Poetry Today

3 Contemporary Poets on Identity, Form, and Politics

In looking back at the history of poetry collections, readers can glimpse a poet’s sense of the world. Muriel Rukeyser calls this “the truth of the poem which is also the truth of the poet and the reader, an emotional and imaginative truth . . . It is reflecting [our] lives . . . a creation in which we may live and which will save us.”

Poetry today provides a sense of faith in each other, not because there is concrete evidence that life gets better, but because poetry reveals that someone else understands what it’s like to live in the world. Further, poetry publishing in the 21st century is becoming more inclusive of various experiences and communities, and this plurality offers us hope.

On the heels of Dear Poetry Editor, this new series offers readers an insider look into the working minds of contemporary poets from around the world. This is Poetry Today.

In this installment, we meet Nicole Sealey, José Olivarez, and Carl Phillips.

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Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, finalist for the 2018 PEN Open Book Award, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. She is the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation, visiting professor at Boston University and the 2018-2019 Doris Lippman Visiting Poet at The City College of New York.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

I’ve found that reading activates my creativity (like visiting a museum, listening to music, or watching a film), so much so that I’ve taken to reading a book of poetry each day for the month of August for the last couple of years. Not just reading, but reading widely—reading work by poets whose aesthetics differ from my own, reading work by poets who I envy, reading work by poets whose obsessions interest or tire me, reading poets across time, gender, geography, sexuality, ethnicity— Essentially, reading poetry is just as important as writing it. As I’m reading, I’m learning what moves to make and what risks to take in my own work. And, as I’m writing, I’m rewriting, reworking, reimagining.

I write poetry, yes, and I sometimes call myself a poet—only on days I’m feeling rather confident. Writing poetry is what I do. It is one of my many passions and one of my many skills. There is nothing more important to me than being a whole person. I’ve learned that I am not just a poet, that poets are not just poets. If I could tell my younger self one thing about being a poet, about being any one thing, I’d tell her that that is unnecessary. I’d tell her that we contain multitudes.

ON READING

O, there are many collections, many poems by poets who are no longer with us that speak to our present moment or are timeless. Read the love poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. Read Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Li Bai, essential reading for writing nature and the imaginary. Read The Essential Etheridge Knight, particularly “I Sing of Shine,” a commentary on race and class relevant to this day. Read June Jordan’s poetry of resistance. Read poets of witness Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks and Sharon Olds. Read poet-sages Khalil Gibran, Sappho and Du Fu. Read What Work Is by Philip Levine. Read Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems. Read W.H. Auden, Hayden’s teacher. Read Phillis Wheatley and John Donne, poets concerned with spirituality. Read Ai. Read.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL

As you know, poetry is an art that requires constant study—one of the advantages of being lifelong students is that we come to read much in the way of prosody as well as practice along the way. At least a couple times each year, for example, I read Michael Ventura’s essay “The Talent of the Room” to remind myself what it takes to be a poet. It comes down to something very basic: The ability to sit alone in a room, figuratively and quite literally, and write—even when we think nothing will come of it. Similarly, I reread Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet every year. Like the young poet Rilke encouraged to “go into [him]self,” I am encouraged each year to do the same. As such, my poem’s capacity is limited only by my imagination.

I’m not convinced that poetry must serve a social function. While much of my work seeks to examine issues of equity, I very much believe in art for art’s sake. Poetry has the potential to make as much necessary noise as it does beautiful music.

ON TRADITION

Tradition wasn’t always traditional. Tradition was once, itself, new.

Sappho, for instance, was writing poems, not thinking that the style in which she was writing would one day be called Sapphic verse—but, if there was no Sappho, there would be no “Sapphic stanza” and, subsequently, no “Catullus 11” and “Catullus 51.” Shakespeare was stretching and slanting rhymes centuries before us. Why? Perhaps, he thought his poems or plays or what have you called for it. The Bop, a recently invented poetic form by Afaa Michael Weaver, has already seen variations to its original 3-stanza form. All that to say, nothing is new for long.

