Building a Literary Tulsa

by Helen Patterson

Tulsa has always loved culture and books, but as technology enables writers to travel and tour regularly, Midwest cities like Tulsa find new possibilities to actually engage with the writers they love. In the past five years, many writers have visited Tulsa, including Chuck Palahniuk, Colm Toibin, David Sedaris, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King, and Meg Cabot. We also have been graced by less well-known authors, promising new authors, and literary and academic authors writing for niche audiences.

Tempting authors to visit a city is a beginning, not the end: I’ve found myself wondering how a city such as Tulsa becomes a literary city. Not just a place where authors show up and people collect their signed books like collector’s cards, but a place that actively encourages the discussion and exchange of ideas, a place that nurtures and supports writers.

The existence of writing and writers is precarious—cities need a collection of citizens and organizations dedicated to promoting and nurturing the arts. Fortunately for Tulsa, we have many local organizations, including but not limited to the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, Nimrod International Journal, the Tulsa Literary Coalition, and the Tulsa City-County Library.

Traditionally, universities are bastions of learning, but they can be insular and indifferent to the welfare of the cities that host them. The existence of organizations reaching out to the public, supported by the university, help bridge this gap. My alma mater, The University of Tulsa, has Nimrod International Journal and the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities. Founded in 2014, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities draws interdisciplinary discussion by recruiting fellows from varied disciplines and backgrounds to research and explore a particular theme (food is the theme for 2016-2017). Since its inception, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities has held lectures, book discussions, and other events open to the public, as well as the annual Arts and Humanities Festival with faculty and student participants.

Nimrod recruits writers from around the country and the world, highlighting their work and inviting the public to interact with and learn from other writers and readers during its annual Conference. In both cases, young students at TU and from other universities and even high schools make up a large portion of the audience. By building bridges between the community and the university and appealing to the young, Nimrod helps to promote a literary Tulsa by transmitting a love of literature and learning to the rising generation.

As of 2015, Tulsa also hosts the not-for-profit Tulsa Literary Coalition, dedicated to bringing writers into the city, promoting local writers and others through interdisciplinary discussion, and sparking a passion for words in the young and the old. Through Booksmart Tulsa, the coalition invites authors to come to Tulsa, discuss their works and their writing processes, and speak to locals. The Tulsa Literary Coalition is also planning on opening Magic City Books, an independent bookstore which will support the coalition, this year in the Brady Arts District. By exposing ourselves to visiting authors, and visiting authors to us, Tulsa weaves its way into the national literary conversation and encourages its citizens to write, read, and love literature.

If you live in Tulsa county and haven’t visited your local library recently, perhaps the news that Tulsa City-County Library is a finalist for the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service will encourage you to visit. As an employee of TCCL I am biased, but Tulsa is incredibly fortunate to have such a robust and energetic public resource for both adults and children. A few weeks ago, I attended TCCL’s presentation of the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Reader’s Literature to Laurie Halse Anderson (pictured below, left), who is best known for her challenging YA novels. As part of the evening, Anderson presented the awards for Tulsa’s annual Young People’s Creative Writing Contest. Seeing these young writers’ excitement over the formal presentation of the awards and meeting a famous author made it clear Tulsa fosters a love of writing at a young age.

Helen Patterson Laurie Halse Anderson

I’m not a native Tulsan or Okie, but in the seven years I’ve been here I’ve seen the arts scene in Tulsa expand and thrive as Tulsa makes a conscious effort on many fronts to be a literary city. I plan on being a writer in a city that cares about writing—and wants future generations to care, too.  If you live in Tulsa, explore this city and all that it offers. If you don’t, consider applying for the Tulsa Arts Fellowship, designed both to support locals and to appeal to national talent. If that doesn’t tempt you, come for Antoinette’s coconut cream pie: David Sedaris said it was one of the best desserts he had ever eaten.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

In Praise of the Particular: The Poetry of Millen Brand

 

by John Coward

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I can’t explain why, but my literary taste runs toward the particular, the actual, the concrete. To put it another way, I prefer reading about things that are—or appear to be—real. That would explain my continuing interest in the American poet Millen Brand (1906-1980). Brand is probably best known for a novel called The Outward Room (1937), a Depression-era story of a young woman escaping an insane asylum and struggling to regain her sanity. Brand’s poetry, by contrast, is understated and much less dramatic. In Local Lives (1975), Brand highlights the small but crucial elements that make up the lives of ordinary people in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. This is a poetry book that opens with a map of villages with names such as Seisholtzville, Green Lane, Long Swamp, and Huff Church. That’s part of the “real” that attracts me to Local Lives.

Born in New Jersey, Brand was of Pennsylvania German descent through his mother. Brand studied at Columbia University and later worked as a psychiatric aide, an experience that informed the plot of The Outward Room. In 1940, after many years in New York, Brand moved to Crow Hill, overlooking Bally, Pennsylvania, where his writing life changed. He began to appreciate the lives of his neighbors, who were old German families of Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, Quaker, and Catholic persuasion. “I had a house, barn, and some acres of land,” Brand wrote, “and for the first time in many years I had a sense of community.” These people and this particular American place inspired the poems in Local Lives. Brand’s motives, as he explained, were as simple as they were noble: “I was impelled by a sense of valuable lives going unrecorded.”

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I should note here that Brand’s poems are not traditional verse—no rhymes here, no rhythm or meter. For Brand, poetry was an open form. Thus Local Lives included, as Brand himself noted, “skills, trades, anecdotes, ledger entries, letters, even two recipes.” In fact, the first poem in Local Lives is “Bread,” which opens with these lines: “Heat fat. Pour it into the flour. / Some salt for sweat and for the sea. / Some sugar for the little ones’ tongues.” In short, Brand’s poems are flat, more prose than traditional poetry. But what the poems lack in lyricism, they make up in plainspoken clarity. Brand’s poems are unadorned, bits of speech and story recorded and set down in short, irregular lines.

