Unsung, Part 2: Thomas James and Letters to a Stranger

by Colin Pope

Letters to a Stranger
Thomas James
Graywolf Press, 2008 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973)
Paperback, 108 pages ($16)

Most anyone who’s engaged me in a conversation about lyric poetry has endured my screeds on Thomas James. I’ve written about him on this very website before. I will continue to write about him after this blog posts, and I’ll continue to recommend him to anyone who’ll listen. He’s underappreciated and stop-you-in-your-tracks phenomenal. The people who find him tend toward rabid fandom.

Perhaps this fervency has something to do with the stories behind Letters to a Stranger, his first and only collection. In the reissued book—part of Graywolf’s flagging “Re/View” series, which publishes forgotten books of exceptional merit—Lucie Brock-Broido provides an introduction that does some justice to the mythos surrounding the manuscript. Her version echoes one I heard in grad school from one of my professors. Upon publication, the book was largely ignored; it received a single negative review and went out of print after the first run. Then, for the next 35 years, the book existed solely as a re-Xeroxed artifact passed around between creative writing teachers, grad students, and poets lucky enough to know someone. It was nearly impossible to find a physical copy; Brock-Broido writes of searching for four years before stealing a copy from a library in Pittsburgh. Later in life, she contacted a friend at Houghton Mifflin to find out more about the book’s provenance. Beyond a record of a literary agent in Illinois recommending the manuscript, there’s nothing. No editor is named, no pathway to publication, no notes on ordering or editorial suggestions. It is as though the book appeared out of thin air and evaporated just as quickly.

The story of James himself is similarly mysterious. Born Thomas Bojeski in 1946, he grew up in a tiny house in Joliet, Illinois, with his parents and five other relatives. James came from a working-class family and was raised poor, eventually working as a night watchman in the same factory where his father was a security guard. Both his parents died within ten days of each other in 1972. Not even two years later James placed a .45-caliber gun to his temple and pulled the trigger; like Sylvia Plath—his largest and most obvious influence—James died at age twenty-seven. But the evidence for his suicide is a bit muddy. As Brock-Broido writes, “No one in the family believes that Thomas killed himself.” Though he was right-handed, the gunshot wound was on the left side of his head. He was also found lying in bed, which, to surviving family members, seemed a strange place for him to shoot himself.

The oddity of the book’s background, however, means very little next to the power of the text itself. In some ways, its survival represents a grand reprieve for the legacy of Plath’s Ariel. One of the first, stupidest criticisms of Plath’s work went something like, “She wouldn’t have been remembered if she hadn’t killed herself.” And yet James took his own life (maybe) and his book survives on its own obvious merits. What I mean is that, since the age of the printing press, such soulful, haunting poetry always seems to find its way into the collective memory. Just as Neruda’s work spanned continents and languages, so was James’s work destined to span time.

And, not unlike Neruda, one of James’s talents is the ability to relabel or remake for his own poetic purposes. I’m thinking here of Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, a book that contains poems dedicated to and about the poet’s socks, the spoon, soap, the gillyflower, the tomato. James performs from a similarly taxonomic impulse, though his poems frequently consider people and processes rather than objects: “Waking Up,” “Old Woman Cleaning Silver,” “The Bellringer,” “Frog,” “Dragging the Lake,” “Dissecting a Pig,” “Wild Cherries,” “Cold August.” Plath shares this approach, to an extent. But whereas Plath skews toward the familial, domestic, and deathly, James tends toward the ghostly, the haunted, and the undead. In the lone review Letters received, the reviewer attempted a putdown by claiming James a “pale Plath.” This seems, in hindsight, an apt description if we think of James not as an imitator but a gothic, ink-and-quill-by-candlelight poet of his own methods and preoccupations, inspired by Plath the same way H. P. Lovecraft was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Like Plath, but paler, more grotesque, more averse to the light.

Most of my favorite poems in the collection revolve around death—James writes about death with startling clarity of mind and stark revelation. Take the poem “Snakebite,” which begins:

Now I am getting light as cotton candy—
Out of two red holes in my heel
Infinity pours, goodbye to all of me.
It was pleasant to watch my leg begin to swell;
An incredible headiness washed over me,
I didn’t feel a thing. The color of a bluebottle,

 The sky hit my skin like water from a pitcher.

What I’m struck by is the precision of the language as set against a seemingly imprecise, chaotic situation. The victim here appears either already placidly unconscious or accepting enough of their death to study it as a phenomenon occurring to the body, separate from the mind. When I say haunting in relation to his work, this is what I mean: there’s a clinical separation between mind and body that is at once frightening and beautiful. I feel connected to the mind that imagines this death in a way that makes me scared of myself, for myself. For example, while I’ve never witnessed a snakebitten person dying, I somehow know they’d turn “the color of a bluebottle.”

Similarly, James’s most famous poem, “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” enacts the persona of a dead young woman witnessing her own mummification. It is grotesque, but grotesque in the same way we find true crime grotesque, in the way we’re fascinated by murder stories and medieval torture devices. After an opening stanza wondering about the world she’s lost—“Is it still there, that place of mottled shadow, / The scarlet flowers breathing in the darkness?”—the woman gives the reader a glimpse into the process by which her own body is being preserved. “They washed my heart and liver in palm wine,” she says. “My brain was next.”

My eyes were empty, so they filled them up,
Inserting little nuggets of obsidian.
A basalt scarab wedged between my breasts
Replaced the tinny music of my heart.

The narrator, at first hesitant, nervous about what she’s lost, appears now to be enjoying the process. Whereas the eyes and heart are temporary—“empty” and “tinny”—the objects replacing them seem eternal, lasting, made of obsidian and basalt. The next line: “Hands touched my sutures. I was so important!” The poem’s ability to imagine this dying as a pleasant violence speaks to James’s own seeking for comprehension of death. Aren’t we made “important” by death? Don’t we lie still in death as people attend to us, as though we’re royalty? And, perhaps his biggest question: why be alive when death gives you importance and eternity?

By contrast, Plath seems to me most concerned with what death means for her, alone. She wants to throw it in the face of her parents and the society they represent. James, on the other hand, appears to want to examine the very nature of death and what it means to be human and have knowledge of your own mortality. This is not to say Plath’s work doesn’t contain this question as well; rather, James makes this one of his central focuses. In doing so, his poems attain a singular voice that, in a surreal, unbelievable way, enact the very seeking toward which they strive: what does it mean to be mortal in a universe that privileges the immortal? This second-to-last stanza of “Mummy of a Lady” seems to address the question; think of the story of James’s work making it back into print, into my (and hopefully your) hands, and how this seems to demonstrate the power to which great poetry aspires:

 Shut in my painted box, I am a precious object.
I wear a wooden mask. These are my eyelids,
Two flakes of bronze, and here is my new mouth,
Chiseled with care, guarding its ruby facets.
I will last forever. I am not impatient—
My skin will wait to greet its old complexions.
I’ll lie here till the world swims back again.