I don’t believe poets writing today are averse to the tradition or the canon, so much as we are averse to the exclusivity of and disparities within it. I, myself, am averse to anything, this includes received form that sells itself as the standard by which I should adhere and/or aspire. I imagine contemporary poets think similarly and are interested in making the best poems we can make, which may include the invention of new forms and the reimagining of older ones. For me, a poem’s shape is structured out of necessity (what does the poem require?), not out of my own need to be innovative. In this way, my decision to write in form, I believe, wasn’t of my own volition.

ON ORGANIZING A COLLECTION

When organizing Ordinary Beast, I relied heavily on my gut, which is not unlike the poem-making process. I am the through line, I am the connective tissue. My advice to a poet trying to put their manuscript together is to trust their gut because there is no right way, no hard and fast rule to ordering a manuscript.

The poem “Virginia is for Lovers,” which is an epiphanic journey of discovery, is followed by the poem “Clue,” which was inspired by the murder mystery game of the same name. The two poems couldn’t be more dissimilar, except for the strategically organic (is this a thing?) placement of the word “hands” within both poems—in the last line and in the first line, respectively. That word, “hands,” I imagine, helped trigger an impulse to situate the poems side by side. This is what it is. The poems themselves will tell us where they want to go, which poems
they want to sit next to and which hands they want to hold. We just have to listen.

ON BEING POLITICAL

Yes, I definitely see my own work as political. That, however, probably doesn’t mean much, as I see my entire existence as such. That I am not only alive but thriving in spite of a culture of white supremacy that means to do me harm is a political act. That I haven’t thrown up my hands in either surrender or exhaustion is, in itself, subversive.

Scarred as much by a collective history as it is an individual one, Ordinary Beast is a collection only I could have written. Had I gone left instead of right just once, Ordinary Beast would have been a wholly different collection. There are multiple ways of being. Of being Black. Of being Afro-Latinx. Of being a woman. Of being Caribbean. Of being Southern. Of being—      Ordinary Beast doesn’t even scratch the surface of my entire humanity, but it is, if I do say so myself, a damn good try. That is its contribution.

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José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants and the co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods. A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the Conversation Literary Festival, his work has been published in The BreakBeat Poets, Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, and Hyperallergic, among other places. His debut book of poems, Citizen Illegal, was released in September 2018 from Haymarket Books. He lives in Chicago.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

I’ve noticed that many of my young students want to write books, and not eventually, but now. These students are better writers than I ever was at 18 or 19 years old. They are better readers. They have written poems that should be published and read because they are fantastic and well-crafted. I put together a manuscript when I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college. I submitted it to the National Poetry Series and got rejected. I am thankful for that rejection. Some rejections are blessings. Some opportunities are curses. Proceed accordingly.

ON READING

I encourage everyone to read The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. I bought that book after reading the poem, “won’t you celebrate with me.” I send that poem to friends whenever they’re going through it. I show it to students. I return to The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton over and over, and each time find a new spark in the way that she writes that guides me forward.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL

I started writing poems at a festival hosted by Young Chicago Authors called Louder Than A Bomb. There were always rappers, singers, and musicians featured at the festival. I grew up understanding that poetry belonged everywhere. I once bought photocopied poems from a person on the CTA Red Line. I had rappers and poets on my iPod. My high school poetry slam team recorded our poems onto CDs. Activists I admired were in our writing workshops. Our workshop leaders also handed us books like The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano to help broaden our political understandings. It wasn’t a perfect education, and I am still unlearning a lot about masculinity. However, I still believe that my teachers were right to show me that poetry belonged everywhere. So for me, the question isn’t about the potential of poetry, it’s about the potential of people. What do I see as the potential of people? I believe that we are capable of imagining & creating more just and loving communities than the ones we inherited.  Will there be poetry? There will be poetry.

ON INFLUENCE

I was lost before I read Chicanx poets & Latinx poets.

It’s hard for me to articulate just how impossible writing felt for me at the beginning. I was 15 and had in front of me the hard work of facing the hierarchies that had embedded themselves in my head. I was the son of working-class Mexican immigrants, and now, looking back, I can see that I learned in school that my place in the world was near the very bottom. I internalized that. I could trace myself to no kings or queens. I couldn’t trace myself back to the pilgrims. No one in my family had fought in a World War. I didn’t have superpowers.