This sort of poetry can be dull, but in Brand’s deliberate hands, these poems capture something small but essential about these good people. Consider this poem, published in its entirety:

A Little Thing

(Squire Benfield talking)

‘The Devil’s Hole?’ That’s a stretch of road
from Huff’s Church down toward Clayton.
In the days when that was a dirt road,
a farmer once drove with mules,
and his wagon got stuck in the mud.
The mules could hardly lift their legs.
‘This is a devil of a hole,’ he said.
Since then it’s called The Devil’s Hole.
That shows, doesn’t it,
how long a little thing can be remembered?

This poem, told as a bit of stray conversation, recalls a seemingly insignificant incident. Such moments, I posit, make up the substance of the daily life we all experience but rarely stop to consider. In Local Lives, Brand succeeds by preserving common stories from real people—ordinary but actually amazing people—whose place and time and simple humanity are worth remembering and contemplating today. Find an old copy of Local Lives and see for yourself.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author of, most recently, Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

All They Will Call You

by Diane Burton

“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t need a name when you ride the big airplane
And all they will call you will be ‘deportee.’”

On April 24, 2017, Tim Z. Hernandez spoke to a full house at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center about his book, All They Will Call You:  The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon (U Arizona P, 2017). I was lucky enough to attend the event and want to let Nimrod followers know about it and about Hernandez’s powerful project: restoring the names and stories of the Mexican guest workers who died in the crash, and building a memorial to them that includes their names and their story.

W.H. Auden famously said, “Poetry makes nothing happen.”  While he said this in retreat from his own politically engaged writing, it’s often taken as a warning that poetry should not aim to make things happen—a caution against shortsighted topicality and future unforeseen consequences.  But Hernandez’s efforts, inspired by a poem by Woody Guthrie, make me wonder if Auden was mistaken; maybe poetry can make some things happen, if not in action in the world, in action in our memories and consciousness.

The Plane Crash
The book is based on a plane crash at Los Gatos Canyon, California, January 28, 1948, that killed all 32 people aboard the aircraft, including the crew (pilot, copilot, stewardess), a guard, and at least 28 Mexican guest workers, 27 men and one woman.  The plane’s left engine caught fire, the left wing fell off, and the plane blew up, leaving no survivors and scattering the remains of the dead across the canyon.

Press coverage named the crew and the guard but not the Mexican workers, which outraged Woody Guthrie, who read about it in New York and wrote a poem, “Plane Crash at Los Gatos (Deportee).”  Years later, in 1957, after Guthrie’s death, the poem was set to music by Martin Hoffman, a Colorado college student, in the form of a valsera ranchera, a song of loss or lamentation, in 3/4 time, a form popular in Mexico.  Hoffman played it for Pete Seeger after a concert by the folksinger and friend of Guthrie in Colorado; Seeger was impressed and later recorded it and played it at concerts.  The poem and its haunting melody appealed immediately to audiences and other musicians, who continued to play it and play it still. It has become one of the most beloved of Guthrie’s songs.

Photo of Woody GuthriePhoto by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?”
In 2010, poet and novelist Hernandez set out to recover the names and the stories of the people who died in the crash.  Two days after the wreck, the Fresno paper published a partial and inaccurate list of names; the hall of records in Fresno had another list with more names, still inaccurate; El Faro, a Spanish language newspaper in Fresno, published a full list, with names, hometowns, and the names of surviving family members, but the newspaper was not available in archives.  While the Anglos’ remains were returned to their families for burial, the guest workers were buried in a mass unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery, Fresno.  Their families were not notified.  The workers’ “names were as dismembered as the bodies they belonged to,” Hernandez writes.

He set out to restore their identities and commemorate their lives, eventually raising the funds for a memorial stone, which was dedicated on Labor Day, 2013, in a ceremony attended by more than 800 people.  The stone measures 8’ x 4’ and records the story of the plane crash, in Spanish and in English, followed by the full names of all those on board, surrounded by engravings of 32 dry leaves.

With the task complicated by the careless American recordkeeping of Mexican workers (giving a new twist to the term “undocumented workers”), Hernandez went to Mexico, looking for the workers’ families.  He found survivors of four of them.  Their stories form the heart of the book.

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All They Will Call You
Hernandez’s book is a gathering of stories, some the testimony of witnesses to the crash and its aftermath, some the memories of the workers’ loved ones, some the story of the poem and song that inspired the search, some relating the search itself, and one a chilling reimagining of the crash itself.  Not all the stories agree exactly and Hernandez expressly declines to pronounce on an official version, a final truth, stating in his crucial author’s note that the book’s “loyalty is not to people of fact but rather to people of memory.”

In his presentation at the Guthrie Center, Hernandez retraced the process of finding the stories through finding the people who told them; he calls the people he interviewed “story keepers.” His talk included multiple media—readings from the book, photographs, videos, and audio recordings of the people involved—all fascinating, but most impressive of all was Hernandez himself.  Eager to follow the story wherever it might lead, he is devoted to honoring the memories of people whose fates had been dismissed.  It was easy to imagine people opening up to him, sharing their comic stories and their painful loss.   Warm, friendly, engaged, animated, his delivery emphasized the people who died in the crash and the people who remembered them, bringing the former to life figuratively and the latter literally: he had brought with him members of the Ramirez family, descendants of Ramon Paredes Gonzalez and Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, who had helped Hernandez with research for the book, providing the definitive list of the dead from an ancient copy of El Faro.  They were joined as well by relatives of the family who now live in Tulsa, all meeting at the Woody Guthrie Center, a neat confluence that further illustrated Hernandez’s emphasis on the personal relations that lie at the base of individual stories and human history.

Personal/Political/Personal
And this is the remarkable thing about Hernandez’s accomplishment, in his book, in his presentation, in his work on the memorial:  He never allows us to lose sight of his people’s individual lives, despite the temptation to read their stories in relation to the current political conditions.  As incensed as he is by the way the people’s names are lost as they are reduced to the label “deportee,” he resists reducing them further through a facile parallel between the immigration problems of 1948 and those of today.

