writer feature: Yahia Lababidi & Laura Kaminski

This week’s poem was drawn from the feature submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

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Happy to be sharing a collaborative poem this week by two poet friends: Yahia Lababidi and Laura Kaminski. Collaborative poems create such singular reading experiences, the meeting of two sensibilities creating another sensibility performed through the poem. Because of the idiosyncratic nature of this creative undertaking, I asked Yahia and Laura to share some thoughts on their process, the results of which are featured below after the poem.

PITCHERI was excited when I first read the poem, intrigued by its pacing and lyric turns right away. What I most enjoy about this poem is how its meditation on sin and the body is approached in references and images that redefine both as they accumulate. The first stanza, for example, sets up a logic around guilt that is quickly subverted in the second. Then at the end of the second stanza there is a reference to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, “Guilt is never to be doubted.” This line on its own is one of those faux truisms that denies itself the moment after it’s read or uttered. The silence after the line break makes you immediately doubt this statement on doubt. These moves early in the poem have the effect of a bottle rocking unsteadily on its base and then settling into stillness via the Kafka line. This stillness is the perfect lead into the following stanza’s “Walk softly then” direction.

Similarly, the body is described in house terms and images, all of which create a different conversation about interiority and the self than usually encountered in poems. An image like the water pitcher one in stanza six, for example, is effective for what it evokes through the directive tone and leaves unsaid. By the poem’s end, gratitude for the “holy mess” of who we are works as a physical and active thing through the refrain of breathing.

Holy Mess
by Yahia Lababidi & Laura Kaminski

Overnight, your once blessed existence
might reverse course
become an alien thing
and you stand accused
of unspeakable crimes

Never mind, you are innocent
of these base horrors—
as Kafka says, in his Trial,
‘Guilt is never to be doubted’

Walk softly then, in sock-feet
across the floor that’s in your mind
until you reach the alcove
between the two open windows
that serve as sockets for your eyes

inhale through the nose
exhale through the nose

Be grateful, then
there are still dreadful sins
in our fallen world
of which you are blameless

Then move to the left window
lift the pitcher full of water
just beneath it to the sill
and pour it out

inhale through the nose
exhale through the mouth

Cross over to the other window
and look out, cross your arms over
your chest and clasp your shoulders

Now, tell me, how will this crucible
change you? Then show how this
unasked-for crisis is
blessing, allow it to assist
the birth of your longed-for self

inhale through the mouth
exhale through the nose

Slowly, return to descend
the spiral staircase of your spine
until you reach the landing
level with the Heart —

Thank God, for this Holy Mess —
Open the window, air it out

inhale through the mouth
exhale through the mouth

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Yahia: Poetry is an expression of the intolerable. Through it, one can confess in code and attempt to articulate what is unutterable.  Recently, undergoing a particularly difficult spiritual trial, I turned to poetry for solace, as a form of prayer, to overhear my higher self.

But, in this trying instance, I found that my voice and vision were not enough; I needed another poetic soul to unburden myself to, who could talk back to the intimacies that I shared and walk me through them.

So, I submitted the partial poem that I had composed to a poet and friend I admire, Laura Kaminski, and the result is this fuller work of (he)art — a steadying call and response and a kind of breathing meditation.

Laura: I carried the partial poem with me through the remainder of that day and into the night, and what came was this: when a part of our body is in pain, it screams out along the nerves, and it becomes difficult not to slip into that pain as an identity: *I am the torn ligaments in my foot* and such, where the injury and pain of it supersede any other perceptions of the body, become defining. When I hurt, pain hijacks my identity. I cannot see my self beyond the injury.

How much the same is true when what is injured is one of our inner selves, part of our psyche rather than physical body, but superseding identity in the same way: our “I am” is lost beneath the “I am the falsely accused.” How to return to the wider, more comprehensive perspective, to gently invite the injured voice inside to subside, to return to being part of a larger, uninjured whole? Then came the words of walking across the floor within the mind, and it struck me how once those words are thought, the imaginative-identity, like Alice, resizes its self to fit, and opens us to wonderland again.

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Yahia Lababidi, Egyptian-American, is the author of seven books of poetry and prose, most recently the collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere.

