microreview & interview: House of McQueen by Valerie Wallace

review by José Angel Araguz

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In the note for “Let’s make a dress from these,” from Valerie Wallace’s  House of McQueen (Four Way Books), we learn that the poem’s title is a quote from Alexander McQueen himself, spoken “as he walked into his workroom with a handful of red medical slides.” In the same spirit of ingenuity and repurposing, Wallace’s collection presents poems that inhabit similar liminal spaces. Ranging from ekphrasis and collage to engaging with docupoetics with singular purpose, the poems of House of McQueen brings McQueen’s aesthetic vision and humanity to life through its engagement with the observable and imaginative.

The aforementioned poem, “Let’s make a dress from these,” which centers on the dress made from medical slides mentioned in the note above, starts with an objective description: “Stained red medical slides layer vertically on sleeveless sheath, / high-necked and cut away from right shoulder to right hipbone.” The reader is presented strictly with what the eye can see in these lines. The poem then moves from the physically observable, to the suggestive and poetic:

Heavy overskirts of crimson ostrich feathers swish & switch,
thick & deliberate into underskirt of plum-black ostrich feathers.
These skirts obey the law of push. From the slightest pressure they bloom.

In these lines that round out the first stanza, the observable is engaged on two levels. First, there is the evocation of the image through phrasing with the repetition of “ostrich feathers” across two lines; but there’s also a structural echo of the image in the enjambment of “swish & switch, / thick & deliberate.” Here, the repeated use of the ampersand works like typographical stitching joining two descriptions of ostrich feathers. The last line of this stanza furthers this evocation, taking it to an imaginative space through its mention of “the law of push” and “bloom,” language that makes the observable fact of the dress into an active, engaging image.

Another kind of engagement between the observable and imaginative occurs in the poem “Shears,” only this time it is one on the level of craft. Composed out of text found and “occasionally corrupted” by the author from Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems (New Directions), what makes this poem remarkable is how Wallace is able to find and repurpose language outside of the McQueen-centered project and bring it into conversation:

Silk tweed gray felt sable damask flannel
Glory of sharp tool be the lasting part of me

Plip scut slew slew all sounds fall still
Have you seen the fox? Which way did he go, he go?

These opening lines begin with fabric language and quickly go into intimate revelry. The repetition and wordplay here are to different purposes than in the poem discussed above; yet the move on the poet’s part to evoke image and feeling from recovered language remains the equally compelling.

Similarly, the poem “Autobiography of Alexander McQueen,” which is composed of quotes from print and video interviews with McQueen himself, takes the found language approach and creates from it a sense of human voice and presence:

I’m a romantic, really—
I try to protect people.
People say I do it for the shock value
I just like exploring the sinister side of life.

Drawn from McQueen’s lips, these opening lines are haunting in the way they represent isolated moments of self-awareness and aesthetic vision. Despite their repurposing into poetic form, in this case a pantoum, the designer’s unique sense of self-possession and character ring out. When the poem closes and the form repeats the first and third line above, the argument performed through the act of the poem lands for the reader as an argument of being:

Solitude is the blank canvas I work from.
Life is transformation.
People will say I did it for the shock value—
But I’m just a romantic really.

House of McQueen can, in fact, be read as a romantic’s transformation of language materials into aesthetic revelation. The very spirit of high fashion is implied throughout the conceptual and structural narratives explored. Wallace’s deft eye and ear create poems that keep pace with and come close to matching McQueen’s original sartorial creations. What stands out as the book’s highest accomplishment is how Wallace is able to bring readers again and again to the liminal, imaginative space of inspiration.

The poem below, “Council House, 1972,” opens the collection with exactly this note of dwelling on the possibilities inherent between the observable and imaginative. From the feeling of having “never seen anything like it” to “wondering, how to draw that color — sea coast changing to dawn,” the reader is presented with two artists: the artist McQueen was on the verge of becoming, and Wallace now, able to find the words to house them both.