Hernandez is careful to explain the braceros program—an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments (1942-1964) for importing agricultural workers (and later other workers) from Mexico to replace American workers who were in the Armed Forces during WWII, an agreement that benefited American employers and contractors as well as the cash-poor farmers of western and central Mexico, who came to the United States for seasonal work, sent money home, returned to Mexico, then came back to work in the U.S. to earn money again. Among the migrant workers were contadas (contract workers) and contrabandas (workers who came without contracts); the deportations rounded up workers whose contracts had expired or who had no contracts; some of the workers on the plane had come on contract, others not, some had been on contract in the past but not on this trip.

For years, the braceros program provided minimal safeguards for wages and living conditions among migrant workers.  When the program ended, so did any attempt at labor regulation for farm workers, and employers accustomed to a cheap government-sanctioned labor force resisted paying higher wages, spurring farm workers to organize.

The political situation today is related, of course, but also very different.  In both his book and his presentation, Hernandez refuses to oversimplify the relationship between conditions now and those in 1948.  What his telling insists upon, instead, is the dehumanization that results from regarding people as aliens—from denying them the courtesy and respect all of us owe to each of us.  In Hernandez’s powerful work, the personal becomes political only and always as the political remains personal.

Diane Burton is an associate editor of Nimrod.  She retired from teaching at The University of Tulsa two years ago.

Judge Spotlight: Laura van den Berg

by Cassidy McCants

We’re happy to announce that this year’s judge for the Nimrod Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction is Laura van den Berg, whose first novel, Find Me, was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR and was longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize. Laura will join us in October for our Conference for Readers and Writers, along with poetry judge Jericho Brown, literary agent Mark Gottlieb, mystery writer Deborah Crombie, and memoirist Sasha Martin—and we’ll announce more guests soon.

To celebrate, I’ve just read and reread van den Berg’s There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights, a slim collection of stories published by Origami Zoo Press in 2012. I chose this book because I’m fascinated by the flash fiction form (a flash piece is a story told in no more than 2,000 words, according to The Review Review), but I think this collection would appeal to anyone who seeks out character-based stories. In just thirty-six pages, van den Berg brings us into nine different worlds, each distinctly its own and all inhabited by characters contemplating the meaning of family and struggling to connect with their loved ones—or to cope with the “plaguing dissatisfaction” brought on by the loss of those they’ve loved (“Something Thrilling and Heroic and Strange”).

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In the title story, the manager of a horse stable is unsettled upon discovering someone has been coming into the barn at night. When she tells a police officer she plans to sit in the office and wait for the intruder, he tells her she needs to act responsibly because she’s a mother. Van den Berg’s close third-person narrator follows this interaction with a simple and telling truth: “The thing she hated the most about living in a small town was everyone knowing what you are.” Not who but what. The woman, whose name is not mentioned in the story, obsesses over the safety of her child, but a mother isn’t who she is. This unnerves her the way the intruder does—to calm herself she goes outside every night and beats snow off the rhododendrons in her yard, never really sure if it does “more harm than good,” a worry we come to guess is one of her most persistent preoccupations.

In “Photography,” after her husband’s death, a woman named Lenore gets into the habit of watching her neighbors take photos in their living room. With their windows open, as though they haven’t considered the possibility of someone watching, the husband acts as photographer while the wife poses as a model. Lenore loves watching because she’s always had difficulty making things beautiful: “her paintings never came out right; the petals were always smudged, the water too dark,” writes van den Berg. Lenore comes to learn that the husband intentionally makes the photos look ugly by “turn[ing] his wife’s body into an alien landscape,” and the piece becomes a quiet meditation on the impermanence of all kinds of beauty.

The element of voyeurism struck me in “Photography,” especially as I moved on to the following stories, when I realized I felt somewhat voyeuristic while reading the pieces. The characters in this collection are so expertly developed, so clearly understood by van den Berg—the glimpses into their lives are intimate and strange, and to dive into these stories feels almost like peeking in on the personal lives of my own neighbors. But what saves me from feeling like an ogler is that the people here are undoubtedly van den Berg’s creation. I love that she knows these characters well enough to make me question my boundaries as a reader.

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Van den Berg deals with fine lines like this in each of the stories: in “The Golden Dragon Express,” a wife enjoys a moral upper hand over her cheating husband until she disparages him too much during a game of Monopoly, causing a turning of the tables; in “There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights,” the mother is concerned with how subtle the differences can be between harm and good, between safety and danger, between humans and animals; and in “Photography,” both beauty—however it may be defined—and life last until suddenly they don’t. And with these short pieces van den Berg herself establishes the line between tenderness and sentimentality.

There’s so much more to say about the collection, despite its small size. I can’t wait to bug Laura in October, to pick her brain, to learn more about how to say all that needs to be said within the confines of short-short stories like these.

Author photo by Paul Yoon (American Short Fiction)

Cassidy McCants, an Associate Editor of Nimrod, is an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

Talking with Author Kelly Magee

by Susan Mase

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Kelly Magee’s story “Nobody Understands You Like You” was published in Nimrod’s Spring/Summer 2016 issue, Mirrors & Prisms. She is the author of Body Language (2006), With Animal (2015), co-written with Carol Guess, and, most recently, the story collections The Neighborhood (2016) and A Guide to Strange Places (2017). Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, in print and online, and she teaches writing and literature at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Susan Mase: During the past four months alone, you have published two short story collections, a story in Granta, and an online essay, among other things. How does this much great writing get completed and published in such a short time? How do you work on several projects at once?

Kelly Magee: First of all, thanks for the compliment! Some of these things are connected, like the story that appeared in Granta was from one of those collections you mentioned. And really, the timing of all of this was mostly luck. I’ve been working on the story collections off and on for many years, and they just happened to be released for publication close to each other. But I do usually have several projects going at once. It makes me happy to have lots of things in progress because then I always have something to pick up again. Like many people’s, my writing time is really limited, and it helps me to be able to pick up a piece and work on it a little at a time, then switch to another piece when I’m in a different mood. I tend to make fairly steady progression on several things at a time, which means I’ll have nothing finished for long stretches of time and then several finished pieces all at once. I used to try to be more methodical about it, but over the years I’ve learned to honor my process and not try to fight it.

