recap of my recent Linfield College reading!

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Just a quick note to share this thoughtful recap of my recent poetry reading at Linfield College up at Medium!

I read on September 11th as part of the Readings at the Nick series held at Linfield’s Nicholson Library. Here’s “Alabanza” by Martín Espada, the poem I read to start things off.

Thank you to Ryan O’Dowd for this engaging detailing of the reading!

— José

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birding with Edward Hirsch

This week’s poem – “Branch Library” by Edward Hirsch – takes me back to being a kid getting dropped off at the Greenwood Library in Corpus Christi, Texas (an experience I recently wrote a short essay about). Those early experiences of wandering stacks are with me in some small part to this day as I walk around a library or bookstore.

bird-sketch-1517679561sj1Along with this personal connection, Hirsch’s poem moves me for the way it braids together a variety of wordplay. From the play on “branch” as both the specific locale of the title to the poem’s riffing on bird language, there is a purposeful cleverness at work. What this levity does for the poem is give it an imaginative momentum that keeps over-seriousness and sentimentality from taking over by bringing them together directly. The earnest love of books and language meets the bird imagery and metaphor to evoke the exhilaration of the speaker’s younger self.

Through this braiding and inventiveness, Hirsch’s poem takes the reader along for the search for a younger self, a search that is a wonder in itself.

Branch Library – Edward Hirsch

I wish I could find that skinny, long-beaked boy
who perched in the branches of the old branch library.

He spent the Sabbath flying between the wobbly stacks
and the flimsy wooden tables on the second floor,

pecking at nuts, nesting in broken spines, scratching
notes under his own corner patch of sky.

I’d give anything to find that birdy boy again
bursting out into the dusky blue afternoon

with his satchel of scrawls and scribbles,
radiating heat, singing with joy.

from Special Orders (Knopf 2008)

intuiting with Mary Oliver

The beginning of the school year for me is always a time of advice. New students come into the fray of doing the work to better their lives via education, making the necessary sacrifices of time, energy, and finances. It’s a sensitive position, and I work hard to be sensitive to it. Whether the topic is making decisions about what classes to take or simply a poem or essay they are working on, one of the things I think I’m guiding a student towards is intuition. I figure if a person learns to listen to themselves and hear what they already know, they’ll be that much more aware of what they don’t know and how to seek it out.

night treesThis week’s poem – “The Journey” by Mary Oliver – is a poem that I associate it with this kind of intuition and listening. The poem is grounded in a narrative that is richly ambiguous; the choice of the second person “you” address brings a reader close to the stakes of the poem while the language is kept in a register that is accessible and fluid. Yet, rather than fall into any cliches about “journeys,” the poem creates a creeping urgency through its physicality. A house “trembles”; something “tugs” at the ankles; and by the end, the you is striding forward with a newfound conviction, if not confidence.

This poem, in particular, is a favorite because this feeling I’m attempting to describe remains consistent over my twenty years of admiration and rereading. The poem lives in a lyrical mode that asks the reader to be present in themselves, a position where all strong writing – and living – begins.

The Journey – Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

from Dream Work (The Atlantic Monthly Press)

summering with William Carlos Williams

The end of summer is a ways off, but with the start of school there is a change in summer’s energy at least. For me, I’m bracing to become some version of those balloon figures you see at car dealerships, the ones that are flung in various directions depending on the wind. That’s what teaching mode is like for me, lots of energy and enthusiasm.

car dealership balloonIt’s a mixed blessing, though, as there is a part of me this time of year that wants to stand back and reflect. Could be my birthday, could be the looming end of summer, could be knowing that what happens during the semester is a huge shift, and I don’t love change. I’m reconciled to it, and I love teaching. But yet there’s an unnameable feeling that comes.

This week’s poem – “Summer Song” by William Carlos Williams – touches a bit on what that unnameable feeling might be like. Through the personification of the moon, Williams builds a short narrative whose logic leads up to a compelling closing image and thought. I consider the closing question from a grounded place, but am lifted by it nonetheless.

