microreview & interview: Hannah Cohen’s Bad Anatomy

-review by José Angel Araguz

anatomy

There’s a sense of recklessness that feels natural to poetry. By recklessness, I mean less Robin Williams standing on a desk shouting a Whitman poem in Dead Poets Society and more the honesty and nerve involved in trusting language to carry what you mean. It is this latter recklessness that runs through Hannah Cohen’s chapbook, Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press). In poems that show the lyric self pulsing between various modes of suspension and isolation, Cohen engages language in a way that invites the reader to experience the plummet into language we call poetry.

The collection opens with “Aubade Inverse,” a poem that subverts the traditional aubade with its focus on lovers reluctantly departing and grounds it in feelings of threat and danger:

I left scuffmarks
on white doors. I wish
I could break. I left
my legs in bed.
I left you
before you, left wet
knives in the knife block.

The emphatic “I” statements here create both a presence and momentum that charge the poem with the panicked feeling of someone checking for their car keys in the dark. Yet, despite this feeling, or perhaps because of it, the aubade’s theme of love is still invoked in the poem’s ending line: “I leave / nothing.” These three words point outward in a few directions. They can be read as the speaker implying that they “leave / nothing” meaning no trace; but they can also be read as refuting the departure implied in the aubade form, the speaker adamantly making it clear that they “leave / nothing” behind, suspending what they can through the act of the poem.

Or perhaps both meanings are meant: The way ambiguity works here and throughout these poems shows a poetic sensibility awake to the subtleties of line break and evocation. This next set of three lines from the middle of the poem serve as another example of this sensibility:

I am drinking. I drive
so fast I kill
the moon.

Here, the clipped enjambment creates an opportunity to dwell on the meaning of each turn. Between “drinking” and “drive,” there is recklessness; when we get to “kill” there’s a heightened sense of danger, a sense that is pivoted into surreality by the time we get to “moon.” The juxtaposition of action, voice, and image in these lines evokes not a swagger or false bravado (see my earlier reference to Dead Poets Society) but a clear, suspended feeling. This moment works in a way that is instructive and illuminating; dwelling on these lines brings out what the speaker means as the reader understands it. In the middle of a poem that ends with “I leave / nothing,” these lines point to ways in which meaning can be followed as it leaves from word to word.

This ability to navigate across ambiguity and voice is present throughout the world of the poems in Bad Anatomy. In “Like Someone Driving Away From Her Problems” we find that:

even god doesn’t believe
in the rusty jesus-saves
signs       can’t save her
from living
without landmark
or companion       the road a black snake
beheaded

Here, isolation is depicted as a space that even god can passively inhabit, joining the speaker in disbelief. The apt break between the words “can’t save her” and “from living” do similar work as in the opening poem, creating a space where mortality itself is glimpsed for a moment as a threat before moving on with the narrative. This reckoning with mortality is found again in “Upon Starting My Period After The Election” as the speaker reflects:

Even my body knew it was wrong to begin
again. What’s different between this cycle

and a hundred ones before? Is this my god-
given right to be less every time?

Here, the interiority and isolation found in other poems is given a more outward, public turn. Yet, the poem engages with the outside world on its own terms, framing this meditation on the political climate within the workings of the speaker’s body. The purposeful break on “my god-” sets up the gravity of the following line; together they evoke a personal and public bleakness. When the speaker notes at the end of the poem that she “can’t stop the betrayal,” the speaker’s menstruating body parallels the more public feeling of betrayal felt by most since the last election.

By tempering lyric recklessness with vulnerability and honesty, the poems of Bad Anatomy deliver reading experiences that reward nuanced and repeated readings. These poems are filled with the insight and thrill of overhearing someone tell a story at a bar, or reading someone’s lost love letters. And like great stories and love letters, these poems are compelling because of their unabashed mix of light and dark. What I mean can be seen in the final lines of “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal” (printed in full below):

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

What keeps me reading and re-reading these poems are the flashes of lyric self like this one; they occur in moments braided from voice and imagery, but are executed with raw soul.

Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal – Hannah Cohen

This shitty cocktail is more insightful than I am.
Unfilled, I count all the secret valleys in my rib cage.

Even the universe lets me down. I’m drunk, awake.
Is this how to feel? Next morning’s sunk in my rib cage.