SM: You describe The Neighborhood as “a collection of fairy tales and retellings.” The stories in A Guide to Strange Places give point of view and voice to eight different American cities. What inspired these diverse themes and structures? Did the stories in each develop from an initial plan to create a thematic set?

KM: A Guide to Strange Places began as an experiment in point of view. I’ve long felt emotionally connected to various places I’ve lived, to the point where they seem like members of my family. I was thinking of that workshop advice to “activate your setting,” to have location be more than something the characters walk around on, but I wanted to go a step farther to try to give places I loved their own point of view. The result is that I turned them into these kind of monstrous beings composed of part-landscape, part-voice. This did start as a thematic set, based on that premise.

The Neighborhood had a much more loosely constructed plan. I taught a class called “Recycled Writing” in which we read very old fairy tales from around the world. I’d been writing stories in the magical realist vein for a long time and am a fan of fabulist writers, but reading those old stories was thrilling in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I started incorporating small details from them into stories I was working on, which led to the tales playing a bigger and bigger role in my own work. So in The Neighborhood, you can see that variation—some of the stories have only nods to fairy tales or fabulism, and some are solidly in those categories; some have recognizable fairy tale characters in new roles, and some borrow the fairy tale form but not the content. The description of the book as “fairy tales” is the easiest but not entirely the most accurate. Part of what fascinated me about the fairy tales was their treatment and depiction of mothers, especially evil mothers. If I had to describe the book, I’d say it’s about what it is to be a nontraditional parent.

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SM: The story published by Nimrod, “Nobody Understands You Like You,” is skillfully crafted and a lively, provocative read. The central image of a wolf, or the idea of wolf, and the animal’s presence in the story, add multiple discursive layers. How did this idea guide the story’s development?

KM: Thank you, and I was so glad to have this story appear in Nimrod, especially as part of the Mirrors and Prisms issue. Wolves appear in several of the fairy tale retellings, and I was interested in both the metaphorical use of the wolf and the physical aspect of it. In other stories, the wolf is symbolic; in this story, I was interested in looking at the wolf purely as an animal. The wolf isn’t good or bad, intrinsically; it’s just itself. It’s the humans around it who invest it with meaning (in the story, the neighbors think the wolf is dangerous, evil, practically criminal). The trick of the story is that the narrators are unreliable, and there’s no real evidence that the wolf isn’t a dog, as Jamie insists. I had a lot of fun while writing the story, playing with that ambiguity. I’m also interested in unpacking the ways in which people create narratives that justify atrocities, the way these narrators created a story to excuse their violent act.

SM: The unreliable storytellers here are Greg and Linda, the married couple next door who speak in a collective “we”—except for the transformative moment in the story when they address each other. Many stories in The Neighborhood use plural points of view. And, again, you “experiment” with points of view in A Guide to Strange Places. How does the first-person plural operate in this story, and how has the use of plural points of view interested you and informed your recent work?

 KM: The plural point of view invigorated my writing for a while, and I think it initially came from attempting to write these fairy tales. After using the more common collective voice in a few stories, I began wanting to push against the boundaries and possibilities of the technique. This story uses the first-person plural, but it refers to two specific people, one of those married couples who are so close they’re nearly the same person. I like the plural as the voice of judgment, a chorus of people who have some authority to tell the story and are determined to tell it in a way that exonerates themselves from whatever trouble has occurred. So Greg and Linda, in this story, want to portray themselves as the victims, even though they committed the crime. They are safely ensconced in their house and marriage, watching as their neighbor (a single mom, a lesbian in an abusive relationship) falls apart. There came a point in the story, though, where I felt like they needed to lose the safety of their collective mindset—these are the moments when they separate, when they address each other, and even become dangerous to each other.

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SM: Our call for submissions for the Mirrors & Prisms issue asked for work from writers who identified as LGBTQIA rather than for works dealing with LGBTQIA content. You wrote about our call on your website, your interest in thinking more about “the different ways attention to inclusivity and diversity is playing out in the literary marketplace.” How did your response to our call develop or change as you continued to think on it?

KM: In addition to creative writing, I teach queer literature at my university, and so questions of what makes a piece of writing “queer” or not have been part of my scholarly work for a long time. I identify as a lesbian myself, and that informs much of my writing—my interest in “evil mothers” from fairy tales arose, in no small part, from my history becoming a lesbian mom during a time of intense cultural restrictiveness around sexuality. When I became a mom for the first time, for example, it was not legal for gay people to adopt children in my home state. This was when the national debate over marriage equality included widespread arguments about “family values” that violently erased even the possibility of my having a family outside a heteronormative system. So I think that, even when I’m not writing queer characters, my writing is always informed by queerness, by my own sexuality, but also by my experiences feeling like an outsider, like my very existence was up for national debate. For this reason, I was glad for Nimrod’s call, which specified the identity of the writer without regard to the content of the writing. I write, and love to read, stories about GLBTQ characters, of course. But I also believe that the perspective of being part of a marginalized community is likely to inform the writing of anyone from that community, even if they aren’t writing about it directly.

SM: “Maybe there is something to this wearing language like clothes. Suits of armored words. Pronoun gowns. Adjective earrings and verb sneakers. Things crossed out and revised. The crossword-puzzle-Scrabble-game of us all.” So ends your recent online essay, “So Your Employer Offered You A Pronoun” (hobartpulp.com), a funny, witty analysis of the conflicts surrounding identity categories. Does this essay speak to your current thoughts on these issues?