Colin Pope‘s debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, is forthcoming in May from Tolsun Books. His poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in such journals as Slate, Rattle, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and others. He holds an M.F.A. from Texas State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University.

 

Staying with Your Authentic Emotions

by Courtney Spohn

On June 24, 2020, I listened to Sarah Jane Abbott, a children’s and middle-grade editor, during one of the Highlight Foundation’s Writer Chats. Abbott said her publishing house is looking to publish happy stories now because, as moderator Sarah Aronson said, “we all want to be happy right now.” I heard this and wondered what types of books I’ll read to my young son a couple of years from now. Are we going to miss the emotional import of this moment because we’re looking for happy stories? As a poetry editor, I want to read happy poems only if they are genuinely happy poems. I want to read sad poems, grief-filled poems, angry poems, love poems, hopeful poems only if they are genuinely sad, grief-filled, angry, full of love, hopeful. I want to encourage all poets to feel the emotions they’re actually feeling and write their poetry accordingly.

Please “go there” when you feel safe enough to do so. I’ve read quite a few poems recounting difficult, even traumatic, events that seem to be autobiographical, and I’m stopped when a writer relies on the experience to speak for itself or when the writer wants to put a lesson or moral on it before the experience feels ready to be packaged in such a way. Conflicting advice that I’ve given and read is to “show, don’t tell.” When I’m reading about a difficult event, I want to know what meaning the writer finds in it. When we’re looking at a personal experience in a poem, I want to hear more than the details of the event. I want to hear how the writer feels. And how does the writer see it now? These are not questions that need to be answered literally. I want to hear clues about how a writer put their hand to paper after something damaging happened to them. How did you do that? And why? Again, these are not literal questions looking for literal answers. Tell me through emotions—I believe this is how we understand each other.

I also believe we skip over a few emotional steps when we try to package our experience in a way that makes it look culturally acceptable—we can look virtuous, for example, if we say we learned a lesson or deepened a value, like forgiveness. Yet our experiences, and where we’re at with them, may not honestly be leading us toward cultural acceptability. Many of us feel the tension between saying what we mean while wanting to feel a sense of belonging in a community. So we observe the community’s rules and may hide the parts of ourselves so that we can hold on to the sense of belonging. I encourage writers to write what they really mean—to express how they really feel. Tell us about the conflicting emotions or the emotions that many people (I like calling those people “idiots”) tell us are “too much.” Tell the truth about where you are and see what happens in your writing.

I share this to encourage writers during hard times—when that battle between being true to themselves or their community feels like an all-or-nothing proposition. Many of us understand a wide range and depth of feeling and have the capacity for all kinds of stories, not just the happy ones. Please trust your authentic voice and, when it feels right, please share this voice. Our authenticity helps develop our sense of connection.

Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. With Sheila e. Black, she has a poem published in Otoliths. She is a life coach and blogger at courtneyspohn.com.

Nimrod Literary Awards Results: 2020

The editors of Nimrod International Journal are delighted to announce the winners, honorable mentions, finalists, and semi-finalists of the 42nd Nimrod Literary Awards.

Nimrod Literary Awards: The Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry

FIRST PRIZE: Rebecca Foust, CA, “Blackout” and other poems
SECOND PRIZE: Janine Certo, MI, “Home Altar in the Year of a Pandemic” and other poems

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
A.D. Lauren-Abunassar, PA, “Victim Impact Statement” and other poems
Richard Michelson, MA, “A Horse-Cure” and other poems

Nimrod Literary Awards: The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction

FIRST PRIZE: Mohit Manohar, DC, “This Has Not Been Enough”
SECOND PRIZE: Gage Saylor, OK, “Jailbird”

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Carol Dines, MN, “Grace’s Mask”
Hayley Lynch, KY, “The Tremendous Machine”
Grace Newman, NY, “Initial Consultations”

Nimrod extends deep appreciation to all who submitted and would like to congratulate all winners, honorable mentions, finalists, and semi-finalists. Selecting the poetry and
fiction finalists was a task that dominated the lives of Nimrod’s editors all spring.
They approached their mission with dedication and discretion, reading and
rereading the final group, comparing notes, and speaking for favorites. The
finalists’ manuscripts, without cover letters or names, were sent to the judges for 2020. Kaveh Akbar served as poetry judge, and Joy Castro served as
fiction judge. They chose the winners and honorable mentions from the finalist
groups.

The 43rd Nimrod Literary Awards competition begins January 1, 2021; the
deadline is in April. We welcome your submissions, knowing that each
year brings new discoveries, often from those who have submitted to the
competition before.

All entrants not previously contacted by Nimrod about their work may consider
their work released at this time.

Fiction Finalists
Jean Ferruzola, WA, “Burn Brightly and Rise”
Jessi Phillips, MI, “Anything You Ask Me To”

Fiction Semi-Finalists
Kristyn Childres, IN, “The Northeast Kingdom”
Alice Hatcher, AZ, “Caesura”
Sasha Hom, CA, “Always, Peanut”
Alex Hughes, OK, “Crown”
Grace Spulak, NM, “More Than Bright”
Nicole VanderLinden, IA, “Fiddler”

Poetry Finalists
Jubi Arriola-Headley, FL, “Peacocking” and other poems
John Blair, TX, “Seeking Dr. Einstein” and other poems
Chuck Carlise, MI, “Solana” and other poems
Jehanne Dubrow, TX, “Metamorphoses”
Benjamin Gucciardi, CA, “I Ask My Sister’s Ghost to Write Her Own Elegy” and other poems
Youssef Helmi, FL, “Scarf” and other poems
Caroline Mei-Len Mar, CA, “Dream of the Lake” and other poems
Jessica Pierce, OR, “We all have our work to do” and other poems
Sean Reynolds, IL, “The Year My Voice Began to Crack” and other poems
Frances Richey, NY, “Bloody Mingo County” and other poems
Darius Simpson, CA, “Yea I Did It” and other poems
Alice Templeton, CA, “Youth Sermon” and other poems
Theresa Q. Tran, OR, “Mercy” and other poems
Jeanne Wagner, CA, “Speaking in Tongues” and other poems
James Wyshynski, GA, “Counting Out the Cost” and other poems

