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.

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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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IMG_0794 (2)*

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

fiction feature & interview: Maria Alejandra Barrios

For this fiction feature and interview, I am happy to present a story by Maria Alejandra Barrios. This story is followed by an interview with the author on the piece as well as on her work in general.

In “A Girl Cooks,” Barrios presents a narrative that interrogates traditional roles within families, specifically between daughters and fathers. The narrative develops around the act of cooking and braids memory with present circumstances, a move that creates tension within a personal, intimate framework. Another engine at work in the story is the role of naming. Each time a food is named, the narrator gives presence to memory and to herself.  It is this latter empowerment that is the thematic arc of the story. The reader follows the narrator’s inner realizations to its powerfully nuanced conclusion.

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A Girl Cooks
by Maria Alejandra Barrios

I knew that I wanted to cook something simple and not necessarily typical of Colombian cuisine for the occasion: maybe some pasta pomodoro or maybe some beef with asparagus. As soon as I heard my dad was being released from prison, I bought the first ticket to Colombia I found, and I rented an apartment so we could spend some time together. We communicated all these years through long distance calls. When I told him I had moved to the United States, he went silent for what seemed like a long time. And I ran out of credit, so the call ended. I feared I would spend all my money on silent calls, so we never spoke about it again.

The night before being released from prison, my dad told me that he didn’t want me to pick him up. He would take a taxi from prison to the apartment. I didn’t say anything because I knew it might be a thing of pride or an attempt to protect me. Instead, I thought about how in American movies people always change in prison, I wondered if he had changed much, he had never been the protective kind.

I thought about what to cook. When we still lived with my dad, my mom always cooked Colombian dishes like arroz con coco and patacones with some fried fish or a frijolada con tocino. He didn’t like anything at all: he said that everything was too salty or not salty enough, that the rice was sticky, or the patacones were greasy. My dad would even get mad at me when I finished all the food or had something good to say about el arroz con pollo.

So no Colombian food, I thought. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t have anyone to call on the phone like I used to call my mom when I was making buñuelos: “Mija, the important thing is that you find good cheese.” In bodegas, I found fresh Mexican cheese that was similar to Colombian cheese but never the same. The buñuelos would always taste like a modest version of home, and I would eat them while talking on the phone to her. I would lie and say that I found the right kind of cheese and that they tasted exactly like the ones at the pueblo. Through the phone, I could hear her smiling.

My dad said he would arrive at 2 pm. I served two plates of pasta pomodoro and some cheese on the side. I put a bottle of wine between the two plates and some red flowers in a vase. I took one last long look at the table before opening the door.

“Papi,” I said.

He hugged me. His hug was tight and desperate like he was thinking about hugging me the whole time he spent in the taxi.

We sat down at the table. “We should eat now while it’s still hot.” I was nervous, exactly how I would imagine my mom had been before every meal we shared with him. I wanted every bite to be perfect.

He started gulping the food. At some point, he placed the plate closer to his mouth so that he could eat faster. My dad finished his meal before me and poured himself a generous glass of wine. He didn’t offer me any, so I poured myself a more modest glass.

“I wish Marta was here,” My dad said after taking the first sip. The last time my dad saw my mom, ten years ago, he threatened to slap her. I took a sip of wine too, and I thought that maybe my dad had forgotten about everything that had happened before he went to jail. I wondered if I had forgotten too.

As I was looking from across the table at my dad, I thought about how my mom always used to make tamales for my dad on his birthday. Before making them, she would always look for all the coins in the house: she would look behind sofas and underneath pillows so that she could buy the biggest piece of meat she could afford at the tienda. After that, she would kill a chicken in the backyard. The smell of the herbs and the spices marinating the meats was so intense that Marina, the neighbor, always knew what she was cooking. Marina would beg for the recipe, but my mother would shake her head and say: “That’s a gift for mi hija. When I die, she’s the only one who’s getting the recipe.” When sitting at the table, she would look at my dad’s face first, waiting for a word of approval or an expression of pleasure. When it didn’t come, she would look at me. When eating with my parents, I was always nervous about my dad’s reactions to mom’s cooking. But when eating tamales I could never hide my joy. I would eat them fast, with my face so close to the plate you would think I was about to kiss it.

It never occurred to me to cook dad tamales for lunch. Pasta was easy, and tamales took hours and left my hands smelling like onions for days. Maybe papá had changed, in his sleepy eyes I no longer saw the young man that had made mami suffer so much. Looking at him, I saw that something in him had switched off, I just didn’t know when.

Afraid that he would be sleeping with his eyes open just like abuelo used to, I looked at him and asked the question that had been burning on my throat since I learned he was being released from prison:

“Do you remember mami’s tamales?”