KM: Language around identity markers and categories seems to be in a period of rapid change at the moment, and I struggle with changing my own patterns and habits. At the time I wrote this, I was trying to figure out the best way to both ask for and honor the pronouns of a class of seventy students. I was skeptical of what seemed to me an overly simplified solution—to just wear buttons. At the same time, I always try to challenge my initial reactions, to play devil’s advocate, to see if I can argue the other side. So that’s kind of where this essay lands, more with a question than a solution. How are we going to connect across this faulty medium of language?

SM: Before we close, please tell us what you are working on now.

KM: I’m doing 30/30 for Poetry Month: writing one poem every day during April. Only I’m not a poet but I am a cheater, so I’m writing tiny stories centered on the idea of definitions. The titles are Jeopardy-style questions, and the “poems” are stories that attempt to define a word or concept in an unusual way.

SM: What are you reading? Or what is on the pile to be read?

 KM: I am always in the middle of reading many books (just like I enjoy being in the middle of many writing projects), and right now I’m reading Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays, Kazim Ali’s Fasting for Ramadan, and Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, Muhammad Ali.

SM: Assuming Nimrod is #1, what other literary journals do you read?

KM: Not surprisingly, probably, The Fairy Tale Review is a favorite, as are Booth, Third Coast, Ninth Letter, and Monkeybicycle, to name a few.

SM: Thank you for your time, your story, and your dedication to writing.

Follow Kelly Magee on kellyelizabethmagee.com or on Twitter: @kellymagee.

Susan Mase is the Fiction Editor for Nimrod. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Tulsa Literary Coalition, a new non-profit presenting Magic City Books, an independent bookstore coming to Tulsa in fall 2017.

Interview with Noah Stetzer, Nimrod Contributor

by Somayeh Shams

Nimrod was happy to publish the work of poet Noah Stetzer in Mirrors and Prisms: Writers of Marginalized Orientations and Gender Identities, our spring/summer 2015 thematic issue. One of our fiction editors, Somayeh Shams, interviewed Stetzer this spring about his new poetry collection, Because I Can See Needing a Knife (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016).

 

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Somayeh Shams: Noah, you have recently published a beautiful chapbook entitled Because I Can See Needing A Knife. In each poem you write about living with AIDS, its consequences on the body, and how it changes one’s relationship to the body. The book is also about love and family, which turn out often to be the lifelines of your poems. Tell us a little about the process that shaped this chapbook.

Noah Stetzer: Thank you for such kind praise. This book would not have been possible without the great people of Red Bird Chapbooks, especially Eric Hove and Sarah Hayes. At the time these poems were being drafted I was immersing myself in any information I could find about HIV in general and my diagnosis specifically. I was seeing doctors about every nine weeks and so my own body was very much a front and center topic—one that you can see reflected, I think, in the book. At the same time, I was seeing in my face the striking resemblance I have to my father when he was the same age. And because of the seriousness of my diagnosis and the critical infections that landed me in the hospital along with the natural order of things as a man gets older, I was certainly facing issues of my own mortality. I began digging into where my father and I are the same and where we are not. Growing up gay made me think we were more different than we actually are and the book, I think, shows my coming back to that again and again—finding I am in fact my father’s son.

S.S.: In your poems you often make use of liminal spaces. By that I mean spaces that are places neither of departure nor of arrival, and which create panic, like in your hospital moments or in “Intruder.” In this poem the speaker, who assiduously keeps track of their medicine, realizes that they are missing pills:

[ . . . ] and so now I’m worried if one missed pill might be enough, like maybe a line of a crack has surfaced along the side of my face, where something’s just a little broken or starting to break. Because last night the knife went missing, or at least that’s when I couldn’t find it, the knife I noticed missing after dinner when I went to load the dishwasher. No big knife in the sink, not the knife drawer, and nowhere else in the kitchen and my first thought was it was in the hand of an intruder, all in black behind the closed guest room door waiting for a moment, like now during the empty afternoon, when my guard is down, and I’m alone in the house. Someone holding the missing knife, making no noise, not moving: all night [ . . . ]

Do you intentionally let liminal spaces inhabit your poems, take control, and make the reader feel the powerlessness? Or does it happen naturally?

N.S.: My first thought upon reading the word “liminal” is my affinity for “in-between” places: airports, Laundromats, and driving alone in the car. There is something soothing for me in these places where I am not expected to inhabit a role, I don’t feel an expectation to be someone’s idea of me. I feel like my head is quietest in those places. I am attracted to those places and so I place my speaker there again and again—it’s as if in that space I can see more clearly and hear my thoughts plainly. The static of what we are supposed to see, supposed to hear, supposed to believe gets pulled back and what’s left are these encounters and lyrical moments that occur in my poems. So I guess you could say it’s both intentional and natural. As I think a little more about this, there is something very freeing about the powerlessness of liminality: less risk of making a mistake, of not living up to expectations, of choosing wrong.

S.S: When I arrived at the other end of your book, the other side of the diagnosis, I felt changed by the journey. In your second to last poem, “Dusting,” you write this heartbreaking and brilliant line: “about an awful kind of waiting, cause we both know you’re the driver & I am the dog.” Can you elaborate on how you decided that this poem needed to be your second to last in the book? And perhaps talk a little about this last line and the “you” in it?

N.S.: What surprised me about “Dusting” was how many elements of the other poems informed it: the car, the hospital, and the snow. Its placement in the book was important to the arc of the poems because it has a latter-day feel to it, especially in how the speaker appears to have regained some agency. About that last line: I found myself with our dog Jack, who was diagnosed with lymphoma, and I was driving him to the vet’s and urgently looking for an answer I wanted and not the crushing answer I was getting. And in an arresting moment of clarity I realized that I was doing a thing my husband had done with me—and I came to know how helpless he must have felt—and in a moment of empathy I realized a kind of helplessness he must continue to feel in the face of my diagnosis.