There’s something romantic about a building condemned.
All that space. All the never-smashed ribs in my rib cage.

Call it a tendency to forget. I like things false
and true. Can’t pray for what isn’t there in my rib cage.

I keep returning from the dead. What a masochist.
Don’t, don’t, don’t — that self-defeating heart in my rib cage.

Inhabiting a body is easy. But living
in one? Can I be more than the bones in my rib cage?

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

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

Hannah Cohen: I have a few tangential thoughts for this question:

– At its best and even at its worst, poetry is a community. An ever-changing, populous community of thoughts that manifest into words. With this in mind, Bad Anatomy represents everything about being a person with depression, anxiety, and an unhealthy sense of self-deprecating humor. These traits interact with each other like passersby on a street, or rowdy drunks in a bar. However, there’s always that thread of hope that weaves itself throughout the chapbook’s pages, and I fully believe that for a poem or set of poems to fully succeed for the reader and its author, there must be that “break.”

– Poetry can be short and terse, with gaping spaces of images that sometimes don’t make sense the first time. The ending poem “[and the deer flash guernica]” serves as a soft echo to the chapbook’s opening poem, with a one-act scene of some deer at night juxtaposed to the multiple “I” scenes in “Aubade Inverse.”

– Accessibility is important. I want to believe people can emotionally and mentally relate to the poems in Bad Anatomy. Even if they can’t always see where the poems are coming from, they can understand the content at least.

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

Hannah Cohen: These poems are like my own piercing arrows in that they’re tangible problems I’ve dealt with and continue to deal with in my life. While obviously not 100% autobiographical, several poems from Bad Anatomy sprouted from real situations and feelings. “2 a.m.,” for example, was made up of several moments where I was driving home in the dark. I suffer from pressure headaches and take Excedrin mainly for the placebo effect. I put all these things together and gave it that title to emphasize the aimlessness I was experiencing in my early twenties. Other poems have painful content (see “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal”) that was eventually tamed by either its form or presentation.

Another challenge was the actual order of the poems. I did not want an obvious A to Z narrative, nor did I want poems to merely be mirrors to each other. I am thankful that one of my blurbers, Emilia Phillips, was able to offer some valuable advice about how to arrange Bad Anatomy for the most emotional impact. “Saturnism” was a frustrating poem to work into the chapbook, because it’s based on Vincent van Gogh and is the oldest poem. I almost removed it entirely. However, because it’s bookended by two short-ish poems about either separation or moving on, it seemed to finally work as its own entity, allowing me and the reader to inhabit a different mental space.

In the end, I’m happy with the final result. At some point, you just have to save the Word document and send it off to your publisher because if you keep nitpicking or changing up the order or a poem’s line, it won’t ever be done. Poems aren’t this finite object – you can always change it up at a reading or any future reprints.

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Special thanks to Hannah Cohen for participating! To learn more about Cohen’s work, check out her site! Copies of Bad Anatomy can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

authorpichc*

Hannah Cohen received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Virginia. Hannah is the author of the chapbook Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor for Platypus Press and co-edits the online journal Cotton Xenomorph. Recent and forthcoming publications include Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Cosmonauts Avenue, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Verse Daily, and Gravel. She’s received Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

microreview & intervew: Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao]

review by José Angel Araguz

lukao cover

from the legends of juan malo (a malologue)

~

(the birth of Guåhan)

“Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have deep water and the U.S. expects [us] to home port 60% of the Pacific fleet. Or [we] have to continue supporting the Navy (one team, no seams). Or [we] have a last place ranking in annual per capita medical spending on Chamorro veterans #islandofforgottenwarriors. St Michael the Archangel, tayuyute [ham]. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have resources for the taking. Or [we] have our customers’ needs as our first priority. Or [we] have to change our name after the Obama administration referred to the East Wing of the White House as “Guam, pleasant but powerless.” “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have many nicknames, including USS Guam, The Tip of America’s Spear, Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier, Superfortress Guam, The Trailer Park of the Pacific, America’s Gateway to Asia, and Micronesia’s Gateway to America. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have been tricked out and targeted. Or [we] have tourism 2020 vision when setting forth a plan for the future. Or [we] have a charmingly exotic, endangered look. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have to change our name after Mariah Carey appeared on American talk shows with a dog she got in Mexico and named “Guam” : “Here Guam, here Guam, stop hiding Guam, Guam is a good boy.” St. Roch, tayuyute [ham]. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have many names for our people, including Chamorro, Chamoru, Tsamoru, CHamoru, Guamese, Guamesian, Guamish, Guamaniac, Guamanian, Guatemalan, Chaud, Indios, Mestizo, and Mexican. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have serious identity issues because our original meaning has been translated as “lost.”

Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao] (Omnidawn, 2017) is the fourth book in his series engaging with the history, ecology, and mythology of his homeland Guåhan (Guam) and his current home, Hawai’i. Perez braids these three themes via a variety of poetic modes, making use of the news articles, interviews, and other sources to create a text that gives space to a variety of voices. In fact, voice is at the heart of this collection; whether drawing from his personal experience or making use of a persona as in the poem above, Perez brings an urgency into the voice of each sequence, marking them as political in a way that honors the personal.

This balance is further achieved by the inclusion of a “Sources & Additional Materials” link at the end of the book, a resource that emphasizes the importance of the project as well as its presence beyond the page. A note in this resource informs the reader that:

—Juan Malo is a young, poor Chamorro man who lived in Guåhan during Spanish colonial occupation. His mischievous adventures (reminiscent of other indigenous tricksters) involved outwitting the Spanish governor and other officials with the help of his carabao (water buffalo). In Spanish, malo means bad.

With this framework in mind, one can see the “from the legends of juan malo” series of poems as Perez placing the subversive and fluid energy of the trickster persona at the service of that other equally fluid and subversive entity, human language. In “(the birth of Guåhan),” there is a charged insistence in the repetition of the phrase: “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. This insistence engages with the plasticity of sound as well as meaning. As the prose poem develops, the juxtaposition of historical facts about Guåhan against Juan Malo’s faux-playful tone works to keep the reader unsettled while simultaneously informing them and keeping them close. One feels the political tug-of-war reflected in Guåhan’s history played out via this poetic insistence. Through the repetition of “tayuyute [ham]” (“pray for us”), however, the poem maintains a human charge as well.

Along with this flavor of intertextuality, Perez also creates “poemaps” which depict such things as the use of toxic chemicals in Guåhan as well as the island’s role in global communication via having more communication cables routed through the land than Hawai’i or California. Like the use and riffing against historical facts in the poem above, the visual subversion in these poemaps work to evoke from the reader an awareness that is only half an awareness. Because this is a book of poems and not a history or anthropology book, there is a sense of being invited into the factual world these poems spring from, but also of being asked to dwell in the complexity of what these facts mean beyond themselves. This unsettled mode is more fruitful than aggressive. More to the point, the book’s multivalent poetic approach demands a multivalent reading. One of the accomplishments of Perez’s project is that it presents its concerns on its own terms.

The reason for such an approach becomes palpable in such moments as this one, drawn from “ginen organic acts“:

as a patgon : child, i never heard the creation story of our first mother, fu’una (whose name translates as first), or our first father, puntan (whose name translates as coconut sapling) // grandma always said “in the beginning was the word and the word was god

her fingers erode
rosary beads // waves erode
coasts \\ words erode
silence

Here, a childhood memory is rendered through a hybridity of form and language. The move from prose to poetic lines evokes the move from memory’s necessarily patchy connection to a moment of focus and understanding. The stanza above drives home the theme of language being subversive and difficult; because language is fluid, it is capable of eroding the meaning it creates. The use of slashes in both directions in the stanza above evokes the waves described while at the same time implying the breaks in meaning this moment represents.

Yet, from these breaks in meaning, further understanding can be wrought. This seems to be the hope of Perez’s book. Nowhere is this hope more evident than in the sequence of poems dedicated to the birth of his daughter. “(first teeth)” (below) renders a scene of his daughter (addressed as [neni] in the poem; the mother is addressed as [you]) during teething. Because even parenthood doesn’t happen in a vacuum, Perez’s poem weaves recent incidents of violence into an ode to what matters most for this poet and this book of poems: life.

from ginen understory

(first teeth)

~

[neni] cries from teething // how do parents
comfort a kid in pain, bullied in school, shot

by a power drunk cop #justiceforkollinelderts
\\ [you] gently massage her gums with your

fingers // count how many children killed in gaza
this hour of siege \\ how do [we] wipe away tear

