Poetry Today

3 Contemporary Poets on Suffering, Sorrow, and Truth

Ruben Quesada speaks with Ada Limón, Blas Falconer, and Ben Purkert.

Welcome to Poetry Today, a monthly series focused on introducing readers to contemporary poets and their recently published collection of poetry (and the successor to Dear Poetry Reader). This month, we feature award-winning poets Ben Purkert, Blas Falconer, and Ada Limón.

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Ben Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018). His poems appear or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, AGNI, Ploughshares, Tin House Online, and elsewhere. A former New York Times Fellow at NYU, he teaches at Rutgers. He is also the editor of Back Draft for Guernica, an interview series focused on poetry and revision.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

The most important thing I have learned about being a poet is that writing poetry is more about attending than intending, more about silence than sound. I like how Forrest Gander phrases it, that poetry “is a kind of listening.” When I was young, I really wanted to have my voice heard. I considered poems an extension—or amplification—of the self. But of course, poetry is so much more than a mouthpiece for the ego.

Whatever intentions I have for my poems, who cares? My poems, I’m fairly sure, have never met me. They wouldn’t even say hello if they passed me in the street. It’s not that my relationship to the work isn’t personal. It is, very much so. But you know how some fish species are born and have no need for their parents? Like, they hatch and then immediately swim away? There’s love there too.

ON READING 

I would recommend an older collection by the Danish poet Inger Christensen’s Alphabet. Published in 1981 and translated into English by Susanna Nied, the book attempts to catalog the sum of our earthly existence, from apricot trees to anxiety to Icarus to atom bombs. It reads like a modern-day Book of Numbers, like scripture. In this time of planetary peril and humanitarian crisis, I’d love for Alphabet to be in everyone’s hands. It names everything that’s at stake, now and always.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL 

I am reminded of a line from Solmaz Sharif: “The duty of the writer… is to remind us that we will die. And that we aren’t dead yet.” This might seem like a modest sort of capability, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s profound. Why do we struggle to face the reality of our own mortality? Is it fear of death? Sure. But I think it’s also because many of us refuse to accept the fact that we’re actually living, and the weight of responsibility that comes with that. There’s no greater privilege than to forget that you’re alive. It’s very comfortable to feel dead to the world, to the news, to the suffering of others.

Poetry, I believe, is powerful precisely because it compels us to engage. For me, it’s less about pushing readers toward a particular action and more about reminding us that we can act, that we’re empowered – at this moment! – with life. It’s like a mirror that fogs up, showing us our own breath. If we choose inaction, we can’t plead ignorance. Poetry has been trying to tell us all along.

ON ENDINGS

For me, the line break is the line. The poem’s ending is the poem. What would James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” be without that final gut punch? Would the poem move us at all? I suspect we’d still be lying in that hammock, snoozing through the day.

When I write and revise, I keep in mind these words from Vievee Francis: “Allow your closure its distress.” I’m not trying to put a bow on anything. I’m not trying to gift wrap a present for the reader. I’m not even striving for resolution. Have you ever had the experience of reading a poem in a book and then you turn the page, expecting the poem to continue, but it doesn’t? I love the icy shudder of that moment. The poem left without saying goodbye. That feels true.

ON ORGANIZING A COLLECTION

Organizing poems into a collection is so hard! I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it requires such a unique skill set. Suddenly you’re not just a poet anymore; you’re also a curator.

In my experience, it helped a lot when I noticed—with the help of some very generous poet-friends!—that all my poems concerned loss in some fashion. Loss of the self, loss of a beloved, loss of our habitable planet. When I found this throughline, For the Love of Endings clicked into place, in a way. A big relief, but also kind of bittersweet. When you discover what your creative project is all about, aren’t you also resigning yourself to what it’s not? When I realized that I’d written a book about loss, that too felt like a loss.

