climbing with lucille clifton

I recently read an insightful essay by Lisa Knopp on the idea of “perhapsing” as found in creative nonfiction. Perhapsing is a move that allows a writer to speculate in the face of the facts; that is, not make things up, but to come to terms with the limits of what is known, and to reflect on what is known around it and, perhaps, beyond it.

I see a similar gesture in the poem “climbing” by lucille clifton below. Within her classic and ever-surprising lyric mode, clifton begins a narrative of following another woman in climbing a long rope. The poem then begins a series of “maybe”s, each a glimpse at a decision the speaker contemplates in hindsight. This listing of maybe’s and should’s creates a lyric suspension, placing the reader alongside the speaker in a speculative space.

grey braided rope on wooden plank

The metaphor of climbing returns in the third to last line to cut off this speculation, moving the narrative back to action. The poem ends where it started, in the act of climbing, but the act itself is charged with the energy of speculation and a sense of its meaning.

climbing – lucille clifton

a woman precedes me up the long rope,
her dangling braids the color of rain.
maybe i should have had braids.
maybe i should have kept the body i started,
slim and possible as a boy’s bone.
maybe i should have wanted less.
maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me
burning to be filled.
maybe i should have wanted less.
the woman passes the notch in the rope
marked Sixty.      i rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.

from The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press)

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lyrical alignment: Richard Rodriguez

This week’s lyrical alignment is drawn from an interview with writer Richard Rodriguez conducted by Hector A. Torres for the book Conversations with Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Writers (University of New Mexico Press).

louiskahnI came across the passage below from a journal entry during my third year doing the PhD. I remember being struck by Rodriguez’s apt and rich metaphor in response to being asked about style. Not only is the narrative he develops through anecdote compelling, but the way he pivots its meaning towards his own writing process at the end really hits home with me. It’s the kind of statement that acknowledges the form and method side of writing but also allows for the fluidity and surprise that lie at the heart of the best writing.

In setting the prose into verse, I settled on working with five words per line; while the poem ends unevenly outside this structure, it almost feels appropriate. The last line is four words long, and that space where the fifth word would be feels like a space where the reader is allowed to think about the question being asked at the end. This question, furthermore, is one of those wonderful questions that echoes itself back as not a question. Not sure how to articulate this last bit fully, other than to add that some questions can simultaneously sound like requests for an answer as well as like statements we’re unsure of.

Richard Rodriguez responds to the question “How do you define style for yourself?”

lyrical alignment by José Angel Araguz
drawn from an interview with Richard Rodriguez
conducted by Hector A. Torres

There was a great architect
called Louis Kahn, a wonderful
modernist architect. He had on
staff at his architectural firm

in Philadelphia a kind of
guru or a mystic or
something. This guy used to
go with him — I think

he was Buddhist — to these
architectural sites where they were
going to build the building
whether it was in Bangladesh

or Houston or wherever it
was. They would sit there
for several days and see
the same site from different

angles, several shadows, several times
of the day, and they
would ask the question: What
does this space want to

become? It seems to me
that’s all I ask when
I write. When I look
at the blank page, I’m

trying to decipher in it:
What does it want to
tell me? See, it’s almost
as though when I write

I’m cracking it open,  you
know what I’m saying?

from Conversations with Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Writers, ed. Hector Torres (University of New Mexico Press)

microreview & interview – it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado

review by José Angel Araguz

 

Kaminsky-front-cover-small

Early in his essay-turned-chapbook it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado (Orison Books), poet Ilya Kaminsky speaks of Adélia Prado’s work as being in the mystic tradition. He then promptly delves into the questions and assumptions that come along with references to mysticism. Noting that “the term mystic may mislead or intimidate,” Kaminsky goes on to argue that mystical experience, far from being something “attainable only by a few human beings,” is actually “always available, and to anyone.”