-gas and blood, provide shelter from snipers,
disarm occupying armies #freepalestine //

[you] recite the hawaiian alphabet song
to [neni] \\ what lullabies echo inside detention

centers and traverse teething borders to soothe
thousands of youth atop la bestia #unaccompanied //

[you] rub her back warm with coconut oil
\\ how do [we] hold violence at arm’s length

when raising our hands up is no longer
a sign of surrender #blacklivesmatter //

[neni] falls asleep in your cradling arms,
skin to skin, against the news \\ how will [we]

teach her to safely cross any body of wter
by believing in her own breath #

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

Craig Santos Perez: To me, poetry is an art form through which I can express my thoughts and emotions about culture, identity, place, the environment, history, and politics. Poetry can capture the deeper meanings of life, expose injustice and inequality, and articulate decolonial and sustainable futures. I believe poetry can educate, inspire, and empower people, as well as dignify and humanize people who have often been denied our dignity and human rights. This new collection, and all my books, are grounded in these foundational beliefs about the power of poetry.

In terms of form, I believe poetry is a dynamic art that can bring together poetry and prose, the visual and the virtual, the real and the fictional. Throughout my work, I interweave narrative, lyric, epic, prose, collage, imagistic, and avant-garde forms/techniques to create a complex and fragmented basket of words. To me, this makes the work multi-formalist and polyphonic.

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

Craig Santos Perez: One challenge was finding a way to arrange the diverse forms, techniques, and subject matter into a harmonic composition. As fragmented and indeterminate as my work is, I always try to counterpoint with access points symmetry. My other challenge was how to bring together in a compelling way the different discourse of history, politics, environmentalism, culture, memory, and personal experiences. To work through these issues, I revise extensively, and I also experiment with various orderings and “maps” of contents.

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Special thanks to Dr. Craig Santos Perez for participating! To find out more about his work, check out his sitefrom unincorporated territory [lukao] can be puchased from Omnidawn.

author photo copy 2Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam). He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-editor of three anthologies of Pacific literature, and the author of four poetry collections. He has been the recipient of the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the American Book Award, as well as fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the Ford Foundation. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches creative writing and eco-poetry. 

microreview & interview: Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves

review by José Angel Araguz

davio

Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: notes on a disability (Squares & Rebels, 2017) is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that explore and report the inner and outer realities of living with myasthenia gravis, a “a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles, which are responsible for breathing and moving parts of the body, including the arms and legs” (NINDS). The language of this definition, in light of its clarity and conciseness, or perhaps because of it, does little to bring the condition into human terms. One of Davio’s gifts is her ability to translate the complexities of her experiences into relatable moments via an authentic, engaging voice, a voice capable of insight and snark, as well as compelling honesty.

The opening essay, “Strong is the New Sexy,” for example, starts:

In the hospital complex, I sit in a room with a woman who plans to teach me how to swallow. Or, to re-teach me. I came into the world knowing how, born with the universal instinct to suckle and feed. I knew how to swallow just as I knew how to breathe. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, my body’s muscles have forgotten.

Here, Davio recasts her condition as a species of “forgetting,” a phrasing that would seem simple were it not also connected with “the universal instinct” mentioned earlier. This connection evokes the depth of vulnerability felt in this moment; the breaking down of the body means a breaking down of the self. This transition and necessary “re-teaching” doesn’t happen in a vacuum either, but rather in the public, fraught atmosphere of a hospital. The influence of the outside world is evident a little later in the same scene:

On the other side of the plate-glass window of the physical therapy room, hang gliders swoop down from the pine-covered mountainside. Their sails are the bright neon of 1990s fashion, and it’s impossible to miss the daredevils with their spectacular, spandexed bodies. I wonder whether the location of the window is intended to be inspirational: a call to the possibilities of good health, a motivation to perform one’s exercises well and get back out there. I have an impulse to drop the blinds over the window. I’d like to occlude the mountain.

In these opening paragraphs, we have a different kind of clarity and conciseness than that of medical jargon. There is the clarity of one’s thoughts and feelings during the awkwardness of physical therapy, but also the clarity of what colors the experience. The indirect violence and insistence on difference implied by most so-called “inspirational” posters is never more charged than in a medical setting. In a context where one is forced to question and doubt who they are bodily, posters like the one described here force an inner questioning of one ‘s attitude. For this reason, the sentence “I’d like to occlude the mountain,” is striking not only in its agency and defiance, but also because it comes from a speaker who themselves is feeling “occluded,” blocked and forgotten by their own body.