Laura M Kaminski (Halima Ayuba) is the author of several poetry collections and chapbooks. She serves on the editorial teams at Praxis Magazine Online and Right Hand Pointing. For more information on her work, check out her site.

one more from Lynn Otto

PhotoEditor_20190608_141411093In my recent microreview & interview of Lynn Otto’s Real Daughter (Unicorn Press, 2019), I noted some of the ways in which Otto’s poetic sensibility is able to take readers into the liminal space in which words make their meanings as well as gesture toward other imaginative possibilities. Within the traditions of lyric poetry — traditions whose materials are memory, personal insight, and emotional as well as conceptual depth — being able to simultaneously point to what is and what could be/have been is necessary as it is this poetic simultaneity that most aptly reflects human experience.

While a number of poems in Real Daughter deal directly with family narratives to delve into emotional insights, “After the Flood” (below) approaches similar insights in an indirect manner. Taking the flood of the title as narrative context, the poem begins by juxtaposing the images of “mud-bloated cattle” and “fattened crows discussing the landscape” with the following questions:

what will fill our mouths
besides our bitter tongues. Bowls
of foul air? Should we not have
prayed for rain?

Here, the physical reckoning implied in the animal images is led into the speaker’s conceptual reckoning through the word “discussing” which is attached to crows. This projection of human qualities onto animals is a standard move in literature, but the stakes are raised by the emotional charge of the speaker’s questions. Rather than “discuss,” a word that here seems casual and natural in contrast to the tone of the questions, the speaker’s words are strained; “bitter,” “foul,” and “prayed” are words that speak to an inability to adapt as quickly as the crows.

The spiritual meditation born out of this perceived split between human and animal drives the poem. One stand-out moment occurs across the break between stanzas two and three:

Surely we believed our prayers

are sifted, that right requests
would settle on God’s ear like specks of gold
in a miner’s pan, all worthless bits
washed out.

Having the phrase “Surely we believed our prayers” be the end of stanza two lets the speaker’s bewilderment and overwhelm ring through clearly. Note, too, that this line is the second reference to prayer (the first  being in the previous stanza), and both come at the end of their respective stanzas. This parallel invites one to look into the endings of the other two stanzas of the poem. A quick scan shows the word “balance” at the end of stanza three and the image of “all the beetles still clinging to the bark” at the end of the poem. In a way, this four stanza poem can be read as a narrative of spiritual imbalance on the front-end and one of attempting to right that imbalance in the second half.

Now, what I’m terming as “righting” occurs across the break between stanzas two and three, specifically through the continuation of the sentence. The “sifting” of prayers described by the speaker evokes a sifting of sense and doubt. The poem, then, becomes a space where an act like a flood is seen clearly for the physical and spiritual mess it leaves. Yet, this speaker refuses to tie up things too neatly. By ending on the image of “all the beetles still clinging to the bark,” the poem closes not on human argument but on human perception, which is imperfect. The phrasing of “still clinging,” then, is apt and suggestive of the hope and perseverance this speaker wants to believe in.

After the Flood – Lynn Otto

Among the mud-bloated cattle,
among the fattened crows discussing the landscape,
what will fill our mouths
besides our bitter tongues. Bowls
of foul air? Should we not have
prayed for rain?

Warped doors give way to rubbled rooms.
Where windows were,
stained curtains luff lakeward.
Let us kneel to consider the limits of algorithms
and whether God is good.
Surely we believed our prayers

are sifted, that right requests
would settle on God’s ear like specks of gold
in a miner’s pan, all worthless bits
washed out. No doubt
the sun was wanted elsewhere. Maybe
there’s a balance to maintain,

a see-saw system of losses and gains.
Of course a crow
is laughing in the sycamores —
it doesn’t care the foliage droops all sodden and forgetful.
And look at the ants, the competing spiders,
all the beetles still clinging to the bark.

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To learn more about Lynn Otto’s work, visit her site.

microreview & interview: Real Daughter by Lynn Otto

review by José Angel Araguz

PhotoEditor_20190608_141411093

It seems simple to say that what words can point to and hold is a constant source of meditation for me and other poets. Yet, this type of meditation is a high stakes one as it is in contemplating what words can hold that one also necessarily reckons with what cannot be held in words. Reading through Lynn Otto’s Real Daughter (Unicorn Press, 2019), one encounters poems that make use of this meditative space to engage with human conflict.

One can see this in “Marcescence,” which opens the collection with a reckoning salvo:

The beeches’ light brown leaves in horizontal layers
like my mother’s tiered serving trays
artfully placed in the winter forest and here we are,
in another stupid tree poem, this one
about the difficulty of letting go of something already dead.

