Poetry Today is a monthly series that introduces readers to poets from around the world who have recently published a collection of poetry. Poets share their thoughts and experience with reading, writing, and publishing. This series highlights the strengths and recommendations of contemporary poets for readers and writers at all stages of their career.
January features poets Chase Berggrun, Heather June Gibbons, Richard Scott, and Peter Twal.
Peter Twal is the author of Our Earliest Tattoos, winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize (University of Arkansas Press). His work has appeared in The Believer, Best New Poets, West Branch Wired, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Peter lives in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and works as an electrical engineer.
Buy Our Earliest Tattoos.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
In so many ways, I am still my younger self, making the same silly mistakes I’ve always made when it comes to reading and writing. More than anything though, I wish I came into my love of poetry with a better understanding of what it is to be an empathetic reader. The time I spent with the work of others used to be too one-sided—overly focused on my own healing, finding myself in the poems, or simply finishing the book to check it off my list. So much so, I occasionally forgot to search for my brothers and sisters in their own art and contribute to their shifts towards wholeness. It sounds so simple looking back, but such a transactional or quantifiable approach to the poetry I read early on was a huge detriment to my own. I began asking myself the wrong questions as I wrote, seeking unnecessary and untimely conclusions to emotional labor I needed to perform for my own personal/poetic development.
Years later, I’m still revising some of those older poems but with a bigger heart—my ear to their doors hoping to hear what they were dying to share—and without the intention of the pieces ever surfacing. Another case against transactionalism in poetry: not everything we write needs to be published or placed in a manuscript or read aloud even. Sometimes, a poem’s mere existence, how we shovel away enough dirt in our minds until we discover some new species of life, is its own magic and as validating a recognition as any.
Hands down, it’s truly worth everyone’s time to read The History of Violets by Marosa di Giorgio (translated by Jeannine Marie Pita) to marvel at (among other feats) how tightly she weaves together various genres. It is at once a narrative account, a spiraling surrealist plunge, a disturbing horror film, and more. Plus, it’s a masterful work of translation. Here’s an excerpt from the book, “XVII,” one of its many little prose poems.
“I am always the same child in the shadow of my father’s peach tree. The peaches are dark, ochre and pink; already they’re showing their fine, perfect teeth, their long, golden tongues. The apples and pears are still green; in their foliage, I take refuge. But then, I look toward the house; I hear the conversations, the bonfires; I watch visitors arriving, relatives, neighbors. The smoke rises slowly over the pines; the bell calls us for tea.
And I stay hidden among the leaves. The peaches are like sinister rosebuds.”
The book is bursting with these diary-like, seemingly banal scenes of a family home; however, there is malevolent darkness pulsing at the heart of it all. The recurring images from the garden, like the peaches here, warp throughout the book into increasingly menacing entities—not unlike how the title, the more times you say it begins to sound like “The History of Violence” instead. Danger is rooted in all things, di Giorgio assures us. The History of Violets is just a masterclass in imagistic layering, a slow burn of a drama, from one of the most talented writers of the 20th century.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
How I see it, poetry arises from the lull in a conversation. It’s the articulation of our uncomfortable silences (or comfortable, for that matter). Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” comes to mind, particularly his notion about “pure language,” as I reflect on this. He posits a dense argument, difficult to excerpt, but it does lay a foundation for something that I believe to be true: all poetry is, in some fashion, an act of translation. We translate silences and ourselves for one another.
This world is chaos, collision after collision of incoherencies, and while poetry doesn’t remedy that—what can, honestly—our endless search for voice and love in that hodgepodge makes us feel less lonely in our own hearts. As of late, I’ve tried to be more vocal when I am struck by the work of another writer. Small things. Just sending an email or a quick message to the author to let them know how much their time and efforts and art meant to me, especially when they’ve found a way to articulate something I’ve never successfully been able to. In expressing how I feel a little less alone in the company of their work, I hope they feel a little less alone in it, too. Because the act of simply writing a poem doesn’t always heal us. But knowing that it helped heal someone else? That’s that stuff. So, I truly believe that’s why we’re here, a poet’s capability: to translate ourselves as a way of supporting one another.