He stayed silent, and I decided it was time to stand up. As I was picking up the plates, I realized I would never make tamales for him. It was the only thing my mom had left in this world that was only for me.

this story originally appeared in Reservoir Journal

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CalderapicInfluence Question: How did you get started in writing?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: I started writing with some kind of discipline when I was 15 years old.  I read a book called “Opium in the Clouds,” by Rafael Chaparro Madiedo and it got me really into reading and most importantly, into writing. I started writing very romantic stories that I would describe now as magical realism. I started uploading them into MySpace (which was really popular at the time), and people started messaging me and commenting on my stories. It was the first time I felt part of a community and that I felt confident enough to put something I created out in the world. Maybe this was also because I didn’t think about it as much as I think about it. All I cared was about me having fun with it and connecting with others. Looking back I think these stories were a lot about heartbreak. Or what I thought heartbreak was.

Influence Question: How does this particular story fit into your larger body of work?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: In recent years, I started writing more about my hometown(Barranquilla) and my country. When I lived in Colombia, I wrote about the places I dreamt about living in. Now, with some distance, I think I am able to write more about the things that I love about my country but also the things that upset me and that I’m still trying to understand. Relationships between fathers and daughters and the role that fathers have in the society I grew up in is one of those things that I’m still trying to figure out. I think this short story was the first step into me exploring the subject and hopefully having a bigger perspective on it so I can hopefully write a longer story about it in the future.

Influence Question: What are you working on now?

Maria Alejandra Barrios: I’m working on finishing my first short story collection of interlinked immigration stories. I’m working on edits and working on the final story that I hope ties everything together. I also started writing my first novel, which has been a scary process because I consider myself more of a short story writer. However, I have always been attracted to the idea of writing about love, and I think this novel might be a way of exploring that while also keeping the voice-driven first-person narration that I love so much.

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Special thanks to Maria Alejandra Barrios for sharing her thoughts on this story and her work! To find out more about Barrios, check out her site.

Maria Alejandra Barrios is a writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. She has lived in Bogotá and Manchester where in 2016 she completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester. She was selected for the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Performing & Literary Arts for the city of New York in 2018. He stories have been published in Hobart Pulp, Reservoir Journal, Bandit Fiction, Cosmonauts Avenue, La Pluma y La tinta New Voices Anthology and The Out of Many Anthology by Cat in the Sun Press. Her poetry has been published in The Acentos Review and her fiction is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review and Lost Balloon.  Her work has been supported by organizations like Vermont Studio Center and Caldera Arts Center.

microreview & interview: Zoom by Susan Lewis

review by José Angel Araguz

susan lewis zoom

In a recent conversation about prose poetry, I found myself tasked with defining what makes a prose poem “poetry” exactly. I fell back on my usual starting point, some riffing on Charles Simic’s idea shared in an interview that “[what] makes them poems is that they are self- contained, and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.” What’s great about this quote is that it connects the reading act to the act of rereading, highlighting poetry’s ability to get things said in unique, memorable ways. I say “memorable” here, and feel the need to qualify it as not immediately memorable. That is to say, a phrasing’s distinction comes from the push-pull effect of being familiar enough to make sense, but unique enough to stand out and make us pause.

This movement between familiarity and distinction is one of the driving engines of Susan Lewis’ recent collection, Zoom (The Word Works, 2018). While the collection’s title brings to mind the film technique of zooming in, I find it also applies in terms of speed, in this case, the varying speeds of the reading act. This read on the title is invited, in a way, by the choice of having the individual titles in the collection be the first words of the poems. By having the poem begin with the title, the voice of the poem is engaged from the first words interacted. The opening poem, “Everyone Agreed,” executes this move in a self-revealing way:

Everyone Agreed

this was a thrilling catastrophe. There were the usual photo-ops & spell-checked swoons. Octopeds got the jump on the rest of us, but their webs were useless against the suck. Spare fur was exchanged for sexual favors until the water fermented and all hell broke loose. No one remembered to access their 20:20 hindsight until the razor light blinded us with its odor of inferiority. There was anger and danger beyond our wildest dreams, which stopped coming once the humdrum imploded, divesting us of our history & its discontents.

As I mentioned, having the title be the first words of a poem means the voice is there at the start of the reading act. This move creates an immediacy that propels the reader into the “thrilling catastrophe” of the poetic act. This momentum is then interrupted by Lewis’ choices in diction. The phrasing of “There were the usual photo-ops & spell-checked swoons,” for example, causes a reader to pause; the sentence is structured as a traditional sentence, but the meaning of “spell-checked swoons” causes one to pause and wonder. Yet, the decision to structure this phrase within a prose poem, which builds off the familiarity of the traditional sentence and paragraph, forces the pause to be brief. Were this poem broken into lines, the reader would be given the handhold of line break and stanza break which invite dwelling. Here, the poem marches on through the sense of a paragraph. One reads the rest of the poem propelled by this push-pull effect.