Poetry Semi-Finalists
Yasmine Ameli, MA, “History Lesson” and other poems
Yvonne Amey, FL, “Bad Brains, a Woke Mosh Pit, and a D.C. Haiku” and other poems
Shannon Austin, MD, “Dollhood”
Diane Beck, CO, “History of Winter” and other poems
Imani Cezanne, CA, “No Crowns Allowed Through TSA” and other poems
Lauren Coggins, SC, “Eating Light” and other poems
Marsha Truman Cooper, CA, “The Rapture of Bees” and other poems
Marissa Davis, NY, “When the Blood Came” and other poems
Tyler Dunston, NY, “8 lines in the Grace Church garden” and other poems
Bernard Ferguson, FL, “juxtaposition with death” and other poems
Jana-Lee Germaine, MA, “Learning Curve” and other poems
W.J. Herbert, NY, “The Latin Lesson” and other poems
Anthony Immergluck, WI, “Madre Matryoshka” and other poems
Karen Kovacik, IN, “Farsickness” and other poems
Susan Landgraf, WA, “Out of the Roase Garden” and other poems
Kathleen Michael, VA, “Cowbird” and other poems
Amy Miller, OR, “The Church of the Hair Salon” and other poems
Oak Morse, TX, “Sashay” and other poems
Gail Newman, CA, “Two Men Talking” and other poems
Wendy Scott, PA, “Two Body Problem” and other poems
Emily Van Kley, WA, “Affidavit for Self-Care & Other Questionable Ephemera” and other poems
John Walser, WI, “Give yourself over to the trees, to the sun” and other poems
Amie Whittemore, TN, “First Self-Portrait with the Artist” and other poems

In These Uncertain Times, Libraries Are Still Here

by Rebecca Harrison

What is a public library with no public? When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the physical doors of our 24 library locations, the leaders and employees at Tulsa City-County Library quickly posed this question. And, almost as quickly, they began formulating answers. As the adage goes, a library is more than a building. It’s something bigger, fiercer, more idealistic. With our customers forced to stay home for the foreseeable future, we adapted nimbly, reminding those in our community about our myriad online resources. Folks could check out one of our thousands of eBooks to help manage the endless tedium of quarantine. They could visit our Facebook page for virtual yoga classes, book talks, and even gardening advice. If you were feeling pressure to use all this newfound free time to pick up a new hobby, the library could point you to digital books on knitting, drawing, or playing guitar. We leveraged our social media reach to connect with our customers, to let them know that even when the world seems to be falling apart, we’re still there.

Then, right on the heels of a historic pandemic, the world shifted again. The 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred in the midst of a global awakening. Again, the public library recognized its duty to provide access to information and to guide our customers to resources to help them navigate important topics like the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-racism, and white privilege. Our staff set to work developing nonfiction and fiction book lists on these topics. Our CEO, Kimberly Johnson, issued a statement voicing TCCL’s support for the “collective action to end systemic racism.”

But it’s not just our library. Libraries all across the nation are stepping up; if you’re not local to Tulsa and haven’t looked to see what your library has been up to, you might be surprised to find out they’ve been quietly making a difference in your community. Let this be a nudge for you to check out what your library has to offer—as we face these times of uncertainty and disruption, I am proud to be part of an institution that strives both to serve and to lead.

Rebecca Harrison is the manager of Adult Services at the Central Library in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When she’s not at the library, you may find her writing, reading, or marveling over how cute her cats are.

Book Review: Mohja Kahf’s MY LOVER FEEDS ME GRAPEFRUIT

by Britton Gildersleeve

In this time of virtual realities—and real isolation—it’s a small miracle to “get away.” Reading Mohja Kahf’s book My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit is a perfect daytrip to a life almost certainly different from most of ours right now. And beautifully so.

Kahf, a Syrian-American Muslim, offers windows into her daily life: several poems on various Muslim holidays (Eid, Ramadan), many on foods familiar to those of us fortunate enough to have spent time in the Middle East. There are poems of language, and poems of bodies, and poems of desire. Some poems are braided from each of these parts. One of Kahf’s shorter poems—“Olive Oil & Thyme”—lauds friendship, comparing it to bread dipped first into olive oil, then into thyme, sesame, and sumac. The spice mix is a riff on za’atar, a spice familiar in Arabic cooking, and becomes an image of a “lifelong friendship / never the same flavor twice.”

There is much of eating, of desire, of sensual beauty, of sex and its progenitor lust, in Kahf’s vivid poems. Here you’ll see eroticism in a grapefruit, that it could become a “tender membrane / exposing rose-glistening / grapefruit flesh / wet wedges opening. . . .” Who knew a date could transform, when seen through the lens of Kahf’s poetic eye, into a woman’s inner body? And who but Kahf can help you see a man’s body as a sonnet?

Even language takes on a languid nature—“Can we speak together over time and space / naked of our names?” the poem “Woman-Crisp” asks. “Say you have been entrusted with a packeta / A word to give to me / I am ready // Text me from your Galaxy / Message me from your apartment of fire / inside the sun . . . Hurry! Before I fry / into burnt woman-crisp // All that needs to be written is a single word.” And we are left conjuring a word that might save her. . . .

In the Author’s Note at the end of her book, Kahf highlights the “poetic foremothers” mentioned in a few of her poems; her note is its own poetic polemic. Kahf (rightly) impugns the “racist imperialist heteropatriarchy” for not “listening” to Arab women poets. And she asks, “How can I, plus the roving writing crowd of Arab women alongside me, write the body within a world that wreaks violence on brown and black bodies?” And Kahf succeeds, eloquently, in writing the body.

Drawing from centuries of varied literary heritages, Kahf is intimately familiar, as her work demonstrates, with quotidian Arabic experiences. Ramadan is eloquently summarized as “slow-ticking day . . . blink-quick night.” Having lived through several Ramadans in two Muslim countries (Algeria and Saudi Arabia), I love that metaphor—the days move so very slooowly, and the nights of feast and family are over in a blinking of moments.

Agile dance of rhyme, rhythm, and the musical interplay of idiom and prayer and science scaffold one of my favorite poems from the book, “Moonbopped.” Kahf deftly juggles references to Michelangelo ( “he careens / twirling into chapel walls and smearing paint”) with “the moon / lumped me a great big shiner just today / bopped me clear / into the electron-humping subatomic Quark-o-sphere.” Jazz riffs, sub-atomic physics, Renaissance greats . . . each as necessary as a line break, as the lack of stanzaic white space. Do not be seduced by gorgeous images alone—this is a writer who knows her craft.