Reading the work of Latinx poets gave me the audacity to write. It gave me a lineage to call back on. Their work grounded me in a history and freed me to concentrate on my task. I didn’t have to write everything, I could instead focus on a few particular questions. It gave me a tradition to build upon. I can’t explain what it felt like to read The House on Mango Street. It was like reading my own voice in some ways. The same with reading Rigoberto Gonzalez and Gary Soto. It was intimate.

I wrote this book for young people. I wrote it while in conversation with teenagers at Young Chicago Authors. Two of my mentees wrote blurbs for my book. Before I moved to publish it, I wanted to know that they rocked with it. This is a gift to them and the 15-year-old boy I was. I hope this book makes a Chicanx young person feel a little less lonely. I hope it makes them feel a little more possible. I hope this book encourages young people to write their own poems in their own styles.

ON IDENTITY

When I was a student in writing workshops at Harvard University, one of the responses I could count on hearing about my work was that it was “raw” or “emotional” or “powerful.” That’s because my peers weren’t reading my poems. They were reading my person. Given that experience, I decided to write the poems that I wanted to write.

I set out to write a book of poems centered around a particular Mexican American experience that was not tragic. No Mexican people die in my book. There are Mexican people who have died, but no one dies in the book.  I think so often our lives and our struggles are made into a spectacle for someone else’s learning. I didn’t want to contribute to that.

Yes, I’ve written about many different experiences. I write about going to the doctor and paying bills and listening to hip-hop, and my most recent obsession is trying to write poems about friendship. Those poems did or did not fit this collection. If they didn’t fit, it wasn’t because of a digression from the theme. I don’t worry about that.

FOR THE PAGE OR FOR THE STAGE

Honestly, I’m struggling with how to answer these questions. I set out to write the best book of poems possible. I didn’t write a spoken word album and then last minute decide to print it as text. I knew that the poems had to work on the page, and I wasn’t worried about how the poems read out loud because I know how to perform. I could read you a list of cereal ingredients and make it sound powerful, so that was never how I judged a poem. I was thinking about concision, narrative, imagery, pace. In constructing the lines, I was thinking about where I wanted the reader to breathe, but also how to use enjambment to give lines multiple meanings.

I don’t set out to write a spoken word poem or a poem for the page. I set out to write the best poem possible. It just so happens that I started writing poems for the poetry slam and for the open mic. Those performance moments are invaluable ways to receive feedback for a beginning poet. (By the way, that’s my advice for poets writing on the page: go to your local open mic and consider the feedback from the audience as seriously as you would the feedback of a colleague in a workshop.)

My advice for any poet when it comes to performance and writing poems on the page is to play. Avery R. Young used to make us do this exercise where he would give us a poem prompt, and we would do our best to write a poem. Then, he made us cut half the words from the poem. Then when we did that, he would make us cut the poem in half again. Then, again. By the end, we would be down to  2 or 3 words. I hated that exercise, but it taught me how to find the heart of my poem. To this day, that’s one of my favorite exercises for revision.

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Carl Phillips is the author of, most recently, Wild Is the Wind (FSG 2018) and Reconnaissance (FSG 2015). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

The most important thing I’ve learned about being a poet, in terms of this idea of the relationship between reading and writing, has been to be mindful of living in language – and reading is a large part of that, maybe the main part. So I never feel I’m not somehow engaging with writing, even if I’m not writing myself, as long as I am reading. And as it turns out, reading feeds the writing, sparks new ideas, presents new ways of engaging with language that I can carry over into my own work. More generally, though, the most important thing I’ve learned about being a poet is to trust myself and my way of seeing the world, and to not be distracted by the passing trends, popularity and/or the lack of it, other people’s ideas of how I should or shouldn’t write, and what I should write about.

