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.

*

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.

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Small Fires is here!!!

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I’m happy to announce the release of my new book of poetry, Small Fires, available now from FutureCycle Press and Amazon!!!

This collection includes my poem “Blade” which won an Academy of American Poets Graduate Poetry Prize selected by Carl Phillips.

Be sure to check out the book and stay tuned for the availability of signed copies later in the month. Also, let me know if you are interested in a review copy.

Special thanks to Diane Kistner and the good folks at FutureCycle Press for giving this project a home! Thanks also to Andrea Schreiber for the cover artwork.

More news to come later this week!

José

some influence & book news!

influence news

This month marks five years of blogging on The Friday Influence! Over the years, this space has been a great source of community for me. Thank you to all of you who stop by regularly or just pop in at random looking for a poem. I continue learning much from interacting with you, either in the comments or elsewhere, including my Instagram poetry project poetryamano.

As the Influence enters its fifth year, I’d like to go further and reach out to readers and fellow writers in the hopes of having the blog be a bit more interactive. Above, you’ll see that there is a new “Submissions” tab with information on current calls. You’ll see that there are two specific calls, one for those interested in participating in a microreview & interview, and one for a montly haiku/tanka feature.

For the haiku/tanka feature, I’d like to do a monthly post of a variety of haiku and tanka, in whatever variations you are inspired to write. From traditional, nature-centered three line poems, to one line haiku, prose haiku or tanka, or even a blackout / erasure haiku or tanka. Check the Submissions tab for how to send your words and images.

book news

mask with frameIn other news, we’re about a month away from the release of my next book, Small Fires, which will be published by FutureCycle Press. As a bit of a preview, I am sharing the artwork that will be incorporated into the final cover, an ink painting by Andrea Schreiber.

This painting was inspired by the poem “Luchadores” (originally published in Waxwing) which I share below. Thank you all again for a great five years and stay tuned for the release of Small Fires in May!

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Luchadores

after Cathy Park Hong

They were the only men in the house,
and stood firm, one hand raised
saying farewell, the other idle.
I’d make each bed, wash dishes,
set chairs back in place, then dig
under the sink where their masked faces
waited to be pulled out. I fought
with them all afternoon, took turns
playing villain, playing good,
letting each one win, then starting
over. The light in the garage apartment
turned all summer, flickered
light and dark across the floor
as on the leaves outside.

*

Happy anniversarying!

José

 

* Q&A up at Carve Magazine blog!

Happy to share this recent Q&A session focusing on my poem “Hails from Corpus Christi” from my forthcoming collection Small Fires (FutureCycle Press, 2017).

In this short session, I discuss this poem in terms of “soundscape” and measure as well as go into some of the themes of the upcoming collection.

There might also be a brief reference to the Ninja Turtles.

Just sayin’.

Special thanks to Ellie Francis Breivogel for her insightful questions as well as to everyone at Carve Magazine!

“Hails from Corpus Christi” will be published in CM’s next issue which is available for pre-order!

Happy hailing!

José

* new CR blog microreview & interview!

amolotkov1Just a quick post to announce that my latest microreview & interview for the Cincinnati Review blog is up!

This time around, I do a close reading of moments from A. Molotkov’s upcoming collection, The Catalog of Broken Things (Airlie Press).

A. Molotkov edits The Inflectionist Review along with John Sibley Williams.

Find out more about A. Molotkov’s work at his website.

See you Friday!

José

* sharing some news & some tanka!

Just a quick post to officially announce that my second full length collection of poetry, Small Fires, has just been accepted for publication in 2017 from FutureCycle Press. This collection will feature the poems “Joe” and “El Rio” among others.

FutureCycle are also the same good people who published my prose poem/flash fiction chapbook, Reasons (not) to DanceI’m excited to be working with them again. Stay tuned for further news come 2017.

To celebrate the Small Fires news, I thought I’d share my contribution to the Journeys into Tanka project that’s going on via the Tanka Society of America Facebook page. Poets were asked to share a tanka as well as some words on their journey into the form, what it means for them and how. Readers are welcome to respond in the comments with their own tanka and/or tanka-related prose.

Special thanks to Marilyn Hazelton, TSA president and editor of red lights, for the invitation to contribute!

tsa journeys

See you Friday!

José

* new collection released!!!

I’m happy to announce that my new collection Everything We Think We Hear is officially available on Amazon!

As I’ve mentioned here, this project brings the prose poem and flash fiction structure of my chapbook Reasons (not) to Dance and takes it in a more personal direction, adds a little more guacamole and South Texas to my usual rhetorical and imagistic leanings.

Here are what some of my favorite writers had to say about the project:

“What is the meaning beyond memory’s hauntings? How does one survive the multi-faceted self fashioned from such meanings? Poet José Ángel Araguz’ unflinching collection, Everything We Think We Hear, considers these questions from all angles and gives us answers as adamantine and brilliant as the prose poems he has fashioned in his questing.”

Sarah Cortéz, Councilor, Texas Institute of Letters, Author of Cold Blue Steel

“José Ángel Araguz balances the beauty and agony of a man siphoning love from beer bottles, sparse mother-son conversations, a stern Tía’s throw, and the weathered memories of an absent father. This collection, where a boy who couldn’t dream becomes a man “making communion with all he knows,” insists you gaze on lo raro, the sour-pickled and scattered parts of a soul who refuses to ignore the song of the broken even when surrounded by splendor. “

Peggy Robles-Alvarado, author of Homenaje a las guerreras

“In José Angel Araguz’s collection, Everything We Think We Hear, todo se vale, everything goes! This book plays with our senses and forces us to consider what we think we hear, what we think we are reading. A fierce voice that shouts often and whispers now and then the many truths of life in South Texas. The poetic prose pieces startle the senses with rich images that linger in the mind like memorable dreams. Read these pieces and come away transformed.”

Norma E. Cantú, author of Canícula

Anyone interested in a copy for review, I can make a PDF available. Feel free to contact me: thefridayinfluence@gmail.com

Thank you to Sarah, Peggy, and Norma for their wonderful words of support for this project!

Special thanks as well to Roberto Cabello-Argandoña of Floricanto Press for working with me during this process!

See you Friday!

Jose