For National Poetry Month we will celebrate by offering you a larger installment of the series. These poets have all recently published a collection of poetry and we encourage you to support these poets by teaching, sharing, and buying their poetry. We hope you enjoying learning about their process and production as much as we did.
In this installment we feature: Jericho Brown, Sara Borjas, Richard Blanco, Tina Cane, Chelsea Rathburn, Jim Whiteside, Jaswinder Bolina, Fred Schmalz, and Jess Williard.
Jericho Brown is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues 2008), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third collection is The Tradition (Copper Canyon 2019). His poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, Buzzfeed, Fence, jubilat, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME magazine, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.
Buy The Tradition.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Every time I picture myself at almost any age younger than I am now, I just want to cry. I really love that guy. He always wants to be a man of integrity, and I love him for that. He wants to be good at what he does because he knows it’s a gift. He believes it’s his particular talent because he’s not sure he’s good at anything else. He’s a hustler like his father. He’s the hustler his father taught him to be. I like him, though sometimes he doesn’t like himself. He’s pretty hard on himself. I’d tell him to stop that and to remember that growth is a word that suggests time.
I think it’s a good idea to read all of Gwendolyn Brooks because she lived such a long life that she had the ability to put her particular set of talents toward poems about World War II and poems about crack cocaine. Poets should look forward to a long career. We should begin to think about obsolescence and constancy. Brooks wanted to know what stayed the same about black folk no matter what the accoutrements of oppression or joy may have looked like over time.
Lucille Clifton is a poet whose books have to be read completely and in order as well. With Clifton, though, I think we learn something about trying to deal with that which is ineffable about poetry head on. Where Brooks’ poems are about events, Clifton’s are about emotions themselves, feelings. She’s much more a lyric poet in that way. Images seem to float in her lowercasing and her lack of punctuation.
I don’t like recommending books per se when it comes to this kind of thing because it’s be more important for me as a reader to have a poet than it is to have a book, especially when it comes to dead poets. I need to know how they began and where they arrived. With living poets I think more about individual books because the poet’s way of changing over time is not yet nailed down by death. Also, I’m really a retrospective reader. I like to see how something feels after everyone is done hyping it. And that’s something I shouldn’t admit as a person with a new book out!
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
I imagine people will be asking me about the social function of poetry for the rest of my life since the stuff of my life — even at the most private level — is often seen as social or political. I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but I am not under the impression that my poems are going to do anything to change the present moment. Poetry can only change things in individuals. The books of contemporary poetry most widely read before the last presidential election were Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. And in the midst of that, Donald Trump got elected. I’m not under the impression that my poems are going to affect anything beyond a person. Now, do I believe that poems change persons? Yes. Do I believe they change people? No. I’m interested in the effects poets like Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg began to have on culture over time, but I don’t know that I can quantify that other than to say that reading Rich’s books helped me understand my thinking was backwards and needed to be turned around.
I try to nail a first draft of a poem down in one sitting and then I put it away for about 30 days or so. When I return to it, I can see it better and have a better idea how to help it along since I’m not as close to my initial excitement about its appearance in my life.
I’m attracted to the broad strokes I associate with poets like Ai and Louise Gluck — big, sweeping statements or actions worded simply, briefly, and quickly. I like to try a good few other things too, but I think something about that attracts the poetry immortalists to my work. I’m not actually an immortalist myself though. I lost interest in Levertov as I’ve gotten older. She didn’t need to be forever for me, but there was a time I had to read her every night.
I don’t concern myself with the immortality of a poem in a conscious way while writing. But don’t get me wrong: metaphor itself is immortal and the desire to use metaphor well is immortal. That happens. The attempt at best use of whatever the poetic device I’m using does happen while I’m writing. But I don’t write the thing telling it to last forever. I want what’s best for everyone, but I wouldn’t trust anyone who thinks his ideas (or writing) should govern people’s lives even after he’s dead. Cool if that happens I guess, but that’s not something I think of as a lofty goal.
I hope someone reads my book and becomes astounded by his or her own complexity, that the fact of taking in my seeing from so many sides reminds him that he does that very thing all day every day. We are one because there are so many within any one of us.
I’ve written in an essay, “To Be Asked for a Kiss,” about how Langston Hughes’s poem “Suicide Note” had a lot to do with me not killing myself when I was kid enchanted by the idea of ending everything and making sure I wasn’t any trouble or anyone who could be blamed. It’s a good thing I was enchanted by poetry at that same time too!
