning (here, life and death). The impression is of an urgency felt by the speaker to see more of what is happening before them, to “listen” in on what she might be missing. If “Death is the most comfortable suit,” then the living must squirm and wrestle in discomfort. One of the sources of comfort, Sadre-Orafai’s collection contends, is in exploring and finding meaning.

In the poem below, a childhood memory of the poet’s father is similarly plumbed for the meanings it has to offer. The washing of grapes and the care implied are balanced against an image of a father teaching self-rescue swimming to an infant. This powerful juxtaposition opens up the complexities of a human relationship without trying to answer or explain them. In this poem and elsewhere, Malak makes clear that the divination available for the poet is one of imagination and evocation, a divination that offers not answers, but another kind of perception.

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Jamshid’s Angoor – Jenny Sadre-Orafai

In the spring I am at my childhood home.
My father goes to and from the store
with dark grapes for his daughter.

He holds them by the tops
of their heads to the sink, drops
them in a bowl. Dunking them,

he pulls them out like he’s making
something more than grapes clean.
He’s cautious with his hands like

he’s a father of an infant again.
Like he’s a father of an infant again
who makes her body go corpse

every time she hits water and then
waits for the attention, the calling,
the bringing of her body back to life.

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

Jenny Sadre-Orafai: As I’ve gotten older, my definition of poetry has become less rigid. I also think that literature is constantly contesting genres. So, with this collection I was less strict with myself about what is and what isn’t allowed. Even though the manuscript was rejected more than a few times, I felt that the prose section really needed to be there. I remember reading Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling and just being blown away by her writing of course but also what she included in the collection—photography, notes, etc. But, most importantly, the presentation wasn’t a gimmick. It was necessary and intentional. Maybe it sounds dramatic, but as a Type A person, I saw it as brave. Malak was my way of being brave I guess. I didn’t want to be limited by form or genre so much all the time. I wanted to free myself up. If a poem needed to be a prose poem, then it was. If a poem didn’t need punctuation, then I didn’t include any. I was always intentional though. It took me a long time to get to this place though and it’s my hope that I keep pushing against what I think I can and can’t do.

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

Jenny Sadre-Orafai: I’m a fairly private person, so publishing poems about my family can be a challenge sometimes. Since I’m so close to them, I feel protective about what I share. But, there’s a special frequency I see and hear when I’m around them and it’s difficult not to write about that. Another hurdle for me with this book was writing about being sexually assaulted. I’ve never written about my experiences in the twenty-four years I’ve been writing. So, the poems in the collection that speak to these times were incredibly terrifying for me to both write and share. But I think this loosening with genres and form happened around the same time I began to untie all these emotional knots I’ve been carrying around for so long. Writing this book, like writing any book for me now, is my way of learning to be vulnerable. It’s not always comfortable and I think that’s okay.

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Special thanks to Jenny Sadre-Orafai for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her siteMalak can be purchased from Platypus Press.

555Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of Malak and Paper, Cotton, Leather. Recent poetry appears in Cream City Review, Ninth Letter, The Cortland Review, and Hotel Amerika. Recent prose appears in Fourteen Hills and The Collagist. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

poetry feature: Laura M Kaminski

This week’s poem is drawn from the poetry feature submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

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One thing I admire about poetry is the space it creates where meditation can balance into consideration and reckoning. This week’s poem, “Bonding” by Laura M Kaminski, is a good example of what I mean.

The first stanza not only sets the scene, but also presents the range of meditation. The act of walking a new dog is meditated upon via the consideration of particulars. From the moment the speaker picks up the leash, she feels fear as “a grasshopper leaping / eating everything i’ve planted.” Making a grasshopper stand as a metaphor for fear in this direct manner allows for a surrealistic immediacy; the juxtaposition is “leaped” into suddenly, which evokes not only the image but the sensation of both image and concept.

The poem continues to create tension through taut, clipped lines. Through its narrative turns, this meditation on fear reckons with the possible risks involved in walking a dog for the speaker’s physical well-being. As the poem develops, its engagement with the epigraph becomes apparent. By the quote’s logic, in order “to understand” and “to experience” love and friendship, one must be active. Every move of consideration and reckoning in the poem is an active one. Each stanza that unfolds, then, stands as another refusal of “allowing the heart to shrink.”

Bonding – Laura M Kaminski

The only way to understand love is to love. The only way
to experience friendship is to be a friend. If this creates pain,
that’s better than allowing the heart to shrink.
            – Neil Douglas-Klotz, THE SUFI BOOK OF LIFE

i pick up the leash
fear is a grasshopper leaping
eating everything i’ve planted
the new dog is large
but only seven months old

i ask him to sit
my fear of fear is a locust
larger than my first fear
and voracious
i take the risk

i snap the leash onto his
collar and reach for the door
i am determined to find
a way to stay on my feet
even if he pulls or lunges

without blaming him if we
have an accident and without
self-recrimination or second-
guessing if i fall
and twist my spine

fear: a fall could paralyze
locust: not taking that chance
is another form of paralysis
i have nothing to bring
to this but poetry

fear: no one will understand
these words i’ve put to paper
the thought is only seven
minutes old and still unruly
i take the risk

to fail would leave me
trapped inside my body
unable to communicate
get out of myself in any way
locust: open the door

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Laura M Kaminski grew up in Nigeria, went to school in New Orleans, and currently lives in rural Missouri. Her most recent collection, The Heretic’s Hymnal: 99 New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Babylon Books / Balkan Press in 2018. More about her poetry is available at http://arkofidentity.wordpress.com/

new work & book news!