Though somewhat counterintuitive, what I find most enticing about poetic forms is their malleability. Like, what makes something a form? Which conventions dictate where that line is drawn? Are some more important than others? There’s plenty to admire about a poem that adheres to each and every convention of a poetic structure—no doubt—but even the strictest bodies of work lack definition sometimes. That’s the liminal space that I seek out. Where the structure feels more my own and, crucially, puts those boundaries in service of my poem as opposed to it bending to suit the constraints of the structure.
This one time, someone got really worked up when I referred to the poems in Our Earliest Tattoos as sonnets. And that’s understandable. They aren’t typical. The pieces forego the most recognizable traits—rhyme scheme, meter, the 14-line limit—in favor of other common sonnet moves. They’re love poems. Packed with hyperbolic metaphors. A barrage of “if-then” statements. And to me, it’s important to refer to the poems as sonnets. It’s a kind of personal reminder to continually wander through and challenge my understanding of writing traditions.
I didn’t always follow my own advice though. When I set out to write Our Earliest Tattoos, I decided that the pieces should always observe the 14 line rule. It wasn’t until I began revising the poems more seriously that some of them grew or shrank with time. I struggled with this. Were they still sonnets? Why had I decided that line limit was the form’s rubber stamp? After shedding that attachment, the poems really flourished, and I was left with a series of poems that were in essence haunted by the sonnet form. Appropriate—considering the book wrestles with memory, its imprecisions, the inability to tie it some pure truth (and the dangers of doing so). And I consider the blank spaces a nod to the conventions of the sonnets so obviously absent, like the snippets of our memory that we know are missing but still somehow hold everything together.
ON OUR EARLIEST TATTOOS
A few months after they’d broken up, I listened to LCD Soundsystem for the first time. Two long-time friends, Drew and Fielding, who I had not seen in over a year (despite our living in the same city at the same time) were the ones to introduce me to the song “All My Friends.” Unintentionally, the whole thing was almost too on-the-nose, the song’s painful annotation of how we grow apart from people, balance the joy of seeing loved ones with the sadness or guilt of knowing how long it’s been and maybe until the next time. How, sometimes, we lose each other. I was immediately taken by this theme (and damn, it’s a good song, lyrics aside). I played the song, again and again, obsessing over its obsessions with memory and the remnants of relationships, right out of college when I was growing apart from those I loved, a result of traveling so often for work. I began writing back to it. Years later, Our Earliest Tattoos revealed itself to me as a series of elegies. Poems that longed for a band I thought I’d never hear live, a group of friends I might never see all together again, and a song that I never wanted to end. The poems were just an elaborate attempt to keep the song going, wrenching apart the lyrics to build titles and scribble my heart into those margins.
No matter how many poems I wrote, the song always ended. And three months ago, Drew passed away unexpectedly, leaving a crater in my circle of friends. It has been some time since I’ve brought myself to listen to LCD Soundsystem again. I know when I get around to it though, it won’t be without remembering Drew, wondering when I’ll see him again, and if only I could see all my friends tonight.
As happy as I am with the disorder of my everyday life, I weirdly agonize about the organization of my poems—which isn’t to say they are tidy. Not in the least. Watching me revise must look a whole lot like standing in the yard while someone fluffs a pile of leaves over and over until one pile just feels right to them.
There’s a method though:
- Draft up a poem comprised of random tidbits I’ve collected over time.
- Rewrite the piece a few times to filter out the noise.
- Recite the draft from memory.
This ritual tends to shore up the vital organs of the poem, the images or motifs that it just can’t shake. But more importantly, the order of the lines changes drastically, unveiling a new logic to how the poem operates at its lowest levels. While I may not always stick to that new version, I do spend a lot of time with it and take seriously why it is that my mind rewrote the poem differently that go around, why it reached to connect certain lines, images, or words.
Montage Theory drives a lot of my poetic impulses. The energy derived from the bonds holding together elements of the poem is its most exciting aspect. I adore pieces that swerve from thought to thought and leave you a little confused as to how we end up in one spot considering where we started. This to say, at the level of process, I’m not dealing in complete randomness, but life’s a bit of a mess in the very least, right? I like to knead that disarray into my poetry best I can.
Richard Scott was born in London in 1981. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies including Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Swimmers, The Poetry of Sex (Penguin) and Butt Magazine. He has been a winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and a member of the Aldeburgh 8. His pamphlet Wound (Rialto) won the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2016 and his poem “crocodile” won the 2017 Poetry London Competition. Soho (Faber & Faber) is his first book.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
I would go back and tell myself that you can disobey. So many people have cautioned me against explicating in my writing, against being overtly queer, against using words like cock in my poetry. Even though I have always fought against this conservatism, this censorship, I wasted so much time feeling confused and guilty, wondering even if poetry might have a place for me and for my words.
I grew up under Section 28 – a particularly cruel piece of political legislation that denied queer people a relevant sex education and emptied the libraries of queer literature. This was a time of insidious censorship, repackaged as local governmental dictates when the Conservative government was attempting to dismantle queer culture. And I do not want to answer this legacy with thematic subtlety – I want to write openly because so many queer people have been forbidden to, and indeed still are in multiple countries across the world.
The poet Daljit Nagra changed my life, he told me once that nothing should stop me from writing my willy poems. This is advice I have taken into my core. This was the advice, the tutelage I was waiting for. And it cut through all the other noise.
Maybe all the advice I received about being quiet and subtle and politely poetic was so difficult to deal with because it chimed with my worst fears about myself. As a queer person, I had deep-seated fears about being open and expressive and noisy because queer people have been and indeed are still met with so much hate. But I am not afraid anymore.
I have learned that it is all too easy to convert censorship into self-censorship but I have learned to answer this with disobedience – and by writing the word COCK in capital letters.
Cavafy’s Collected Poems is an astonishing piece of art – although I should mention that Cavafy didn’t publish a poetry collection in his own life time instead he circulated his poems in handmade packages and letters to his close friends and admirers. Much of his work was explicate and perhaps this is the reason he wanted to remain underneath the radar. Cavafy bore witness to the queer sexualities and hidden passions of Egypt at a time when sex between men was punishable by prison, castration or execution.
In his disarmingly simple and direct poems, he redirects the male gaze towards the male body and transmutes the poet’s eye into something at once both intimate but alienated. His poetry addresses one of the central complexities of queerness, how it is possible to feel so close and attracted to something whilst feeling like a total outsider. Yet Cavafy’s poetic voice doesn’t seek to own or to even touch the objects of his gaze, rather he is an impassioned cataloguer – a queer social historian perhaps, as much as he is a poet.
The very fact that Cavafy’s private, handcrafted publications survived in any form is a miracle. I think of him writing them, sewing them together and distributing them to his friends in total secrecy – and then I think of all the queer artists of the past whose work might have been lost or destroyed. I feel so lucky to be able to read Cavafy.
I wouldn’t exactly call Cavafy’s sensibility as belonging to the past, perhaps he is more modern than us even. Cavafy’s erotic gaze is without shame – for him, it was an only prudish and authoritarian society that interrupted true and pure desire – and I think this is one of the reasons why queer writers like EM Forster and WH Auden were so attracted to his work. Cavafy invented a world were looking at men was permissible – and this is rare, perhaps even unique, in the history of queer poetry. Cavafy teaches that it is possible to look, to live and to write openly without shame.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
Last month, at a reading, a woman came up to me and wanted to apologize for what she referred to as her uncle’s homophobic language. When she was growing up she often heard him call queer people ‘Iron Hooves’ or ‘Ginger Beers’, cockney rhyming slang for Poofs and Queers, and despite never having used these historic slurs herself, she was deeply ashamed.
This encounter to me demonstrates the potential of poetry. How hearing one poem might completely and suddenly shed new light on a deeply entrenched situation and change it forever. We are sometimes afraid to talk about how life-changing poetry can be, perhaps because other things like politicians, drones, social media, journalism are more seismic but poetry is out there changing one reader at a time.
