Poetry Today

Four Contemporary Poets on Reading and Storytelling

Peter Mishler, Nomi Stone, Andrés Cerpa, and Francisco Aragón.

In February’s installment of Poetry Today, we meet a wide range of poets whose latest collections takes us through time, space, and tragedy. 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.

This month we feature Peter Mishler, Nomi Stone, Andrés Cerpa, and Francisco Aragón.

Aragón Aragón

Francisco Aragón is the son of Nicaraguan immigrants. In 2017, he was a finalist for Split This Rock’s Freedom Plow Award for poetry and activism. Aragón is the author of two books: Puerta del Sol and Glow of Our Sweat, as well as editor of the anthology, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. His third book, After Rubén, is slated for publication in 2020 with Red Hen Press. His Tongue a Swath of Sky, a limited edition, hand-stitched chapbook, was released in early 2019. Proceeds from its sale will benefit Letras Latinas.

Buy His Tongue a Swath of Sky.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

Edward Albee won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1994 for Three Tall Women. The characters were: a woman in her 90s, a woman in her 50s, a woman in her 20s.  Except that these three women are all the same woman, and they occupy the stage at the same time and dialogue with one another. I was reminded of Three Tall Women, which I saw in Madrid in the late 90s in Spanish translation, when I read the second formulation of your question, which I loved (“[I]f you could tell your younger self one thing about being a poet, what would it be and why?”). I thought: what would a fifty-something Francisco Aragón tell a twenty-something Francisco Aragón—about “being a poet”?

F**k “being a poet,” I’d probably say. “Being a poet” is another way of saying being a human being, which is another way of saying being a flawed human being. Poets aren’t anything special. They grow old, or not, love one another, or not (hell, they may stab one other in the back)—and die. I’d tell the younger version of myself:  “Focus on writing poems—aspire to write poems for readers you will never meet.” Which is another way of saying: pursue and practice your art according to your interests and obsessions—aesthetic or otherwise, and don’t waste energy on “being a poet” in order to curry favor with this or that journal or this or that publisher. In this regard, Jack Spicer, who insisted on publishing all his poetry with White Rabbit Press, has been a model. Come to think of it, “f**ck being a poet” sounds like something he would say.

ON READING

A collection of poetry that was very important to me was published while I was living in Spain nearly 30 years ago. Although it was written by a poet who is no longer with us (to meet your question’s astute requirement), I had the pleasure and privilege of studying with this poet. When I first met him, his previous book had been published in 1982. He sometimes shared that after publishing his 1982 book, he resolved that he would let ten years elapse before he published his next book. In my early correspondence with him, from Spain, one time I was cheeky enough to ask if I could read the manuscript he planned to publish in 1992 (it was done, and he was about 30 % into his next book). And so I received in the Spanish post one day, in manuscript, The Man With Night Sweats. At the time, my principal college mentor, a Spanish professor, was in the final stages of HIV. This was the context in which I read Thom Gunn’s unpublished book for the first time. I’ve shared elsewhere that on one of my visits back to San Francisco (pre-1992), I witnessed and heard him read “The J Car” at the San Francisco Art Institute, and how I wept hearing him read it.  Aside from being, in places, a harrowing chronicle of those years, Gunn’s book was also a chronicle of love in a particular community, San Francisco—my hometown. That’s a book I’d encourage young poets to read today.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL 

A few days after the 2016 election, a group of us gathered at Poet’s House in NYC for a convening of what would eventually, officially, become the Poetry Coalition. In other words, more than something I’ve “read,” I want to comment a bit about something poetry-related that I “experienced.”  Being in that room, in the wake of that election with those colleagues felt like the best antidote to what the country was on the cusp of. We spent hours discussing and honing language to express what we aspired to become—a community “dedicated to working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and the important contribution poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.”