S.S.: “Use” is the last poem of the book, which you are kindly sharing in its entirety with our readers:

Use

Stand me up naked in the carport and go at my legs with Brillo pads
and Comet cleanser: go ahead and draw blood if you think that makes a difference;
I’ve soaked myself in Drano baths and picked at scabs along lips,

but this won’t come out. Use my blood-stained toothbrush to scrub
my toenails with your thumb pressed hard against the cold hose nozzle;
unfold a stepladder, climb up and frown at the grime on the top of my head,

pour uncut bleach to peel it clean, and wipe down my dirt-stained back
with ammonia-soaked socks. Do you think I haven’t scoured
with vinegar and Arm & Hammer inside my thighs, up under my legs,

to get clean? Your left hand grips my shoulder, while your right
fills my mouth with Boraxo soap. Push in close with stinging water
so the thin skin inside my armpits tears, press it into my ear so grim

rivulets rush out; while I watch a moth flutter against
the yellow bug light, the shadow stuttering along the ceiling and the cement
where water runs dark now into the yard––and still black sickles

will smile along each fingernail. I’m loaded up and shot through, a weapon
armed without a timer; bend me over at right angles, hold my leg
and rinse my teeth, hook your fingers in my mouth, and graze my hair trigger tongue.

I’m still a gun pointing down the driveway.

I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of your chapbook in which you signed:

“SILENCE = DEATH
and so we keep writing.”

Can you tell me more about those powerful words? What they mean and how they connect with your collection and specifically with “Use”?

N.S.: “Use” started as a response to the use of the term “clean” to denote someone who is not infected with HIV. “Are you clean?” gets used a lot, at least in gay circles, especially when negotiating sexual encounters. And so I was tackling that idea, exploring the actual connotations of clean, and pushing against its usage in this way. It’s interesting that you asked about this poem in relation to the inscription I wrote in your copy. The tag line SILENCE = DEATH came out of the urgent need of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It was introduced with a manifesto that among others things declared silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people . . . must be broken as a matter of our survival. And so the slogan became a shorthand to stand against the social norms of “we just don’t talk about those things” that were muzzling discussions of safe sex and by extension sex between men. It was also a direct counterattack to the inaction of the government and the real silence from the president at that time (Ronald Reagan wouldn’t mention the word AIDS in public until 1985). That sentiment, that SILENCE = DEATH, is one that I lean on again and again in my work. When I am afraid of content I want to explore or worried that a poem may be too graphic in its depiction of the realities of my AIDS diagnosis, I think on this slogan. And so to come full-circle back to “Use,” this poem is one where I embrace this idea of saying out loud a counterattack to those who use “clean” pejoratively. And to also send a warning.

S.S.: Do you feel, then, a kind of urgency in your work? And a pushback against it needing you to push right back?

N.S.: I feel an urgency because of my diagnosis—because of the serious nature of the opportunistic infections that landed me in the hospital and the critical numbers that accompanied my HIV diagnosis (taken together they indicate a diagnosis of “AIDS”—and although that signifier is falling out of use to its broadness it was/is applicable to my symptoms). My doctors have done herculean work to stabilize my infection—achieving and maintaining an “undetectable” amount of virus in my blood—but I still experience the co-factors that accompany an ongoing HIV infection. And so I feel a race against the clock in my work that I feel acutely in my life: pushing to say what needs saying.

Since the hospital, it has been disorienting for me to accept a lack of ownership over my body: doctors apply their treatments, gay men (both HIV-positive and HIV-negative) fit me with their boundaries, governments impose their statutes, well-meaning friends & family impress upon me their expectations—as the result of this biological infection. If I am pushing back against anything, I am pushing back against various parties that behave with a sense of ownership over my (infected) body.

S.S: What are you working on now?

N.S.: I’ve been invited to read in support of the chapbook—so I am doing that. And I participate pretty regularly in The Grind Daily Writing Series (full disclosure: The Grind comes out from the Bull City Press community, where I am an associate editor), which, just like it sounds, asks each writer to produce a draft every day. I like it because we never give feedback to one another; the series sets up public accountability to get work done and, like with 750Words.com a few years back, I flourish with deadlines. That work has helped as I continue to tinker with and shape a full-length manuscript of poems.

Somayeh Pic 2

Noah Stetzer is the author of Because I Can See Needing a Knife (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). His work has appeared in various journals including Bellevue Literary ReviewNimrodGreen Mountains ReviewChelsea Street Station, and as part of the HIV Here & Now project. A graduate of the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, Noah has received support from both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Writers. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Noah now lives in the Washington, D.C. area and can be found online at noahstetzer.com.

Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.

 

Lawn Mowing

by Nona Charleston

When I returned to my hometown after a twenty-five-year absence, I eased the transition from North Shore Boston to Tulsa, Oklahoma, by joining a women’s writing group. While I was at long last home, I had returned with a back pocket of memory, confused by the newness of the oldest place I knew.

Writing in the group was a way to unscramble and make sense of the seemingly arbitrary delivery of life’s story. Back as a single mother with a second grader and set to care for aging parents, I needed to quickly find a way to understand the narrative of my changed life. I was ready to be part of a group that encouraged personal stories. The group had been together for as long as I had been gone and was generous in support and criticism. I describe it as a writing group rather than a writer’s group because meetings included a timed exercise in writing.

Two weeks ago three of us met to sort through our writing from the past, and that’s when I found the following few paragraphs about my father, which came from a writing group prompt that called back family. I include it now as his birthday approaches. He was certainly a Taurus, a father bull navigating narrow spaces inside the china shop known as family.

Nona1

When I catch myself by surprise in the mirror, I see my father’s face, not mine, his face in mine. I who never understood him, or even once imagined that I might favor him, lose my face inside of his. The remote father—who was the peripheral being, the corner of the room, the quiet navigator, the shadow, takes my place, for a long moment replacing my sense of self. And it is not just in the mirror.

I am mowing the lawn when I feel him inhabit my body, imposing his thoughts, ringing my mental telephone; the man who scarcely spoke to me in life must now tell me about mowing, about baseball, about fences and yards, crabgrass and children.