In these lines, Otto’s speaker braids the direct meaning of the its title — a word meaning “the retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed”* — with family narrative. The first three lines evoke the way memory blurs present moment experience as well as suggests the natural way one understands the world through story. The second line’s simile deftly places nature and family side by side, a juxtaposition further complicated by the return to nature imagery in the third line. The last two lines of this stanza add a further depth to the meditation so far with its metanarrative nod towards the tradition of nature poems. Aware that she finds herself “in another stupid tree poem,” the speaker meets the sentimentality risked in the first three lines with awareness. This awareness furthers the veracity of the poem, allowing the double-meaning of the fifth line’s phrasing “the difficulty of letting go of something already dead” to hit with a compelling lyrical conviction. This conviction is furthered in the second stanza through a listing of words:

Such a fancy word for it when it comes to trees:
marcescence. You could name a daughter that.
Unlike fury. Unlike grief.

Here, the move of braiding nature and family narratives is taken further through the act of naming. There is a telling distinction in the way this speaker considers “marcescence” fit for naming a daughter over the words “fury” and “grief.” Placing these words on separate sides and seeing one as suitable for public use implies a number of things for the other two words. That “fury” and “grief” are human emotions and, therefore, typically kept private due to societal norms; that these two emotions occur in our inner worlds, this versus the public display of marcescence in trees; that, perhaps, these two words in their charged and potent nature eschew the fanciness the speaker sees in marcescence; it is through these copious implications that the speaker’s emotional presence is evoked.

The way these lines evoke this presence is quick and powerful, true to the essence of lyric poetry. This mix of skillful phrasing, hard-earned human voice, and thoughtful imagery render and suggest worlds of meaning througout the poems of Real Daughter. As the poems move through narratives of the roles taken up in one woman’s life (that of mother, daughter, wife), there is always an urgent awareness to see and find enough words for the life lived (and potentially overlooked) outside these roles.

In “Maytag” (below), one can see a good example of Otto’s ability to create a multivalent, compelling speaker. As the poem develops around a narrative about the speaker’s father and mother disputing over a broken appliance, the details begin to color the speaker’s inner world and her handling of a dead bird. The effect of this coloring is evident in the turn in the last stanza as the speaker considers “If my daughter were here.” This speculation creates an emotional depth through its contrast with what actually is done in the poem.

The poems of Real Daughter thrive in this rich space between imaginative speculation and the “real” world of family narratives. As the speaker of “Marcescence” notes in that poem’s ending stanza:

Consider the clean white spaces
between each layer of a family tree.
It isn’t like that at all.

The move to complicate and disrupt accepted narratives implied in this last line underscores the whole of this collection. Through these poems, Otto not only makes clear that it “isn’t like that at all” but also faces what it is like while at the same time providing glimpses of what it could be like.

Maytag – Lynn Otto

It can’t be fixed, says my father
of the dryer, the Maytag of many years—most
of their marriage—and the protest
of my mother, who can’t do laundry anymore anyway,
doesn’t stop him from having it hauled away,
ordering a Kenmore.

What he means is he can’t fix it. He has fallen
and what can a man do with a broken rib?
The third bird in two days hits the window and drops,
a rose-breasted nuthatch I place in a napkin,
but they won’t touch its fine fine feathers for fear of lice.
I’m to throw it in the bay.

If my daughter were here, she would bury it in a small box,
lined with a scrap of soft cloth.
But there’s no time for dead birds.
The crabs creep out sideways to clean up,
and my mother says to call the crematorium the minute she dies.
When the Maytag goes, she cries.

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

Lynn Otto: It seems to me that of all types of writing, poetry leaves the most space for the reader. I like reading and writing poems that give the reader not only sonic pleasure but also the pleasure of discovery–finding connections, layers, ambiguities, and so forth. I think the poems in Real Daughter allow those things to happen. My aim is that they welcome the reader in, and then trust the reader. I think most of the poems can be enjoyed by people who don’t have much experience reading poetry, but readers who want to will enjoy discovering more. The poems don’t over-explain. Neither do they preach or lecture, which brings me to another idea I have about poetry—that is, it’s a genre that generously accommodates uncertainty. A book of poems, even one that’s thematically tied together, can certainly cast about, and Real Daughter does.

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

Lynn Otto: Ah, well, writing anything at all is a challenge for someone taught that it’s best to keep things to oneself, especially family matters. And the process of putting words on paper—was I writing about what I thought and felt, or were the poems deciding what I thought and felt? The chicken-egg conundrum. Since I was not in the habit of knowing my own mind, it was hard to know what was going on. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of a poem going in an entirely unexpected direction. Of course, although books of poems are classified as nonfiction, they’re certainly not all autobiographical. They are, first of all, made things. Still, at times I wondered whether the poems themselves were putting a spin on things, and were influencing my feelings, even my memories. I worried that family members would be upset. I ended up writing poems that cast doubt on other poems, in effect undermining the reliability of the main speaker of the book. Only then did I feel comfortable sending it out into the world.