Perhaps the most evocative poem for me is the final one in the book: “Bury Me in Arabic.” Kahf articulates the rhetorical flourishes of so many mannered exchanges with Arabic friends—“Always multiply the gift— / ‘welcome’ to ‘two welcomes’ / ‘a hundred welcomes and kinship and ease’ / ‘Keep offering tray after tray of words.’” How vivid is that? Words piled like dates or pistachio and honey sweets, on an inlaid tray, offered in largesse to friends and family.

Kahf then turns to the reply and response of ritual politeness that far too many of us have lost the inclination to take time for:

Wishing a sneezer “mercy” is a three-step dance
They reply “guidance and rightness of mind”
You match “guidance for you and me both”
When you cough you get “health”; top it off
“health and vigor!” or raise it  to “two healths!”

But the wryly poignant double-play of the title is fully realized at the poem’s close, when Kahf moves from “burying” us in the formalized exchanges of Arabic social conversation to the poem’s final stanza, where “May you bury my bones” becomes a beautifully succinct metaphor for “supreme love / and has no utterable answer.”

It seems very appropriate these dark days to look through Kahf’s eyes into rooms filled with such love—of all the daily happenings in a full life. That it is also a life with which too many of us are unfamiliar is a bonus. I, for one, am grateful to remember.

My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit
Mohja Kahf
Press 53, April 2020
Winston-Salem, NC
Paperback, 84 pages
Price: $14.95

Mohja Kahf is a professor of comparative literature & Middle Eastern studies at the University of Arkansas. The author of the novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Kahf has two other poetry collections, as well as a nonfiction work. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the Arkansas Arts Council Individual Artist Award, and the 2020 Press 53 Award for Poetry.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon 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.

Time and Tomes: Thoughts on Expectations

In 2018, I made the choice to keep track of all the books I’d read in a single year: when I started them, when I finished them, those sad few I abandoned prematurely. I’m surprised and only mildly horrified it never occurred to me to do this before.

In 2018, I read 30 books.

In 2019, I read 23.

And as of early March of this year, I had finished only two.

This put me on the concerning track toward failure. I was not on pace to meet my annual goal (the one I had imposed on myself with no consequences awaiting me one way or the other) of 30 books, and thinking back on my previous years’ quantitative accomplishments filled me with shame. But wasn’t there something to be said for the fact that the two books I had finished were both nearly 800 pages?

The first was a modern classic: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The second was a classic’s classic: Middlemarch by George Eliot. As friends plowed through novel after novel, I worked to bat away the expectations I had of myself and embrace the slowness, the difficulty, and the late-arriving gratification of moving through a longer work.

I sought to retrain my brain and reframe my thinking—where before I saw plodding and drudgery, I now aimed to see precision and diligence; where there had been dread, there now was expectancy.

As with all feats of persistence, satisfaction’s counterpart is sacrifice. It’s similar to the way you discover new depths and capabilities within yourself when training for a race. Except when you’re reading, not only are you learning those things about yourself, but you’re also learning them about the characters and the author. As with real people—and who’s more real than fictional characters in whom you see your own self mirrored?—you have to spend time with them to afford them the opportunity to change. If you write them off, you’ll never see how they could have surprised you or what they could have taught you in the end.

However, for me, this practice of endurance came at a cost. The more I progressed with these works, the more frequently I had to forgo starting new ones . . . or doing basically anything else. But, over time, the more I chose to wrestle with the task I had set for myself, the more I grew to appreciate this act of discipline. And the thing is that I was choosing. It wasn’t a mandate someone else had put on me. It was a deliberate choice I was making to chip away at a goal I wanted to meet. I had nothing to prove to anyone but myself—though, of course, we’re often our own cruelest critics.

The concept of expectation is something these novels brought to the forefront of my mind, where it’s stayed, inconveniently, throughout this strange spring of 2020. As time unspooled before me and with the agency to fill it as I willed, I found I gravitated toward books and away from nearly all else. This brought up the question, Why do I do those other things at all? Yes, there are standard obligations, but why have I bowed to others’ expectations and placed them unflinchingly upon myself? It’s questions like this that I continue to ponder and hope to have some answers to by the time life is back to “normal.”

I continue to sift through the difficult notion of expectations, and as I do, it is a cognizant choice to weigh each day, and each new book I pick up, on its own. Comparison is the thief of joy, as they say, and I fight daily to unfetter myself from my tendency to compare and instead aim to see things anew, as if for the first time. This is freedom.

Structure is good. Boundaries (such as those imposed by a quarantine) can be healthy and often spark creativity. Choosing to draw lines around your life—the things you eat, your reading selections, the music you let wash over you all day, whether you will or won’t text that person after all this time—can be helpful in crystallizing what you really want. Goals are worthwhile, but they and expectations are not equals, and I’m learning to measure myself against the former rather than the latter.

My reading goal for this year is to complete 30 books. My expectations for this year? Simply, to read.

Andrea Avey, a native Tulsan, was an English teacher for five years and now works in the private sector. She devours literature and writes as often as she can.

Unsung, Part 1: Anthony Madrid and I AM YOUR SLAVE NOW DO WHAT I SAY

by Colin Pope

Every so often, emerging poets break into the high-culture zeitgeist, usually via a profile in The New Yorker or a review in the Times or a feature on NPR. Such poets are vaulted to the forefront of poetry, and we are encouraged to believe these are the best new poets in America. But in the list of recent years’ hot poets, you won’t find the name Anthony Madrid. His face doesn’t grace the cover of trade publications. He doesn’t, as yet, have a Wikipedia page. When I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say was published, the book didn’t appear on any “Best Poetry Books of 2012” writeups that I could find. What I mean to establish here is that, like many remarkable emerging poets, Madrid’s first book went underappreciated amid the noise of the larger poetry machinery.

Personally, I find an almost direct correlation between the hype a debut collection receives and my disappointment in its contents. I don’t think this has to do with the actual quality of the work, but rather my elevated expectation of it; if a poet is being celebrated in such a public way, then I expect the work to be not just good, but irrefutably, innovatively brilliant. Rather than celebrating a 26-year-old’s first book, perhaps we should be celebrating a mid-career poet’s third or fourth with this level of public visibility. Or even a 76-year-old’s fifth book. Alas, one suspects the inner workings of such marketing choices are flavored by an admixture of nepotism, publishing politics, and the all-too-American belief that simply because something is new, it’s better than anything old.

