microreview & interview: Emily Corwin’s tenderling

review by José Angel Araguz

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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.

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meditation: william stafford

This time last year found me writing about meditation in a blog post for the Cincinnati Review, about its place in both the writing and personal life. It’s one of those concepts and practices that gets lost under human error and flash, much like good poems often get lost in the error and flash of revision. Yet meditation’s troubled calm is worth reckoning with for whatever glimpse of clarity it might bring to your life; in this way, too, meditation is linked to the reading and writing of poetry.

oregon-51014_960_720One poet who I feel lived and reckoned with this troubled calm is William Stafford. In “Meditation,” Stafford adds his own take on the concept. This short lyric reveals and hides itself like a coin flipped in the air. Both an admission of defeat and of hope, it dwells right where one waits for things like memory, poems, and clarity.

Meditation – William Stafford

If I could remember all at once — but I have forgotten.
But some day, looking along a furrowed cliff, staring
Beyond the eyes’ strength, I’ll start the avalanche,
And every stone will fall separate and revealed.

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Read more about William Stafford here.

new work & book review!

Just a quick post to share that the first chapter of my hybrid memoir, A Personal History of Want, was published this past November in The Acentos Review.

Read the excerpt here.

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Also, wanted to share the release of my latest creative review for The Bind. For this one, I spent time with Khaty Xiong’s collection, Poor Anima (Apogee), 2015) and created a cento around the Rimbaud’s idea of the self/I.

Read the creative review here.

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See you Friday!

José

between seeing & feeling: Jenny Sadre-Orafai

MalakIn my recent microreview & interview of Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak (Platypus Press), I spoke about the collection’s theme of divination and how poetry itself becomes a similar source of insight and perception for the speaker in a number of poems. This week’s poem, “Queen of Cups” also from Malak, is a good example of this poetic perception.

The poem develops through juxtaposition, following a story about where Queen Elizabeth was when her father died with a story of where the speaker’s father was when his mother died. The speaker then details where she was during the latter, the death of her grandmother. The turns within this juxtaposition, the move from historical fact to personal memory, create an intimacy that pulls the reader in while simultaneously disorienting them in a fruitful way. The poem then pivots into its ending, using the created intimacy as an imaginative space.

So far, as readers we are brought into what is happening because of narrative, but we become invested in it because of what is evoked from the images that follow. From hallucination to the comparison to a movie, the speaker’s narrative becomes driven by an urgency to see further into the memory while not dictating or forcing any straightforward understanding. The stakes behind this urgency become apparent in the final lines of the poem as the speaker considers whether Elizabeth was “instructed not to cry.” The return to the image of Elizabeth watching elephants up close parallels that of the speaker trying to see further into the large animal that is grief; this last juxtaposition ends the poem with the emotional tension of being torn between seeing and feeling.

Queen of Cups – Jenny Sadre-Orafai

Queen Elizabeth was with Philip in Kenya
when her father died. She was watching

elephants from her hotel within the trees.
My father was with his three sisters when

his mother died. I was with my bed,
hallucinating a fox. After the fox left,

I called him, but he was taking a shower.
Like a movie, the protagonist crying

surrounded by water, lots of empty cups?
Was Elizabeth instructed not to cry?

It will shake this tree.
The elephants will trample this nest.

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Find out more about Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s work at her site.

Also, here’s more from Sadre-Orafai on this particular poem.

poetry feature: Laura M Kaminski

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

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One thing I admire about poetry is the space it creates where meditation can balance into consideration and reckoning. This week’s poem, “Bonding” by Laura M Kaminski, is a good example of what I mean.

The first stanza not only sets the scene, but also presents the range of meditation. The act of walking a new dog is meditated upon via the consideration of particulars. From the moment the speaker picks up the leash, she feels fear as “a grasshopper leaping / eating everything i’ve planted.” Making a grasshopper stand as a metaphor for fear in this direct manner allows for a surrealistic immediacy; the juxtaposition is “leaped” into suddenly, which evokes not only the image but the sensation of both image and concept.

The poem continues to create tension through taut, clipped lines. Through its narrative turns, this meditation on fear reckons with the possible risks involved in walking a dog for the speaker’s physical well-being. As the poem develops, its engagement with the epigraph becomes apparent. By the quote’s logic, in order “to understand” and “to experience” love and friendship, one must be active. Every move of consideration and reckoning in the poem is an active one. Each stanza that unfolds, then, stands as another refusal of “allowing the heart to shrink.”

Bonding – Laura M Kaminski

The only way to understand love is to love. The only way
to experience friendship is to be a friend. If this creates pain,
that’s better than allowing the heart to shrink.
            – Neil Douglas-Klotz, THE SUFI BOOK OF LIFE

i pick up the leash
fear is a grasshopper leaping
eating everything i’ve planted
the new dog is large
but only seven months old

i ask him to sit
my fear of fear is a locust
larger than my first fear
and voracious
i take the risk

i snap the leash onto his
collar and reach for the door
i am determined to find
a way to stay on my feet
even if he pulls or lunges

without blaming him if we
have an accident and without
self-recrimination or second-
guessing if i fall
and twist my spine

fear: a fall could paralyze
locust: not taking that chance
is another form of paralysis
i have nothing to bring
to this but poetry

fear: no one will understand
these words i’ve put to paper
the thought is only seven
minutes old and still unruly
i take the risk

to fail would leave me
trapped inside my body
unable to communicate
get out of myself in any way
locust: open the door

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Laura M Kaminski grew up in Nigeria, went to school in New Orleans, and currently lives in rural Missouri. Her most recent collection, The Heretic’s Hymnal: 99 New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Babylon Books / Balkan Press in 2018. More about her poetry is available at http://arkofidentity.wordpress.com/

new work & book news!

Just a quick post to share two things:

ONE: I am honored to be the January featured poet over at A Dozen Nothing. I’m especially excited to have these particular poems out in the world as they deal with some of the personal and political aftermath of last year’s election.

Thank you to editors Jeff & Pete for allowing the space for this work!

Check out the new work here.until 3_300

TWO: I want to officially announce the forthcoming release of Until We Are Level Again, my third full length poetry collection, to be published by Mongrel Empire Press later this Spring.

Thank you to editor Jeanetta Calhoun Mish for giving a home to this manuscript!

I’ll be sharing more news closer to publication. For now, here’s a peek at the cover art, a digital art piece by Ani Schreiber.

Happy new year to all of you!

See you Friday!

José

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.