This opening note on mysticism’s accessibility and ubiquity quickly frames his analysis on Prado’s work within an argument that feels familiar within poetry circles. Replace the word mystic with poetry in the above statements and one finds the divide to be similar; both mysticism and poetry are regarded with mistrust by some non-practitioners (not to say non-believers), a mistrust that ranges from veiled skepticism regarding the respective value of each, to outright dismissal. To push this comparison further, mystics and poets are equally defined by practice: a mystic is only a mystic when voicing their spiritual truth, and a poet can only be called so via the creation of a poem. Or, to put it another way, the poet is by no means an embodiment of poetry any more than a mystic is the embodiment of truth: both are fingers pointing to the moon.

Navigating this fine line between the ineffable and the practical is not only the work of the mystic and poet, but also of the critic. Kaminsky does a great job throughout this short essay of establishing a sense of the traditions Prado’s work is in line with, both mystically and poetically. On the mystical side, the references range from the philosophical (Emil Cioran) to the spiritual (Paul Tillich; Martin Buber); on the poetry side, a reference to Czeslaw Milosz leads to references to Whitman as well as Mayakovsky, Anna Swir, Allen Ginsberg, and a number of other singular poetic sensibilities. This diverse catalog of associations is handled in a way that places them in the reader’s grasp; Kaminsky eschews any kind of intellectual name-dropping by inviting the reader into what informs his own personal reading of Prado’s work and the stakes such reading creates.

This engaged meditation on the mystical and the poetic serves not only to make clear Kaminsky’s own take on the work, but also provides a lively introduction to Prado’s work. If, according to W. H. Auden, the real gift of a critic is not what they say but the excerpts of another’s work they curate for a reader, the excerpts chosen by Kaminsky do a great job of speaking for themselves:

With me it’s wild parties
or strict piety.
I didn’t deserve to be born,
to eat with a mouth, walk on two feet
and carry inside me twenty-five feet of guts.

(“The Third Way”)

Here is but a glimpse into Prado’s sensibility. In these five lines, one immediately senses the reckoning that infuses Prado’s work, a reckoning that would be light except for its underlying awareness of mortality. To add to Kaminsky’s analysis, I would argue that Prado’s work can be considered mystical for the way it lives vulnerably and exuberantly between life and death. It’s the kind of lyricism that cannot be taught, but rather caught and lucked up on.

Reading through this essay, I got the sense that Kaminsky has a clear idea of the precarious nature of this register of lyricism. His notes have the tone of a writer honoring the work of another not by arguing for it, but by speaking alongside it. It is in this spirit that the response below to the question “What are challenges in writing about Adélia Prado?” should be read.

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Influence Question: What are challenges in writing about Adelia Prado?

Ilya Kaminsky: Spiritual thinker is someone who believes in the impossible.

Poet is someone who believes in the impossible via words that stun.

What’s the danger of spiritual thinker? Demagoguery.

What saves A. Prado for that? A sense of humor.

Challenge in writing about it? Showcasing her sense of humor without making her sound glib.

On the page, Prado’s writing is elemental. It is straight out of earth, stars, water, lungs.

The challenge with elemental writing is to address it in kind.

So, the piece is a series of brief pieces connected by a bit of wind.

*

Special thanks to Ilya Kaminsky for participating! To learn more about Kaminsky’s work, check out his site! Copies of it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado can be purchased from Orison Books.

Untitled*

Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press) and Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, forthcoming in March 2019). He is also the editor of Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Harper Collins). With Jean Valentine, he has translated the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Dark Elderberry Branch (Alice James Books).

new review of Until We Are Level Again

Just a quick post to share the most recent review of my book Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press) by Valerie Duff-Strautmann over at Salamander. Duff-Strautmann reviews my book alongside Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press). Please check it out!

Thank you to Valerie Duff-Strautmann for spending time with my work and for all the support throughout the years!

See y’all Friday!