Just a quick post to share two things:

ONE: I am honored to be the January featured poet over at A Dozen Nothing. I’m especially excited to have these particular poems out in the world as they deal with some of the personal and political aftermath of last year’s election.

Thank you to editors Jeff & Pete for allowing the space for this work!

Check out the new work here.until 3_300

TWO: I want to officially announce the forthcoming release of Until We Are Level Again, my third full length poetry collection, to be published by Mongrel Empire Press later this Spring.

Thank you to editor Jeanetta Calhoun Mish for giving a home to this manuscript!

I’ll be sharing more news closer to publication. For now, here’s a peek at the cover art, a digital art piece by Ani Schreiber.

Happy new year to all of you!

See you Friday!

José

listening with jane hirshfield

As the year ends, I find myself amidst so much newness: new job, new city, new friends and faces in my life. I am still catching up with it all. It’s the kind of upheaval and momentum that makes me return to poems in a specific way; mainly, to relearn how to listen.

I was reminded of this idea of listening while reading an interview with Jane Hirshfield earlier this week:

What is the most important thing to do when reading a poem?**
Listen, without worrying too quickly about whether you understand or not. Give yourself over to a poem the way you give yourself over to your own night dreaming, or to a beloved’s tales of the day. And then, try to listen first to a poem the way you might listen to a piece of music — the meaning of music isn’t some note by note analysis or paraphrase, it’s to find yourself moved.

To sit back and be witness to a singular circumstance. To be still, and reflect only after all has been said. These are skills in life and in poetry.

cheese rackHirshfield’s knack for listening is on full display in this week’s poem, “Sheep’s Cheese.” This short poem accumulates its narrative details slowly, doles them out line by line with the same care as is being described. It’s the kind of lyric nuance that can be missed out on if read too fast.

There are resonances in poems and in life that are felt even without our knowing. Same as the man in the poem, whose arms “know the weight” of a weekly task, there is a part of us listening and tracking the effect of nuances, even when we’re busy looking away.

Sheep’s Cheese – Jane Hirshfield

In the cellar, sheep’s milk cheeses
soak in cold brine.
Once a week, a man comes to turn them.
Sixty pounds lifted like child after child,
lain back and re-wrapped
in their cloths on the wooden shelves.
The shelves are nameless, without opinion or varnish.
The wheels are only sheep’s milk, not ripening souls.
He sings no lullabye to them. But his arms know the weight.

from After (Harper Perennial, 2007)

**Check out the rest of this interview with Hirshfield here.

purpose & craig santos perez

lukao coverIn my recent microreview & interview of Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao], I spoke of Perez’s multivalent poetic approach demanding an equally multivalent reading, and how the book makes this demand in an accessible manner. Every literary tradition has their footnote-ridden “masterpieces” (I’m nodding at T.S. Eliot’s aptly named “The Wasteland”), but for every footnote or incorporation of Latin or French in such pieces, there’s a headscratch moment that is rarely explained, specifically  regarding purpose. Literary critics can extrapolate and pontificate about their given interpretations and tell us why something matters only so long before one wonders how much the poem/poet is actually intending and putting down for the reader to pick up.

Upon first reading, the poem below, “(pō),” reads as an intimate love lyric, one whose enjambment and use of brackets and slashes only heighten the need for a close reading. The rhetorical approach of presenting a list of “before” statements only heightens the intimacy, creating tension amidst close listening and rich language. Even before one makes use of Perez’s textual notes, which explain the title’s meaning as:

—Pō: In the Hawaiian belief system, Pō is the creative darkness from which all things emerged

there is an contextual translation in the pacing of the lines

before was pō \\
the first darkness

The poem, then, upon first reading, gives over enough of itself to stir and evoke reactions on a number of levels; it also makes itself matter in a way that is only further served by the online “footnote” Perez provides.

There is a great generosity in this approach, a virtuosity that is humble and tactful. It is something I empathize with when I see it in other writers like Perez who write in more than one language not as intellectual flourish but poetic necessity. That Perez accomplishes this once would be gift enough; that his latest collection lends itself to multiple and various readings is nothing short of a tribute and testament to the poetic act itself.

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from ginen understory

(pō)

~

before i first visit [you]
in ka’a’awa // before
[we] swim in salt water
and forage the tide
for shells \\ before [we]
learn our body
languages // before i
mistake trade winds
for your hair \\
before [we] dive
// before [we] come
against wreckage \\
before [we] close
our eyes to see
what night asks [us]
to let go // before
the emotional
chickens crow the sun
risen \\ before vow
-els and consonants //
before was pō \\
the first darkness
birthing our sea
of moving islands

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find out more about Dr. Craig Santos Perez’s work here.