ON READING

I’d recommend the Collected Poems of Robert Hayden. One reason is that there’s such a sweeping range of subject matter – from art to nature to history to race relations to faith; in a sense, the book argues for and presents us with a multidimensional sense of how to live, what matters in a life. Hayden’s answer seems to be that everything matters. And this has been important to me, when I doubt the value of writing about, say, a flower in a time of so much social and political upheaval. Hayden’s work argues for including everything, because the fact is that things like flowers not only still exist in difficult times, but the joy we may feel at seeing a flower also exists, and is also a valid feeling side by side with rage and frustration. To include all of it is to honor what it means to be alive and human. Meanwhile, I find that Hayden speaks especially to the possibilities for faith (of all kinds, secular and not) as a healing force, as a way of seeing across differences to what we have in common as human beings. And that is a message that never loses relevance, but especially seems relevant right now. At the same time, Hayden also has very straightforwardly political poems, by which I mean poems that address topical issues. He shows what it means, to be multifaceted as a poet, to be a capacious see-er of a life.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL

Poetry is to be a record that we were here at this time and in this place. Which means that each voice counts since it’s only through a large choiring together that the record can be reflective of the variousness of human experience. To speak at all is to refuse silence, is to insist on being here – is a form of resistance. And that is so, whether we are writing about the latest outrage in the news or about having a barbecue with friends. I think we are each, as poets, responsible for representing our own small vision; and it seems important to stay mindful that we are each contributing to something larger than ourselves. Meanwhile, while I speak of poetry as a record, I feel I should add that poetry is ultimately about transformation, about engaging with experience in such a way that experience gets re-seen by the reader. I love having a poem make me rethink my assumptions about a given subject, it feels less like a challenge than like an invitation to consider other points of view. And it seems to me that this is how we evolve as individuals and, by extension, as a society. I would point again to Hayden as an ideal model.

ON IDENTITY (ON BEING)

Homer writes about many things, but let’s just say war. War is something that affects all of us and is going on all around the world right now. To read Homer is to understand the timelessness of war, and to have a sense of its varying psychologies, which aren’t always that different from war today. Marcus Aurelius is concerned with how to be an individual human being within a society that has assumptions about how to behave. Isn’t this exactly what it is, as well, to be a poet of color? To want to be oneself on the page, in the midst of expectations, from all sides, about how to write? He is also very caught up in wrestling with how to face the fact of mortality.  It seems to me that this is still very much what we do, as human beings, as we get older.

Meanwhile, the natural world has never really gone away. I live in a city, but there are trees and flowers here, plenty of wildlife visits my backyard – hawks, raccoons, opossums, snakes. I just spent a week teaching by the sea, in Massachusetts, where I grew up – so the sea is part of my life at times, in actuality, but it’s also something I carry with me in memory. I don’t quite see how the natural world could be considered irrelevant to anyone living at this time – simply to look up is to see the natural world of sky and what flies through it. I said in the essay “A Politics of Mere Being” (Poetry Foundation, December 2016) looking at the sky is part of the daily life of a person of color, as well – not every second is spent thinking about the specifics of racial identity, to name one particular category of identity.

I see poetry as a record of what it means for a single sensibility to have lived in a given time, place, history. We still read and learn from ancient texts, and what they have to tell us is pretty much still true for what being human means. And we still live in the natural world – it’s just my backyard or the landscape of Massachusetts or Missouri, or somewhere I may have traveled. I saw a hawk while walking my dog recently – it wasn’t the pastoral world, it was simply my urban neighborhood here in downtown St. Louis. I include in my poems the things that coexist in my world – books, nature, the body, love, disappointment. I think they just naturally cohere because they are all part of a single life.

ON WILD IS THE WIND

I had the popular song in mind – and I mention in the notes to the poem that I specifically have Nina Simone’s version of “Wild Is the Wind” in mind, it’s a song I have listened to for years, and I remain haunted by how it captures the idea of the fleetingness of love, its instability, and how these qualities make it all the more important to hold on to love for whatever time there might be, knowing full well that we can’t keep it.

I note that, although this is an old song, it has remained popular among singers more contemporarily – David Bowie covered it, Cat Power has covered it. As with older literary texts, older songs don’t become irrelevant to contemporary singers – and the reason for that is that the songs themselves have a timelessness: love remains unstable, unpredictable. Knowing that someone else has felt this, and has put it so memorably into song, is comforting.