I also recall last February, in Washington, D.C., the poet Javier Zamora raising his smartphone high above his head and taking a selfie with a throng of enraptured 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Most of them were Central American like himself. Afterward, they lined up to have their books signed after having heard him read poems and carried out a terrific dialogue with him. That Poetry Coalition program was emblematic of the art’s ability to touch lives.

ABOUT AUTHOR’S NOTES

My “Author’s Note” begins: “I’ve come to embrace, in recent years, that my sensibilities as a poet have as much to do with curating other poets as it has to do with writing and sharing poems of my own.” More than a “justification,” my piece is a reflection, in hindsight, on my “publishing practice” of including companion voices, both in translation and their original Spanish, in my collections of poetry. The penultimate paragraph also serves as an announcement: the chapbook’s eight English-language poems (part 1) and seven Spanish-language originals (part 2) will be integrated into After Rubén, slated for next year. The book, as it happens, will include a three-part, 4000-word essay. In terms of prose being included alongside poetry within a single volume or book, a crucial thing to consider is how an author intends for the prose to function. For example, “My Rubén,” my forthcoming essay, is part of my book’s creative arc. In the chapbook under discussion here, my “Author’s Note,” in contrast, is a more perfunctory gesture and not intended to be part of its creative arc,” which is why it’s titled “Author’s Note.” This discussion is reminding me of another example of poet’s prose that I sometimes think about and worth mentioning: Saint John of the Cross wrote extensive theological tracts—that gaze back at his stunning poems, stanza by stanza.

POEMS AFTER POETS

I was formally exposed to this practice in a graduate workshop in 2001 with poet and translator John Matthias, who is currently professor emeritus at Notre Dame. But from this vantage point, I’ve come to realize that a related seed was planted by Thom Gunn at Berkeley when he said, in his workshop: reading, as experiences go, can also be fodder for our poems. I invoke “after” when my poem strays far from the original Spanish. Two examples. “The Man and the Wolf” is a “re-write” of Darío’s “Los motivos del lobo.” The original is 166-lines long, organized into rhymed couplets, and broken into stanza paragraphs of varying length. For my piece, I paraphrase Darío’s plot into a free verse poem of 47 tercets. My poem is still about Saint Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio, though I don’t explicitly name the saint as the Spanish original does. My piece “To George W. Bush” is a different animal entirely. My poem is “after” Dario’s “A Roosevelt,” which is addressed to Teddy Roosevelt. Darío is critiquing President Roosevelt’s foreign policy towards the Americas. For my piece, I borrow Darío’s rhetorical strategies and apply them in my address to President George W. Bush in 2006, during our misguided fiasco in Iraq.  In contrast, for the first two pieces in the chapbook (“Far Away” and “Seashell”), I place, just below the titles: “(Rubén Darío).” This is my way of acknowledging that these are “almost translations.” With this in mind, I’ll say that one of the crucial texts we were assigned to read in John Matthias’ workshop was Robert Lowell’s Imitations.

ON PERSONA POEMS

Something Roberto Tejada wrote is useful here. In his generous endorsement of His Tongue a Swath of Sky, he writes that I “amend[s] the historical record by turning the figures of modernista pastoral into the arcadia of queer desire.” I had no reservations about speaking in Darío’s voice: none whatsoever. Rubén Darío died in 1916. His work is in the public domain. One of my concerns is the erasure of LGBTQ stories and lives. Creating an imagined space and voice for Darío, from the grave, in order for him to say “those letters to Amado were real” is my modest attempt at a kind of activism. But I also want to say that this new knowledge about Darío’s biography was made possible thanks to the literary scholarship of Alberto Acereda, one of the world’s pre-eminent Darío scholars. Not surprisingly, there has been, I’m told, some backlash. I spoke about this at a panel on translation at the last edition of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. At one point, I shared:

“As if to underscore that we continue to live in an era in which homophobia can still manifest itself as merely another point of view, someone as recently as last year—2017—casually asserted to me over lunch on Capitol Hill that this Darío-Nervo business was little more than an effort to ensuciar Rubén Darío’s name. The verb—ensuciar—roughly translates: to dirty, to soil. The insidiousness of that verb, how it was used, caught me off guard.” I address this matter more extensively in part 3 of, “My Rubén.” Readers will get a preview of it, online, at Crab Orchard Review this summer—in anticipation of the essay’s final home in After Rubén (Red Hen Press, 2020).