Council House, 1972 – Valerie Wallace

When I was about 3 years old, I drew a dress on the wall. And what dress was it? Cinderella.

When she turned, I’d never seen anything like it.
Dress made for charming prince and fairy.
I could manage the little sleeves, tiny waist rising
out of skirts which laughed as they traveled with her across the ballroom floor.
And they had stars woven in them.
I got caught wondering, how to draw that color — sea coast changing to dawn.
There was trouble, but I didn’t care. I knew it was the dress
that saved her. All the rest was just a story.

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

Valerie Wallace: Thank you so much for this question. I think poetry is a space for great permission, so for me this collection invigorates that idea, because it takes on many challenges at once – persona, ekphrastic, formal, free, a bit of narrative – all in an attempt to make a cohesive  emotional . . .  welling forth about a singular life.

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

Valerie Wallace: This is probably obvious, but my primary challenge – which animated all the other challenges – was to stay true to McQueen’s aesthetic and vision. Ultimately I used form and craft in service to his tailoring foundation, and a wide range of source material, as he had, for his collections. I researched Scottish and English history and the history of fashion, learned bespoke terminology, read McQueen biographies, and made use of interviews with McQueen, as well as his close friends and family. I felt my own imagination had permission to be wild. If I thought, Why not? I tried it. If I thought, What if…, I did it.

I’ll just add that at first I thought I was writing a kind of elegy. Then I thought I was writing language poems. At times, I was forcing poems into these categories. Of course, those poems were not very good. I learned that I had to strengthen my listening muscles. I had to listen to what the poems needed to say, wanted to say, find the little soul for each. As that began to happen, the poems and I began to trust each other, and then a collection began to hum.

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Special thanks to Valerie Wallace for participating! To learn more about Wallace’s work, check out her site! Copies of House of McQueen can be purchased from Four Way Books.

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wallace 2Valerie Wallace’s debut poetry collection House of McQueen (March 2018) was chosen by Vievee Francis for the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry. In their starred review Publishers Weekly said that Wallace created “…a literary seance…serving as a scholar of and medium for the late iconic fashion designer Alexander McQueen….” Her work was chosen by Margaret Atwood for the Atty Award, and she has received an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference Award in Poetry, as well as many grants to support her work, for which she is extremely grateful.

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José Antonio Rodriguez’s House Built on Ashes

house built on ashesThis week I had the distinct pleasure of having poet and essayist José Antonio Rodriguez video-conference into my current creative nonfiction class here at Linfield College. We discussed his memoir House Built on Ashes (Oklahoma University Press),  a collection of lyrical essays that delves into his childhood memories, interrogating them for the stories and insights behind them. The essays range in topics from the intersection of the immigrant experience and borderland culture to sexual identity and social class dynamics. What makes the collection richly compelling, however, is how Rodriguez’s writing makes such complex topics human and intimate.

In class discussion before Rodriguez’s virtual visit, I shared the following excerpt from an interview with Rodriguez on the Letras Latinas Blog:

[TK]: Each story has thought-provoking endings that capture José’s feelings about each episode…How did you choose which aspects informed the final lines of the narrative? In hindsight, what importance do you attach to formative thoughts such as these during your journey to adulthood?

[JAC]: Well, I’m a big fan of ambiguity because it highlights moments of uncertainty or doubt in the narrator’s mind, moments that I think are valuable and generative for all individuals. I feel that society keeps pushing us past these moments of uncertainty, keeps ushering us into answers and certainty because that’s supposed to communicate strength and resolve; so those endings are a bit of resistance against that push and a way of communicating this particular narrator’s every-present sense of conflict or uncertainty with the world around him. About their importance, I think many times those thoughts were brief and transitory because life was coming at the narrator from every direction, but they left a trace of potential or possibility, and that capacity to imagine other ways that one might confront a situation or react to it, is their greatest gift to the narrator. To me. It is a great irony that often that which estranges us from our environment allows for the possibility of better powers of observation, which is integral to writing. I was pushed to the margins or estranged from the environment in so many ways, that I was left observing the world rather than fully being in it.

