new work!

Just a quick note to share the release of the latest issue of The Collagist which features my poem “Cows.”

This issue contains work by Tina May Hall, Felicia Zamora, and other stellar writers. Check it out here.

Thank you to the editors for including my work!

See you Friday!

José

Advertisements

poetry feature: Shirani Rajapakse

chant-of-a-million-women-shirani-rajapakseFor this poetry feature, we have two poems and short essay by poet Shirani Rajapakse. The poems are from her recent collection,  Chant of a Million Women, and her essay goes into the themes of the collection and the role these two poems play.

I am honored to provide a forum for the discussion and interrogation of such complex issues as these poems and prose take on. Rajapakse’s work is filled with astute observation and insight. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” takes its time meditating on the act of men groping a statue; the pace of the poem allows the nuance and charge of the situation to be dwelled upon in a way in an unflinching manner. This ability to dwell on the problematic until it gives over something human is found again in “On a Street in London.” In both poems, and throughout Chant of a Million Women, Rajapakse provides space to acknowledge discomfort, injustice, and hurt, but also to begin the work of healing.

*

At the Side of the Old Mandir – Shirani Rajapakse

They come to this place every day
to touch you.
Lonely men with desires unfulfilled.
Can’t afford the real thing, costs too much
these days, a glance, a caress.
They can barely afford food for the day.

You’re the best they can have;
voluptuousness in stone.
They ogle and marvel, then
gradually draw nearer.
A furtive glance in every direction to check
if anyone’s watching and a hand
lifts up to cup a breast.
Human and rock merge for a blissful moment.
An eternity passes as time
drags itself to a screeching halt.
Sighs of contentment escape.

Satiated temporarily,
they return to a place at a distance,
to admire and hope.

Later, moving inside they speak to God, plead
with him, cajole, sometimes demand.
Karma always questioned in times like this.
A truth hard to accept.
The reasons why never defined, lying hidden
in the cosmic ether beyond their
comprehension.

Your breasts are a shade darker than
the rest of your body,
colored from constant caresses of
lonesome men seeking stolen pleasures.
A slow smile playing on your lips, one arm
resting on a hip pushed out to the side,
the other raised from the elbow,
fingers encircling lotus, you stand waiting,
for what might be, as they shuffle past,
circumambulating
like the devout, softly singing praise
of the one within.
Quietly taking in their fill they return to
homes devoid of love and desire.

Who are you,
proud woman standing nonchalantly
gazing into the distance as they walk past?
What was your fate?
Willed by the hand that chiseled
you from a large rock hewn out from
another place one sunny day eons ago.
Who was the man that yearned for you so,
he cast you in stone in remembrance
to watch over the years
and give hope to
a multitude of desperate souls?

*

Shirani Rajapakse on “At the Side of the Old Mandir” & “On a Street in London”

Women’s bodies have always been depicted in art as objects of desire and of un-attainability. The artiste or sculptor creates his work of art that is so perfect it moves the audience to gawk and stare and imagine possibilities in their drab little lives. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” speaks of this desire for a statue by a man who can’t have the real thing – a woman in his life  – because of whatever economic or social factors, or maybe because the wife he has doesn’t reciprocate his love. He stands in front of a statue fantasizing about what could be.

The influence for the poem was a statue of a woman at the side of a mandir (Hindu temple) in India. The old beautiful carvings on the outside of mandirs depict women in many poses. Almost all of the women have large breasts and voluptuous hips. What was interesting was that in some Mandirs the breasts of these statues of women were darker and I used to wonder why, until one day I saw the reason.

“At the Side of the Old Mandir” sets the stage to the collection. It also pulls in the idea of the role of women from history to the present and demonstrates that it really isn’t very different, although separated from time and space. Women were seen and continue to be seen as objects of desire; larger than life depictions of male fantasies.

The image of the abused female statues reminded me of what I once saw inside telephone booth on a street in London. This was a time just before the mobile phone and if you needed to make a call you’d use a public phone. I don’t know if those still exist, but one of the things that greeted you when you entered one of those phone boxes was a whole load of calling cards with photos of women, much like the statues of the women in those ancient temples. It appeared as though modern women were trying to emulate the statues which were probably carved out by men who were seeking the ideal woman and not finding that around them, they were creating images in stone.