Was it because we both lived inside the shadow of my mother, who was quick to say what she wanted, when she wanted it, and who she wanted to bring it to her, that we were always partners without knowing? Were we but accidental accomplices—shelving our own desires, not knowing or understanding them—or could there be separate desires? And when I am set to be hard on myself, I stop to wonder if it wasn’t simply easier to erase our wills? These things we shared.

The smell of the cut grass rises in the heat of summer. The loudness of the gasoline-powered mower hollows out a senseless quiet place with its steady roar when his thoughts and questions fill up my mind.

This uneasy recognition, one that startles, is a kind of clock, perhaps, an unambiguous face marked with numbers and reason. It steps into sequence, organizing memory, reminding me how long he has been absent from life, mine and his own. These thoughts come back louder than logic, stronger than silence. Perhaps it is memory that won’t allow silence. It’s got to babble on like an invisible racecar running backwards, retracing the real and the imagined. There is much I missed from our shared history. I stand at his stone longing to ask and wonder why we were what we were, familiar strangers linked by blood and bone. The stone is silent except for date and place; it is too late to ask. I know it will happen again, this odd invasion. I cut the grass and listen.

IMG_1102 - Version 2

Nona Charleston is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the Director of Nationally Competitive Scholarships at The University of Tulsa.

Firing the Neurons

by Francine Ringold

Old age compels us to speak. It is our destiny and may be our privilege—if we grab on to it. With the publication of Old People: A Season of the Mind, Spring/Summer 1976, Nimrod was once again (as it was with the issues Arabic Literature: Then and Now, New Black Writing, and so forth) on the leading edge of what was to be an international trend: people were living longer, and the productive life of the mind was one of the reasons for that longevity. This ’76 issue brought together writers’ responses to aging and, most importantly, featured writers 65 or over (65 was considered old at that time), including well-known authors Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Archibald MacLeish, and visual artists Alice Neel, 76, photographer Consuelo Kanaga and painter Wallace Putnam, both 82, and famed painter Georgia O’Keeffe, a mere 88 at the time.  The better-known writers were included not only to spice up the issue but also to provide distinguished company for the newcomers.

Yet, as always with Nimrod, it was the unknown or little-known writers that we sought out—and these were the stunners. “I am eighty-six and I’m proud of it!” said Argentinian editor and writer Victoria Ocampo, well known among readers in Spanish but less widely known in the U.S. at the time. Retired librarian Pearl Minor marked this issue as her first publication at the age of 66. (She visited Nimrod’s offices to meet the editors in person 15 years later). Fiction writer Mildred Hirsch Arthur, poets Ruth Feldman, Ivy Dempsey, Joseph Langland, Nina Nyhart, and six writers from the Artists and the Aging program in St. Paul, Minnesota, all displayed the craft, talent, yeastiness, and zest that are ageless. And Judith Johnson Sherwin, who was a mere snippet of 40 when she wrote so convincingly in the voice of a mad old woman, redirected her energy and talent and went on to win Nimrod’s fiction award in 2012, at the age of 76.

Nimrod also went on to exemplify Isaac Bashevis Singer’s statement that “The instinct to create remains as long as one breathes.” With a title taken from a line in W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress . . . ), 1991’s issue, Clap Hands and Sing: Writers of Age, includes fifty-six writers and visual artists: three in their 90s; six in their 80s; twenty-three in their 70s; twenty-three between 65 and 69. And all the work included was written within the three years previous to its publication.  The cover painting from esteemed American landscape painter Alexandre Hogue’s Big Bend series was completed in January of 1991, Mr. Hogue’s 93rd year.

The cover letters sent with submissions were, in three individual cases, written on yellow lined paper and by hand. Mildred Greear, one of my favorites in this issue, not only published two marvelous poems (“In Storage” and “Remainder”) but also sent a glowing letter of thanks to the editors for not only the acceptance but also the “concept itself.”  May Stevens (“For My Loves, Lost and Leaving”) and her miraculous drawings that opened the issue took the reader by the hand, led them to more and more discoveries.

William Stafford, former Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, who first published in Nimrod in 1956, submitted four poems in 1991.  He wrote in his cover letter: “I’d like very much to qualify for the Clap Hands and Sing issue: my bids at this time are enclosed.” Such humility makes one proud of the human condition—and indeed is cause for handclapping.

LM Issue Cover

Nimrod’s 2013 Lasting Matters: Writers 57 and Over, at least in part, is another issue that focused on age—among other things.  In it, Henry Morgenthau III, age 96, published two poems.  His volume of collected poems was published last year and reviewed on NPR, where, at the age of 100, he held forth with thoughtful answers in a clear, steady, and even voice.

I draw attention to these few past issues of Nimrod and the hundreds—or is it thousands—of writers of age in other books, not just because I am 83, nor to sell books, since I believe the aforementioned are sold out. It is rather that they remind us all, myself included, that writing, selecting, shaping, revising, as F. Daniel Duffy, M.D., said, “keeps the neurons transmitting, keeps us alive!”

 

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

Is Bibliophilia Curable?

by Jane Wiseman

I suffer badly from bibliophilia and have yet to find a cure.  I’m curious about it and its source. My husband has threatened to install a book-detector at our back door to sound an alarm when more books enter the house, but so far he lacks the technical expertise, so the disease rages on.

For decades, I never missed the Holland Hall Book Fair in Tulsa (a treasure!) and had to sneak boxes of books into the house.  I swore I’d abide by the “one book in, one book out” rule, but just couldn’t honor the pledge.  For me, what more solemn duty than to give these books sanctuary?  And I have no stomach (à la Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”) for choosing which current occupants will correspondingly get it where the chicken got the ax.

Besides, my boys were the happy beneficiaries of my bargains from “Linus’s Corner” at the Book Fair and never went without new adventure stories and children’s poetry books and classics.  I believe bibliophilia is hereditary, or, at least, contagious, if my boys are any indication.  And what a godsend now to have the arrival of grandchildren—a new generation for these treasures!