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my own sadness (my fears!) as one would think about a being, a friend who’s trying to help but has all the worst advice. When I can think that way, I can stop romanticizing my sadness and look at my attraction to it for what it is. I can tell my fears — and I really do say this out loud — “Calm down, ladies. I know you had to help out in the past, and you think I need you because this looks dangerous, but we’re good here. I got this. Have a seat while I finish, girls. Thanks.” At any rate, there’s this other poem by Hughes I’ve been saying to myself a lot lately, and I think something about reciting it to myself reminds me of how I have to respect and be honest about my fears while at the same time I have to tell them to watch me work, watch me make them wrong about the reasons they want to save me all the time. The poem is called “Island,” and it goes:
Wave of sorrow,
Do not drown me now:
I see the island
Still ahead somehow.
I see the island
And its sands are fair:
Wave of sorrow,
Take me there.
Sara Borjas is a Chicana, a pocha, and a Fresno poet. She earned a B.A. in English Literature from Fresno State and an M.F.A from University of California, Riverside. She holds fellowships from CantoMundo, the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts and Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Borjas is the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mesa Poetry Prize and is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Her poetry can be found in The Rumpus, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day Series, Ploughshares, and The Offing, amongst others. She lives in Los Angeles but stays rooted in Fresno.
Buy Heart like a Window, Mouth like a Cliff.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Today, the most important thing I’ve learned about being a poet is that every subject I can imagine as content for a poem is valid. It’s my job as a poet to elevate what may seem trivial to the point of art, and an art by my own standards. A perspective that tries to police what qualifies as poetic subjects is truly a terrified one. If I ever feel myself doing that, I try to ask what it is I am afraid of.
I would tell my younger self that the craft choices I make have everything to do with my identity, and to never forfeit those choices and chances to exist in order to belong in whiteness. I didn’t figure this out until after the MFA program, and regardless of the fact that I worked most closely with Juan Felipe Herrera and Chris Abani. We were a small population of the institutional, white space. I would urge my younger self to advocate for my fundamental existence and experiences, which often cannot not be imagined in a predominantly white space, and to stop bending and mutilating my mind, which is reflective in my writing, to maintain the invisibility of whiteness.
I would encourage people to read Small Hours of the Night by Roque Dalton, which has been my favorite collection for the past five years. Roque’s poems are romantic, sarcastic, frighteningly reflective of the politics of love and daily living, and funny as hell. His poems are models for the scope and range possible for tone and subject. So many of his poems are equally about love, desperation, God and surviving the current politics. They are desperate and full of doubt, sentimental and also a big fuck you.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
Carl Philips said it best in his essay, “On the Politics of Mere Being,” which has been a major reflection and influence on how I think about the social function of poetry. He says:
How is it not political, to be simply living one’s life meaningfully, thoughtfully, which means variously in keeping with, in counterpoint to, and in resistance to life’s many parts? To insist on being who we are is a political act — if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it. If the political must be found in differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus? I write from a self for whom race, gender, and sexual orientation are never outside of consciousness — that would be impossible — but they aren’t always at the forefront of consciousness. Others write otherwise, as they must, as they should — as we all should, if collectively we are to be an accurate reflection of what it will have been like to have lived in this particular time as our many and particular selves.
So that fact that I’m just existing in the United States as a poet and we are all writing as ourselves is a radical, social force that is capable or showing us who we truly are. So many things can come when we see ourselves, and the potential is various, but I hope it means that we will all simply be better people.
On the more practical end to this belief, I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “poetry of witness,” and I’m very much invested and interested in the idea of moving beyond witness and into a poetry that requires participation and accountability. If you are writing in the United States in 2019, you are not simply a witness. We never were. Some works where the speakers clearly imagine their participation are Angel Garcia’s Teeth Never Sleep, Mia Malhotra’s Isako Isako, Julia Bouwsma’s Midden, F. Douglas Brown’s ICON, Vanessa Villarreal’s Beast Meridian, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle, Michelle Brittan-Rosado’s Why Can’t It Be Tenderness and most recently, the anthology edited by Amanda Galvan Huynh & Luisa A. Igloria called Of Color: Poet’s Ways of Making, an Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics. The anthology includes essays written by Mai Der Vang, Sasha Pimentel, José Angel Araguz and Kenji C. Liu. I think my own book admits my own complicity as well.