It seemed very sad. We’d come so far yet as women we hadn’t given up the notion of pleasing others – of turning our bodies into objects of pleasure for men, and it didn’t matter that we were getting exploited as well. “On a Street in London” ends the collection. Between those two poems there’s just about every emotion and situation women have faced and will continue to face unless and until society realizes that something has to be done to halt this negative trend.

If women were objects that men in ancient times used to sculpt dreams of – narrow waist broad hips and voluptuous breasts – then women have down the centuries become the objects themselves, sculpting their own bodies to create a false view of what men want. Between the ancient statue and the modern woman who add breast implants and nips and tucks her body to please a man we have not progressed much. In fact we have come full circle to finally become what men have always wanted us to be – objects, a very visually pleasing object that is molded to certain parameters.

*

On a Street in London – Shirani Rajapakse

Watermelons jostle
inside the telephone booth too small to hold
such wonders overflowing their space.

Glass and steel surround him
with a view of the street beyond.
They stare at him defiantly at
eye level sticking out strong and proud.

Watermelons big,
watermelons small,
watermelons cheap,
come buy my wares, a business card
stuck to the side cries out to the world.

Lonely hearts stir at the sight
every time they glance inside.

Her eyes beckon, pick up the phone and
dial me in, they blink lustily, as
watermelons heave inside tomato red spandex
stretched to accommodate.

Tiny shivers run marathons down
his spine as he envisages the feel of it
in his palm yet dares
not lift a hand to touch.

Too many eyes watching silently as
footsteps tap around him.

The city drifts this way and that as he stands
still, inside the box in the middle
of the pavement watching her globes
straining to jump out.

Her voice purrs at the other end,
trembles down the line, he
listens mesmerized and
imagines the thousands of possibilities
squashed between watermelons
brown like the earth, trembling
like an earthquake.

*

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAShirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and author. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Chant of a Million Women was self-published (August 2017). She has a BA in English Literature (University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka) and a MA in International Relations (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India). She interviews, promotes and reviews books by indie authors on The Writer’s Space at shiranirajapakse.wordpress.com

lyrical alignment: The Book of Unknown Americans

I haven’t shared one of my lyrical alignments in a while, so I’m excited to share this one. I’ve also gone ahead and created a new category for them on the side there, so one click can take you to my collective formal experimentations across the years.

henriquezThis week’s lyrical alignment comes from Cristina Henríquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf). While the novel’s main narrative details the migration and lot of the Rivera family who come to America from Mexico to find a school that can accommodate their daughter, Maribel, who has suffered brain damage from an accident, the novel also presents the stories of the neighborhood the family finds themselves becoming a part of. These “unknown Americans” hail from a variety of countries and represent a spectrum of latinidades; each one tells their stories in every other chapter. Henríquez’s gift for voice is evident in these monologues that go into the struggles of migration and survival.

When I do a lyrical alignment, I first find a passage of prose that calls to me on the level of language: a range of lyrical turns, an engaging metaphor, or, as is the case here, strong voice. I then try to find a phrase I connect with sound-wise. Here, I was caught by the natural pause at the end of “street” in the first six words. From there, I rewrote the excerpt in my notebook, making sure to keep each line to six words. To my surprise, the full excerpt I was writing out naturally ended in a six word phrase. I’m still spooked by the serendipity of it.

Aside from the lyrical quality of the voice and prose, this excerpt also hit home in that it has a character following a line of thinking that I am familiar with, in particular the feeling of being both “seen” and not “seen” at the same time. This kind of stereotyping/profiling very much makes one feel unmistakably “unknown.” Henríquez’s accomplishment in this passage is the evocation of a voice; the argument remains personal while creating a space where the reader can dwell alongside the character.

*

The Unknown American

lyrical alignment by José Angel Araguz
drawn from Cristina Henríquez’s
The Book of Unknown Americans

When I walk down the street,
I don’t want people to look
at me and see a criminal
or someone that they can spit
on or beat up. I want
them to see a guy who
has just as much right  to
be here as they do, or
a guy who works hard, or
a guy who loves his family,
or a guy who’s just trying
to do the right things. I
wish just one of those people,
just one, would actually talk to
me, talk to my friends, man.
And yes, you can talk to
us in English. I know English
better than you, I bet. But
none of them even want to
try. We’re the unknown Americans, the
ones no one even wants to
know, because they’ve been told they’re
supposed to be scared of us
and because maybe if they did
take the time to get to
know us, they might realize that
we’re not that bad, maybe even
that we’re a lot like them.
And who would they hate then?