Insightful contemporary poets always know that they are writing from and to a world of literary traditions that came before them – Danez Smith has a crown of sonnets in his recent book, Terrance Hayes just published an entire book of sonnets; neither Smith nor Hayes got there without knowing Shakespeare and, presumably, finding the sonnet something with continued relevance.

In my view, it’s all about seeing how it’s all working together. This is why I routinely include very contemporary language and speech side by side with what some people might think of as old-fashioned. In my poem “Wild Is the Wind,” there is a reference to Donne’s metaphysical thoughts – but that comes shortly after the line “I love sex with you too, that doesn’t mean I wanna stop my life for it.” That’s a very contemporary voice, speaking about desire, and speech that we remember. And Donne spoke a lot about desire and memory. There’s a long history of desire and memory, and to speak of them at the 21st-century end of it doesn’t erase everything that came before.

ON TRANSLATION

My only real approach to translation is that I want to produce a text that is faithful to the original as much as possible – so that if people want to read, say, Philoctetes, and they don’t know Greek, they can know that they are getting a fair example of what Sophocles intended. For this reason, I insist on faithfulness to the original context and intention – I’m not going to have an ancient Greek play that takes place at the mall, for example, nor am I going to change the names of ancient characters into those of contemporary popular figures whom the author knew nothing about. Not that there can’t be value to those texts that have indeed altered the context: West Side Story is an excellent play, for example. But it isn’t the replacement for Romeo and Juliet, the play that West Side Story is based on. West Side Story shows that the idea of thwarted love isn’t limited to the 16th century – it’s timeless, to use that world again, and it also crosses cultures and economic class. But it doesn’t make Romeo and Juliet irrelevant – it invites, instead, a conversation across time about the tension between human desire and societal (parental) expectation. And to me, that’s an exciting conversation.

As for why I choose to translate ancient as opposed to contemporary work, I can only translate from the languages I know – Greek and Latin. Fortunately, there are people who know the many languages I don’t know, so I have access to literature from all over the world. We can each only do our part based on what we know.

ON FREE VERSE

There aren’t many contemporary poets who are drawn to write in form. Poets who can be described as formalists, i.e., they make use of traditional English metrical and sonic systems. I once wrote a villanelle, which is in my first book. And I wrote an actual sort of double sonnet, which I think is in my second book. But that’s it.

Of course, free verse still involves prosody – manipulation of lines, syntactical play, sentence-making (and the interplay of fragment), stanza choices, point of view shifts, shifts in grammatical mood. And it also can sometimes include rhyme here and there, sporadically. I am attentive to all of these, as I think all poets have to be, and maybe especially so in free verse, which still involves artistry. I believe to write free verse well requires a mastery of prosodic tradition, yes, but in order to be able to simultaneously resist and push forward that tradition in more contemporary ways. Frank Bidart comes to mind. Lyn Hejinian. Ashbery. I have, in recent books, had quite a few poems that are fourteen lines long, but they aren’t formal sonnets – I’m more interested in thinking about the space for meditation that fourteen lines allow for, but not in the technical elements of the sonnet, at least for my own work.

As I tell my students, all poetry is patterned language. To that degree, it involves form. But for me, fixed forms and regulated rhyme don’t match up with my sensibility as a writer. As a reader, I certainly appreciate formal poetry. But as a writer, my quest – ongoing – has been to find a way to shape language in such a way that it contains, if only briefly, a highly restless cast of mind, my own. And this restlessness is something that seems to require that each poem find its own organic shape. That’s why each of my poems looks different from the next one.  Each time I write, I’m engaged in discovering a form, not in revisiting a form that’s already out there.

Ruben Quesada is a contributing editor at Chicago Review of Books. He serves as faculty at Northwestern University, The School of the Art Institute, and Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches Latinx literature and poetry writing. His chapbook of poetry and translations, Revelations, is available from Sibling Rivalry Press, an inclusive publishing house whose entire catalog is housed in the Library of Congress’ Rare Book and Special Collections division.

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