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.

writer feature: Olivia Dresher

Jumping back into things with the work of Olivia Dresher whose latest collection of fragments and aphorisms, A Silence of Wordscame out recently from Impassio Press.

I actually had the opportunity to get an early read of A Silence of Words and got to share my thoughts via the following blurb:

dresher“In A Silence of Words, Olivia Dresher continues to explore her fascination and deft facility with fragments and aphorisms. Taken from their first public home of Twitter, Dresher’s fragments find their way into a reader’s inner consciousness with the intimacy of poetry and the depth of philosophy, offering “Awe, not answers.” If, as she tells us elsewhere, “The mind likes being alone, the heart doesn’t,” this collection delivers at turns solitude and companionship. In the same way that the mind and heart live within one body, so do the nuance and complexity of these short works live within one’s reading experience, each one a gift of presence and existence.”

To get a sense of what I mean in these words, I have included two small excerpts below.

What I would add to readers new to Dresher’s work is how dually instructive and illuminating these aphorisms and fragments are. Able to carry a range of emotion, from perceptively distant to openly vulnerable, Dresher’s work evokes a person speaking to one’s self in a way that is also speaking to you, the reader. Together in this unique space, human realities are experienced in real time.

I first experienced the unique sensibility of Dresher’s work when I discovered the anthology she edited, In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing (Impassio Press). In this anthology, Dresher outlines a clear idea of the varied scope of fragmentary writing through representative works and authors. I continue to admire her work for how it has shaped me both on the page and in life.

excerpts from A Silence of Words by Olivia Dresher

533
Insects are arrogant

534
Tears go deeper than a smile.
Imagine if a photographer told you to “Cry!” instead of “Smile” before taking your photograph.

535
Tears are perfect

536
Tidal wave moments…

537
Everything to feel,
nothing to be done.

538
If I could love unhappiness,
I’d always be happy.

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587
Her mind, a kite her heart liked to fly.

588
What are you reading,
the young man on the bus asked me.
Aphorisms, I said.
What do you do for fun, he asked.
Write aphorisms, I said.

589
Longing to feel his longing…

590
As an infant, what did I love?
I loved music and the sky, even then.

591
Stop spilling your silence all over me,
she said silently.

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Copies of  A Silence of Words can be purchased here.

To keep up with Olivia Dresher’s work, follow her on Twitter: @OliviaDresher

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.

poetry feature: Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal

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 two poems by Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal. The first “Escribeme / Write Me” (below) is presented in both Spanish then English. Work presented bilingually always interests me as I take note of the word choice across translations.

Here, the word “coloreame” stood out first in Spanish as it is a variation of the verb “colorear.” In the Spanish alone, there is an emphasized intimacy in moving between “colorear” and “coloreame.” The difference in sense between the words translates essentially as “colorear / to color” versus “coloreame / color me.” The directness of this change is in keeping with the theme of the poem as it is a speaker asking to be written.

Gabriel Amu Amu waves
waves – Gabriel-Amu Amu

This move in Spanish from the distant vibe of “to color” to the more direct “color me” is evoked in English by Berriozábal’s choice of rendering “Coloreame” as “Animate me.” Reading across languages, I feel both a surprise and familiarity in seeing this translation. Surprise, because of the variation in word choice; familiarity because of how apt the word choice is in carrying over the poetic sensibility of the Spanish version. “Animate” carries with it its own intimacy, similar to the move from “colorear” to “coloreame,” as it is a word that evokes a specific urgency, one that is life or death. The speaker, in fact, feels as if they’re dying; to be (re)animated is the desire.

In “Book Without Feelings” (also below), this meditation on life and death continues from another angle. Here, the reader is presented with the scenario of a book able to read a human person. This relationship of the inanimate book reading the animated human self is intriguing in how it subverts our sense of meaning-making. Rather than reading a book for meaning, a book reads the speaker and undergoes a meditation of something beyond animation. The narrative that develops around the “story” of the speaker’s death, in a way, enacts the meaning-making act and finds that meaning is in short supply within a mortal context.

The casual quirkiness of this scenario allows us as readers to be surprised by how the speaker’s meditation hits in a severe way at the end. While the logic of a book not having feelings makes immediate sense, the comparison of this unfeeling state against that of a corpse drives home what is lost in death. That the book is left behind able to be used for meaning-making, but only by an animated self whose ability to make meaning is temporarily and mortally limited — this is where this poem took me. The surprising nature of this ruminative reading experience is a gift, one in keeping with the heart of lyric poetry.

Escribeme – Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal

Escribeme
Yo también quiero ser poema
Deletreame
Con la tinta de una estrella
Coloreame
Con tu fino pincel
Encantame
Porque me muero de tristeza

Write Me

Write me
I, too, want to be a poem
Spell me out
With the ink of a star
Animate me
With small brush strokes
Bring me joy
Because I’m dying of sadness

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Book Without Feelings – Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal

The book reads me.
It reads me as if I’m dead.
I’m the hero
who has run out of breath.
It is a load
of baloney. The book
reads about the dead man.

The battle was lost
and a corpse was created.

This was no poetry book.
It was not an autobiography.
The heart gave out.
The book read about
the insects at my grave
soaking in the sun above
and the gaseous fumes below.

The book closed the book.
It did not feel sadness.
It was just a book,
a book without feelings.
At least it was not a corpse.

