blues, song, & sea: amiri baraka

The distance between the list poem and the ode varies. A list poem, for one, implies attention, if not praise. Yet, the act of listing is the act of making space and placing importance on a subject. Odes, which are made up of mainly attention and praise, also create an empathic space for readers. Whenever I begin to see a list occurring in a poem, I take it as a cue to listen/watch closely: something is being paid attention to in an engaged manner.

In this week’s poem, “Legacy” by Amiri Baraka, what is listed is a series of actions: sleeping, growling, stumbling, frowning, etc. There is a momentum generated in this listing of actions that embodies the tortured tone of the speaker. I call it a “tortured tone” but not a passive one; what this list of actions brings attention to is the act of evocation made possible by song. This speaker goes on to tell us that “(the old songs / lead you to believe)” in the sea. To expand on this logic: Songs, which exist on the air, can create hope, illusion, feelings, etc. out of the very air that holds them.

This poem is dedicated to “Blues People,” and what these people mean to the speaker can be felt through this listing and attention to action. This list itself becomes like the sea, existing in motion as long as the poem is read.

Legacy – Amiri Baraka

(For Blues People)

In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night. Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee. Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black. Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.

from Black Magic (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)

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new work & some news!

First off, I am happy to share the latest issue of West Texas Literary Review which features my poem “Old Man in a Rocker.”

This issue also features solid work from Ace Boggess, Ann Lowe Weber, Tara Ballard, and John Sibley Williams among others.

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Secondly, I am happy to share that my prose poem, “City of Windows,” has been nominated for Best of the Net by the good folks at Pretty Owl Poetry.

Thank you to the editor for the nod and community!

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Lastly, I am delighted to share that I am beginning my tenure as one of the editors of Right Hand Pointing starting this month.

My welcome into the fold is in the shape of the latest issue “the rain will never end” (issue 115) which I guest edited. I had a great time selecting pieces for the issue. I hope you enjoy spending time with them.

Thanks to the RHP crew for bringing me on board!

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See you Friday!

José

one more from jennifer maritza mccauley

scar on scar offIn my recent microreview & interview of Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On / Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press), I noted the recurring themes of witness and presence throughout the poems. These themes are not mutually exclusive in the poems, rather, they exist side by side, creating meaningful friction and nuanced depths. Today’s poem, “Some Advice,” is also from McCauley’s collection and is  a good example of these creative engines at work.

In the poem below, a speaker recounts the “advice” given to them by a man. The move to relate the man’s statement not in his voice via quotes, but instead through the narrative framework of “He says” allows for a distance that disrupts the power of what is said while at the same creating a space in which what is said can be interrogated. The man’s statements, which are charged with danger, threat, gender stereotypes and double standards, are braided with the speaker’s inner responses.

These inner responses trouble the already troubled conceit that these statements are “advice.” The true nature of the man’s statements is unfurled throughout the movements of the poem. From the first stanza’s misguided take on accountability which shames the speaker and their physical presence (“your joyful teeth are enough to / jail you in consequence”), to the admonishment and threat of the last lines, witness and presence work together to evoke the mortal threat this speaker lives under in society and also subverts that threat into a poem that forges awareness out of lived experience.

Some Advice – Jennifer Maritza McCauley

He says you have it coming
because you smile
too-big at the Papis and gals and no matter
the meaning behind that smile, baby,
your joyful teeth are enough to
jail you in consequence.

He says whatever happens
when he releases me into the wet night
after a weird beer or somekinda wine
is my own fault, that I can’t blame my
body-losses on the black city or briny Caribbean
night.

He says that’s your problem –
the happy in your front teeth,
the way your purpl’d hips coil and flick,
it doesn’t matter if you see themboys spirit
before body, themboys don’t see
spirits and yes, babygirl:
they are looking at you.

He says what I should see first
is men-eyes and lusty sweat bundled
on men-foreheads and he says
if I wear shortskirtstightjeans and themboys
reach out and snatch me from red alleys,
that’s on me. And by the way, he says,
if you don’t bite hard enough
when they catch you, baby,
you’re a fucking whore.

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Scar On / Scar Off can be purchased from Stalking Horse Press.

microreview & interview: Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On/Scar Off

scar on scar off

review by José Angel Araguz

Loriella is Dead – Jennifer Maritza McCauley

Yesterday Loriella choke-cried into my phone,
saying we black gals got to stick together, hip to hip
since the world is a leech sucking at our night
necks, and I said girlIhearyou and I could hear
her voice cleaving clean down the center and
I remembered this was the girl who kicked a blackboy
down the stairs of Litchfield Towers, and burned my books
in the dorm yard when I told her I couldn’t love her like that–
With all-the-time love, with only-her love

and she said give me sweet words then and I said what sort
and she burned my books again, the next night, on the dormhall yard
and told me my skin was the wrong kind of tawny,
that I was too soft-voiced to be a real black girl, that
everything I said was too long for listening.