I think I am angry with the world, and that I feel a responsibility to interrogate myself and those I love first and foremost and hold us accountable for our own suffering and then, to move out from there. We always hear white people say, but what can I do? I didn’t do anything, I don’t do anything. And that’s not just privilege, but laziness, which they have inherited, just like we have inherited oppression and complicity in our own oppression as POC. I’ve told my white friends, if you care that much, what are you willing to give up? I mean, really. If publishing is oversaturated with white people and is not representative of the nation or society, then why are you not making space? Why are you not putting your people up on non-white, non-hetero-non-binary literature? I know that it’s hard to give up, but in my head I’m like, well just shut up then and stop asking what you can do. I, personally, am going to start with my own house, and I hope that readers know that I am critical of my family and myself because I value and love them and our living. If we cannot be critical of those we love, because we love them, then what can we?
I’ve always been a fan of the underdog. Sports, artists, movies, anything that was regarded as trivial or ridiculousness, I’m like HEY THIS IS GREAT. In a way, Fresno is one of those underdogs. It is also a place with a complex history and a complex population that is the result of wars, genocides, political upheavals, survival, and a people that provide the majority of the world’s food but who die from lung disease, who are poisoned by pesticides and injured by the heat of the sun. What we are willing to take from others for our own comfort is explicit in Fresno, and in the entire central valley of California.
ON PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
The process of organizing poems into a book is still quite a mysterious thing to me and secondly, the stakes and level of investment is high for poets in this specific navigation because it is often a final and crucial stage in the making of their books. I don’t want to speak falsely and give false guidance or the appearance of a clear success, so instead I’ll say what I know I know.
- I worked on the manuscript seriously for five years before I began to work with editors, from which point I worked another one and half years and very intensely. Intensely editing and being that honest with yourself was kind of devastating.
- When I read poetry collections, I feel the narrative like a shadow, or an echo ranging from each poem to the next, and also, across multiple poems. But in the final stage there was already so much emotional and intellectual theory radiating between me and the manuscript in its final editing that I could not tell where it reached, or where the edges quit.
- Ultimately, I was guided by one of my favorite Charles Olsen quotes from his essay, “Projective Verse”: each perception leading to the next perception. I went poem by poem, which was more manageable, and tried to end a section on one that rested on a clear perception and where the speaker was boldly talking about at least two things and sometimes knew things that I, as a person, didn’t.
- I took out two major narratives that could be another book: my relationship with my brother and romantic love poems. This was on the advice of Patricia Smith, who I worked with in a manuscript workshop, and who was right when she said that they were competing for the spotlight but weren’t as present and either needed more presence or to basically go play outside.
- The body of the manuscript oscillated throughout the editing process, depending on how ready I felt the poems were or were not.
- I struggled to not write a classic victory story where the voice grew surer and more alive as the manuscript went on. That was the easy answer, the easy order, and I fought it the whole time.
- Re-organizing the manuscript at any point gave me a strong sense of accomplishment, no matter what I did. Because I cared so much, I always felt I was doing something important. I recommend that any poet working on a manuscript to give themselves that view by looking that little kingdom once and while.
- One of my editors, Blas Falconer, told me that when I felt I was done with a poem to truly ask myself, is this all I got? (not have). If I can never touch this poem again, can I say yes, this is all I got? And mostly, the answer was always no. But when the answer finally started to be yes, it was such a release and a liberation not from the poem but from the ideas I carried about my life and about love. This is how I knew I was done with the poems.
- I didn’t know when I was done ordering the poems, but I simply had to make a decision that I was done and because I felt good about the individual poems, I was okay with that.
- Bruce Lee says in “The Lost Interview”: ” . . . honestly expressing yourself . . . it is very difficult to do. It is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky . . . I can show you some really fancy movement. But to express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, that my friend, is very hard to do.” And this is what I felt I did along the process and therefore, I had to confront so much I wasn’t necessarily ready to confront. I’m not sure that we are ever really ready, but the poems needed me to. It was incredibly hard to smile and say I was excited about my book when folks asked because I was lying. I was going through it. I was depressed, I was grieving the loss of my cultural values when I realized they never served me, that I was complicit in machiste and patriarchy and violence against myself and my mother and sister against my father’s and brother’s true selves, and I was mourning my structures for love and had to invent new ones. I was giving it all up, and it was a density I was in and that I am only now climbing out of. This is thanks to all the women that say they felt seen through my book. That’s what I’m going to keep in mind in subsequent collections, if there is one somewhere inside me.