One of the questions I feel this collection of essays keeps asking and answering is: Who are we in the face of what we don’t know? This is engaged with in a dual manner throughout. Like in the above, the essay “On a Scale of One to Ten” presents a scene where outside pressure, this time in the form of a doctor’s question, forces a quick gauging of one’s self. In response to a doctor’s request to tell “what percentage [she’d] been debilitated by [her] neurological disease” during an assessment for surgical intervention, Davio experienced the following:

“What percentage?” I had prepared myself for all kinds of possible outcomes in this consultation. I was ready for anything, from him brushing me off to telling me that I’d need one of the more gross and undesirable procedures for which he’s known. One thing I hadn’t prepared for was performing quality-of-life math on the spot. I didn’t know how to put a number to the way I lived, or to the extent to which I’d adapted, year after year, to a new and inadequate set of circumstances.

I told him, “I have no idea.” He assured me that he just wanted an estimate, as though that clarified anything. At this point, I was emotionally exhausted, and I was frustrated. As I often do when frustrated, I said whatever came to mind.

“I haven’t been able to chew a salad for three years. I can’t teach a whole class anymore. I can’t walk anywhere without falling. I stop breathing sometimes. You tell me what percentage that is.”

He stopped typing away at his computer, swiveled around in his chair to look at me, and smoothed out his tie. “I think you answered my question.”

Here we again have a disconnect between the clarity and conciseness of the medical world versus the language of human experience. While the use of math terms to discuss one’s pain carries its own thwarted ambition, what stands out more in this scene is the disparity between Davio’s frustration and consequent edged statement “You tell me what percentage that is,” and the detail of the doctor “[smoothing] out his tie.” This latter detail symbolizes the discomfort, even on the part of the professionals trained and paid to treat patients with chronic conditions, feel in the face of said patients’ realities. Which is where the duality of the question, Who are we in the face of what we don’t know, comes into play. In this scene, Davio has to summarize an experience in an impossible way; in the process of giving an answer she doesn’t know how to give, Davio herself becomes something that the doctor doesn’t know how to respond to. At the end of this scene, she is frustration, he is a tie to be smoothed down.

What these essays make clear through scenes like this one is the range of things one has to reckon with as one learns to live with a chronic medical condition. From unpacking the shaming and misinformation about disability in mass media, popular culture, and writing conferences, to her experiences living and working in England pre-Brexit, Davio’s gift for writing relatable, unromanticized accounts of her life remains consistent. One thing that the trio I mentioned above – insight, snark, and honesty – do well in this collection is to keep things dynamic. Time and again, when the world shows itself as wanting to neglect, ignore, and not see her, Davio stares right back, answering the impulse to “smooth down” and look away with essays that are undeniable and unignorable.

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Influence Question: Did your background as a poet come into play in any way as you put together this essay collection?

Kelly Davio: I think my work as a poet did play a role in how I approached the subject matter of this book. Poets have these great toolkits for examining the world indirectly; it’s as though the whole of our training is geared toward delivering ideas and information in the least likely way possible. If we can compare nonfiction to another medium, like photojournalism, then poets are probably the most like these intrepid photographers who take underwater portraits of people’s pet schnauzers. So yes, poetry taught me to come at my subject matter from unusual angles, and that has allowed me—I hope—to keep this fairly universal subject matter fresh for the reader.

But there’s another respect in which writing these essays was a new experience for me. When I write a poem, I’ve typically gnawed on the idea for some time before I put the text down on the page. I have an idea of what I want my underwater schnauzer portrait to look like. Essays turned out to be more exploratory for me; in my early drafts, I was writing to understand something, whether about myself or about the world around me, eventually revising down some more fully formed idea. That was a really exciting process for me as a writer, because I hadn’t really felt that same kind of freedom to wander around on these long, intellectual hikes before.

Influence Question: One of the great accomplishments of this book is your ability to write sober, unromanticized yet relatable accounts of experiences like being an American living abroad and engaging with the (mis)representations of disability in popular culture. What were some of the obstacles and/or lessons learned in evoking this hard-earned clarity on the page?