My ultimate hope is that Rubén Darío, over time, will come to occupy, without controversy, his place alongside Federico García Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Vicente Aleixandre, Amado Nervo, José Lezama Lima, and Francisco X. Alarcón, to name half a dozen Spanish-language poets, as among this linguistic tradition’s distinguished queer voices.

Andrés CerpaAndrés Cerpa

Andrés Cerpa is the author of Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy (2019) and The Vault (2021) from Alice James Books.

Buy Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

If I could sit down with an earlier self I would tell them to stop being competitive about poetry.

When I first stepped into an M.F.A. program I snapped into a hyper-competitive mode, not because of my peers or the institution itself but because I was afraid. I would say to myself, My father didn’t survive so that I could fail, or, my mother didn’t return to the States for me to starve. They were extremely supportive, so this was my language, not theirs, but nevertheless, on the back of their work, I was choosing to become, of all things, a poet. Comparing poems, thinking in terms of who wins a workshop, gauging my worth by what institutions accepted me, was a way, a toxic and destructive way, to frame the chaos and fear.

Poetry is an endeavor of the spirit. I can only be the poet I am today and if I am the most dedicated poet that my life can allow, if I can ensure that I am reading, writing and paying attention to the world, then I am honoring those that have created a world for me to write. So my advice to an earlier self, and to myself now, is to be ecstatic and to use that language as the foundation of your work and sense of community.

Honor the generosity that brought you to this moment.

ON READING 

I’d encourage reading Elegy by Larry Levis in conjunction with the poem “The Perfection of Solitude: A Sequence” from The Widening Spell of the Leaves.

Levis’ literary criticism and essays are very concerned with how poets respond to war, violence, and genocide. Elegy and “The Perfection of Solitude” glisten with an attempt to witness. The focus of these poems, the intense gaze, their desire to stop time completely, does not forget and therefore attempts to see beyond an easy history.

Central to Levis’ ambition is to reveal the state and history as entities that silence, disappear and forget, by looking at those who were intentionally forgotten. What I see as particularly necessary in the work, that speaks to our time, is how much we impact each other and how much we need to look at the consequences of our impact, always with the deep humanity of others in mind.

Our interconnectedness and responsibility are matters of the soul, of empathy, and of the slowing down of time, giving ourselves enough time, though the power structure does not want us to have it, to realize how connected we are.

In the work of Larry Levis the shootings at Kent state happen while people are making love, a young soldier steps on a landmine in Vietnam as the speaker, years away, hears a bomb go off in Oaxaca. People starve while the wealthy get drunk in summer, decisions are made, riots begin and people are disappeared. Everything all at once and remember.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL 

I see reading poetry as a beginning. If I believe language matters, and I do, the poem must then make its way into the language of my life. I must learn from it. Reading allows us brief windows into the depths of others, which is a terribly difficult thing to see, even in our most intimate relationships. When I find a poem I love when I begin a search for more, a whole system of the poet’s concerns, lives and ideas become connected to my understanding of the human experience.

There are certain books that seem emblematic as the start of a larger conversation in the culture, but other books birthed and support them, and all those books and happenings in the world compile, breathe a concern and a language with which to articulate that concern into the forefront.

There are so many things that I’ve changed about how I chose to use language because of poetry.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine has given many people windows and language.

Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral personally gave me a sense of possibility. It allowed me to expand.

Often atrocity has led to surrealism and abstraction as poets seek a new language to articulate the totality of experience. My embrace of mystery and a growing willingness to sit with complexity has stemmed from my reading.