Richard Blanco is the Education Ambassador of the Academy of American Poets. Selected by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history, Richard Blanco is the youngest and the first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. Born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity characterizes his three collections of poetry: City of a Hundred Fires, which received the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press; Directions to The Beach of the Dead, recipient of the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center; and Looking for The Gulf Motel, recipient of the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award. He has also authored the memoirs For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey and The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. His inaugural poem “One Today” was published as a children’s book, in collaboration with renowned illustrator Dav Pilkey. His latest book, Boundaries, a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler, challenges the physical and psychological dividing lines that shadow the United States. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and has received numerous honorary doctorates. He has taught at Georgetown University, American University, and Wesleyan University. His recent book of poems, How to Love a Country, is available from Beacon Press.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
I have noticed that many readers and novice poets often hold to a very romanticized and mystified view of the craft of poetry and the life of the poet. They seem to believe that poetry is 99% inspiration; pure self-expression that flows spontaneously on to the page; and that the poet is merely a channeler who downloads a poem without much effort. I’m guilty of believing that myself when I first started writing. In that regard, the most important thing I’ve learned is that a poem is “made,” and that being a poet is analogous to practically any human endeavor. Say, for example, that I wanted to be a professional football player. I’d first have to learn the rules of the game; then get out on the field everyday and practice, practice, practice to hone my skills and develop my instincts. Eventually, I may become good enough to play a perfect game or season. But that wouldn’t mean that I’d never fail again. I’d know to keep practicing in order to maintain my skills, as well as to keep challenging myself to become an even better player. The same applies to poetry and poets. We learn the “rules” of our craft; then we practice and apply them by constantly writing and reading. We write terrific poems. We write terrible poems. But we keep at it. We know we’ll never completely master the art, even though that is our end-game. The beauty is in the act of writing itself — that’s the most important thing I’d tell my younger poet-self, and still tell myself every day.
Elizabeth Bishop has been one of my greatest influences, not only because of her aesthetic and style, but because of her poetic sensibility, concerns, and treatment of her subject matter. Effectively orphaned at age four, she lived in a kind of psychological exile all her life. I see in the psyche of her work a certain loneliness, an estrangement, and existentialist angst, all of which exhibit themselves as a quietly desperate and constant longing to belong to someone, someplace, something. In that respect, I think her work premeditated some of the same confusion and feelings of isolation and aloneness that we face in today’s virtuality and homogeneity disguised as diversity. As such, her work and life serve as an emotional template for us to navigate and negotiate the emotional complexities and confusions we presently face. But I can’t limit my answer only to Bishop. I must also include and pay my respects to June Jordan and Adrienne Rich who both dared to take a deep dive into questions of intersectionality, long before it was an academic buzzword. They understood long ago what we are only understanding now. Namely, that we cannot, and should not, silo our identities — private or public. Every being is a unique confluence of multiple selves derive from the personal, the cultural, and the communal. To this end, I am most grateful for this question because, as of late, I feel that younger poets are losing sight of their literary ancestors and are not always cognizant that the reason we (including me) have the privilege to write what we write about is because of brave and daring poetic souls like these, and we must acknowledge and revere them. What’s more, we should aim to be that kind of poet for future generations of poets.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
I keep returning to poetry’s genesis as music and oral tradition. We have experienced poetry in that context for many centuries — communally as the proverbial village around the proverbial campfire — long before it became printed words on a page to be read in private. That’s a relatively recent evolution of the genre. Yet I think poetry, at its best, still expresses itself and effects readers in the way music does. Great poetry does what great songs do: they incite emotion that echoes with meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves — what lies between the lines, so to speak. I’m thinking of fight songs, anthems, ballads, hymns — there are equivalent versions of this in poetry, even on the page. But to address the question more directly, to a degree that’s what I still see as the social function of poetry today, as it has always been: to stir emotions, record emotional histories, ground abstract socio-political concerns in the emotional lives of real people and real stories, whether that be those of the poet-narrator’s autobiographical experiences or the poet’s subject matter.
ON BEING POLITICAL
To a certain degree I do believe that writing poetry is a political act because in doing so, one is challenging or at least questioning the status quo in many contexts. Writing makes us (and our readers by implication) investigate our lives, the lives that surround us, the worlds we inhabit, and which affect us. Taking up the pen makes us active rather than passive beings. Writing is actuation. And I believe that’s true whether writing a personal, autobiographical poem, or a politically-charged poem that speaks in more general terms through a more oracular voice. Both approaches can be equally effective in crafting a “political” poem (or even a blending of these two approaches). I think the more important craft-based consideration is to decide which approach works best to deliver the best poem possible for a particular context and subject matter. That’s what I discovered while writing How to Love a Country and then organizing the order of the poems. I intended for the collection to compare and contrast how private and public voices can both speak politically in distinct ways. Returning to the analogy with music again — a musical album can have a very distinct main theme, but not all the songs in the album need to sound the same or be the same type of song.
ON PERSONA POETRY
I’ve employed the persona poem many times throughout my books, for various reasons. In each case it allows me to frame a certain story or concern in a way that is ultimately more effective and honest than in my own “voice.” For example, “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother,” a poem that I originally drafted in first person to call out my grandmother on all her homophobic slurs and verbal abuses that I had to endure. But it just didn’t work because I sounded like a wiener. I was telling instead of showing. So I decided to rewrite the poem in her voice so that she could implicate herself, and let the readers judge her, instead of me. What’s more, in the process of writing that poem, I gained a certain empathy with my grandmother — came to understand that our relationship was much more complex than I had thought. Once I “heard” her speak in the poem I learned that although she was a source of trauma and pain, she was also my best friend and confidant. In another poem from How to Love a Country, I employed persona to address the socio-politics of the US-Mexico border and immigration, which is also much more complex and multi-layered issue than the polarized versions that media and our politicians (left and right) would have us believe. And so I let the river itself “speak” in the poem to deliver an unbiased, unpolarized opinion that spoke to, exposed, and opposed the absurdity and hypocrisy of national borders that have historically been a systemic strategy to accumulate and maintain wealth and power for all nations. In yet another poem, “Letter from Letter from Yí Cheung,” I spoke through the of voice a young Chinese immigrant detained in 1938 at Angel Island immigration station (known as the “Ellis Island of the West”). After much factual research and emotional surveying of many Chinese immigration stories from the island, I made the artistic choice to write a persona poem, not to appropriate those stories but because I felt it was the most authentic and visceral way to honor those stories and bring them to life for the reader.
ON POETIC COMPOSITION
Inspiration, creation, and revision happen for me simultaneously, from the very beginning of the poem until the very end. Typically, I begin with a stream of consciousness splattering of words, images, and phrases on the page. Like a Jackson Pollock painting, I trust my subconscious as I keep layering, waiting for a pattern to emerge — some kind of internal logic that begins to inform or control the structure of the poem. Sometimes that parameter reveals itself as a refrain or repetition of some kind; sometimes as a distinct typography; sometimes it’s language excerpted from other texts; sometimes all of these factors, and more, come into play. The decision to write a meatier single-stanza poem results from this process. Often, I feel that the poem doesn’t warrant stanza breaks as a control mechanism because I don’t want the flow to be interrupted.
Tina Cane serves as poet laureate of Rhode Island and is the founder and director of Writers-in-the-Schools, RI, for which she works as a visiting poet. Tina is also an instructor with the writing community, Frequency Providence. Over the past twenty years, she has taught French, English, and creative writing in public and private schools throughout New York City and Rhode Island. Tina’s poems and translations have appeared in numerous journals including Spinning Jenny, Tupelo Quarterly, Cargo, Two Serious Ladies, The Literary Review, and Jubliat. Her work, The Fifth Thought, was published by Other Painters Press in 2008. She is also the author of Dear Elena: Letters for Elena Ferrante (Skillman Ave. Press, 2016), Once More With Feeling (Veliz Books, 2017) and Body of Work ( Veliz Books, 2019). Tina was the 2016 recipient for the Fellowship Merit Award in Poetry from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. She lives outside of Providence, RI with her husband and their three children.
Buy Body of Work.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
I was a committed reader and writer, even before I knew I would end up becoming a poet. My early experiences of reading are probably what made me want to be a writer — those moments when you read something you love so much that you wish you had written it yourself. I read voraciously as a teenager and wrote a lot of letters. Writing has always felt to me like a natural progression of my attachment to the written word, although I don’t find writing easy by any means. It’s a difficulty I keep walking myself right into — like a wall or a body of water, and its challenge changes as I change.