Yesterday, she was talking and her voice got soaked with
ghosts, of men who sexed her bad and women who
gave her lies of love, and I remembered the other nights
she called me, when we were young and tighter-skinned, and
she talked about firearms and gun barrels and her
Auntie’s arm- burns and she said she’d never
do what her Auntie did though she thinks about
what it’d be like to go away, with no man or woman draining her
dead, to go away by her own hands like Auntie did that
night when we were playing Scrabble on the dormhall
floor and she got the call that said Auntie is dead
Auntie left the room.

Yesterday, Loriella thanked me for love, said I was okay and
she knows her head is cut-up and we agreed that every
head is cut-up and every little black girl head is a little
tired and today her Mama calls me and says

Loriella is dead, and asks me what I said to her and
I said nothing, just that we black girls got to stick together
hip to hip, heart to heart, and her Mama says
how come you didn’t try any kind of talk to make
My Girl live and I listen to fat air on the phone and her Mama’s
cold cries, and I imagine Loriella’s neck, life-broken, on the floor.
I think of its fleshy folds and clavicle, her pink mouth,
how it pursed and pouted and spoke fear and I think of what

I said every day when we were young: What do you want
me to tell you? and how I wondered what
words could do. I tell her Mama that, as
I choke-cry, “What could words have done?”

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Reading through Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On / Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press), I kept coming back to the final question in the poem above: “What could words have done?” This question lives at the core of this collection whose poems embody spaces of agency and contemplation. Whether reckoning with danger and gendered double standards while listing “40 Ways to Avoid Sexual Assault,” or invoking Celia Cruz’s bittersweet refrain “la vida es un carnival” in an underground mall, McCauley’s poems answer the question of “What could words have done?” with witness and presence.

In the poem above, the question originates from a moment of grief. The narrative of Loriella is one of misunderstandings and fractures. Even the phrasing of “girlIhearyou,” whose collision of words evoke urgency and a desire for connection, stands out as a one-sided gesture. The speaker goes on to detail the ways in which that sought-after connection kept slipping. And yet, the poem stands as an answer to the question itself, a testament to a life that cannot be summed up neatly, and the life of the speaker who must move forward despite this knowledge, questioning and holding close to words.

This question returns implicitly in the lyric essay “An End,” in which a speaker meditates on her experience working with and caring for an elderly man. The speaker relates: “I am afraid to die, my oldman client tells me,” at the start of the piece, and follows up a little later with “My oldman says don’trepeatwhatIsaid again, and I nod.” Through this back and forth, the text becomes a space where this secret can be held; it resides here for the speaker in a way that allows her to empathize as well as contemplate the fear itself. The speaker later learns of his death via a phone call answered while driving. The news shocks her and results in a car accident:

I pull over and wait for the driver to get out. She climbs out of her Jeep carefully. I walk up to her, give her my information. I watch this woman scribble the superficial facts of my life on the back of a Burger King receipt. She is writing what I tell her: my car’s make and model, my Daddy-given name, my address and phone number. All evidence of my short and stupid life. Underneath the red of Target storeface, I watch this woman record everything I tell her about me. She finishes quickly; I don’t have much to say. She looks up, wondering if my body is shaken. It is not. I was young then, nauseatingly alive.

Here, again, we have misunderstandings and fractures, albeit of a more literal kind than before. In the act of exchanging information after a car crash, the speaker becomes aware of her mortality, but also of what little might remain afterward. This piece which is an act of the speaker recording the final days of her “oldman client,” suddenly finds a parallel in this scene after an accident. The insights offered here are nuanced. What can words do in the face of “the superficial facts” of our lives? What could words have done for her oldman client? Again, witness and presence return as an answer.

Not every answer to the question “What could words have done?” is elegiac. “The Summer of Screens,” for example, presents a speaker awake to what words can do and are doing. In the excerpt below, there is a lyric elasticity able to hold the varied layers of experience that the speaker lives through while watching a Beyonce video in a particular time and place in American history. What plays out as juxtaposition within the literary and aesthetic act of a poem, reflects the complicated nature of life for this speaker of color. Here, again, the speaker seeks connection, but finds instead a troubled reflection; the same medium that offers up these also offers up the cultural rejection embodied by Donald Trump. It is hard not to feel left out in a world where our pop stars and our politicians have a major presence in our consciousness while remaining, ultimately, inaccessible on several levels.