It’s funny that the first word of the title is a proclamation of authenticity: “Real.” But the second word is “Daughter,” a word that for me, and I think for many, signals expectations of duty to others, not to oneself. There is a tension in the title that runs throughout the book, and that was also part of my experience of writing it.

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Special thanks to Lynn Otto for participating! To keep up with Otto’s work, check out her site. Copies of Real Daughter can be purchased from Unicorn Press.

Lynn Otto pic (2)*

Lynn Otto is a freelance academic copy editor and writing mentor, with an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University (Oregon). Her work has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Raleigh Review, Sequestrum, and other journals (see lynnottoinfo.wordpress.com), and her book Real Daughter, winner of Unicorn Press’s First Book Prize in 2017, was published earlier this year.

poetry feature: Chelsea Bunn

This week’s poems are drawn from the poetry feature submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

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This week I’m excited to share a poem by Chelsea Bunn. I’m always a fan of poems that are able to evoke through juxtaposition. In “Missed Connections” (below), what is being juxtaposed is the speaker’s present surroundings with the memories that the surroundings evoke. This evocation is set up first through the clear naming of things: “the downtown 6,” “5 o’clock,” “an accordion,” etc. This clear naming grounds the poem in the speaker’s experience. The poem builds momentum through its descriptions which keep the reader “looking” at things alongside the speaker while an emotional undercurrent begins to build.

The poem takes a turn at the fifth couplet with the direct introduction of the idea of time past. This turn is furthered through the line “Private in my infuriating grief — ” which pivots the poem into the speaker’s inner memory world. What happens next is another clear naming of things, similar to the opening, but one that parallels the real world with memory. The echoes and differences here deliver emotional presence through juxtaposition. The “accordion” from the second stanza, for example, is mirrored in the “ventilator” mentioned in memory.  What was handled through distance in the present is suddenly re-presented in a way that is intimate and personal.

train platformWhile this richness alone is a gift of the poem, it’s the ending that drives home the connection to human experience. This speaker caught in meditation between the present and the past is, at the end, found at a loss. All the clear naming and juxtaposition becomes all the more insistent and urgent with the final line “The things I couldn’t say.” This final line is another act of naming that points to what can’t be named, what has eluded the vision and scope of this speaker. Evoked in this manner, the two narratives of the poem show how poetry can be a place where “missed connections” can be acknowledged, honored, and felt for what they mean.

Missed Connections – Chelsea Bunn

Waiting for the downtown 6 at 5 o’clock,
my other life comes rushing back in waves.

A man straps an accordion to his chest, opens
and closes its bellows, delivering long columns

of sound into the stagnant August air.
Across the platform, pairs of schoolchildren

march in procession, arms linked as if when someone
knows who you are, you won’t get left behind.

You: two years absent, phantom that I drag around.
Me: one year sober, still locked inside myself.

Still sequestered, still on edge.
Private in my infuriating grief—

waking daily from the dream of my father in his hospital bed,
ventilator squeezing and sucking at his chest even after he is gone,

after the blonde nurse has wrapped her clean arms around me,
after the long, low moan of the monitor.

The early morning light blasting through the windows.
The things I couldn’t say.

(originally published by Maudlin House, February 2018)

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chelsea-bunn*

Chelsea Bunn is the author of Forgiveness (Finishing Line Press, 2019). She holds an MFA in Poetry and a BA in English from Hunter College. A two-time recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, she serves as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing for Navajo Technical University. Find out more at chelseabunn.com

 

recent writings

Been busy with life and emotional happenings, but am hoping to get back into the swing of Influence-related things. Thank you to everybody who read my latest post and would-have-been speech! I greatly appreciate it.

I continue to be grateful to have been a finalist. One of the boons has been getting to be featured in articles and interviews, such as this one by David Bates of Oregon ArtsWatch titled, “It’s not my poetry that matters, it’s poetry that matters.” Bates did a great job of funneling down my in-person digressions and written loquaciousness into readable / followable quotes. One thing I’m glad he captured was my sense of advocacy and community that drives a lot of my teaching, writing, and editorial work:

“Without a platform for one’s work, without representation and visibility of one’s culture and identity, and without a feeling that there is a space for you somewhere in the world, writers can be sent down a discouraging path, questioning the worth not only of one’s words but of one’s existence. Things aren’t perfect, but good work is being done, and good work is being honored.”

berlin-sculptures-mythical-ancient-greek-gods-11876Another recent happening has been my prose poem sequence Gods and Goddesses being published as part of Oxidant Engine’s Boxset Series. Those familiar with my prose poems in Reasons (not) to Dance (FutureCycle Press) and The Book of Flight (Essay Press) will find this sequence kindred to those poems.