If there is a common social function that baselines poetry, maybe it is to encourage a complex expression of our humanity – a rare and precious thing.

ON STORYTELLING

I think of Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy as a book of lyric poems composed in narrative snippets. It is one story that contains many stories distilled.

The original structure and progression were deeply influenced by Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1949 collection, Annie Allen. Brooks revises and subverts the classic heroic journey, tracking the development of Annie’s journey from girlhood to womanhood with the underpinnings of an epic poem. The speaker’s gaze develops as we move through each section of the collection, and I first thought of Bicycle in this way, the final organization is different, but Brooks was with me during the process of ordering.

I’m not in the business of should or necessary because I am consistently blown back by the myriad approaches poets use to carve out their work. A narrative is important to my process but as a friend said to me, after I made a rather naïve and dismissive comment, “There are other ways that a poem can mean.” After that, I shut up and started looking at work that was very different from the thread of authors I was imitating and reading. The search sparked a conversation within myself about what I desire from a poem. For me, there is a deep mystery in how certain poems excite and induce feeling through non-narrative modes. If I can feel something through the stringing of words together and the deep associations the poet induced, I’m down. There is something holy there, something human and open that activates a different and necessary center.

ON POETIC LINES

The enjambment and long lines are an attempt to record how the poem sounds out loud because ultimately, the poem on the page is a shadow of what my body can do.

I always wanted to write a book that utilized certain elements of Nas’ Stillmatic in harmony with the expansive syntax of Larry Levis. As an undergraduate, I wrote and thought a lot about Nas’ body of work, until listening soon became one with literary analysis. This was also the time I was introduced to Levis. Both artists build their work in such a way that that the sentences don’t end as much as they become one another. A system of association builds as scenes and reflections are fused. Nas surges and Levis stops time, and enjambment is key to both of those endeavors. The enjambment and line length in Bicycle emerges from the desire for momentum and reflection, and the desire for the poem as utterance and the poem as an object to meet.

ON POEM TITLES

I have never started writing a poem with a title in mind. Titles are often my very last concern, coming long after I consider the poem complete. To me, they are visual rather than sonic entities.

When I recite my work to an audience I find myself skipping over titles because I want the poems to bleed into one another, to merge. When I am physically present with an audience the silence I induce to transition between poems are my “titles”. As an object, Bicycle needed titled poems to mimic that breath, to signal the moment of readying to enter the poem alone.

The “Notebook” poems originally began as an untitled sequence. In their composition, I set out to write poems that were grounded in the fragility of the everyday. Their title “Notebook: The Kairos in Chronos” emerged from a formal undertow that relates to the Catholic religious retreat Kairos. The retreat as a form intends to move young people toward an intense experience of openness, reflection, and connection with one another and god. I didn’t find god there, I have no interest in that, but there was love and a dedication to examining our lives.

The retreat houses felt outside of time, we weren’t allowed watches or phones, didn’t get much sleep, and engaged in extended periods of silence, listening, and prayer. My reflections during that time were centered around the connection between my father’s disease and my choices that stemmed from the pain of that witnessing. After my first Kairos, I returned as a student leader, which in part meant that I was required to give a speech on self-discovery. When I looked up at the end, I realized that many of my classmates and teachers were crying or stunned. (And it is no easy task to get a bunch of fifteen-year-old boys to cry openly in front of each other.)

The “Notebook” poems are paying homage to that form and seek connection in a different way then the other poems. I was trying to get back to that speech. I wanted to bring the qualities of that formative experience into a poem and honor it. The title’s combination of the hidden notebook, Kairos as form, and the everyday striving in or against chronological time, signal, for me, a very human searching that is the conceptual base of the sequence.