Summer Song – William Carlos Williams

Wanderer moon
smiling a
faintly ironical smile
at this
brilliant, dew-moistened
summer morning,—
a detached
sleepily indifferent
smile, a
wanderer’s smile,—
if I should
buy a shirt
your color and
put on a necktie
sky-blue
where would they carry me?

one more from Steven Sanchez

phantomtongue7In my recent microreview & interview of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez, I spoke about Sanchez’s gift for poetic empathy. In the same way that a poem is never alive until somebody reads it, so is empathy unable to be present unless another does the work of listening to someone’s trouble and making room for it. This making room for empathy – for acknowledgment and listening – is something that poetry lends itself to naturally. What Sanchez does  is present poems that help us think, rather than think for us.

In the poem below, “Past Tense,” also from Phantom Tongue, we see the nuance with which Sanchez does this work. Now, depending on who you talk to, one of the clichés of Latinx poetry is the abuelita/grandma poem. When I first hear this type of poem called out, I had the natural reaction to go out and write ten abuelita poems, just to show’em. I also began to pay extra attention when I ran across one, seeing if I would be given an example of the grave “sin” I’d been warned against. While Sanchez’s poem does take as its subject a childhood relationship with a grandmother, he avoids cliché through lyricism that invites empathy.

Stanza by stanza, we get an inventory of direct memories, from “a bottle of chocolate / syrup next to her recliner” to her taking insulin and watching novelas. What is compelling is how each detail is shifted just enough so that there is an emotional charge that builds throughout the poem. From the grandma winking as she takes her insulin, to the detail of having novelas translated so that “every betrayal was in English,” the poem moves in a way that nudges the reader to do the work of picking up on the deeper meanings of each scene. And where other poems use difficulty and ambiguity as the field to be crossed toward deeper meanings, this poem has a hard-won clarity in each phrase. What is asked of the reader, then, is to listen and acknowledge as the speaker listens and acknowledges the nuances of his memories. In this way, the speaker’s admission at the end of “learning to speak” is aptly phrased; in both English and Spanish, the language being learned is that of witness and memory.

Past Tense – Steven Sanchez

My grandma kept a bottle of chocolate
syrup next to her recliner. Each time
I spent the night, she bought a sleeve
of vanilla ice cream cups from the store.

She’d grab one, take her insulin, and wink.
I’d ask her to translate her novelas
whenever someone cried, meaning
every betrayal was in English.

At 10:30, we’d brush our teeth, rinse
our mouths, and she’d sing in Spanish
until I closed my eyes, imagining
small pigeons flying from her tongue,

carrying rolled R’s like small parcels
I’ve never been able to unwrap.
Sometimes, I dream she’s still here
sleeping next to me and I whisper

an apology for releasing her canary
when I was little. She never clipped
his wings, thought he might need them.
Now, I’m learning to speak, to tell

the difference between the preterit
and imperfect, escapó and escapaba,
between ella cantó and memory.

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To find out more about Steven Sanchez’s work, check out his site.
Copies of Phantom Tongue can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

microreview & interview: Phantom Tongue by Steven Sanchez

review by José Angel Araguz

phantomtongue7

Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez begins with “On the Seventh Day,” a poem depicting the speaker poring over images of male models in the Sunday ads—”glossy men” that “look like my G.I. Joe / if his clothes weren’t painted on”—then cutting and pasting body parts, fashioning ideal versions of attractiveness. This act is narrated in a compelling and telling manner; as the speaker notes that “These paper men / are caught inside words / they don’t even know exist,” it is hard not to notice the parallel with the speaker himself, a youth whose burgeoning sexuality is manifesting outside of words through this play with images. The poem ends with a similarly telling image:

I’ve learned to hide these men inside
the pages of my dictionary,
where words always cling
to their wet curves
like the newspaper ink
on my hands, headlines
and stories staining my skin.

This final image is charged with guilt and self-consciousness. Unlike the title’s reference to God resting after the creation of the world, this speaker is far from being able to rest or feel settled. In fact, his act of creation leaves him scared and with an impulse to hide his fascination.

This tension between fascination and self-consciousness lies at the center of Phantom Tongue. Starting with this poem about bodies, the collection begins to explore ideas of breaking—how bodies break, and what breaks with them—balanced by meditations on what is not broken. One can see this balance in the sequence “Passing.” In the section One of the Guys, the speaker is asked on the playground “Are you white or a wetback?” and responds with “I’m just like you.” The speaker is then told to grab a rock and join in the taunting and assault of another child. Unable to find a rock, or unwilling to, the speaker picks up a “large dirt clod” and is commanded to throw it at the head of the other boy. When he moves to do so, however, the speaker ends up only feeling how the dirt clod “explodes in my raised hand.” This closing image implies not only the futility of violence, but also the speaker’s discomfort in participating. It is almost as if the dirt clod breaks apart in empathy with the speaker.

This scene of coerced action resulting in futility skillfully leads to the second section of this sequence, Boy Scout. In this poem, the speaker is out fishing and reels in a brown trout, the experience bringing him closer to a growing sense of mortality:

I feel the rest of his life in this wire, taut
like string between two plastic cups.

Does he hear my heart tightening its pace,
a fist that will not let go?

The feeling of life on the wire compared to a childhood makeshift telephone drives home what is being communicated through this experience to the speaker. Viewed within the context of a conversation, the speaker is aware that he is at fault for the breaking from life that is going on at the other side. This awareness becomes a new knowledge in the form of the final couplet where the speaker’s heart becomes “a fist that will not let go.” Even the breaking life of a fish holds its fascination and lesson.

Sanchez’s attention to and facility with empathy is also present in the poems about his complicated relationship with his father. In “La Llorona,” for example, we are given an imagined origin story that is braided with the Mexican folktale. As the speaker tells us “My father’s forgotten / who brought him / to America,” the poem sets its license for this braiding as being grounded in the father’s absence of details. We further learn:

Somebody found him
when he was a boy
walking in the streets

of Tijuana, his mother
absent. The jagged
remains of his living

room window
cut his hands
when he reached

one more time
toward his own father,
dead for three days.

From here, the poem enters the speaker’s dreams where he tries to comfort the father. Where in reality the speaker’s father reached to the dead father, in dream he reaches toward the speaker. In this parallel, death and dream frame the speaker’s father with absence. This absence then becomes a space where the poem can explore the story of La Llorona and braid it to the father’s via imagery:

I can never touch him,
always my reflection
in water. A woman

emerges and slides
her finger across
his navel

where kelp grows
like an umbilical chord
inching toward his neck

Comfort exists in these stanzas edged with threat, as it does in life. The uncertainty of water—a realm of intangible reflections and unperceivable depths—makes a suitable parallel to the life of the father, who, through his own absences, lives an uncertain life. As the poem’s dreamscape baptism comes to a close, La Llorona holds the father and prays. In this way, braiding the narrative of La Llorona with that of the father redeems both troubled figures.

In “Approaching El Arco / Reloj Monumental,” redemption is explored in a way that allows for complication and doubt. As the poem moves through its crushing depiction of the speaker being questioned by border patrol while walking near the entrance of Tijuana, there comes this moment:

A gull walks

in circles a few feet away, his left wing
broken, upside down; his white

remex makes a path in wet sand
that three offspring follow. I could

hold the gull, stroke his sleek back,
and make a purple sling from my shirt.

But I wouldn’t know what I’m doing,
how to reset or mend his bones.

I would just break another one
I try to convince myself, even though

I know what happens if I do nothing.

This act of pausing, of acknowledging what’s in front of the speaker and each possible course of action, of lingering over meaning, speaks of the great empathy at the heart of this collection. By considering the broken wing of the bird, the speaker goes through the motions of feeling something (not quite innocence, but like it) break inside himself. Moments like this one showcase Sanchez’s gift for dwelling in complexity.

While the collection begins with a fascination with the body, this fascination quickly becomes an unflinching awareness of what is at stake within a body. Along with the physical breaking possible, there is the body as the house of what is broken and what continues to break. In the final poem, “What I Didn’t Tell You” (below), an address to a younger brother begins as advice and quickly shifts into regret and apology. Sanchez’s ability to look deeply within his own breaking—the physical and emotional, as well as the breaking that makes up memory—is illuminating. Throughout this collection, worlds that have gone neglected and unseen are made visible and granted the rich and transformative acknowledgment of poetry.

What I Didn’t Tell You – Steven Sanchez

for my brother

You can ask me anything,
Even about my first kiss,
which was at your age
and tasted like stale beer.
I used to feel guilty swallowing
the pulse of another man,
but now I know there are many
ways to pray. There’s a name for
that most intimate prayer:
la petite mort—the little death.
If, when your lover rakes
your back, you recall
the flock of worshippers
surrounding you like raptors
when they learned you’re gay,
clawing at your shoulders,
squawking for salvation,
remind yourself you have to die
before you can be resurrected.
Never forget what the Bible says:
when two people worship together,
they create a church
no matter where they are—
which must include
the backseat of a car
or the darkest corner
of Woodward Park.
These are some of the things
I wanted to tell you
that night in April
you called me for help
with your history report
about the gay rights movement.
Neither of us admitted
what he knew about the other.
Instead I started
with the ancient Greeks,
told you it was normal for them,
that for one brief moment
they were allowed to shape
their own history and religion,
organizing the stars, forming
Orion, for example,
flexing in the sky, arms
open in victory, belt
hanging below his waist.
But he was punished
for his confidence,
a scorpion’s hooked tail
piercing his body
like a poison moon.
When I see Orion,
I think of you and remember
what it felt like
for my knuckles to sink
into your stomach,
for my fist to collide
with your face. Your voice,
your walk, your gestures
reminded me of myself,
your figure bright and fluid,
creating a reflection
I wanted to break.
And now I see
your body spill open—
Big Dipper hooked
to your ribs, North Star
nestled in the middle.
I reach for that ladle
and drink.

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Influence Question: How does this full length relate/grow out of your chapbooks?

Steven Sanchez: The earliest draft of Phantom Tongue came first, followed by my chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions). While my two chapbooks have a lot of thematic overlap (in terms of Queerness, internalized oppression, and Pocho-ness, among others), the image systems and tones between each chapbook felt different. Despite these differences, or probably because of them, I was able to figure out how to meet Phantom Tongue on its own terms.

Originally, Phantom Tongue had three sections, and the differences between the first two sections reflected the differences between the two chapbooks. The third section tried to reconcile those differences, but, like a bad sewing job, the thread was visible and didn’t match. I expressed my concerns to Sara Henning (my wonderful editor at Sundress) and she encouraged me to remove the sections and see what happened.

Reading through it without sections, I still saw significant shifts that reminded me “oh, we’re switching between chapbooks now,” so I tried out an organization strategy I used in my first chapbook—begin the book with a poem centering the body and end the book with a poem centering the body. If I could begin and end with a body, Phantom Tongue could tell the story of that body.

However, the final poems in Phantom Tongue had tones that clashed with each other. The title poem itself comes relatively late in the book and is a poem of witness (sort of) where the speaker lacks agency. But I wanted the end of the book to acknowledge and challenge what happens in the title poem. I turned to the poems from my second chapbook for help and found the poem I wanted to close on—What I Didn’t Tell You. When I found that poem, I realized a few of the poems in that chapbook had a similar tone and pacing; I realized that Phantom Tongue needed those poems near the end.

Ultimately, I found that my first chapbook seemed to privilege the physical, lived experiences of a body, while the second chapbook seemed to privilege the ways bodies get read as texts and assigned meaning. While those chapbooks can be their own entities, I realized Phantom Tongue felt clunky because the physical body and metaphysical body inform each other and cannot be so easily separated (if at all). My chapbooks were so helpful in my revision process, sort of like a phoropter in an optometrist’s office—sometimes one chapbook made an aspect of Phantom Tongue super clear, sometimes that same chapbook made me lose focus; toggling between the two helped me hone in on the smaller details I couldn’t see on my own.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! To learn more about Sanchez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Phantom Tongue can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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1888_sanchezSteven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award and a finalist for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize & the Four Way Books Intro Prize. He is also the author of two chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poet LoreNimrodNorth American ReviewMuzzleCrab Creek Review, and other publications. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno.

new work at Sugar House Review!

Happy to share that my work is being included in this Sneak Peek of the latest issue of Sugar House Review!

Check out the text and audio of my poem “On the Times I Don’t Remember the Right Words for Things!”

This sneak peek includes work by Emma Aylor, Craig Blais, and Tamara L. Panici among other fine writers.

Thank you to the editors of Sugar House Review for the work they do in supporting and showcasing their contributors!

See y’all Friday!

José