What Rodriguez says here about using ambiguity as a way to remain in uncertainty and, thus, subvert society’s expectation to move away from uncertainty and have things end neatly is a powerful lesson in how to have art and politics meet without one sacrificing the other. This move also invites the reader closer to the experience of the text and provides a space to dwell on complex feelings rather than turn away from them, a turning away that in creative nonfiction can read as false or simplistic.

I also made sure to note the moment in the interview excerpt above where a series of statements by Rodriguez about “the narrator” of his essays is interrupted with the shorter statement “To me.” This brief acknowledgement of self is a lived out example of what is at stake in creative nonfiction and the work one must do in writing it. To speak of a narrator-who-is-you and thus frame a piece this way can establish distance between the raw material and your own self at risk and alive with feelings. In this space, aesthetic moves can be made and revisions considered that lead to illuminations not afforded in real life.

In the piece below, “Open House,” one can see some of these ideas at work. The narrative of an elementary school open house braids the two worlds of the child narrator together, that of his family life and that of his education. The split across language and culture, home and aspirations, is charged by Rodriguez’s use of the present tense. The reader is brought right into the action and thoughts that propel the story. By the end, the meeting of two worlds becomes a blurring of them, to the point that the open house – which itself is an event where others go and see a place – becomes a site where the narrator himself feels the weight of being seen.

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Open House
By José Antonio Rodriguez

It is a strange sight, the school at night, aglow with light emanating from all its open doors. Amá, Luis, Yara, and I walk toward it, together. Amá begins to lag behind. We slow our pace and she catches up but eventually lags behind again, like she prefers to walk one step behind us.

In every room, we find a corner to stand in, Amá wringing her hands like she owes the room money. I tell her about how crowded the school is, built for half the number of students that now live a third of their lives in it. The teacher walks to us. In every room I translate for the teacher. In every room I translate for Amá. In every room I am a gran estudiante. The Spanish reminds me of church. The Spanish sounds foreign—talk of literature, talk of math, talk of science. In every room the white students marvel at my perfect Spanish, my Spanish without an accent, avert their eyes from my mother’s lack of English.

In every room they harbor the suspicion, hear the language, my first tongue, the telling sign that I could not be from here, that I could not be American. How they look at me, see someone they didn’t imagine.

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from House Built on Ashes (University of Oklahoma Press)

Watch a clip of this piece being read here.

vital signs & 3 word poems

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Happy November everyone! Just a quick post to share the above 3 word poem from the poetryamano project.

A note about 3 word poems: I picked up the form from reading The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño years ago. I became fascinated by the punk rock way Bolaño’s poet characters spoke about the art. This form is spoken about as a kind of graffiti, a subversion of seriousness through compression.

Having a rough time healthwise this week. Time got away from me because of it. Please check in next week for a new, full post.

Til then, here’s to living life 3 words at a time!

José

worlding with Valerie Martinez

ddm4This week found me conducting two separate poetry workshops, one in Spanish and one in English, focused on Día de los Muertos / Day of the Dead. At this workshop, we went over some of the history of the holiday, from its indigenous roots and variations to contemporary observances. While I had students write recuerdos / poems of remembrance, I also shared examples of calaveras (short, satirical poems that are also at times political) and descanso poems.

This week’s poem, “World to World” by Valerie Martinez, is an example of a descanso poem, a tradition that combines elegy and narrative. In his introduction to Camino Del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing, editor and poet Rigoberto González describes the descanso poem as “a word version of an altar to the dead,” and cites Martinez’s poem as an example.

ddm3Reading through the poem, one can see the altar-like spirit of the poem in the way the narrative collects its details while at the same braiding the human and the natural world. When “the dead come” in the poem, for example, they come with “mouths silent as under-earth.” This metaphor pairing “mouths” with “under-earth” builds off the idea of the dead engaging with the living world and gives an exactness of feeling. The “silence” described here is tied to the absence of words. The speaker then shares that “We needn’t have any words, / the dead and I,” and continues in its details, leading us from the earth to the sky through graceful turns of enjambment and phrasing. The ending then takes a poem that is about exploring layers of outer existence and notes how these layers resemble the ones we live with inside ourselves.