José

update: reviews & media

As promised (forewarned?), here are a few more updates regarding recent publications and output. First off, some review-related news:

  • I’m happy to share that my latest book, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press) was reviewed by Rodney Gomez for the Latino Book Review. I am honored and humbled by Gomez’s insight into my work.
  • Also: I’ve been keeping up with my own review work for The Bind. Recently, I wrote reviews of Amber West’s Hen & God (The Word Works) and MK Chavez’s Dear Animal, (Nomadic Press).  Both reviews come with writing prompts built off of themes and concepts found in these engaging and powerful books.
  • Lastly, here is a cool clip put together by the good people at Pilgrimage Press that features audio of me reading my poem “Coconut” over a backdrop they designed. Special thanks to everyone at Pilgrimage for including my work in their magazine and for putting together this clip!

See you Friday!

José

update: new work

I’ve been behind in sharing some of my recent publications of the past few months so I’ll be doing a few short posts this week to rectify this.

First up – new work:

  • I’m honored to have my poem “Conditioning (Run Study)” published in the latest issue of Hunger Mountain “Everyday Chimeras.” They have been kind enough to share it on their site as well. Special thanks to the editors for including my work alongside some great writers including Elizabeth Acevedo, Brian Clifton, and Carl Phillips!
  • Also, my poems “Flea Market,” “Funeral,” and “Grit” are included in the latest issue of The Inflectionist Review! I’m always excited to be a part of one of IR’s issues. This one includes fine work by Jon Boisvert, Laurie Kolp, and Maximilian Heinegg among others!
  • Lastly, I am psyched to have a haiku included in the latest issue of Bones: journal for contemporary haiku. I found out about this journal a year ago, and spent that year reading past issues and working out how my haiku aesthetic could learn from the work they publish. Special thanks to the editors for including my work!

Stay tuned for updates on reviews and media later in the week!

— José

two by Barry Spacks

In an interview with Grace Cavalieri, Kay Ryan talks about a certain “chill” and restraint she feels is necessary to writing:

I sometimes compare the chill to say, if you put an ice cube on your hand, your hand – your skin would turn pink when you took the ice cube away, and you’d see that your skin was pink where you’d had that ice, because your blood is all sent to where the chill was. So that if you have a somewhat chilly surface in work, it brings the reader’s blood to that place.

I’ve been fascinated by this quote for years now. I admire what it honors about language, its ability to have an effect, to draw meaning to itself, and how, even with restraint, language remains as intimate as ice on skin.

I also enjoy what Ryan’s words make me think about in regards to writing about personal material. In a way, a writer is always negotiating how much of their personal life they put into their work; and because even writers are humans, and as humans things are messy, never strictly one way or another, language remains fluid, directed rather controlled by how we use it.

treesI’m always fascinated by this idea of personal and creative negotiation and how it plays out across a poet’s work. This week, I’m sharing two poems by Barry Spacks. Both poems stood out to me in my reading of his book Spacks Street: New & Selected Poems, enough to write them out in my notebook. What fascinates me looking back at these two poems specifically is how different yet connected they are.

“Poem” is as enigmatic as its title in terms of what it is about, working as an ars poetica almost, a meditation on the fluidity of language. “At 35,” on the other hand, delves into specifics, ideas of age, fatherhood and son-hood. Where these two poems connect is in their haunted tone. Whether contemplating the abstract or the personal, these poems by Spacks are charged with intimate lyrical sensibility.

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Poem – Barry Spacks

Will it come again like this?
Will we ever get it right?
It is always as it is,
And it passes.

Never as it was,
Yet always somehow bright,
Always somehow sweet
In its changes.

We will never get it right.
It will come, but not like this.
It is always as it is,
And it changes.

*

At 35 – Barry Spacks

Father, what would you make of me? I wear your face.
I hear my cough and think the worms have sent you home.
Here at my table in my insubstantial house,
your myth of hope,
the piece of man you left,
I live your death
stroke for stroke.

There are no vows you did not keep I will not break.
I leave no darkness unacknowledged for your sake.
You are the school I teach. The course I take.
I move toward age, and you become my son.
Along the path ahead
you lift aside
the branches.

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To learn about the work of Barry Spacks go here.