*

Check out Cristina Henríquez’s novel, The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf).

poetry feature: Trust Tonji

This week’s poem, “The thing about colors,” is a fine example of how poets often have to be unsettled in language. For instance, there is the performance of language in the public realm, where we do our best to honor one another in regards to pronoun preference, ability, and sexuality as well as cultural and racial backgrounds. Then there is the way language is rooted in the private realm, the personal effort and experiences that shape the way we come to understand such language and how we embody and live what it means.

Nebula Space Sky Abstract Colorful ColorIn my own life, I welcome a phrase like “person of color” for what it offers in the public realm, how it offers me, as a Latinx, a place in a larger, societal conversation. As a tool for unpacking and coping with insults and imbalances, such terminology provides a way to speak up with and make big picture connections where otherwise I would be too hurt to do so. And yet, in the private realm, I am obligated to unpack such phrases further because the distance they provide as tools leave a space where things like hurt and emotions remain to be addressed.

To put it another way, words that help in one realm don’t necessarily help in the other. But as poets, we are curious as to why that is. They are words after all. We will never have enough words to describe every hurt, nor will the world wait for us to find the right ones. We can only manage with the words we have, and add to those when necessary, when vision and heart allow.

Tonji had this to say in regards to the poem:

As a non native speaker of English language, ‘The thing about colors’ is my attempt at voicing my confusion and revealing my sociolinguistic interest on the expression ‘people of color’, especially when we are all cognisant of the denial of the obvious that comes with it; a statement of ambiguity attributing the black person a sense of being special or out of place as the case may be, the tendency of humans to rechristen everything but themselves.

What I admire about Tonji’s poem is how it points to the work still left to be done beyond political terms. When the speaker describes a moment with an immigration officer who lingers, trying to place “the colour of my accent,” and then goes on to describe the “color riot” caused by skin-bleaching, it is an admirable and necessary interrogation of the space between the public and private realms. Poetry aids such interrogation by making clear the mutability of language, a mutability that we as people can only continue to learn from.

The thing about colors – Trust Tonji

that I don’t understand
in this language
is why only black men
are said to be of color
when everyone has it
painted across their skin

the thing about colors
is the way they paint
themselves into what
lives under tongues
in borders, names
everything that looks
different from your norm

and yes,
this is not America
my skin’s brown like his
still this immigration officer
is slightly tilting his head
listening for the difference
in the colour of my accent

the thing about colors
on your brown body when
you stopped bleaching is
it beginning to heal itself
returning you back to the
color of your beautiful self
saving you the shame
of looking like color riot

the thing about colors
is that everyone has it
but if you’re too afraid
to share identity with us
you can keep painting
your imaginations black
black . . . black . . .

15591291_1267428536629678_7536869005720915100_o
*

Trust Tonji is too confused to choose, he doesn’t have a particular favourite. He writes from Porto Novo, Republic of Benin. His poetry has appeared in Prachya Review, Synchronized Chaos, The Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, The Electronic Pamphlet and elsewhere.

reverie: emily corwin

In my recent microreview & interview of Emily Corwin’s tenderling (Stalking Horse Press), I noted how the poems showcase Corwin’s singular attention to the fluidity of language. Through anagrams and juxtaposition of elements from fairy tales and relationship narratives, tenderling pulses with the discovery of new stories being wrought from stories past.

tenderling-buy-300x300The poem “reverie” (below) is a good example of this mix of elements and discovery. The poem begins with the speaker’s admission of eating “the honeycomb whole and now there are bees / inside me.” The fabulist logic of the opening metaphor places the reader in the center of a poetic crucible. From there, vulnerability (“I try to / look human today”) and a sense of longing are brought together and mix until the poem itself becomes a “place” similar to the “place where / slept our bodies, young and peaceful.”

Within this context, reverie transforms from mere daydreaming to a state of evocative newness via language. The poem’s final word, “humming,” points back not only to the opening metaphor of the eaten honeycomb / bees inside, which evokes a physical humming, but also to the humming within words that lyric poetry is able to strike via meaning. Through conjecture guided by wonder, the speaker arrives by the end at a place beyond daydreaming.

reverie – Emily Corwin

I ate the honeycomb whole and now there are bees
inside me. a leaf drips out of my underwear; I try to
look human today. my panic—unrelenting, my ball
-gown gone missing, somewhere under the blossoms.
in the nights, I return to him often, to the place where
slept our bodies, young and peaceful, and I wonder if
he also returns, if we happen to meet, if he would kiss
me a little in the closets—touch like mercy, like a long
-awaited relief. we lay down our breadknives, we lay
ourselves down in quiet, feeling our way toward a
sweetness, toward my insides humming.