Nomi StoneNomi Stone

Nomi Stone is a poet and an anthropologist, and the author of two poetry collections, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly 2008) and Kill Class (Tupelo 2019). Winner of a Pushcart Prize, Stone’s poems appear recently in POETRY, American Poetry Review, The New Republic, Bettering American Poetry, Best American Poetry, Tin House, New England Review, and elsewhere. Her anthropological articles recently appear in Cultural Anthropology and American Ethnologist, and her ethnographic monographic, Pinelandia: Human Technology and American Empire, is currently a finalist for the University of California Press Atelier series for Ethnographic Inquiry in the 21st Century. Kill Class is based on two years of fieldwork she conducted within war training in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the U.S. military across America. Stone has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia, an MPhil in Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford, an M.F.A. in Poetry from Warren Wilson College and teaches at Princeton University.

Buy Kill Class.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

I would tell my younger self that you are a poet even when you are not writing poems. For me, it is a practice to live by: the dunking of the ladle into seeing, as well as making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Laura Kasischke writes of a “dipper, full of mind,” that is also full of everything else: “the scales, beaks, and teeth of creatures, but also / their imaginative names (elephant, peacock).”

To be a poet is to be awake to textures and sensations, and the channels they run through us. It is, I think, also to read voraciously, especially but not only poems: to make all forms of knowing and sensing and doubting and wonder and harm available to poetry. Fieldwork, and reading articles in science journals, and the Kavanaugh hearings, and walking on a snow-caked dock over a lake, and crying on my drive to work when a 90s song comes on, and feeling the ache and surge of wanting everything, and peeling beets into a salad for my wife and my fingers purpling.

ON READING

So much! I would recommend Nicanor Parra’s anti-poems: the anti-poem seems to exist where innumerable vectors meet and neutralize each other: the vital and extinguished; the absurd and the somber; the surreal and the plain. The force of sorrow and the force of folly compress into a single point, helping me access the laugh-scream of our current hour, the catastrophe of Trump’s America. Also, I would recommend June Jordan, for solidarity and demanding social change, for the fury and beauty of insisting on being alive, in this broken time:

“one gospel

(peace)

one full Black lily

luminescent

in a homemade field

of love”

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL 

Poetry is a thousand lit candles in the body: a prayer and a mode of becoming. In his poem “Devotional,” Philip Metres writes:

“Light my face and light the flesh of my flesh,

Light each my eyes and light inside my sight,

Light the light that makes me light in the bones,

And in my hands, light, and in my loins, light”

With our sight lit, there is the possibility for a new act, for new (as Hannah Arendt calls it) “webs of relations”— such that change within the self and psyche can be a wick for social and political and existential change. I am of the camp, in poetry, that everything is political. Poetry acknowledges that we are inside bodies and inside time, and we are inside these skins and conditions differentially on this earth.

It is our work as poets to let the world into our inscapes and send it back out again, in new shapes, with new doors, invitations each in their own way to “break/into blossom.” From poems, just in the last handful of decades, we have Forché’s Colonel, carrying human ears like “dried peach halves”; Agha Shahid Ali’s “blizzard-fall of ghost elephants”; we have Solmaz Sharif’s “your face turning from mine/ to keep from cumming”; Gretchen Marquette’s “fifty bones of the carapace” of a crushed turtle in the road; Kaveh Akbar’s spat peach pit turning into a locust on his father’s prayer rug.  The world is terrible and beautiful. Our responsibility is to wonder, awe, love, and fury.

ON PROSE POETRY

The poem, for me, is driven by the edge of the line-break: the tension between the sentence and the line—a way to govern rhythm and the release of experience. I think most about the jolt of delicious surprise in moving between different kinds of sentences and lines: from end-stopped to parsing to annotative, in Jim Longenbach’s sense. In Kill Class, I wanted to work with a range of different kind of lines: from jolting caffeinated enjambed lines, and the vertigo they might create in the title poem or “Police Room,” to more stable prose poems. The prose poems in this collection are actually modified haibuns, a hybrid form that brings together prose and poetry, developed by Basho in the 17th century in his travelogues. In the haibun, the prose narrates the scene, then bursts into a moment of lineation, the lyrical cap. I used this form in this book because I was grappling with the sheer abundance of anthropological observation and interview — and also I was interested in the point at which this kind of reporting caves in, its asymptote.