Here’s a piece of advice from Meghan O’Rourke that also helped: readers read for similarity while writers focus more on the difference. As a poet, you might look at your poems and conclude that they’re too disparate thematically to live together in one collection. But readers are sharp when it comes to spotting connections. Just because you don’t see the connective tissue doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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Blas Falconer is the author of Forgive the Body This Failure, The Foundling Wheel, and A Question of Gravity and Light. The recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange, he teaches poetry in the MFA program at San Diego State University.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

I first encountered contemporary poetry in an advanced English class during my senior year of college and began writing soon after that. I was still in the closet and would be for three more years, so reading and writing poetry was a deeply private experience, at first, that I found profoundly rewarding. To write poetry meant to honor my own voice, to be sensitive to the conflicts at odds within me for much of my life, and to actively seek clarity and understanding, for the first time, really, through introspection and not from those around me. Once I started, I knew that I wanted to write poetry for the rest of my life.

In graduate school, various awards and prizes became a way of supporting my studies, and perhaps, more importantly, validating and nurturing the voice and the perspective that I had not acknowledged openly until then. After graduate school, I sought and was fortunate enough to find a tenure-track position, teaching poetry. Various competitions allowed me to not teach over the summer, and to instead complete the manuscript for my first book. Competitions helped me pay off debts that had accrued over the years in school and hire childcare when I needed it to complete my second book of poems. Professionally, I had done everything that I could to support my writing life, but as time went on, my writing became more and more entangled with my career, until my professional life wasn’t supporting my writing life, but the other way around.

Publications and awards are a kind of currency to secure the coveted tenure teaching position, tenure and promotions, the raise or sabbatical. At some point, however, there seemed to be an inverse correlation between the amount of time that I spent seeking support, and how much pleasure that I took in writing. Writing brought me anxiety, then, not satisfaction or insight as I moved further and further from that internal voice, that quiet voice that led me to poetry in the first place.

Eventually, I had to slowly and actively disentangle my poetry from my profession. I began turning inward, again, wanting a less public writing life, writing for the sake of writing, one poem at a time. And eventually, it began to feel the way it had when I first started, trusting myself, guided by own voice.

If you keep a secret about yourself for much of your life for fear of rejection, humiliation, and violence, then to finally speak your truth, even a simple gesture of love, can feel like a revolutionary act, a validation of oneself, questioning the systems of power that would silence you. However, what threatens to silence isn’t always some oppressive power outside of the writer, but also, the writer him- or herself.  In my case, at least, it was a quickly growing desire for validation. If I could tell my younger self one thing about being a poet, it would be this: Protect what brings you back to the page, what rings true, because if you lose that, then you’ve lost everything, no matter what anyone else thinks or says.

ON READING

I’m reading Valzhayna Mort’s anthology Something Indecent: Poems Recommended by Eastern European Poets. Each poem is introduced with a description of, and often an explanation for, its significance to readers of that region of the world. It’s fascinating to consider not only why a poem speaks to a particular community in time but why it remains relevant. The books that my students gravitate to, now, aren’t the books that I gravitated to two decades ago, which were not the books that my own mentors gravitated to during their formative years, I imagine.

And yet, I’m always going back through the literary canon for the work of poets who have guided me, and more importantly, perhaps, for those poets who I couldn’t, for whatever reason, appreciate before. The poets that inspire me now as a forty-seven-year-old father of two aren’t always the ones that spoke to me as a graduate student in my twenties. 20thcentury Central European poets and Latin American poets, for example, poets who I admired and studied in graduate school, speak to me differently, with more urgency, now, in 2018, than they did in the mid-1990s.

I’m reminded that those who wrote before us are an infinite resource, but it’s also inspiring to think of oneself within an ancient tradition, isn’t it, speaking to and with the many voices that have already spoken and continue to speak as we continue to read them. This year at the AWP Conference, I attended a tribute panel for poets who had recently passed away, and I was particularly moved by Ed Skoog’s remembrance of a friend and fellow poet, Derek Burleson. What struck me was his plea to not let Derrick be forgotten, to read his work, to teach his poems to our students. He reminded me that it is our charge to do our part in keeping those writers alive by celebrating their work after they’ve stopped writing.

I will follow Ed Skoog’s example and recommend Claire Kagayama-Ramakrishnan, author of two collections of poetry, Shadow Mountain and Bear, Diamonds, and Crane. Both poetry collections intimately address experiences of first, second, and third generation Japanese Americans in the 20th century. Specifically, the poems revisit the internment camps of World War II and, among other subjects, the ensuing and often more subtle expressions of xenophobia.  Of Claire and her poetry, Kimiko Hahn wrote, “she draws us into a personal history that happens to be a part of American history and subsequent reparations. Here is a socially-conscious writer whose issues of war and passion bring us back and then forward again.” These days, with xenophobia and denial and fear on the rise, Claire’s voice offers insight into our time.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL 

Matthew Olzamnn’s poem, “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czelaw Milozs,” went viral as a response to gun violence in America. Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” was read again and again after 9/11 and is shared on the anniversary of 9/11 each year. Warsan Shire’s poem, “What they did yesterday afternoon” became an international touchstone in response to the attacks in Paris, ending:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

When tragedy strikes, people turn to poetry to remember and to contemplate what seemed beyond comprehension.

A project that I’ve turned and returned to since the 2016 election is Terrain’s “Letters to America.” As explained in the project’s December 4, 2016 introduction, “Letters to America” is a continuing series of poems, letters, and photographs reaching out to us when division is so pervasive across the country, within communities, and even families. “Letters to America” is a challenge given to artists to not only reflect our time, but to also offer an alternative perspective when “hate, anger, and the breakdown of civility and democracy seem to have gained the upper hand.” As Allison Deming writes, “Think of the great spirit of inventiveness the Earth calls forth after each major disturbance it suffers. Be artful, inventive, and just, my friends, but do not be silent.”

ON SORROW

When I go about my day-to-day life, of course, like most, I experience a great range of feelings: boredom, frustration, anger, love, joy. But when sorrow surfaces, I do what I can to brush it aside. If I didn’t, how would I ever get through my day? How would I manage to get two kids off to school, well fed with their teeth brushed and faces washed? On the other hand, when I sit down to write, when I quiet myself, I brush aside, instead, the list of tasks that need to be done, bills to be paid, appointments to make, the needs of others, and what rises to the surface is whatever internal conflicts have been troubling me. I don’t call them up. They’re there, waiting. And I let them speak. That’s when I can look at what I’ve not been able to see fully up until that moment. And that’s when the poems come. They come as a whisper. They reconcile or articulate, at least, the contradictions within myself. So ultimately I don’t think of the finished poems as sorrowful, though I get why they come across that way. I think of them as an understanding, albeit temporary, that I’ve been longing for.

ON ORGANIZING A COLLECTION

I teach a two-semester class on the manuscript in the MFA at San Diego State University, and students often seem paralyzed with the overwhelming task of putting a book together. Together, we read and reread, identifying recurring images or themes or patterns and variations on these, for example. We consider what seems essential and what can be set aside. We consider various possible arcs. As we do this, the aims of the manuscript begin to crystallize, hopefully, for the poet, and we work together to create an order that best speaks to those aims. We identify how poems support and contradict one another, creating a rich and dynamic experience for the reader. Usually, secondary and tertiary themes emerge that resonate with the primary. Although it’s useful to look at models and essays about organizing a collection of poems, and we certainly do, eventually each manuscript will call for its own order and revision, unique to itself, its voice and aims of the poems.

With my latest book, the order changed many times before I settled on the final arrangement. The final arrangement came to me when I considered beginning with a particular poem, “Communion,” which I realized spoke to so many of the recurring subjects: death, parenthood and estrangement, sexuality/romantic love, and place/exile.  Each subject addressed a longing for an intimacy that had been lost or only imagined. I decided to divide the book by the abovementioned subjects in the abovementioned order. Each section created its own arc, wrestling with longing, moving toward understanding. When I reread the manuscript, I knew that it was the best way to structure the book of poems because the cumulative effect was more palpable than it had been in any other iteration. I could see/feel more clearly how the poems were building upon one another to form the best expression of longing, not an argument against it so much as a means of accepting it as a part of who I am, who we all are on some level.