*

Emily Corwin’s collection, tenderling, is available for pre-order from Stalking Horse Press.

microreview & interview: Emily Corwin’s tenderling

review by José Angel Araguz

tenderling-buy-300x300

 

Looking up definitions of the title phrase to Emily Corwin’s tenderling (Stalking Horse Press, 2018), I found three meanings: one definition refers to one who has been coddled, or one who is weak or effeminate; the second has the word “tenderling” refer to a little child; and the last to one of the budding antlers of a deer (source). I find the juxtaposition of these definitions fascinating, particularly the pronounced mix of weakness and affection in the first two, and the nod towards strength and protection in the third. The poems in Corwin’s collection reflect a sensibility capable of interrogating each facet of these definitions, challenging the perceived weakness of illness while subverting the world of children’s stories and fairy tales, all while presenting the fact of the poem as a space where strength and imagination can bud and flourish.

In “tantrum,” for example, the uncontrolled outburst of anger implied in the title is seen as a mirror able to reflect back not a self but a slip of self that overwhelms:

at first, this terrible mirror, gutted. it is thinking of taking me.
at midnight, screaming illness, I fill a particular dark. I rustle, I
thrash—a girl loose in the bramble, getting wretched, smashing
up a glass syringe. how to return this rage, how it circles endless
—like bruise, like stone too black. I get hurt in you, becoming
skeleton. my ruffles everywhere, wilting.

The mirror metaphor here is far from passive; aligned with the idea of a tantrum, the mirror becomes an active part of the outburst, threatening to redefine the speaker. Succumbing momentarily, the speaker “fill[s] a particular dark” and is witness to seeing herself as “a girl loose in the bramble.” This slip of self creates a desire “to return this rage,” a desire which ultimately goes unfulfilled, but which in itself is revelatory. As mirrors in fairy tales often serve as passageways to other worlds, what matters is ultimately getting back home. Here, getting back entails not home but the self, and also naming what was experienced, the “hurt” and the “wilting.”

The work of naming experience is done here and elsewhere through attention to the fluidity of language. As with the multiple meanings of the word “tenderling,” this collection consistently engages with language for its variety as much as for its veracity of feeling. The opening of “split oak,” for example, makes compelling use of anagrams:

you felt me, you left me — moaning open in a landslide.

Having this three word phrase turned on its head with a quick shuffle of letters creates dramatic tension in a poetic way, concisely evoking two sides of a relationship. Yet, beyond the wordplay, it is meaningful to emphasize how the word implying intimacy (“felt”) is made up of the same letters and thus holds the word implying that intimacy’s end (“left”). Later, in the poem “torn,” the speaker notes

how you can’t spell slaughter without laughter,

bringing these words together in a way that evokes urgency and intimacy mixed with threat. In this way, tenderling makes its case for language as a kind of bramble, one from which identity and relationships work at turns to free themselves from and lose themselves in.

Corwin’s poetic sensibility remains engaging throughout tenderling because of this complex relationship with language. Words and fairy tales alike are repurposed and reclaimed in poems that point to something beyond themselves. There are no simple retellings here; rather, what occurs in these poems is more akin to resurfacing, language and self coming up for air.

In “abacus” (below), the metaphor of a mirror returns, only here its counterpart is a smartphone. The way the self is complicated and reflected across glass and social media apps is meditated upon, until the language of technology and relationships merge in a moment of bittersweet awareness.

*

abacus – Emily Corwin

I use my phone as a mirror. I have zero likes. I like
mud-rose & jewelweed & you. you left my body cells

astonished. I am missing you something fierce in these
greenfields & oil fields & fields of scary love I do not like.

such a long way from this little while together. with you,
it is a presence or absence of claws — your hands that might

injure. desire holds me like a knife. what do you want me to
say to that?
you say back. I research what larger animals are

most likely to kill me in the surrounding areas — most likely
horse or dog — & you think my hair is alive & it is. I get so

impossible with emotion, blighted, startled like a starling.
I order the latest version of a cave — tight, dripping — where

I can disappear into. I remember we enjoyed getting down
low in the bull thistle, downloading each other. you sent:

remember this? in your message request. the attachment
failed to load, inside the glow screen, silken.