So, what is it about books that demands possession and proximity?  The old expression, “A book is a gift you can open again and again” doesn’t quite do it.  And I confess to having lots of books on my Kindle and iPad.  But so often I buy the book in hardcopy after the digital read because I want to see and hold the physical beauty of the words on the paper page.  Such sensory satisfaction—sight, smell, touch, even sound—the whisper of pages turning.

When we were children, every December was a Proustian “madeleine” moment for my two sibs and me when we opened the Christmas box from our Australian cousins, filled with down-under kids’ books with their unmistakable exotic Aussie fragrance in full fig as we cracked open the first page.  So I recognized at once the bond between New York booklover Anne Bancroft and London bookseller Anthony Hopkins in the movie version of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, with all its literary allusions and evocative book—and bookshop—smells.

Jane 1

Shifting gears gently, let me say that books, in my experience, have a very pragmatic side.  The first car I ever bought on my own ($55 a month car payments!) was a manual transmission, sand-colored AMC Gremlin, surely a classic by now—rejected, however, by my sons who demanded to be let out a block from school to avoid public association with such a vehicle.  The Gremlin had an abbreviated back seat and an insignificant rear compartment.  It was rear-wheel drive and weighed next to nothing, making it treacherous in icy conditions.

When the Tulsa City-County Library had its annual surplus book sale, I had a rare flash of brilliance.  I loaded up on boxes of book discards in their unmistakable public library cloth bindings and kept them in the rear of the Gremlin.  They provided rear ballast on icy roads, and if I got stuck, I’d have something to read until rescued.  And if help was not forthcoming, I could cover myself in the open volumes, or if desperate, pull out the pages (sacrilege!) and bury myself, or, in extremis, burn them.  Or, perhaps, even eat them, becoming wiser in the consumption.  [N.B.:  Digital literature will not help you there.]

Robert Frost put it well (he wasn’t referring to books but he could’ve been):

I could give all to Time—except
What I myself have held.  But why declare
The Things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with?  For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.

My search for the source of bibliophilia continues, but the source matters less than its seductive presence, right?  So let’s not be too hasty in finding a cure.


Jane Wiseman
writes for a living as a Judge on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.  She counts the day she joined Nimrod’s Advisory Board as one of her happiest and currently serves as Chair of the Advisory Board.

 

 

Why Poetry Matters

Britton Image 1

by Britton Gildersleeve

Years ago—more than 25, actually—the poet Dana Gioia asked if poetry can matter. Here at Nimrod, which for more than 40 years has published amazing poetry, from poets who continue to stun us with beauty, we know it does. And it should.

Poetry—all art, really—connects us. Offers us the experiences of someone outside us to consider, other experiences sifted through the sieves of imagery and compression. Both reading and writing poetry help us to see better: to observe the details in the world around us and to be more aware of how those details shift when seen through the eyes of another. When we read poetry, we’re invited into another landscape, a kind of liminal space between us and the writer. And when we write poetry? We’re actually creating that landscape ourselves. Each effort—while very different—requires imagination and empathy, so necessary for lives well-lived.

If I go too long without poetry, it’s not like I die. It’s not as critical as water. It’s somewhere up there with . . . vitamins. Sunlight. Sitting outside. Not truly life-or-death, but pretty damn important. Because what I learn is always useful—not simply pretty, or even literary. But useful like food, sunlight, vitamins. Take Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles .” There’s a line (lifted from Ezra Pound) that changed me—“When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off.”  Let me explain:

Lately I’ve been feeling stiff. Arthritic, for sure, but stiff in other ways, as well. Like my intellectual, emotional, and physical “muscles” are rusted tight. I can’t think like I used to be able to. And for someone with Alzheimer’s rampant in her family, that’s a bit . . . unnerving, to say the least.

The recumbent bike is twice as hard as it ought to be. I’m cranky. And I often feel . . . well, unnecessary. In the way that American culture is so very good at making the aging feel. But Snyder reminds me that even a discarded axe handle is useful. Is necessary: When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off. Snyder elaborates, bringing in Pound, who wrote the line, translated from the Chinese of another poet, Shih-hsiang Chen.

I’m at least partially in love with this poem because it includes my beloved Pound, whom I studied so closely, imprinting on him like a poetic duckling, and his Chinese translations. Once, at a Nimrod reading the Pulitzer-winning poet W.S. Merwin gave in Tulsa, he mentioned sitting with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. I did much of my doctoral work on Pound, and suddenly I was physically connected to my flawed idol, whose work is still so influential to poets, through the man in front of me. I was the latest tiny dot in a line curling back to China. Sitting in the faculty study, I was connected to these writers by lines of poetry. That matters.

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The poet Denise Levertov once said that In certain ways writing is a form of prayer. Because poetry is about calling something—a feeling, a thought, an action—into being. Invoking it, really. Poets are the ultimate magicians. Lines on a page become a kind of prayer or spell, as axe handles become safe passage through aging’s dark journey.

Recently, discussing structure and writing with my elder son, I said I couldn’t write with too much structure. That writing is—for me—a discovery process. Structure, I told him, can actually kill my ideas.

Later, as I lay in bed half-asleep, I thought about poetry. And realized that what I said was only true of prose (at least for me).  I write poetry most easily (and possibly best) when I have the structure of a form.  Sonnet, haiku, tanka, lune—each draws forth the content to fill the form’s structure. They act like scaffolding for the creative process.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: structure is a kind of mindfulness. It’s almost meditative. Certainly it’s contemplative. If I have to fit inchoate feelings/images/thoughts within a skeletal framework, it’s a kind of magic—following the breath to calm. Letting the poem help me find its voice.

I am more than a discarded axe handle. I am capable of being a pattern, a model. Of still being useful. Of teaching. Of being taught, being what the next axe handle comes from. Of being held within the breath pauses that define the poem’s structure, and becoming part of the poem’s music.

In other words? Poetry still matters. When its raison d’être is to connect, to bring ideas into being. How could it NOT?

 

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.