Depending on the reader, one could say that the poems of this collection are read at the mercy of this push-pull effect. Taking this perspective, however, would be to miss out on the rich difficulty available in this lane of poetry, a poetry whose linguistic ambition is to evoke through active sense-making and unmaking. The American tradition of richly difficult poetry runs from Gertrude Stein’s tender buttons to the contemporary lyrically ambitious work J. Michael Martinez. What Lewis adds to the conversation via Zoom is a sequence of poems whose fragmented sensibility become a ride where one catches glimmers of meaning tinged with gloom.

The poem “Dear Sir” continues this work of moving between familiar and distinct phrasing:

Dear Sir

or Madam, until you lose your head, mother its shred, wrapped in mystery & mead. No levity for this, your skid life. No mercy while you bilk your betters, sent flying to spy on your attempts to rise. Across the deep there are many with nary a hook to hang on. & ever & anon those lads with rainbow limbs snaking through the gloom. Another day another dolor. Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us. & you who wish upon a stare? Where would you turn & fleetly tumble? The Burning Dervish never knows whereof he’d speak, mute as he is, spinning in his vicious circle, boring his whole through our dank & dappled gaps.

Here, idioms are approached and transformed, refreshed in a way that moves away from the typical reproach one finds in poems. Rather than turn a phrase for some argument or rhetorical stance, the transformation is executed with blunt power. For example, “Another day another dolor” is set as its own sentence, able to color both the previous and following sentence, but also standing as its own moment of distinction. This decision to let the new phrasing stand alone allows the original aphorism “Another day another dollar” to ring like an echo in the reader’s mind. Before one can fully unpack that, however, the prose paragraph structure moves the poem on to “Not to mince woulds, but this sibilance is skilling us,” another set of turns that invite both pause and movement. What is being worked out in this kind of difficulty is a poetry that points elsewhere than itself. The poem’s ending image of a dervish in a trance is telling, evoking a desire for spirituality through activity.

From the sight rhyme of “anger and danger” and the reference to Freud in the phrase “our history & its discontents” (“Everyone Agreed”), to the riffing and subverting of idiomatic phrasing (“Dear Sir”), what these poems offer is an engaged reading act where meaning is only part of the purpose. If narrative poems keep poetry connected to traditions of storytelling, then richly difficult poems like these keep poetry connected to traditions of the lyric voice, that personal, intimate, and engaged perspective whose presence alone gives it purpose and power.

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Influence Question: What were the origins of this collection?

Susan Lewis: José, thank you so much for your interest in Zoom! The origins of this collection go back to my years-long interest in the prose poem, combined with another interest of mine, which happened to develop at the same time: in poetry as play – which is not, in my mind, inconsistent with addressing dark or serious concerns. One of the things I find interesting is how much play the prose poem allows! I’m drawn to the paradox of this form: poetry that is not lineated, that is, does not advertise itself as poetry. I love the tension this holds – the demand that the reader look beyond the obvious, and engage with what might make poetry be poetry. (A question I think is more important than any particular answer one might suggest). Writing prose poems has only deepened my love for the form: the concentrated punch of a discrete bloc of words floating in a white page; the implication that substantial things come in small packages; the impression these blocs give, of density and compression; the focused attention they ask of the reader.

However, I did not set out, ab initio, to write a book-length project, or suite. It was interesting: after writing some number of what I thought of as free-standing poems, their common concerns started to become apparent, and began guiding the development and features of the rest of the poems in the book. Some of these preoccupations are packed into the title, with its nod towards film technique, as well as velocity. Organized around the substantive and aesthetic potency of point of view, the poems in Zoom borrow from film technique to ‘zoom in’ from the objective/long shot/third person, to the medium shot/second person, to the subjective/close up/first person. All engage the ramifications of subjectivity via bricolage, parataxis, polysemy, and compression. I think of the collection as adding up to a kind of status report for our moment in this world, in which the frame narrows along with the point of view, from the global to the local to the individual. Especially concerned with the need for, and failure of, empathy and decency, as well as with how we perceive and communicate, these poems also amount to a progress report on the state of language itself. The consensus among these poems is that we’re zooming – if not to our doom, than to the brink, where we might still be able to stop ourselves from irreparably despoiling our psyches and our planet.

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Special thanks to Susan Lewis for participating! To learn more about Lewis’ work, check out her site. Copies of Zoom can be purchased from The Word Works.

 

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Susan Lewis (www.susanlewis.net) is the author of Zoom, winner of the Washington Prize, as well as nine other books and chapbooks, including Heisenberg’s Salon and This Visit. Her work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including They Said (Black Lawrence Press, 2018), Resist Much, Obey Little (Dispatches Editions, 2017), and Carrying the Branch (Glass Lyre Press, 2018), as well as in journals such as Agni, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Web Conjunctions, Diode, Interim, New American Writing, The New Orleans Review, Raritan, Seneca Review, Verse, VOLT, and Verse Daily. She is the founding editor of Posit (www.positjournal.com).