*

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

Emily Corwin: I believe that the shape of the poem on the page is just as important the content. A poem’s form is its container, and that container provides information to the reader about what kind of speaker this is, the pacing of the line, the breath. Form lends physicality to our encounter with a poem. So, in tenderling, and in all my work, I like to experiment with shapes. This collection came from the first two years of my MFA at Indiana University, during which I was really into prose poems. There was a cleanness, a precision to that shape which I liked—the prose poem as a container felt tidy and orderly, juxtaposed with the sprawling, listing, anxious, messy quality of the voice in these poems.

There are lots of poems out there which re-adapt fairy tales, which play with themes of witchcraft, magic, femininity, dark woods, bodily transformation. This is a familiar set of images—however, my particular slant on these images concerns mental illness, chronic pain, and morbidity. I have a hip impingement on my right side, which causes me daily pain and discomfort. The cartilage between my hip bone and socket has essentially been worn away over time, most likely from my years as a ballet dancer. I also have misaligned ankles, for which I have to wear orthotics, as well as a generalized anxiety disorder highly focused on sudden and violent deaths.

After being diagnosed with these conditions—both physical and psychic—I was drawn to gurlesque poetics as a potential aesthetic for my work. Gurlesque aims to “enact, signs, bodies and psyches in crisis” (Lara Glenum, “Welcome to the Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics”). I want to demonstrate those crises, but not in such a way that the reader will leave the poem feeling despair. My intention is to show that it is possible to live with pain and beauty simultaneously, a life that is grotesque and lovely too. I think this is how the fairy tale as a genre works for me—the fairy tale is a space filled with irregular bodies and bodies in transformation—fairies, giants, unicorns, mermaids, princes and princesses turning into wild animals like swans, frogs, beasts. I imagine that in a fairy tale world, my body and brain would fit, in all its irregularities, conditions, illnesses.

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

Emily Corwin: My struggle with this book is the same struggle I have always. I am an inherently impatient writer and reader—I think the reason I was drawn to poetry in the first place is because it’s short, it’s concise. I really struggle with prose. As a poet, I write fast and prolifically, which can be good, but also means that sometimes I rush (or I worry that I rush) through editing and submitting my work. James Reich, at Stalking Horse Press, has been excellent with catching things I missed when I first submitted the manuscript, with making changes that I suddenly needed, with being so kind and thoughtful throughout this process. I am consistently hard on myself and it helps to have an editor who is encouraging, who believes in the work and in me. I think I will always be impatient with myself, but surrounding myself, especially in the last year, with a community that I trust has made me feel okay, has helped me to let go of some of my anxious obsessing and to move forward with the next project.

*

Special thanks to Emily Corwin for participating! To find out more about Corwin’s work, check out her sitetenderling is available for pre-order from Stalking  Horse Press.

19511246_10159192203360657_4469382361765686401_nEmily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the former Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Gigantic Sequins, New South, Yemassee, THRUSH, and elsewhere. She has two chapbooks, My Tall Handsome (Brain Mill Press) and darkling (Platypus Press) which were published in 2016. Her first full-length collection, tenderling is forthcoming in 2018 from Stalking Horse Press. You can follow her online at @exitlessblue.

meditation: william stafford

This time last year found me writing about meditation in a blog post for the Cincinnati Review, about its place in both the writing and personal life. It’s one of those concepts and practices that gets lost under human error and flash, much like good poems often get lost in the error and flash of revision. Yet meditation’s troubled calm is worth reckoning with for whatever glimpse of clarity it might bring to your life; in this way, too, meditation is linked to the reading and writing of poetry.

oregon-51014_960_720One poet who I feel lived and reckoned with this troubled calm is William Stafford. In “Meditation,” Stafford adds his own take on the concept. This short lyric reveals and hides itself like a coin flipped in the air. Both an admission of defeat and of hope, it dwells right where one waits for things like memory, poems, and clarity.

Meditation – William Stafford

If I could remember all at once — but I have forgotten.
But some day, looking along a furrowed cliff, staring
Beyond the eyes’ strength, I’ll start the avalanche,
And every stone will fall separate and revealed.

*

Read more about William Stafford here.