ON IMPACT

In describing her poetics, Carolyn Forché speaks of “the third space of the social” which bridges the personal and the political.” Philip Metres reminds us of power-differentials, of our privilege as text-makers and the need to “testify” in the wake of violence. Danez Smith asks poets what frees them to “write odes of the low country of America, to mention the trees and not their wicked history.” My work, as an anthropologist who is also a poet, comes in reply to all of them, as I work to ethically render the dark work of history and politics on the body, and to mark my own complicity. I want especially to be remembered as a poet who not only writes about war but who writes against the American Empire.

MishlerMishler

Peter Mishler is the author of Fludde (Sarabande Books, 2018) winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. He interviews poets for Lit Hub and lives in Kansas.

Buy Fludde.

TO A (YOUNG) POET

I often remind myself that all writing is productive writing; I never know what a day spent working will ultimately deliver. This is especially important for me to understand because a great deal of my writing time produces what seems like nothing, and my natural inclination is to feel some level of shame and despair (e.g. “Looks like the well has finally dried up”), and yet I know the development of a single poem is not some calculable trend, as in draft—revise—complete. When I look at the years of work leading up to Fludde, I marvel at what little I knew about how the images, lines, and half-poems would accumulate and develop and reconfigure themselves into their finished forms. But I may again tomorrow experience that same doubt with new writing. So this leads to another practice: if what I wish to accomplish in lines requires efforts of intuition and vision then I also have to be able to recognize and do something about the sort of thinking that threatens my creative health. I suppose it could be argued that doubt and uncertainty establish a necessary tension that brings one back to the work, but not if one has a brain that goes from zero to despair. I may not be able to halt this thinking entirely, but at least I have a method of diffusing it: to notice these thoughts, acknowledge their patterns, and continuing working anyway, and sometimes even try to laugh at their absurdity because, it’s true, I have in fact written new poems even after condemning myself to permanent obsolescence.

ON READING 

I wonder a great deal about the role of the surreal in contemporary American poetry and its potential in relation to our current social and political predicaments. Instructive in this regard, I think, are the poems of Vasko Popa. In the introduction to his Selected Poems, a distinction is made between two kinds of surrealism: a less desirable “literary surrealism” and Popa’s sturdier “surrealism of folklore.” As I understand these, the “literary” type is one that has denied the world in pursuit of the fantasy, the dream, the arbitrary, and the escape whereas Popa’s surrealism never shirks its relationship to the real. Popa’s is surrealism that pierces reality in order to unmask it. It is surrealism with a commitment—one that lets its strangeness de-familiarize, disrupt, and unsettle what is taken for granted; one that transfers contemporary anxieties back to our fundamental symbols; one that allows the uncanny tropes of our fables, folklore, and the sacred to tell a modern story. Both “literary surrealism” and Popa’s “surrealism of folklore” have made vast contributions to American poetry, but for a reader who perhaps comes to poetry for its attention to what we’re living through, “literary surrealism” betrays a kind of privilege in its seeming avoidance of the world’s urgencies, while Popa’s surrealism affirms itself as a vital means of response.

ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL 

I’d like to make a case for an inward potential that poetry can hold for the person who makes it, which I do also think enables one of its significant social functions. Writing poetry can provide access to a nonrational space, absent of commonplace sense and meaning, wherein the poet can grapple safely with psychic and social dilemmas. This experience in and of itself can be a life-protecting, life-preserving source; and further, because of poetry’s non-narrative, lyric capabilities, there is also a freedom from having to know exactly what one is doing. Instead, the poet can make their broken music uninhibited by expectations of clarity, of persuasiveness, of knowing. The right to sing unknowingly, and to have that unknowing still ultimately matter, is a rare gift. And I believe this is something readers respond to. From a Marianne Moore poem, art “must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.” The acknowledgment of those forces is experienced by the reader, I think, as traces of the poet’s searching. A poem, therefore, serves both as an act of communication as well as a document of humankind’s unconscious potential, and I believe this provides its reader with solidarity and comfort against the ways reality can fail us.