CA Conrad’s (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals have certainly changed me. CA’s poetry, essays, and blog posts have taught me just how capable the poet really is – they have strengthened my belief that the poet is able to transform their every day into creative and beautiful ritual. CA’s work essentially demonstrates how you might blend the mystical, the mundane and even the mean into a series of transformative ritualistic steps that will help you to write.
And CA’s generosity is palpable in everything they author; CA wants poets to keep on writing and so their rituals often look to find ways around potential blocks to creativity, such as your day job or even your detractors. In ‘You Don’t Have What it Takes to Be My Nemesis’ they encourage you to use pictures of people who have hurt you as rolling paper and to smoke them with fennel seeds and rose petals. A poem is then crafted from the notes of this exorcistic experience. Surely this is an essential activity for any poet who has had to deal with homophobes or haters?
CA is something of a twentieth-century Rilke who urges the reader to look directly into the beauty and the hurt of every day and the pedestrian and to utilize it. They are essential and transformative reading.
ON PAUL VERLAINE
Verlaine is one of the first poets I fell in love with. I was studying singing at Music College and settings of his poetry by Fauré, Debussy and Hahn were my queer respite in amongst a topography of restrained sacred music and heterosexual operatic romps! Verlaine’s poetry, and of course his tortured biography, was just so overwhelming. He is able to create the most extraordinary landscapes of mood and tone within just twelve or fourteen lines by expertly manipulating syntax and grammar – and by allowing sound, rather than narrative sense, to be his diving rod, his guide. Whilst learning how to pronounce and sing these masterpieces, which were of course mostly a mystery to me, something of their melancholia and their dense musicality seeped into my bones. Year’s later, when I began to write, I think part of me used that art song construction, that tiny evocative pressure chamber of mood and feeling, as a model for a poem.
But then the project of writing about Verlaine, those 15 Love Poems After Paul Verlaine, became something very different. What initially began as a wish to translate his work soon became a way to commune with Verlaine and to invite him to London’s Soho and into the 21st century. I suppose I was looking for a queer ancestor, a poetic daddy, for these raw and strange times – so instead of translating, I went about trying to conjure Verlaine by using David Wojnarowicz’s conjuring of Rimbaud as a model.
Through his photo series Rimbaud in New York, Wojnarowicz called on Rimbaud to literally witness and experience his life in New York 1979- 80, a time when homophobia, gentrification, and AIDS were decimating the gay population; and I wanted to use the mask of Verlaine, his lexicon, syntax, poetic form, to comment upon London’s Soho and queer experience in 2018 – a time and place when we, as queer people, having been afforded certain important human rights are also still in danger from massively powerful and insidious external forces.
So each of my love poems takes a phrase, a piece of syntax or a narrative situation from a Verlaine poem and tries to summon him – and in doing so re-queer him, as indeed over a century of scholarship and heteronormative translations have managed to dampen-down his radical and queer nature. Clair de Lune, his beautifully tragic garden landscape, becomes a Grindr profile; a ballroom becomes a gay sauna; an exquisite pastoral vista becomes a cruising ground after dark.
I feel, as queer people, we have to write our love poems – and maybe to approach anything like romance I needed Verlaine’s help? No matter how torturous things became in his life, often through his own doing, he never stopped believing or indeed writing about love – which, for a queer person living before any form of legal acceptance or recognition, I think is extraordinary.
The origin of ‘museum’ is pretty literal. After spending an afternoon in the National Archeological Museum in Athens, a place of so much beauty, eroticism and handsome ruination, I began to wonder what would happen if I started to fellate one of the statues.
It was a childish thought, but one with a grain of protest. Over the years I had seen so many representations of heteronormative love, or perhaps rather heteronormative agalmatophilia – especially in mythology and opera, so I wanted to somehow subvert that expected norm and using the speaker’s body, or mouth, in that slightly Foucauldian body-as-laboratory way, seemed an almost logical jump.
That was the initial prompt I suppose but poems, I believe, start off the page and so I think the ideas contained within the poem must’ve been rattling around in my head for many years. As much as the poem is about subversion, of behavior and of modes of looking, the poem is also born out of wanting to show kindness towards queer bodies – queer bodies which have suffered so much ruination and been subjected to so much hatred over the years. Queer bodies have always been, and indeed continue to be, explicitly vulnerable; the speaker, the queer lyric I, in ‘museum’ attempts to address this injustice in maybe the only way he can, by using his own vulnerable body.
And the allusion to Rilke is present for several reasons, firstly because it’s pretty impossible to write about something broken or damaged in poetry and not, in some direct or indirect way, be talking to Rilke’s sonnet Archaic Torso of Apollo. But also Rilke’s poem suggests that great and important art, and indeed beauty, can and should change us. But what if you don’t want to change or what if you have already been changed and you don’t want to change back? So Rilke’s influence, and indeed his actual line, becomes subverted. You must change your life or Du mußt dein Leben ändern contorts to:
for the longest
time people told me
I must change my life
but this is my life
this adoration of
men this worship of
those whom the
world has deemed
broken . . .
Exploring queerness in this way is absolutely central to my work but that’s because it is so central to me. My queerness is something I had to fight for, and indeed am still fighting for. And every day the world over, LGBTQIA civil liberties are being eroded or destroyed; queer people are being harassed, imprisoned and slaughtered – and things feel increasingly desperate in 2019. That’s why the speaker in my poem starts to give the archaic torso a blow job because maybe it feels like we are running out of time; there is no more time to admire the male form and to hint at the difference, there is no more time to be encoded. The poem becomes explicit because the danger to our community is again explicit and real.
ON QUEER POETRY
I want anyone reading my work to hear an openly queer voice. A queer voice that has been forged through reading poetry and by attempting to write openly about queer desire, pride, shame, existence, and ancestry.
Poetry has changed me, both directly and indirectly. It has helped me confront and maybe even reframe hatred, both physical and emotional abuse, my struggles with mental health and so much more. Poetry is certainly powerful, a ‘flaming/ rag stuffed into napalm’, as that poem of mine mentions. And that poem is very much a protest poem, one which tries to speak to the idea that queer culture cannot ever be consumed and normalized – I reject that shameful notion, there can be no gentrification of us. No erosion. No eradication.
I want anyone who reads my work to feel empowered, to feel as if they have the right, the ability and maybe even the capacity to change things with their own voice because they do. And a small change, a small act of resistance or protest, like a poem, changes enough and indeed how it starts. Despite my fears and worries for the future, there is much change, much social action and much poetry to celebrate!
But I think talking about a centralized or an agreed upon social function for queer poets is difficult as what I truly want for queer writers is to be able to be themselves. I think that every queer writer, and indeed every queer person, should have access to the utmost protections, freedoms, and rights – and they can utilize this to write about queer experience and protest or instead they can write about corduroy. It doesn’t matter. A word written by a queer poet is a powerful thing.
The world needs more queer writers.
Heather June Gibbons is the author of the poetry collection Her Mouth as Souvenir, winner of the 2017 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize (University of Utah Press) and two chapbooks, Sore Songs (Dancing Girl Press), and Flyover (Q Avenue Press). A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has been the recipient of a Full Fellowship Residency from the Vermont Studio Center, the Pavel Strut Poetry Fellowship from the Prague Summer Program, and the Harold Taylor Prize from the Academy of American Poets. She lives in San Francisco, CA and teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University, the Writing Salon, and as a Teaching Artist for Performing Arts Workshop, a youth arts education non-profit.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Write about what you don’t know and what you don’t understand. Write about what confounds you. Surprise yourself. Approach the writing of a poem as a process of discovering what you think and feel as you write. We can learn so much about ourselves and our experience of the world through the very process of writing. That’s definitely why I came to write poetry, and why it continues to compel me. Yes, I have feelings and observations I want to express, but more than that, I’ve found no better way of understanding my experience of the world than the creative process. So, my advice: allow yourself to feel around in the dark and discover what the poem is about as you go. If you try to interpret a poem as you write it, the analytical mind often interferes, jumping to conclusions about meaning before the poem is even written. Instead, cultivate a state of not-knowing, and trust it. You’ll know what it’s all about later, when you need to. I believe that many of the very best poems come out of this approach to the creative process. When we read poems that seem to come into being right before us, when we feel that we’re involved in making the poem’s meaning as we read it, we experience discovery and surprise, energy, and risk. If you surprise yourself as you write the poem, the poem will create that experience for readers too.
Reading and writing are co-creative acts. Read widely and often, and read poems that you don’t readily relate to and identify with, not just the ones that speak to your immediate experience and sense of identity. Read poems that challenge you to think differently about yourself, and the world, that expand your sense of what a poem can and should do, and why, and how. I think we can learn the most about technique from poems that don’t have an immediate effect on us. When we’re not under a poem’s spell, it’s easier to peek behind the curtain and see the levers and pulleys, and figure out how it all works, so we can then appropriate those tricks for own purposes. But of course, reading is not just about learning technique, thank God. There are those essential, vital poems that we turn to for solace and comfort, when we need to feel a sense of hope and feel that we’re not alone in our anger, sadness, and yes, even joy.
Speaking of which, I make it a point to read poems across time and geography, not just the latest, shiny books by contemporary U.S poets (however much I love those too). To hear the voices of other poets across time and space helps me feel connected to a larger conversation, a broader sense of humanity, and we need those perspectives. Recently, I’ve been returning to the work of Lucille Clifton, A.R. Ammons, Muriel Rukeyser, Wanda Coleman, Robert Desnos, and Ruth Stone, each for different reasons. A collection of poetry from the past that I’d encourage people to read now would be Trilogy by H.D., particularly the first section, “The Walls Do Not Fall.” She wrote this remarkable long poem during WWII, in London, during the Blitz, as bombs fell around her and air raid sirens wailed. The poem opens with the speaker walking through the ruins of London after a bombing raid, then goes on to draw profound connections between different mythologies and modes of spirituality, between ancient history and modern reality, self, and the world. The speaker is so powerful, prophetic, even, a priestess of her own religion and her wisdom, the complexity of observation, and richness of allusion are like nothing else I’ve ever read. As the bombs fall and the city is in ruins, H.D. calls out for and seems to conjure, hope. In the struggle between the sword and the word, H.D. reminds us that it is the word that prevails: “But we fight for life, /we fight, they say, for breath, // so what good are your scribblings? / this– we take them with us / beyond death.” To her, words “are magic, indelibly stamped / on the atmosphere somewhere // forever.” When I read her powerful, direct address in the face of war and destruction, I take heart:
remember, O Sword,
you are the younger brother, the latter-born,
your triumph, however exultant,
must one day be over,
in the beginning
was the Word.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
I don’t think of poetry as having, or needing to have a particular social function, but I do believe it saves lives! I know it saved mine. Of course, all poetry is inherently sociopolitical because it’s written by people who live in a sociopolitical world. And poems do connect voices and readers across time and space, and across various divides and kinds of distance. They can bear witness to and illuminate immediate realities and causes for social and political change, and even be a call to action. As with H.D.’s Trilogy, they can also help us better see the past and the future, to hold fast to what matters and endures. The imagination is so powerful. Empathy itself is an act of imagination. When we can understand the past as well as the present, imagine the reality of others’ experiences, and feel connected to urgent causes for social and political change, we can imagine possible futures and begin to work toward that change.
Just as all poems are sociopolitical poems, all poems are also autobiographical. Even if we aren’t writing specifically about personal experiences and feelings, our selves come through, as well they should, and our subjectivity shapes our observations and experience of reality. Though I’m not interested in confessionalism, per se, when I was writing the poems in my book Her Mouth as Souvenir, I was consciously exploring voice, particularly in terms of how voice relates to various facets of “the self,” from the more performative to the everyday to something uncomfortably close to the bone. Some of the speakers in those poems I hardly recognize. Though written from the first-person “I,” those speakers feel like characters I created and inhabited for the space of those poems; not personae, exactly, but performative selves.