The poems of Scar On /  Scar Off live in this duality. How do we make peace with the scars we have? We live despite them, with them, but not ignoring them. We remain present with them. We use words to engage what the scars mean. And after understanding what we can through the witness and presence of books like McCauley’s, we persevere, like the speaker below, to “still, desperately, / want to getinformation.”

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III.

On YouTube, Beyonce has tied up that
blonde weave we’ve been seeing for years
into tight braids that look like shadowed cornfields,
shining against her expensive scalp. She
is twitch-dancing, her soft-hard legs jerking
to the sound of pop and power, a beat
rehearsed to make us shout “yeah, girl, please!”

Beyonce isn’t wearing white and she’s not
having fun anymore she wants you to know she won’t
have as much white fun. On YouTube, she glowers
at me and descends into Katrina-water, while sitting
on top of a copcar she bought for this video.

In another video, Donald Trump calls my graduate school
by name and says it is full of little black people with little
white leaders, and he looks me in my eye and reminds me
I am one of the little black people he hates.
I click on Beyonce’s video again because I know this dark
rich woman, in a game of theoreticals, loves me
far more than Donald Trump.

When I realize this, Beyonce is no longer glowering at me,
she’s saying, “girl, we got this, I’m with you,” and she is
glistening fine and smooth. Her royal black skin could be mine
but it isn’t.
Her skin: as shiny as a money-coin.

When she sings ladiesgetinformation I start crying
and don’t know why, because I know this is
a video and she has purchased all of our culture’s
chilling symbols and will go back to a queen-home
I will never see. But when I see her skin like this: suddenly black
and toughly smooth on my small computer, she reminds me of who
I am. This summer I could be one of those Bey-lovin’ blackfolks
worshipping my be-weaved goddess from the backrow of
a concert that costs half my rent. Maybe, before I go back to
my busted Ford, me and other blackgirls and boys might get lucky
enough to pass her security guards, to walk around the concert
copcars she owns, that we could never buy
for protection. I still, desperately,
want to getinformation.

I click off the video,
when she sings:
SLAY SLAY SLAY
SLAY SLAY SLAY

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

Jennifer Maritza McCauley: Audre Lorde has this terrific quote: “There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself…because they want to dismiss everything else…” Poetry is my way of underlining, striking out, and rewriting all of these pieces. With poetry, I can interrogate the many definitions and intersections in one person, community, language, and genre. As a half-African-American and half-Puerto Rican woman, I’ve often been told who I am, what I’m not, how to fit in and how to talk. As a result, I’ve never been a fan of simple definitions. I don’t like leaving “pieces of myself” dismissed. I also enjoy many poetic forms, and think the identity of a poem can be just as complicated as the identity of a person.

For me, the beauty of poetry is that it can tell a story, sing love, compel readers to act, lay loss bare and bloody. Ideally, I wanted this collection to reflect some of the issues posed and dissected by poets I admire like Claudia Rankine, Sonia Sanchez, Tato Laviera, and Gloria Anzaldua. How do my experiences and those of folks I know push against stereotypes? What are the conversations and conflicts in my communities? How do I complicate what folks already think about race and gender? These were questions I was consciously and unconsciously wrestling with as I wrote this collection. Ultimately, I wanted this work to be many-voiced, hybridic, messy, searching, and full of love.

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

Jennifer Maritza McCauley: I started writing this collection while I was bouncing around the South and Caribbean, editing my novel with my wonderful agent Amanda Jain and preparing to move to the Midwest from Florida. During this time, I’d be in prickly situations or meet folks that unearthed my complicated feelings about blackness, Latinidad, the body, love, and loss. Poetry and short prose were my go-to genres for exploring these concerns.

Some poems were more challenging to write than others. Sometimes I had to be in the right mindset to get the words on the page. Often, I’d say, “I really need to write a poem about this,” and the piece would take forever to come together. I’d give up, return later. Other times, the words came naturally. Sometimes a poem would tell me it needed to be prose, or vice versa. After a year or so, when I realized I had enough poems to start thinking about a collection I tried to find themes and through-lines. The hard, fun work was determining which pieces belonged and didn’t belong in the book. I cut a lot of darlings and played around with the structure of the book  quite a bit. The awesome folks at Stalking Horse helped with this process further after they picked up the collection. Writing this thing overall, was a challenging and liberating process.

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Special thanks to Jennifer Maritza McCauley for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. Scar On/Scar Off can be pre-ordered from Stalking Horse Press.

jenniferpictureJennifer Maritza McCauley is a teacher, writer, and editor living in Columbia, Missouri. She holds or has previously held editorial positions at The Missouri Review, Origins Journal, and The Florida Book Review, amongst other outlets, and has received fellowships from Kimbilio, CantoMundo, the Knight Foundation, and Sundress Academy of the Arts. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets University Award and has appeared in Passages North, Puerto del Sol, Split this Rock: Poem of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF will be published by Stalking Horse Press in fall 2017.

seeking with lorna dee cervantes

Where last week’s poem by Francisco X. Alarcón evoked ideas of presence, this week’s poem, “Freeway 280” by Lorna Dee Cervantes, is driven by self-exploration and self-seeking. Often these themes are approached in poems in loud ways, in declarative statements and pronouncements. In the poem below, the speaker of the poem meditates on the environment around her.

The listing in the second stanza, in particular, moves in a way that points back to the speaker’s sensibility. Amidst the trees “left standing” in the yards she can see, the speaker observes “viejitas” (old women) who come and collect greens and herbs. This juxtaposition of the natural with the human imbues both with a sense of survival.

apricot-orchard-261479_960_720The self-exploration/seeking takes on a literal turn as the speaker scrambles over a fence to get closer to “los campos extraños de esta ciudad” (the strange fields of this city). Once there, the speaker continues to keep an eye on what is present, and, in doing so, evokes their own presence. That this presence is made up of seeking makes it all the more compelling; at the heart of lyric poetry lies such seeking, such presence.

Freeway 280 – Lorna Dee Cervantes

Las casitas near the gray cannery,
nestled amid wild abrazos of climbing roses
and man-high red geraniums
are gone now. The freeway conceals it
all beneath a raised scar.

But under the fake windsounds of the open lanes,
in the abandoned lots below, new grasses sprout,
wild mustard remembers, old gardens
come back stronger than they were,
trees have been left standing in their yards.
Albaricoqueros, cerezos, nogales . . .
Viejitas come here with paper bags to gather greens.
Espinaca, verdolagas, yerbabuena . . .

I scramble over the wire fence
that would have kept me out.
Once, I wanted out, wanted the rigid lanes
to take me to a place without sun,
without the smell of tomatoes burning
on swing shift in the greasy summer air.

Maybe it’s here
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I’ll find it, that part of me
mown under
like a corpse
or a loose seed.

from Emplumada (University of Pittsburgh Press)

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Happy seeking!

José

survival & presence: francisco x. alarcón

Last week, I got to participate in an open mic at The Gallery at Ten Oaks in McMinnville. When I got up there, I made a note that it was my open mic in our new city, and that I always made it a point to find the open mics wherever we moved. Open mics are we you get to see the stories and the imagination of a city.

During my slot, I offered up this week’s poem by Francisco X. Alarcón in both English and Spanish. It was important to me to let the words hang in the air in both languages. I mentioned that between hurricanes in the gulf, forest fires here in the west, and the consequences of rescinding DACA, survival has been a constant in my conversations with family and friends.

alarcón4I would have loved to hear what Alarcón would say about our times now. His death almost two years ago now keeps being fresh on my mind as I find myself compelled to engage with the personal and political in my poems for new reasons. Only through such engagement can we reach new understandings. I say “new,” but the new always takes us back to the old, or, as in the poem below, the present. Alarcón’s poem asserts presence as a subversive act; being present with this poem allows me to be present within myself. Such is the gift Alarcón possessed and left for us in his work.

Natural Criminal – Francisco X. Alarcón
translated by Francisco Aragón

I am
a nomad
in a country
of settlers

a drop
of oil
in a glass
of water

a cactus
flowering
where one
can’t and
shouldn’t
flourish

I am
history’s
fresh and
living wound

my crime
has been being
what I’ve been
all my life

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Naturaleza criminal – Fransico X. Alarcón

soy
un nómada
en un país
de sedentarios

una gota
de aceite
en un vaso
de agua

un nopal
que florece
en donde
no se puede
ni se debe
florecer

soy
una herida
todavía viva
de la historia

mi crimen
ha sido ser
lo que he sido
toda mi vida

from From the Other Side of the Night/del otro lado de la noche: New and Selected Poems

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Happy naturalezando!

José