Kelly Davio: First of all, thank you for that! I think that the greatest challenge I had in writing these essays was getting past the stigma that exists around my subject matter in the literary world. I cannot tell you how many times I was lectured by other writers on the global truths that there’s no audience for books about illness or disability, that reading about other people’s pain is boring, that personal essays aren’t a legitimate thing to be publishing in the first place…you get the idea. For a long time, I bought into that stigma.

I got over it one morning as I sat in a panel discussion on the craft of essay writing at a literary conference. I had been hoping for a discussion of—oh, I don’t know—the craft of essay writing. But what I and the other attendees got was an hour or so of some hung-over looking guys I don’t think any of us had ever heard of roundly mocking the work of several well known women writers who publish personal essays. I left that room knowing exactly who my audience wasn’t. Who cared what those guys thought?

After that panel, I decided I to write whatever the heck I wanted. I wrote the kind of thing I wanted to read, and I trusted that there were other folks who might want to read the same kind of thing. Since the book’s come out, I’ve been enormously gratified to find that, yes, there is an audience for this work, and they’re much more pleasant people to hang around than those sour-grapes panelists, anyway.

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Kelly_Davio_web-1Special thanks to Kelly Davio for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. It’s Just Nerves can be puchased from Squares & Rebels.

Kelly Davio is a poet, essayist, and editor. She’s the author of essay collection, It’s Just Nerves and the poetry collections, Burn This House and The Book of the Unreal Woman, forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2019. She also writes the sometimes-column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazineand her work has been published in a number of other journals including Poetry NorthwestThe Normal SchoolVinylThe ToastWomen’s Review of Books, and others. She is one of the founding editors of the Tahoma Literary Review.

microreview & interview: Jennifer Met’s Gallery Withheld

review by José Angel Araguz

gallery

Met Object

At the end of “Coming of Age in Idaho,” the second poem in Jennifer Met’s chapbook Gallery Withheld (Glass Poetry Press, 2017), the reader is presented with the phrase “an immovable feast” which hearkens back to Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast. This reference is key on a number of levels beyond wordplay. For one, much of the poems in Met’s book challenge and subvert the very stereotypes and gendered double standards that make possible the aura of a writer like Hemingway. Rather than rail against said aura directly, these poems imply it through sharp insights. As Idaho is “Hemingway country” and the site of his final days, the speaker’s “coming of age” is akin to rising from the ashes of a certain kind of writing tradition and taking flight into another.

Which is where another level of meaning can be found: this collection brings together lyric poems that trouble traditional poetics through engaging, experimenting, and expanding upon the visual poetry and projective verse traditions. Each poem can be seen as “an immovable feast,” either fixed on the page through intuitive choice or fixed into shape through a formal choice. In “The Object of His Desire,” for example, the narrative of a young boy collecting rocks is troubled when presented in the poetic shape of a woman. This confluence of content and form is purposeful and distinct; if the words were flushed left, they’d still be the same words, but they wouldn’t say the same thing they say in this shape. It is the gift of a visual poem to engage with a language’s plasticity and provide opportunities for multivalent, complex readings. For example, as the poem ends on the idea of facelessness, one can’t help but return to the shape of the poem, and note that where a woman’s face would be are the words: “You see / I’ve always / been drawn / to metaphor.” This implies another facelessness, a societal one. The casual tone of these words further point to the learned narratives of childhood and their insidiousness.

This critique of stereotypes continues in “Old Made: Self-Portrait in a Negative Space,” (below) which lives across from “The Object of His Desire” on the facing page. Where the shape of a woman is the shape of the poem in “Object,” in “Old Made” a woman’s shape is everywhere the poem is not. Even in describing this difference due to formal choice carries with it some of the charged critique that is everywhere in the poem. The assumptions behind the phrase “old maid” are challenged in the title; the rephrasing to “old made” implies how ideas of “old” are “made” in lack of knowledge and lack of connection. It is telling, then, to consider the way this poem ends and begins with the word “Us.” Stereotypes like the one challenged here can make a person feel that they are nothing in the face of others. This feeling is further implied in the form; where the woman’s face would be in this shape, there is instead a list of conjunctions, “if….and….but.” Which is to say that where a face, one’s most personal, recognizable feature, would be, there is instead a brief scatter of words standing alone. Read alone as they are, this list could be read as a half-started, unfinished, and unlistened to protest.