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Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, born in Mexico, lives in Southern California, and works in the mental health field in Los Angeles. His first book of poems, Raw Materials, was published by Pygmy Forest Press. His other poetry books, broadsides, and chapbooks, have been published by Alternating Current Press, Deadbeat Press, Kendra Steiner Editions, New American Imagist, New Polish Beat, Poet’s Democracy, and Ten Pages Press (e-book).

To read more of Luis’ work, go here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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

 

poetry feature: Clara Burghelea

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 two poems by Clara Burghelea. I was taken right away by Burghelea’s work and how it develops lyric momentum through complex imagery. In “Nostalgia,” for example, the idea of being “sick” for a body “before it was a body” immediately kicks off from the title into a meditation how bodies develop both a physical and emotional history. The body that once was, as described in the first stanza, “a prettiness slender / like a smack of wind,” is later in the second stanza the body that has known “heart as a dark vessel” and has grown “thick with other people’s thoughts.” The logic of these lines is visceral; youth is evoked as the body being more feeling than physicality, until, with time, the body grows darker and more weighted. This movement from fleeting to stillness by the second stanza returns us to the title. Nostalgia is often thought of as a light thing, an activity of kitsch and cliche. Here, however, Burghelea presents the concept of nostalgia in a way that shows how much longing and reason for longing lie behind it.

body sketch
“Sketches 8” by Diana Schulz

In “The Self as Introduction,” too, the body implies movement. The poem begins with the following image: “No wound loathes its scar, / yet craves the radiant absence.” Through this phrasing, the reader is invited to hold two conflicting ideas at once, that of loathing and craving, in a way that implies an erasure of self. Yet, because this loathing and craving is proposed as being enacted by a wound, the erasure seems less dire, merely conceptual. There is space enough here to see the implied message that radiance may involve pain. This implication builds momentum as the poem develops and it becomes clear that the speaker is speaking about what is at stake in human relationships. The line “What fell from your lips / came to nest into my mouth,” for example, presents an image whose logic builds tension. Even in the distance between bodies, there is a momentum at work, the momentum of interpretation and of thought within silence. The poem ends with a frustration of sense (similar to the longing of “Nostalgia”) in its final lines: “The gap on the page, / a muttering under a kiss.” What Burghelea gives us in these poems, ultimately, is a sensibility able to clearly evoke how much and how little of the body we’re able to hold onto.

Nostalgia – Clara Burghelea

I’m sick for my body
before it was a body,
bereft of aching and desires,
unaware of the shortcomings,
a prettiness slender
like a smack of wind,
a breathing silk of youth crowning it,
ready to deliver itself to the world,
without knowing it would be hard
to hold back its lush of innocence.

The body that hadn’t known
heart as a dark vessel,
no push of wind to sail its burden.
That body that had yet to grow
thick with other people’s thoughts,
its taps in disarray,
not a weight erased
but a weight made bearable.
This body I mourn the most.

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The Self as Introduction – Clara Burghelea

No wound loathes its scar,
yet craves the radiant absence.

God’s laughter punctures
the arch of the sky

every new dawn,
eyes bandaged with light.

What fell from your lips
came to nest into my mouth

the thieving of the heart,
an unpremeditated entry.

The gap on the page,
a muttering under a kiss.

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Clara Burghelea HeadshotClara Burghelea is a Romanian-born poet. Recipient of the 2018 Robert Muroff Poetry Award, she got her MFA in Creative Writing from Adelphi University. Her poems, fiction and translations have been published in Full of Crow Press, Ambit Magazine, HeadStuff, Waxwing and elsewhere. Her collectionThe Flavor of The Other is scheduled for publication in 2019 with Dos Madres Press.

follow Clara on Twitter and Facebook

what I would have said at the OBA ceremony

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1As preparation for the Oregon Book Awards ceremony, finalists are asked to prepare a few words, under two minutes, to say just in case. I gave my words a lot of thought and, though I did not win, I feel like sharing these words with you here below.

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OBA (non)acceptance speech

I first moved to Oregon in 2007. I had just battled through an MFA program and gone into one of the darkest times in my writing life. I didn’t come close to quitting, no. I came close to not sharing again, and not knowing how to share. In Eugene, where I found myself in this stew of writerly feels, I slowly reclaimed my writing life. Got into my habits of revision, into trusting my own voice and choices. I met some great writers who have become dear friends. I also got married and divorced in Eugene, but that’s another story. Read the books, ha. When I was in Ohio later, completing a PhD, I drew upon those rain soaked lessons to see me through the ups and downs of academia. Oregon, you taught me how to fight for my writing. I’ve been back here two years, and in that time I’ve seen libraries close in parts of the state. I’ve worked with public school teachers who speak of creative writing not being a priority in the curriculum. I’ve felt the pangs of grief as small colleges struggle and close. What I have to say tonight is: Oregon, fight for your writers. From a poet whose family comes from Matamoros, Mexico, and whose poems are about surviving the projects of Corpus Christi, Texas, receive my gratitude but also my respectful wish. That the writing spirit that kept me going when i needed it, keep you going, too. I want to thank everyone who has fought for me, everyone who has read my work and reached out, either via email or at a reading. Writers, we carry each other. I also want to thank everyone who fights for their poems everyday. Poetry makes it so that the fight feels nothing like a fight, but like the gift we didn’t know we could be a part of. Muchisimas gracias. No contaban con mi astucia.

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Más soon!

José