In other poems, the speaker is close to me. At some point, I became interested in embarrassment, which is different from the self-dramatization of confessionalism. What happens when we admit embarrassment outright or include potentially embarrassing and awkward moments in a poem? When we include things like farting at the gym on the Stairmaster, wasting time scrolling through click-bait on our phones, tripping in public, and buying cigarettes after yoga class? I was interested in what kind of experience including those elements might create, both for me in writing the poems, and for readers.
I’m interested in the dynamics of syntax and the line, especially the ways enjambment can generate momentum down the page as well as cause a sentence and a line to pull against each other and create tension within and across lines. Enjambment is an important tool for me in terms of actually making and discovering a poem’s meanings as I write, not just in heightening its effects. Playing with enjambment in revision exposes and aerates, and allows me to see things, midsentence, that might deserve more attention, or that might create a moment of suspense, a mini-cliffhanger in the poem’s progression. When I’m writing a new draft, sometimes it’s more about keeping the sentence going down the page and across lines, and not stopping, just to see what might happen, what the poem might say when propelled by that momentum, and not knowing how and where it will stop.
As for stanza structure, different poems need different kinds of shapes and vehicles. Some poems need the steady boxes of quatrains, which, when bolted together, move forward along a track like train cars. Others need the couplet’s suggestion of a heroic journey, its epic traces. Tercets always feel more musical to me, less about narrative or rhetorical progression and more about sound and rhythm. I suppose it depends on whether and how much a poem is singing versus saying. I wish I could say that my sense of form always emerges organically, because that seems ideal and really cool (#goals), but in reality, most of my poems go through various versions of stanza structure until I find what feels like the right one. That comes late in the revision process when I’m closer to understanding what the poem wants to be, even if I still don’t know what it’s about.
Chase Berggrun is a trans poet. She is the author of R E D (Birds, LLC, 2018). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in jubilat, Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Poetry from New York University. She edits poetry for Big Lucks.
Buy R E D.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Reading comes before writing, for me, always—that is, the writing cannot happen without the reading, the writing springs from what is read. Reading waters the garden—no, is the soil—no, is the sun itself.
I’ve learned so much from other readers in the past few years: poets whose constant engagement with poetry has informed my own, people whose seeing has touched my seeing: Kaveh Akbar, Claire Schwartz, Ilya Kaminsky, Jos Charles. And many others. I’m so big with gratitude when I can learn from friends about how to learn better. And keep learning. And learn together.
As a poet, I am constantly stretching my hand out to the past: to the poets who have grown me. To whom I am undeniably and unimaginably indebted. If pressed to recommend a book my impulse is almost always in the direction of one of my forebears, my word mothera. Poets like Aimé Césaire, Marina Tsvetaeva, Audre Lorde, Mahmoud Darwish, Nazim Hikmet—poets for whom the making and unmaking of language was a life’s priority. For whom that urgency was never in question. There is so much to read, one of the great joys and overwhelming dilemmas of being a reader.
Pierre Joris’s translation of Paul Celan’s last five books, Breathturn into Timestead, is perhaps the most reached-for and treasured collection on my shelf. An upending look at life, mangled by trauma, but lived so close to and with poems, sustained and kept by poems, for whom poems were the only way to tether to the world. Celan admits that he has “two books instead of lungs,” and good God, I breathe like that, too.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
I’m thinking today of Anna Akhmatova, for whom each poem was both the most immediate of actions, a thrown stone, a cry in the air; and a hidden thing, a liability, a dangerous object. Anna, who memorized years and years of poems, never writing them down for fear of being discovered and arrested, silenced, killed. But this necessity can hold within it so many worlds of being, of being here, of now-now, speeds and slowness. Akhmatova recalls the horror of her time in “Requiem”:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
And yet there is just as much political immediacy when she writes (as quoted by Marina Tsvetaeva) “I drew my left hand glove / Onto my right hand” about the wild nervy mystery of love.
And it is with an ocean of love and generosity and caretaking, even for a world that caged him, when Hikmet writes in “Angina Pectoris”: “And, after ten years, / all I have to offer my poor people / is a single apple, doctor, / one red apple: / my heart.”
There is so much world. There are so many of us here. There are so many of us who have been left behind. And we can reckon with the problem of being alive persons in so many different ways. In Purgatorio, one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, Raúl Zurita writes after surviving brutal torture at the hands of Pinochet’s soldiers during the coup d’etat in Chile on September 11, 1973:
I smashed my sickening face
in the mirror
I love you—I said—I love you
I love you more than anything in the world
Both embracing and defiant of his trauma, Zurita locates the great, great beauty that can be found in pain—but never fails to point at the injustice that produced it. He names the shame he feels for surviving what others did not: the naming proves to be an opening forward. He shows me the power that can be built from accepting one’s own powerlessness: the future that can be constructed on such a foundation.
In “Let Me Please Look into My Window,” Gerald Stern, heart of hearts, demonstrates how prayer is more than just a kneeling, a solitary moment where the mind turns toward devotion or toward plea, but a perspective of motion: how, if we let it, prayer can describe a single step, ten miles wandered, an ordinary day, a life in process. “Let me wake up happy, let me know where I am, let me lie still, / as we turn left, as we cross the water, as we leave the light.” This sentiment is in its own way inherently political—we can’t divorce art from politics. Of course, of course. To quote Beckett, we’re on earth, and there’s no cure for that. The responsibility of any poem is to reveal, however it can, a path forward from there, from that basic truth. To try and navigate living.
A professor of mine (Lisa Olstein) introduced me to the erasure form as an exercise in an undergraduate workshop and I took to it: it clicked with me, and I started practicing. Over and over and over, many failed projects. I started to erase Dracula after I exhausted other ways of approaching the book. The more conventional poems that I was writing—trying to work out exactly what it was about Dracula that so upset me—weren’t satisfying. I was only then that I thought erasure might be a way to discover and interrogate and converse with Stoker’s book. As a last resort.
I will say that, to be completely honest, I’m not always fond of erasure. I think that it’s a form that has the potential to do harm, that it is dangerous and scary, and something that needs to be considered very carefully, especially in terms of context. The poet’s position in relation to the text cannot be an afterthought. It’s the first thought, a constant examination. The idea that all text belongs to everyone is an idea rooted in white supremacy and appropriative forms, while often fascinating and brilliant and effective, can engage in that kind of violence quite easily.
Finding (or more accurately perhaps asserting, imposing) my own voice within the text was in some ways, I think, a result of practice. Having experimented with erasure so much before, the melding came easier. It might also be the result of care: making a poem out of Dracula was slow, slow work. I paid attention to what was truly me, and I shied away from using language that didn’t fit, language that was so particularly Stoker’s. And is it my voice? I like to think of the poem as belonging to neither myself nor Stoker—the narrator’s voice. It’s her song that I dug out of words.
I considered many other sources! I’d been experimenting with erasure for years before I started working on R E D. First of all, perhaps obviously, Dracula offers a wealth of language that would be very different than any other text—but the book worked so well because it fell into what I think of as a goldilocks zone for erasure sources: the book is relatively long, so there was a lot to work with; the writing is good (and uses a particular kind of Victorian diction that was exciting to turn toward a more modern setting), but not great (I’d never use, say, Nabokov, as a source: there are so many amazing words and so much rich language that it would feel like cheating to me—this is why I avoid using poems as source texts, as well); and I was invested, interested in learning and studying this book that bothered me so intensely.
I think that a lot of scholarship is inherently creative work, & that studying literature is a valuable & worthwhile endeavor. & I find literary theory so useful! A writer is a reader is a learner, always these modes must happen together. I did a lot of research before and during the writing of this book. Both into the erasure form itself and into scholarly considerations of Dracula, of which there is a nearly inexhaustible well to dive into.
The process of erasure is deconstructive and methodical—but, I think, it’s as much a scholarly approach as the form of a sonnet might be—it’s a way to write a poem, albeit one much more tied to the reading of texts.