ON AUTHOR’S NOTES

It’s a blessing to read an author with the guidance of a much more insightful reader. I know I hadn’t experienced Emily Dickinson’s poems fully until I’d read Adrienne Rich’s tremendous “Vesuvius at Home.” And I don’t think I’d be the same reader of any literary genre without the foreword Toni Morrison later wrote for her second novel Sula. I owe a debt to Rich’s essay and Morrison’s foreword for their instruction, their revelations. And yet I’d read both writers for years without the ability to articulate that admiration clearly, long before I discovered new lenses to help me appreciate their work more completely. So, while I find a great deal of significance in the clarifying and complicating powers of a foreword, of commentary generally, I am always—as in my writing life—searching for ways to balance a receptivity and openness to learning with the nascence of encountering language as an unfamiliar.

ON MANUSCRIPT ORGANIZATION

I have a quotation copied down from Mignon Nixon’s writing about Louise Bourgeois’ series Lairs: “[her work is] created from within … but using the resources of the external world to create itself.” This speaks to my experience of making poems for Fludde, as well as to the process of organizing its contents. During the writing of the collection, I was aiming for a specific phenomenon: to feel as if the lines I’d just written were communicating back to some interior part of me, some depths, and to feel also that those depths were responding back to the lines, and there was nothing I could do about it but sit at my desk and witness this communication and presence. This was what I was hoping for each time I set out to write, and it was how, when this rare event occurred, I knew I’d done something I could keep. There’s nothing like it: the line and the unconscious participating in a private conversation. At the same time, however, much of the language that found its way into these lines was most definitely of the public sphere, the contemporary world, corporate culture. Thinking it over now, the duality of the private and public exhibits itself in how the collection is organized: alternations between outward-facing address—as in an offered prayer—and the interiority of something said to one’s self in a dream, a language nearly foreboding in its half-sense. It occurs to me that what I called intuition during the work of ordering the poems was probably a desire to make Fludde emblematic of how it felt to write the poems—an engagement with internal and external worlds, and navigated by feeling rather than reason.

ON COMPOSITION

I usually start new poems with sound, either from listening to an inner voice that is located somewhere in my chest or from dumping the nonsense that populates my train of thought. Sound or nonsense congeal into an image, and if I’m lucky, it’s an image I’ve never seen before in reality, but one I feel compelled to do something with. The goal in the writing, once that compulsion is established, is to recapture the feeling of having discovered that image by deploying language’s rhythms, colors, and textures—to refine it somewhat, but without harming its infancy. Then the image can begin to build its life, or a life is built around it: it is situated somewhere, in a setting, or it is acted upon, or it is acting. My aim then is to extend that image into further imaginative space, the only tension or push-back being how the next lines will relate to what was established in the first, especially in terms of the metrics. There is a freedom here in building a private environment, a cosmology for the image, without regard to meaning. Only later, once this image’s world is established, can I ask myself the one truly intentional question I ask of a poem: what kind of speech act is this? In revision then I ensure that this act has some clarity and integrity of expression without affecting the way the image has unfolded itself freely. This performance of imagination and sound has been with me since childhood and has always been my solace—a way of mediating joy and pain. It’s clear to me that I can’t live without it; I’ve tried. And whether this qualifies as surrealism—when I’m writing, I can’t say (although I am aware of what I have in common with its purveyors, and have thought a lot about it—see above—since the word has appeared in reviews and on the back cover of the book). But I do know the way I commune with an image when I’m working feels like reality to me, as real as anything else. And I get immersed in what I’m doing to such an extent that when readers find my poems unusual or humorous or surreal I am honestly, genuinely surprised.

0 comments on “Four Contemporary Poets on Reading and Storytelling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: