Welcome to December’s installment of 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 Steven Sanchez, Amy Sayre Baptista, and Shara Lessley.
Steven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue, selected by Mark Doty as the winner of the Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. A CantoMundo Fellow and Lambda Literary Fellow, he’s the author of two chapbooks and his poems have appeared in journals including North American Review, Nimrod, Poet Lore, and Muzzle.
Buy Phantom Tongue.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
One of the first things I would tell my younger self is Stop writing poems with your mentors and peers as your (only) target audience. In a workshop setting, I think it’s natural to start hearing the voices of your workshop-mates and leader—to internalize their critiques, internalize their values, and internalize their aesthetics. Having their perspectives in mind can absolutely help with drafting and revising. However, relying predominantly on their voices to gauge whether or not a poem “works” severely limits a poem’s potential. It’s tempting to tailor your poems to the group of people that evaluate your work for months at a time (sometimes years), because who doesn’t feel good when people say nice things about your poem? But, when I did that, I found myself writing for praise instead of writing to understand. Keep their voices in mind, but just as importantly, read widely and keep the poems you love in mind, the poems that confound you, the poems that anger you. Keep your parents in mind, your partners, your friends, your most trusted readers, that one irate customer who yelled at you for getting their order wrong. A poem will have a hell of a time trying to address all of these audiences, but sometimes you just need to respond to one specific person (or poem) in order get a better sense of where a poem may want to go.
One of the collections I return to most is Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, because of moments like this:
Silence can be a plan
the blueprint to a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence
This book examines how remaining silent about systemic oppression only expands its power. Fortunately, Dream of a Common Language also imagines how we might speak into that silence, like in “21 Love Poems” that unapologetically celebrates Queer intimacy. However, the speaker in these poems isn’t a savior with the magic solution, but a reminder that each of us contributes to the silence that simultaneously harms us (such as Marie Curie “denying / her wounds came from the same source of her power”). Ultimately, this collection urges us to (re)consider what silence means and how we might build a language that usurps it.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
Corrinne Clegg Hales shared a great metaphor that might help answer the question of whether poetry has a social function (and I’ll do my best to do it justice):
Rivers gain their power to carve mountains and reshape land by consuming tertiary streams. On their own, tertiary streams have their own current and their own direction, but when they intersect with the mainstream, they are overpowered and erased. As the mainstream continues its path, it consumes more tertiary streams, continues overpowering them, continues erasing them. But, if enough tertiary streams intersect the river at the same point, they can change the direction of the mainstream.
Writing a poem, or a book, or a lifetime of books, may never actually be enough to change the mainstream. But, as more and more time goes by, and more and more people begin writing about similar subjects and experiences, the mainstream may actually be directed down an entirely different path, informed and influenced by the very work that the mainstream once ignored.
Of course, just like with river systems, this can take centuries.
On a more immediate level, I think poems can be powerful tools for the poet (and maybe, by extension, the reader) to better understand our capacity for harm. Specifically, I’m thinking of what Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux call “the shadow”—the parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of, the parts we’re afraid of, the aspects of ourselves we don’t want to look at directly.
But, when we don’t acknowledge our shadow, we may inadvertently contribute to the silence that Rich talks about, which is why I especially admire persona poems by poets like Ai, Gary Jackson, Frank Bidart, and Patricia Smith. They adopt the personae of people we consider monsters—murderers, racists, rapists, more. These poems are difficult for me to read, but at the same time, I admire how they aren’t afraid to humanize monsters (and I don’t mean “humanize” in an empathetic sense, I mean “humanize” as in making us realize that their personae’s actions and thoughts are incredibly human, that each of us has a capacity for violence). It’s hard to interrogate ourselves honestly. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s easier to project the shadow onto a persona and let them wrestle with it. Poems can help us understand our capacity to harm others, help us understand how we internalize oppressive cultural narratives, and help us understand what happens when we ignore our shadow.
Amy Sayre Baptista’s writing has appeared in The Best Small Fictions (2017), Corium, SmokeLong Quarterly, Ninth Letter, The Butter, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other journals. She was a SAFTA fellow (2015), a CantoMundo Poetry fellow (2013), and a scholarship recipient to the Disquiet Literary Festival in Lisbon, Portugal (2011). She performs with Kale Soup for the Soul, a Portuguese-American artist’s collective, and Poetry While You Wait (Chicago). She is a co-founder of Plates&Poetry, a community arts program focused on food and writing. She has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and teaches Humanities at Western Governors University. She lives in Illinois.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
What I have learned about poetry is also what I would tell my younger self: Be an untamed reader. And when you sit down to write, after reading unguardedly, sit as if a potter at the wheel. Let the words rise up wet and alive. Don’t worry if the sides collapse on the first go, or the second or fifth. Stay with the language. Challenge it. A poet cannot fear the power of their own hands or believe that any state is permanent. Just start again and again. Keep working until the lines stand on their own, a vessel in the end. Like a potter’s clay body, your language is unique to you. Formed from the salt of you and the sand of your elders. Equal parts imagination, tenacity, and your voracious reading practice.
The first book of poetry I read straight through as an adult was Pablo Neruda’s, Ode to Opposites. It was a Christmas gift to me from someone I admired very much but was often in disagreement with. Line by line, the poems set an object in relief to its opposite. This book taught me that disagreement is not disrespect. That the idea of “opposite” is layered and unexpected, as should poetry be, as should our thinking be, and maybe how we should love each other. I return to that book often. Especially in the political times we find ourselves. One poem in particular, “To My Duties”, where once again Neruda is showing the reader the sublime in the ordinary. How the simple act of noticing can manifest hope, a revolutionary kind of hope that soars above isolation and defeat. I always remember this last stanza, I’m sweeping out my bell tower/polishing my tools and my heart/I have enough dew to go around.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
To me, the social function of poetry is that in the act of reading and discussing a poem with another person, we become three. We become a circle. I see this happen with my students, with fellow poets, or even the Lyft driver who asks why I have a typewriter and what I do with it. When I tell him I write poetry he recites one of his own from the heart. Now we are no longer strangers. The ride is no longer just a transaction. We come to that moment where the poem sets the table. We come to the table as individuals, but we are together in the space of the poem, we talk it out, and the poem joins us. Now, we have a community. One of the poems my students often read is “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” by Emily Dickinson. This poem does many things but always brings us into the bright light of a shared cultural fear – the unease humans often experience at the movement of a snake. The uncanny slither. Dickinson captures the singular fear, a whiplash unbraiding in the sun, and explodes our understanding so we have a new way of approaching the many fears we encounter daily which keep us closed and outside of a community. The poem connects us. Invites us back inside with our shared wonderings. Perhaps poetry’s potential is that interior/exterior dance Dickinson is teaching us with her language. The continued discomfort while still stepping forward. A welcome sign at the gates of the unknown.
Shara Lessley is a writer and teacher. The author of Two-Headed Nightingale and The Explosive Expert’s Wife, and co-editor of The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice, she is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Shara’s awards include the Mary Wood Fellowship from Washington College, an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University, the Reginald S. Tickner Fellowship from The Gilman School, and a “Discovery”/The Nation prize. Shara was the inaugural Anne Spencer Poet-in-Residence at Randolph College.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Because what’s superficially “new” often dominates our short-term conversation, beginning poets sometimes turn away from masterwork and focus too much on what’s fashionable, or give up writing altogether because they worry that everything’s already been better said. To counter these anxieties from time to time I watch ballet videos on YouTube—say, six or seven different dancers spanning many decades performing the same part. Recent footage of Natalia Osipova as Kitri in Don Quixote, for example, followed by Gelsey Kirkland rehearsing the same role in the 1970s. Although the choreography is identical, the signature effect of each performance is obvious. The way Kirkland attacks a phrase, for instance, or how Osipova balances en pointe a half extra count to emphasize a particular line—these seemingly minor choices offer proof that it’s possible to recharge inherited forms. The ballerina’s solo is called a variation, named for its range of steps. I also like to think the word gestures toward the kind of breathtaking revision that occurs when the right dancer’s technical precision and artistic skill revitalize the movement, helping her audience to see a century-old plot as if for the first time. The example of the dancers reminds us as poets that it’s possible, after many years of apprenticeship, to retell familiar stories while simultaneously transcending and making them new.
Right now I’m craving poetry that is deeply consoling, work that holds up the individual life within the context of suffering, yet gives the dailyness of that life equal treatment within the world of the poem. Also, because the cultural volume these days is so turned up—doesn’t it feel like everybody’s shouting?—I’m craving understatement and expressions of doubt. For these reasons and for her subtle wryness, plainspoken diction, precision, and insightfulness, I recommend Wisława Szymborska’s Map: Collected and Last Poems (translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak). I love Szymborska’s deference of self. She’s at once utterly present, but also somewhat removed. While her poems are threaded with brutality and loss, their speakers remain patiently steadfast in their looking. As for craft, Szymborska is a hell of a list-maker. Her recurring use of questions never feels like empty rhetoric or staged interrogation. In a recent episode of The New Yorker: Poetry podcast, Catherine Barnett calls Szymborska a writer of “profound philosophical intelligence…and astonishment,” one who can go from the “larger political collective questions to the very particular moment.” Szymborska’s voice is singular. We need her more than ever.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
Lately, I’m grateful for the lyric’s concentrated intimacy. For me, poetry serves as an antidote to the tyranny of technology and media whose speed and relentless surge of language is often baseless, unfiltered, and without context. Although information found online or distributed via cable news obviously isn’t created equal (nor reliable!), we receive it in a constant flood, as if the ad for moisturizer carries the same value as the political commentator’s analysis of Trump’s latest tweet or the Grumpy Cat meme. Thankfully, poetry reconnects us in a way social media doesn’t. It ferries us across geography and time, allowing us to witness accounts of joy, suffering, beauty, oppression. The art’s quietness gives us perspective. Poetry provides us with an alternative, meditative space in which to engage with deeply felt, deeply considered language that runs counter to the noise that fills our days. The lyric is a stay against cheap rhetoric. At a time when the country is dangerously polarized, poetry also offers a place for us to consider the importance of nuance. It asks us to honor contradiction and complexity. As Eliot reminds us, the lyric isn’t “the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Still, I find its central paradox remarkable—that from this powerful interiority comes our most communal art.