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Ada Limón is the author of five books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky WreckThis Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. Her new collection, The Carrying, was released by Milkweed Editions in August of 2018 and has been called “her best yet” by NPR, “remarkable” by The New York Times, “exquisite” by the Washington Post, and one of the Ten Titles to Pick Up Now by O Magazine. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer in Lexington, Kentucky.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

Poetry has allowed me to be present in the world in a way that I’m not sure I could have been otherwise. I am full of chaos most days. A rush of madness and obsessions that can crush the moment by either speeding forward into the future or plummeting into the past. Poetry helps me calm that and see something still, exquisite and breathing. Each time I write a poem I feel like I am recommitting to the world. Like Richard Hugo says, “Poetry is a way of saying you and the world have a chance.”

ON READING

I still look at Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III as a way of understanding the dissonance of the human experience. The idea of separation from the natural world while still “being” the natural world is essential to the book. There’s also a way her work is particularly skilled in hiding gender and sexuality while still being desirous. I am constantly impressed by the way her work both withholds and exposes at the same time, while all the while guiding us into the quiet desperation of daily living.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL

At its best, poetry can connect us to each other and reveal ourselves to one another. The world doesn’t fit into a tight narrative. We love a tight narrative, a story we can follow, a beginning, middle, and an end. We like movies that end with a wedding or books that end with a baby. We like the upwards arc, but we also distrust it. Poetry allows for the mess of the world to exist, the liminal space, the between worlds, the loose threads to be gathered and displayed without a story, but with sound, with voice, with an image, with lyrical pleasures. I think if more people read poetry they could see themselves more fully and could see what connects us more fully.

ON LIVING TODAY

I know that we don’t have the option of checking out. I know that the daily intricacies of life and of art and of beauty and of love and of kindness are something that we need to hold up to the light despite all the mad darkness of the world. I am always asking myself, how do we live. how do we persevere, with all these forces (even our own brains) trying to destroy us? My answer is only, that we do, we do live, we go forward with our broken hearts and our troubled bodies and we do our best to kneel down to the mystery of the world. We make art and rekindle myths and know that what continues of us, after all of this over, might just be our best.

ON SUFFERING

I think the recognition of the darkness isn’t something that we outdo, but I think it’s something we do. If you live long enough, the grief comes, in different forms, and then perhaps if you live long enough you get some respite from it. I do know that I am drawn to poems that can both plummet into their own rage and desire and grief while still knowing that stillness and peace are possible, even if it’s only around the edges of an otherwise eclipsed light. Poems that only live in the dark and are relentless in their suffering are a mirror, yes, but they are also not entirely true. We can’t live there entirely, we might be able to write there, but then we leave and go get supper and pet the dog, or text a friend, and some little minor happiness occurs. I love it when poems seem to have knowledge of both of those worlds, the well, and the ladder.

ON ORGANIZING A COLLECTION

I’m not always interested in making my poetry have a narrative, but I am interested in having a book that has a narrative arc. For me, The Carrying has the arc of a new marriage of trying to have a kid and not being able to, and of suffering from mental and physical trauma, of national grief, but it is also about hope too and being able to see past those moments of suffering to something that brings you a peace. I want readers to feel like they are going on a journey, I wanted to make a book that was as complicated as real life. For people trying to put together their manuscript, I’d just say that you can build poem prompts off your own poems, don’t be scared to write fresh poems, better poems, stronger poems if what you have doesn’t quite thrill you yet. Don’t be scared to admit you’re not done. Also, don’t throw everything in. I have a lot of poems that don’t go into the books and that’s okay. A book should feel like a complete living thing, not a drawer you’ve stuffed everything into.

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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.

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