Since my workshops were in two languages, I went ahead and translated Martinez’s poem. I’m sharing the translation below as well. Enjoy!

World to World – Valerie Martinez
for Tim Trujillo 1951-1991

I discover the Buddha in the backyard,
black paint on wood, head titled,
smile so tranquil. Then the dead come,
over the grass, the garden stones,
a bed of wildflowers, without sound,
mouths silent as under-earth.
We needn’t have any words,
the dead and I, just holy imagery,
the message, they come, the secret
passage under the wall, the creature
who climbs through, the sky
over the clouds over the air over the earth,
world to world, this afternoon
someone I am someone I knew,
the layers beneath the layers.

Mundo a Mundo – Valerie Martinez
traducido por José Angel Araguz, Ph.D.

for Tim Trujillo 1951-1991

Descubro al Buda en el patio trasero,
pintura negra sobre madera, cabeza inclinada,
una sonrisa tan tranquila. Luego vienen los muertos,
sobre la hierba, las piedras del jardín,
una cama de flores silvestres, sin sonido,
bocas calladas como la tierra.
No necesitamos ninguna palabra,
los muertos y yo, sólo imágenes santas,
el mensaje, ellos vienen, el paseo
secreto bajo la pared, la criatura
quien sube, el cielo
sobre las nubes sobre el aire sobre la tierra,
mundo a mundo, esta tarde
alguien que soy alguien que conocí,
los estratos debajo los estratos.

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The original poem is from Valerie Martinez’s collection World to World (University of Arizona Press). To learn more about Martinez’s work, check out her site.

writing prompt: shape tracing

This week I’m introducing a new type of post focused on writing prompts! These will come in part out of my teaching background and will also be informed by work I’m currently exploring.

This week’s poem, “have I mattered to my / phone…” in particular involves a visual component that doesn’t travel well to Instagram. For those of you following my poetryamano project, you know the writing I post there tends to be short, brief lyrics. The poem below is longer and engages with shape in an integral way so that even breaking it up into pieces across photographs wouldn’t work.

The prompt: Draw a shape on your page and then proceed to write a poem inside it. Don’t worry about line breaks, rather, focus on filling the shape with narrative, image, and whatever else pops up while writing. The kicker is that you’re limited to the shape you’ve drawn.

A variation on this prompt – and one that I follow in my poem below – is to trace out the shape of an object and then write about the object. What I did was trace the outline of my cell phone. It ended up looking like a crude soap bar, probably because of the protective case it’s in, but the shape worked for the exercise nonetheless. I then focused on the phrasing that came immediately to mind.

The world of phones these days is stigmatized in ways that are unfair to artists and people who do everything from conduct business to engage the world through apps that make their lives more accessible. With these thoughts in mind, the idea of mattering seemed like an apt thing to invoke. I have transcribed the poem below the photograph in case my handwriting is hard to read.

Let me know if you try your hand at this. As always, the Influence is open for submissions. Enjoy!

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“have I mattered to my / phone…” – José Angel Araguz

have I mattered to my
phone to where my fingers
swipe where my print has
slicked swirled been
singled out and suddenly
swept away have I mattered
to the oil and grease at
the side of my thumb the
flab of index the edge of
each fingernail have I
mattered to this space where
words appear under my
skin words flicker under
my pulse have I mattered
without metered thought
measured instead in mine
own mouth and malleability
have I mattered in matter

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Happy shaping!

José

Selena poems!

Selena_Quintanilla_statue_Mirador_de_la_florThis week I thought I would celebrate the publication of another one of my Selena poems in the latest issue of Crab Orchard Review by sharing the first Selena poem I wrote.