This Boxset Series is awesome and includes work by Rachel Mindell, Alexa Doran, Marlin M. Jenkins, Robert Okaji, Dorothy Chan, and John Sibley Williams among other stellar writers. Purchase a copy here.

Below are two excerpts from my prose poem sequence. Enjoy!

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Gods and Goddesses – José Angel Araguz

She told the class to imagine themselves as gods and goddesses, and to draw that. A few laughed, then grew silent, leaving the strokes of a pencil to grow louder, faster, a hand in the back of the room furious across a sheet, where teeth could be found, and the beginning lines around a mouth. Everyone waited, wanting to hear what it had to say.

First – José Angel Araguz

– and then the sun looked down upon the earth, took in how countless and unending life here seemed, saw in it something of the universe, at least what he knew of it, boundless and crowded, only what he saw was a thing that held nothing as bright as he was, nothing that aspired to take his place, nothing even to take a place beside him, and he continued in his thoughts, taking note of everything in regards to what he could not see, trying to block out his reflection which is all he saw – on the water, on the leaves – his thoughts multiplying and emptying him until he looked at the ground and saw shapes, dark, no light in them, a whole world that was not a world but a passing feeling that moved as he moved. The first shadows looked back at the sun –

one more from Susan Lewis

susan lewis zoomIn my recent microreview & interview of Zoom (The Word Works, 2018) by Susan Lewis, I discussed Lewis’ deftness with the prose poem as working through a push-pull between familiarity and distinction. The traditional structures of sentence and paragraph are subverted in the poems of Zoom with non-traditional phrasing and concepts.

In the case of “In Praise of Attention,” (below), the familiar phrasing of “in praise of” is subverted by a poem whose goal seems to be an interrogation of attention as a distinct act. Attention is first described as “that stiff upper chamber of another bloody pump,” implying a physicality to what we call attention, one that is similar to the physical heart. Yet, the poem immediately pushes against this logic by turning from the phrase “bloody pump” to “upper cut. Or cut to the quick & the dead.” In this phrasing, conceptual logic gives way to a logic of sounds, three syllable phrase replaced by another three syllable phrase, which is then further interrupted by a riff on the word “cut,” which in turns leads to a movie reference. The lyrical momentum of these lines would be inaccessible were it not for the self-awareness that runs the speaker of this and other poems in the collection.

Because the speaker shows themselves as aware of the frustrating yet fruitful fluidity of language, the reader’s own awareness of this fluidity, felt at turns as difficulty and fascination, can be grounded in faith. Faith in language as reckoning ground, as meeting place and place of obfuscation. The ending line, building off the italicized quote from physicist Werner Heisenberg, becomes a telling description of not only the prose poem form as exhibited here but of poetry itself.

In Praise of Attention,

that stiff upper chamber of another bloody pump. Or upper cut. Or cut to the quick & the dead, to be blunt, to be smooth as an animal in the grass, shooting the breeze with its salutary moods, its whispering timbre. Not so much chasing facsimilar euphoria as synthesizing with the generative wisdom of chlorophyll. Attending, nursing plus paying out my bottomless cache, that recirculating pump begging to be trimmed to droplets of uncertainty, those nemeses of finitude. That what we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Words grasping boldly at the known grasping boldly at what is.

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from Zoom (The Word Works)

to learn more about Susan Lewis’ work, visit her site

anting with Charles Simic

The_Ant._From_the_Dis_-_sectum_projectA lot of what makes poetry work is accumulation of meaning and possibility. In this week’s poem, “Solitude” by Charles Simic, the meaning begins with the phrase “first crumb” and how a crumb’s insignificance is gestured at before being subverted in the rest of the poem. It’s a move similar to starting zoomed out on something that appears one way from a distance, and turns out to be something completely different when you zoom in. In Simic’s characteristic style, there is both threat and snark in the final image, playing off ideas of solitude in an engaging way.

Solitude – Charles Simic

There now, where the first crumb
Falls from the table
You think no one hears it
As it hits the floor

But somewhere already
The ants are putting on
Their Quakers’ hats
And setting out to visit you.