The poems of Gallery Withheld again and again make space to listen and engage with the half-started and unfinished. Reading these poems, one is left like the speaker in “Lefty Loosey” who contemplates Robert S. Neuman’s painting “Monument to No One In Particular” along with another woman who

contemplates
the structure with a frown
and when she leaves I take
her angle hoping
for direction

Each of these immoveable feasts invites the reader to come closer to the text in their reading. And like the speaker above, we must reflect that “its chaos is just / not meant for me or her / or my father in particular / but us all.”

Met Old Made

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

Jennifer Met: I don’t have an MFA and my undergrad degree is in Molecular Biology, so I have a very open opinion of what poetry can be—I am not limited by an idea of what a perfect “workshop” poem should sound like in order to be accepted as real, good poetry. In fact, I am often drawn to forms (like haiku/haibun, speculative, ekphrastic, and concrete poetry) that seem to have more of an outmoded or niche status in the contemporary poetry scene. In a time when poetry has such a limited readership I think it is silly of us to narrow the definition of what poetry can be. I love to read and write widely, and without labels!

In this vein, Gallery Withheld contains poems that have abandoned frames and formal spaces of presentation. They run the gamut from experimental to lyrical to narrative and contain variations of haibun, ekphrastic poems, persona poems, and more. While they share thematic elements exploring definitions of gender, objectification, and the intersection of word, art, and identity, the main binding thread of the collection is that the form of each poem contains some sort of shape/concrete element. More than just a gimmick or a literal, visual shorthand of the content, I think a good shape, like a good title, can lend an extra layer of meaning and engagement to a written piece. It is particularly important in these identity poems as we are so often judged and defined by our visual elements.

For example, take the poem “Object of His Desire” from the collection (originally appearing in experimental poetry journal The Bombay Gin). On the surface it is a charming anecdote about a child keeping pet rocks in an egg carton, but add the shape—an icon—a perfect, bathroom-door skirted woman—and the words become much more sinister. You notice how the rocks are being objectified and their plight becomes symbolic. Sure, they are treated nicely, but are “animals” (implying a hierarchy), and taken care of (again, implying power), named (implying possession and external definition/validity). Then, when the rocks, just like the woman-icon shape, are left without faces, we see how their feelings, even their individuality, ceases to matter. How without eyes, nose and mouth, they are unable to sense stimuli. Static—unable to interact with their environment, process or ever change. Trapped unable to speak and respond. But without any sensory input, they are unaware that this is even an issue—the system feels perpetual, grand, safe, even desirable. Hence the poem becomes the definition of “woman” as seen not just by a man, but by us all—a blank, yet somehow identifiable, object. However, this meaning only exists when the text is paired with the shape.

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

Jennifer Met: One of the challenges in writing these poems was wrestling with their literally “concrete” nature. Generally I started with an anecdote (narrative or image-based), then formed the polished prose into a meaningful form while trying to be mindful of good line breaks. However, poetry is such a fluid and organic process that this proved limited—the content would inform the shape, which would then re-inform the content, which would then re-inform the shape, in an endless cycle. However, it is not easy to cut or change even a single word without seriously disturbing a set, concrete, typographic shape, so I found myself constantly constructing a shape only to take the writing back out and revise it before reworking it back into a form. Because of this I actually felt the freedom to do a lot more straight-out rewriting than my revisions would usually entail.

Rewriting seems like a lot of work, and even a betrayal of our charged first-words, but it benefitted this collection so much that I have continued the practice in my current poems to great success. While changing single words or just reworking stanza breaks has never been my idea of revision, I have started to really scrap and rebuild poems—often saving only a few phrases, a single image, or even an idea that had unexpectedly developed during its initial writing—a process I highly recommend.

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Special thanks to Jennifer Met for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. Gallery Withheld can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

met_biopic_gJennifer Met lives in a small town in North Idaho with her husband and children. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a finalist for Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and winner of the Jovanovich Award. Recent work is published or forthcoming in Gravel, Gulf Stream, Harpur Palate, Juked, Kestrel, Moon City Review, Nimrod, Sleet Magazine, Tinderbox, and Zone 3, among other journals.  She is the author of the chapbook Gallery Withheld(Glass Poetry Press, 2017).