I Am Your Slave debuted eight years ago now, which before wasn’t very long in poetry years. When I discovered it, I excitedly discussed the book with poet-friends, only to find none of them had heard of it. I tried to relate to them the collection’s piano-wire-taut structure, its upending of the ghazal form, its raucous language and toying with aphoristic phrasing. Then I got out my phone and pulled up the first poem from the book I could find. It was one entitled “In Hell the Units Are the Gallon and the Fuck,” the first lines of which are:

THE unit of wine is the cup. Of love, the unit is the kiss. That’s
   here.
In Hell, the units are the gallon and the fuck. In Paradise, the drop
and the glance.

I read the title and first lines aloud, then defied anyone not to admit their interest in reading the remainder of the poem after such an opening.

To put it simply, Madrid is a genius of the opening line. This is a specific form of genius that’s graciously reader-facing; we feel invited into the poem’s world via the introduction of its voice and logic. But beyond all poetic explication and analytical hullaballoo, what’s gripping in these poems is that they are genuinely fun to read from the get-go. And since many of the poem’s first lines are also the poem’s titles, one need only see a selection of these titles to know what I mean: “Most Living Creatures Leave No Ghost,” “Their Fulminations Are Mere Theater,” “Time We Rolled Out That Exquisite Carpet,” “Heaven Help the Right-Handed Man Who Has Had His Right Hand Cut Off,” “No More Epigrams Against Sluts,” “Jam Me in Hot Hell,” “It Is a Perfect Day and I Must Waste It,” “Now That I Know I Am To Be Destroyed By a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl,” “Fuck Buddha I’m Buddha Nobody’s Buddha Quit Talking About Buddha,” and I could go on. These are random examples from the 60+ poems in the collection.

I think, as a poet and reviewer, I’m supposed to care more about why these poems are fun. I’m supposed to pick apart the particular devices operating on the words, the tonal precision in the faux-revelatory arcs of these not-quite-ghazals. Indeed, not doing so does feel like a bit of a cop-out. But, as you might be able to tell, the poems are fun because they are also funny. They point to the frequently ludicrous nature of the modern human experience and background it against Eastern philosophy and mysticism, the results of which are often downright hilarious. And I’m not about to attempt an explanation of humor. Take these sections from “I Am No Longer Cut to the Heart”:

She said to me proudly, “I mean to ruin you for other women.”
She was what
These morons call a “consummate technician.”

Here’s that boy with the demon sideburns and the slicked-back black hair
And a shirt like from the bodyshop, complete with cotton
racing-stripe namepatch.

I say to him: “Approach me, my child, and thou shalt be my
chosen delegate,
For thou art seventeen feet tall and tricked out with half a mile of
tattoos.”

See? There’s something about the persona behind these poems that affords a wry, smirking awareness of its own pomposity while simultaneously attempting earnest understanding, like a quixotic, dissipated guru.

I use the term “persona” loosely here, since these are indeed ghazals, a form that inheres ruminations that, traditionally, culminate with the poet’s employing their own name in the final lines in a sort of self-reflective revelation of their place within their own thoughts. For example, the ending of “Let’s Watch This Liver-Colored Devil”:

A book is a dead thing. Take it to bed, you’re asleep in a minute.
Whereas, if a friend is lying next to you, talking—you stay up all
the night.

That’s the way to write, MADRID! Be like a pillow-talking friend—
A good friend, full of question and answer, head propped up on
one hand…

But via the collection’s praxis, we discover that this is not the poet, so to speak. This is an idealized and discrete performance of a self-wrestling to comprehend its own bearing. In another poem, “They Do Out of Anger That Which We Do Out of Love,” the ending further demonstrates the poet’s performance of dueling identities: “MADRID, like you, I stand accused of the worst kind of / recklessness. / I have unleashed upon the world the full force of my infantile / allure.” This is Madrid talking to the persona MADRID, or vice versa. To me, these lines read as the type of conversation one has in the bathroom mirror when seeking to separate the hedonistic impulse from the rational, as in those moments when we are about to do something entirely stupid and irresponsible but, knowing our nature, will probably do it anyway.

As you might guess, Madrid’s prosody and language are downright enviable. Few poets can bring to bear all their gifts with such consistency. Part of the brilliance of the collection lies in its ability to deploy these gifts without sacrificing anything to the form or the humor; this is one of those rare books with no weak poems. In its loony and wild logic, I’m reminded of a similarly incredible book: Charles Simic’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning The World Doesn’t End. But there’s a funnier, more prescient voice here, one that deserves far more recognition than what it’s received.

I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say
Anthony Madrid
Canarium Books, 2012
Paperback, 117 pages ($14)

Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. His collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.

 

Review: NEW SUNS:ORIGINAL SPECULATIVE FICTION BY PEOPLE OF COLOR, Ed. Nisi Shawl   

by Helen Patterson

I’ve started reading more speculative fiction recently, and I’m not alone. Speculative fiction is hard to define, but this umbrella term generally refers to any fiction about a world different from our own. These alternate worlds can be set in the past, the future, or a world that seems like our current one—until it doesn’t. Within the last decade, speculative fiction has become increasingly popular among both literary and mainstream readers and writers. The rise of speculative fiction has coincided with an increased demand for diversity in writing, leading to an explosion of creative new stories.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by writer Nisi Shawl, is one of the anthologies that’s come out of this growing demand for diverse speculative fiction. The title refers to a quote from the inimitable Octavia Butler, which is included in the frontmatter of the anthology: “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” As promised, each piece in New Suns glows with its own inner radiance.