The poem “The Things to Fight Against” (below) can be found in my second full length poetry collection, Small Fires (FutureCycle Press), and was originally published in Switchgrass Review. In this poem, I braid together a bit of my own personal mythology with the late singer’s tragic death, our two narratives meeting across our respective bilingualism and lives in Corpus Christi, Texas. This poem is also an example of me working in syllabics.

Araguz author photo 3
old photo – parallel pose unintentional

My new poem, “Selena: a study of recurrence/worry,” is a pantoum and goes further into the impact of her life and death upon not only my own life but of those I hold dear in my hometown.

Be sure to check out my other poems in COR “St Peter to Joseph” and “Sentence” along with work by other stellar writers in this issue. Special thanks to editors Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble as well as everyone at COR who helped make this new issue possible!

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The Things to Fight Against – José Angel Araguz

for Selena

Onstage, mouth brimming with the Spanish
parents teased her with, maybe she looked
down and saw the cowboy hats, the boots
and belt buckles, the purses, curls,
and children, maybe she saw herself,

thought: Of all the things to fight against,
sound’s not one of them – sound of applause,
sound of gritos, sound of sparked cuetes,
sound of beer cans gasping open,
sound of busses turning in the dark,

groaning in dreams, sound of R’s rolling,
sound of birdwing flutter, sound of wind
over open water, sound of flags
unfurling, sound of flame flaring
up and out of a struck match, sound of

a voice, my own Spanish unsure, chopped,
shaky, sound of a bullet breaking
through the air, sound of a newspaper
splayed on the wind, the news floating,
punched with the grace of long hair – her hair

now a cold blade of bronze, her statue
along the sea wall, to see her is
to see the tide forever turning,
pulled and pulling away, is to
think again of her killer, crying

in her car in a stand-off, gripping
the gun which would later be broken
to pieces and thrown into the same
waters the statue looks over,
is to hear my aunt again call us

a city of crabs in a bucket,
each of us clambering to get out
has another behind them – their face
similar, a face we’ve grown with
and understand – dragging them back down.

 

disbelief y Concha Méndez

In my fascination with the short lyric, one of the variations I enjoy are poems that work like door hinges into an emotion. These poems walk the fine line of narrative and abstract language, and take on risks in order to create an emotional impression.

This week’s poem – “No es aire lo que respiro…” by Concha Méndez – is a good example of what I mean. In typical short lyric fashion, the poem is carried by a personal tone that evokes intimacy. From there, the voice delves into metaphoric language, developing a narrative of air-turned-ice, ground that opens, and eyes that see an ever-darkening world. The poem ends on lines of sorrow and disbelief.

dawnDespite the bleak turns in a small amount of lines, this poem is one of hope in the way that poetry writing in general implies hope. Here, in ten lines, is the presence and direct statement of one’s feelings. Also, there’s the sense of one reporting from an inner landscape in language whose ambiguity leaves what poet D. M. Garrison calls “dreaming room,” that is, a space for a reader to dwell on what the words bring up for them. In the light of recent events in the news, including climate change reports and the Kavanaugh confirmation, we have been given many reasons to “look at the world” and “not want to believe.”

In my translation, I worked towards having the words do the “hinge” work I spoke of earlier, and downplaying some of the cadence in the original Spanish that doesn’t exactly carry over into English. My goal was to drum up some of the tension and air of dwelling in Méndez’s original. Enjoy!

No es aire lo que respiro… — Concha Méndez

No es aire lo que respiro,
que es hielo que me está helando
la sangre de mis sentidos.
Tierra que piso se me abre.
Cuanto miro se oscurece.
Mis ojos se abren al llanto
ya cuando el día amanece.

Y antes del amanecer,
abiertos miran al mundo
y no lo quieren creer…

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It’s not air that I breathe … — by Concha Méndez
English translation by José Angel Araguz

It’s not air that I breathe,
that is ice freezing
the blood of my senses.
The ground I tread opens for me.
Wherever I look darkens.
My eyes open, weeping
already when the day dawns.

And before dawn,
they look at the world
and do not want to believe…