One of the best things about anthologies is their ability to help us discover new writers. My two favorite stories in this one were by writers I had never read before. “The Shadow We Cast Through Time” by Indrapramit Das is one of the most original combinations of dark fairytale and sci-fi I’ve read. The story is told from the perspective of Surya, a descendent of human colonists. Her world contains demons, mind-altering spores, and hagtowers—living structures made from the bodies of the dead. In Surya’s world, the demons, the hagtowers, and even death are not feared; they are part of the place, and the humans who live there accept and mythologize them. When it is time to die, most humans willingly walk to the hagtowers, ready to become part of these structures. Surya does not dread death because “all worlds need death if humans must tread on them” (182). For me, the most alien part of the story isn’t the setting but this attitude toward death. So much of contemporary American culture is obsessed with avoiding or delaying dying; it was refreshing to read a story in which death, though not desired, is accepted more readily as a natural process. I’m afraid I’m simplifying the story too much, but I don’t want to give anything more away. You will have to read it. Das writes with lyrical, almost hypnotic, prose, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

In my other favorite story, “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath” by Darcie Little Badger, Kelsey inhabits a world like ours but with one key difference: when humans or animals die, their “last breaths,” or “shimmers,” are released. No one in the story knows where the last breaths disappear to, but most last breaths instinctively escape to the sky and float upwards, out of sight. Kelsey makes her living by working with her own pet shimmer, Pal—the last breath of her sheepdog—to round up new shimmers and help them float away. Shimmers are naturally lighter than air, so Kelsey’s job is usually simple. Pal roams buildings where people or animals have passed away and herds new, confused shimmers into a room with a window. She then opens the window and releases them into the air. Unfortunately for Kelsey, some breaths break the rules, cease floating, and become burdened breaths. Reader beware: “the act that made a last breath burdened was so terrible the word ‘murder’ didn’t do it justice” (259). The story has dark moments, but the overall tone is light and gently humorous.

Every piece in this anthology is expertly crafted and offers new perspectives. That being said, my other favorites from this collection are “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” by Tobias S. Buckell, “The Fine Print” by Chinelo Onwualu, “The Robots of Eden” by Anil Menon, and “Harvest” by Rebecca Roanhorse.

In the afterword to New Suns, Shawl offers advice to anyone who enjoyed the anthology and wishes to read more diverse voices and perspectives: “Would you like more of what you’ve read here? Wider constellations, greater galaxies of original speculative fiction by people of color? Then seek us out. Spread the word. Wish on us, reach for us, and yes, let us gather together in the deep, dark nurseries of stars. Let us congregate. This is how new suns are born” (274). I intend to follow Shawl’s advice and discover more work by these writers, and I know that other readers and writers will do the same, especially in these uncertain times, as a pandemic rages around us. In the worst of times, we can acknowledge suffering and the severity of our problems even as we let stories expand our horizons and keep our minds open and curious.

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.

 

Interview: Steve Bellin-Oka, Author of INSTRUCTIONS FOR SEEING A GHOST (2019 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry Winner)

BellinOka author photo

Steve Bellin-Oka

What was the inspiration for this book?

There’s kind of a long backstory for the book. My husband is a Japanese citizen, and we’ve been together since 1998. Of course, same-sex marriages were not legalized in the United States until 2015 and, therefore, I couldn’t get a green card here for him until then. After eight years of cobbling together a string of temporary visas for him, in 2006 we ran out of legal ways to keep him in the country. We were lucky enough to qualify for permanent residency in Canada, and we moved there that year. It was a horrible decision that straight people would never have had to make. I gave up my career as an English professor and immigrated to a place where we knew no one and had few job prospects. It also happened at a time when my sister, who is a major figure in the book, was at the start of her terminal illness. She died from adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer, not long after we moved to Canada. So I was under tremendous emotional pressure even after we left to not stay there, to abandon Kenichi and return to the U.S. This only got worse because in the two years following my sister’s death, both my brother and one of my nephews passed away as well from the consequences of alcohol and opiate abuse.

All of this finds its way into Instructions for Seeing a Ghost. There are literal ghosts in the book—my sister, my brother, and my nephew—as well as figurative ones. I don’t regret anything that Kenichi and I have had to go through, but there are poems that speculate about what my life would have been like had an earlier relationship with an American man worked out and had Kenichi and I never met. There are poems about how immigrants in any country are like “ghosts”—we’re both there and not there simultaneously, since one never leaves one’s birth country behind really, and thus one never feels like they fully belong in their new country. And, of course, Kenichi’s whole adult life has been like that; he left Japan for North America in the early nineties and has been here ever since. Finally, I’d say the book is about the experience of return from exile as well. As an ex-patriate, your whole conception of your birth country changes because you see how you’re seen by the rest of the world. As a gay man who has only been given access to the same constitutional rights as straight people recently, a lot of our national myths—that everyone is welcome here, that we are all created equal, for example—turned out to be hollow ideas. So the book is interested in those ideas as well.

How long have you been writing and what brought you to poetry?

 I didn’t start writing poetry seriously until I got to college. Before that, I always wanted to write music and be a musician. I was drawn to music from a very young age, mostly classical music, and I played the piano and some wind instruments. For a lot of reasons, that didn’t work out. I’d always been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember; there’s a family myth that I taught myself to read before pre-school, but I don’t know if that’s really true. So literature was always something I loved, and I always excelled at languages as a student. I also grew up in a very religious household. There was always something about the hymns sung in church and the rhythms and cadences of the readings from the Bible, especially from the Hebrew Bible, that I always found fascinating. But it wasn’t until I got the chance at the University of Maryland to study with some great poets—Stanley Plumly, who recently passed away, and Michael Collier, who let me enroll in his graduate poetry classes when I was still an undergrad—that I started realizing poetry had chosen me rather than the other way around. Creative people will find their outlets, I think, regardless of challenges and hurdles others set up for them or they set up for themselves. Despite long periods in my life of not writing any poetry at all, I’ve always returned to it.

How was writing and/or compiling this collection different from your previous publication work?

 Putting together a book of poems is not an easy enterprise, and not something anyone ever teaches you in M.F.A. programs. During your writing workshops, your focus is almost exclusively on one poem as a single entity and crafting and shaping it in isolation from the rest of your work. And then in graduate programs, you write a thesis or a creative dissertation, but your emphasis is an academic one instead of compiling your work in the way that’s going to have the most impact as a book. I think all poets, like filmmakers, have images and metaphors that haunt them, but for compiling a book, the trick is to make them speak to each other from poem to poem. It took me about three years to do that for Instructions for Seeing a Ghost. The book has a few major themes, the deaths of my sister and brother, exile and return, the ghost idea, etc., and I had to figure out how and when to introduce each of those themes and what development and arc they were going to have over the course of 80 pages. You have to decide which poems are going to be in the book and in what order. And you have to think about form, too. For example, there’s a series of love poems in the book that are all named after letters from the classical Hebrew alphabet. Did I want to group them all together in the book, or spread them out through the whole manuscript? For a long time, I thought the former was most powerful, but then I realized doing so would deprive the reader of the sense of an arc to those poems, so I spread them out through the book. That way, the images that come up in them had new possibilities of working in concert or counterpoint to the other poems in the book.

Ultimately, I ended up reading a lot of full books by contemporary American poets I respect and paid close attention to how they did it in those books. Before this book, I had published two chapbooks—short books of poems of about 20-25 pages, so I had a little experience in this, but not enough.

Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? If so, what makes it your favorite?

 There’s a poem called “She Was Always Sleeping Then,” which is about the last time I saw my sister alive, and it’s pretty special to me because I didn’t know it was the last time. We were living in Vancouver at the time, and she was at home in Baltimore, where I’m from originally, and receiving palliative care only. In the final stages of her illness, I’d been making that long trip back every couple of weeks or so, but it was very hard to predict when she might pass away. She was only 39 years old and her body was fighting her cancer tooth and nail. And on her last day, I arrived on a flight from Vancouver about two hours too late. The poem is about that situation, but also my ambivalence and guilt about being so far away because my personal relationship with my husband required it. Here’s the poem:

She Was Always Sleeping Then

For me, you died too slowly,
wall paint drying in humid weather.
Oil on a wet street. Syrup.
Ink on vellum.

No use raising my arms
to the god gone deaf, whose language
is unanswerable riddles, inscrutable
paths of birds in flight. Entrails
of a rabbit sliced open like a parcel
from the other side. Who says
he can read the return address lies.

I’m not lying now. Even your Rottweiler
was suffering, curled with his head
crooked in his arms on the old hooked rug
at the foot of your rented hospice bed.
Exhaling at random intervals. Most days
the home care nurse clucked her tongue
and said you were too young. Cancer
wouldn’t kill you—it’d be the heart
or the lungs or the kidneys. Some failure
in a system of your body not yet forty.

Your spleen rupturing like a water balloon
thrown against the side of a barn.

You were emptiness inside
cupped hands. Bruises under
a fingernail. A sinkhole opening up
after weeks of heavy rain. How else

to explain how you were both there
and not there, the way one catches
a ghost’s trick in the corner of the eye.
You turn to look and a tree branch

lightly scrapes a lead glass windowpane.
You turn to look and nothing’s there.

You turn to look. All night your brother
hunches forward in the sick room
chair, turning to stone and back again.

Can you tell us about your typical process for writing a poem, from inspiration to sending it out for submission?

 I’m not sure I have a typical process for writing a poem, but a lot of them do seem to evolve similarly. I’m on the autism spectrum, which for me mostly manifests itself by the repetition, usually unelicited and disorganized, of images, phrases, metaphors, snippets of music or lyrics, dialogue and visual images from movies I’ve seen, other poets’ lines, in my head all day long as I move through my everyday life. For some reason or other, one will embed itself and my own words will start coming in an emotional response to it. In my writing time, I’ll start building poems from those mental interactions. At the same time, I benefit greatly from discipline; being on the autism spectrum also means it’s very difficult to focus sometimes. So I’ve also engaged in projects with other poets where we draft a poem every day during a particular month, and I wrote most of the poems in Instructions for Seeing a Ghost that way. And a lot of poem drafts that didn’t go anywhere at all. But the more you get out on the page, the better. I took what I thought was the strongest work from those experiments and revised them with an eye toward constructing a book, asking myself how they spoke to each other and to other poems I’d already written and was hoping to include. When I was happy with a batch of poems, I’d send them out to journals for publication consideration.

What is the one piece of craft advice you would give aspiring poets to help them on their writing journey?

 I think most of us start writing poetry because we feel the desire and need to express ourselves, which is wonderful. But a lot of aspiring poets don’t feel the need to read a lot of poetry by people who are more experienced than they are. And that’s not a dig against them; the way we’re taught poetry in our schooling too often takes the joy and wonder of experiencing a poem and turns it into the drudgery of analyzing it as a kind of “puzzle” made up of disconnected pieces like form, sound, imagery, etc.—all the things we’re tested on and have to define. And too often the only poems we encounter in school are “masterpieces” by long-dead straight white males, and maybe those poems don’t really speak to us. Fortunately, poetry in America has been enjoying a considerable boom in readership for a while now, and the numbers of previously marginalized voices that are being published is very encouraging. With a little digging, an aspiring poet can find other poets who are writing about similar concerns and from similar identity stances as they are. I think, also, aspiring poets should read living poets attentively to see how they handle problems of formal and craft elements in their work. One can experiment with the same methods when drafting poems, and all poets learn by doing, I think.

What power can we find in poetry today, in the time of COVID-19?

 I think the power we can find in poetry, even in times of crisis, is the same one we always have. Poetry has a dual function. First, it connects us to each other through its universality. Human beings, despite our differences, are really not that dissimilar from each other. We share far more with each other than we don’t. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s helpful to feel like we’re all in this together, and to know that since the beginning of the written word (and well before), humanity has lived through, and survived, one plague after another. We’re lucky to have living still, or in living memory, poets who’ve written about the most recent plague before this one, poets like Frank Bidart, Thom Gunn, Tory Dent, and Mark Bibbins, who have documented their experience of the AIDS pandemic. But of course, the literature of plague in the West goes back as far as Homer’s Iliad and the Hebrew Bible. If we read poetry from any era with true openness, we’ll find that poets can name for us our own emotions and experiences and help us make sense of our lives, which often seem overwhelming and random. There’s extraordinary value in that connection. At the same time, though, poetry is one of the few ways in which we have relatively unfiltered access to other people’s and cultures’ individuality. Artists take the universal and particularize it. We can never experience directly someone else’s thoughts and emotions, even if we’ve known them all our lives. That’s part of the human condition. But in reading poetry, we can get as close to that as is possible. It then allows us to empathize with others who may be very different from us, and there’s tremendous value in that as well.

Steve Bellin-Oka is the author of a chapbook of poems titled Dead Letter Office at North Atlantic Station (2017). His first book of poems, Instructions for Seeing a Ghost, won the 2019 Vassar Miller Prize from the University of North Texas Press. He is a 2019 Tulsa Artist Fellow in poetry and a Nimrod Editorial Board member.

 

No Cleverness, No Hiding: Five Tips for Submitting to Lit Journals

by Courtney Spohn

I’m a new poetry editor at Nimrod, and it’s been a pleasure to read submissions because I feel connected to each writer’s work and the community at large. As a writer, I know what it feels like when my work is rejected and how it feels to read a published piece and believe my writing is better. These are tight, icky feelings! So recommending a poem for publication is something I take seriously and with an eye toward the subjective nature of art. As a reader, I find myself revisiting a few similar reactions to submissions. I want to share my opinions below with the hope that they support any writer who feels alone and unheard.

 

  • Submit what, where, and when you want to be published. I would like to address the work that hasn’t been submitted for publication—the poems writers would like to see published, but that they hold back for a variety of reasons, including a debilitating sense of perfection or worthiness. I believe there is a forum for nearly everything a writer wants to be published. As to when to publish, I think writers need to examine their motivation for seeking publication and then see if the piece they want to publish aligns with that motivation. For example, if I want acclaim, but I have a poem that was written for just one person, then I’m doing a disservice when I submit it for publication. When I have a poem that I love and I want others to read, and the poem is telling me it’s ready, then there’s alignment when I send it out in the world. I think, more often than not, the work itself tells writers if it is for others to read or not. When a piece is ready to be published, send it out. Let go of self-censorship and self–criticism! I have been writing with a friend for over a decade, and recently she has developed dementia. We re-read her poems and she cannot believe how good they are; years ago, she thought they were bad poems. “Did I write that?” she asks. And the poems are scattered in her apartment and not in general circulation. Let yourself shine in this moment—not some imagined future.
  • Stop hiding behind your wit, intellect, and inside jokes. I think many writers use writing as a primary form of expression—and we tend to write better than others. Often, we are accustomed to being misunderstood, so when we write something, it can feel like doing a magic trick. Look what I can do, you ordinary soul! It’s a metaphor! So when we write from our ego, we know we can create something that will impress others. To me, a poem that’s trying to impress will always be secondary to a poem that isn’t, even if the poem that isn’t trying to impress is the more ordinary poem. Instead of trying to impress, I want to see that same writer push further—even if the writing gets ugly—to find what’s really there. Recently I’ve had to tell myself to act like everyone is as intelligent and funny as I am—this means I can’t be impressive because others will already be a step ahead of me. I can’t hide, either, because then they’ll be a block ahead of me. To keep up, I need to say what I mean. I want all poets to do this. Of course, like Emily Dickinson says, we can “tell it slant.” I encourage writers not to hide behind shorthand or jokes that only make sense to them. Maybe another way to say “don’t be clever” is to say “start believing that you are being seen and heard.” If you only had one minute to say your point, can you find that point in your poem? And would a (funny, intelligent) stranger understand you?
  • Experiment with form. Sometimes it feels like writers have more to say about their subject than they let themselves say. My hunch is this comes from a sense of trying to create a poem that looks like a poem—a type of control. It also feels a little safer to submit a poem than to submit ten pages from your journal about the same topic. The problem with a poem that feels like it is begging to be larger is that I either don’t understand what the writer’s real take is or I, again, think the writer is hiding. Feel the freedom to write about your topic in whatever form it takes to express your feeling and beliefs. If your point could be made in an essay or speech, say it there. Use the poem because you need its form and value the import of every word and punctuation mark. Consider whether or not you’re using sensory imagery to ground your point. If not, then you might have a good essay on your hands. Or, better, you could use multiple genres, each to express different facets of your point. Just make sure you keep writing until you know you have stated your full point and its associated emotions in at least one place.
  • Go there with religion and politics, but don’t make me agree or disagree with you. It’s common experience to reject religious and political beliefs we grew up with, and I think it’s exciting terrain to explore because it places writers on the edge of what we believe. What’s accepted or rejected in the writer’s understanding of the world? Go there! And go there with anger, if needed, but don’t assume that you are either alone or in community with your reader. What is the experience of anger like for you? What strikes you as out-of-touch or hypocritical and what does that say about you? I might completely agree with a writer’s politics or spirituality, but I don’t like feeling divided in a poem or that I’m picking sides with wide swaths of people who agree or disagree about something. Tell me what it’s like for you, and assume that I will understand and be on your side, even if we disagree. Hold out a larger container for yourself and others that allows everyone’s viewpoints while still staying true to yours. When it comes to politics, there are certain practices that are abhorrent and shocking. Carolyn Forchè’s work with poetry of witness comes to mind here. For example, in “The Colonel,” Forchè provides just the details. There is no question about right and wrong—the details she provides shows us the truth. Here, there is a space to witness and record what’s happening, and that is a type of political commentary. There is also editorializing on what’s happening, as seen in Morgan Parker’s work. In “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD,” Parker provides both the political details of what she’s experiencing and how she feels about it. Both providing and withholding direct opinions on political topics can be appropriate for poetry. I would encourage us to be clear about our intentions and have the courage to ground all commentary in sensory details. Again, trust your message will be communicated. Then take the time to see what you’ve created and where you can, again, assume you have an intelligent audience. What can you give them that communicates your anger or beliefs without forcing them to agree with your specific viewpoint? I think this is along the lines of being so personal that we bring to light a universal.
  • Don’t use “you” unless you are very, very good at it (and ignore everything I’m doing in this post). I find myself getting uncomfortable with the use of “you” in a poem that refers to the reader (instead of someone the speaker is specifically referring to, like a lover, parent, etc.). I become obstinate and think, “this isn’t my marriage, mother, or fill-in-the-blank.” But I am happy to try on any ideas related to those themes, among others. When a poem is obviously about your experience, I think often it’s best to own it and use “I” or find a way to tie the experience to a third party or the natural world (by that I mean not just nature). Leave you/me out of it! “You don’t know me!” my stubborn self says. There are many exceptions to this rule, of course, and the things that are the hardest to say are sometimes said best through “you.” I would argue that, unless the details of the poem are so specific that there is no possible way the poem is about me, a writer likely shouldn’t use “you.” This connects to the assumption that your audience is intelligent and full of humor; I know what a lot of experiences have felt like for me. What were they like for you? I will follow the poem through the use of imagery and emotion and not because I’ve been named as “you.” Of course, if it’s obvious “you” is the addressee of the poem, and a specific person, then use it. Did I need to tell you that?

 

There are always exceptions to the things I’ve said here, and there’s almost nothing worse than unsolicited writing advice. I simply would encourage the intelligent and humorous writers among us to consider where they might be hiding and to pull away those curtains. Connect your insights to the world instead of to abstract ideas. Eliminate clever turns of phrase. Don’t rest on easy insights. Don’t assume others aren’t noticing the things you’re noticing. Name experiences that are yours—don’t graft them on an unknown reader. Tell us what you have to say as if time is running out and you won’t get it back. And tell us what you know and feel and have experienced as if it matters, because it does matter. As Bong Joon-ho said during an Oscar speech, quoting Martin Scorsese, “[t]he most personal is the most creative.” Be the most creative

Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. With Sheila e. Black, she has a poem published in Otoliths. She is a life coach and blogger at courtneyspohn.com.