As I’ve gotten older and written more, I’ve come to trust myself and my process more, to understand my operating system as somewhat precarious and mysterious and therefore not to be trifled with. I’ve gone from thinking about poetry to doing it — which doesn’t always mean writing it. Moreover, it means not setting out too deliberately to achieve an effect or an intent, not to hinder my own possibilities, or the possibilities of a poem, by exerting a heavy hand or oppressive intellect. My process has evolved into copious note-taking, followed by something like automatic writing from those notes, and often heavy revision. Writing blindly from the notes is the biggest leap for me. Over time, I’ve come to understand that I am directing myself somewhere through my observations and that, if I can document them without self-censorship, they sometimes lead me towards a poem. It’s amazing how much trust is involved when it comes to writing. Trust of others, sure. But trust of one’s self.
I always recommend and turn to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, for its timeless exuberance and unbridled humanity. These qualities are not always in literary fashion, when it comes to poetry, but when it comes to being a person, they will always be essential. It seems like a romantic and old-fashioned notion that poetry be inspiring and aspirational, but there are many contemporary poets who make me feel as revitalized as Whitman. Matthew Lippman and Matthew Zapruder are two that come to mind — very different writers who I think channel poetry more than write it. There’s a generosity in their work that reminds me of Whitman. And I will probably turn to them more and more as times goes on.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
I think our current culture, and the strain of strange times, has required poetry to (re)activate its social function. Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Joss Charles’ feeld, In the Language of My Captor and The Gilded Auction Block, both by Shane McCrae, are poetry collections that have recently disrupted and captivated me through their treatment of the personal and the political. All of these works marry content to message and form in a way that is deliberate without feeling didactic.
The other day I was lamenting to a friend on the phone about “plot anxiety” regarding a project I am working on which requires more a more narrative nature than my poetry does. “Narrative arc, narrative arc” I complained. “Just write form the heart,” she said — which sounds terrible to a poet! But since she is an architect and a very wise person in general, I thought: Yes. Writing from the heart requires writing what you need to write. That’s it. My sense in reading Hayes, Charles, and McCrae these days is that they needed to write those books. And I needed to read them. I am hoping that if I “write from the heart,” narrative arc will bend kindly towards resolving my project. Again, trusting one’s process and one’s self is paramount.
The domestic is indeed central to my new book, Body of Work, and I am certain that it faces some scrutiny in that regard. Writing about everyday life with children or as a woman has been a cause of anxiety for female poets everywhere, fueled by the implicit belief that the stuff of a woman’s life is trivial. That yoke, however, is as old as Anne Bradstreet and her quilt poems—which I confess horrified me when I was young—but which I reject completely. Women carry enough. I refuse to carry that, too—to justify my subjects and my sensibility. It’s funny–when the poet Natalie Schapero read my manuscript before it went to press, she said “It’s totally a political book.” That really struck me and I am embarrassed to say I hadn’t understood that until she said it. But yes, beneath the veneer of everyday life lies a running commentary on what that life entails. If those concerns are ordinary, it may be because they are, in many ways, universal.
This question of mythologizing the domestic brings to mind the fact that I have been reading volume two of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle, which is a 3600- page opus on his entire life. It’s enthralling and addictive and infuriating all at once, because the reader is basically living Knausgard’s life alongside him–down to details like the gummy handles of the stroller. No escapism here! And yet, if you are inclined to be sympathetic, it’s an instructive and mesmerizing read. Still, I can’t imagine that a writer named Karla would have garnered such accolades for chronicling daily trials and tribulations with her partner and children. What some perceive as a yoke, others can wear as a badge.
I have a background in French literature—I completed my masters degree at the University of Paris, but did not do an MFA—and that field of study informs my poetry. While I don’t see my poems as particularly musical, the inherent musicality of the French language is always in my ear. I think my use of space is also influenced by that education—by Stephane Mallarmé and his thoughts on the importance of les blancs—the white spaces in poetry–and by the spare prose of Marguerite Duras, by the silence in her work.
I find that different poems call for different expressions of space. Sometimes short, clipped lines seek to create momentum—as in “Ballad”–whereas in “(My) American Journal” and “(Y)our American House,” which appear at the center of Body of Work, I was trying to satisfy a need for expansiveness. Short phrases moving lengthwise, across the landscape of the page, mirrored what I might characterize as a kind of yearning or emotional capaciousness.
Since I’ve mostly done away with punctuation–which in my own work feels like visual static—I tend to use white space as way to mark, disrupt, or highlight the units of meaning in my poems. Within a poem, the white spaces might be performing various functions. Sometimes it’s a place to breathe, a way to underscore, a means of highlighting a word or an image. I am, however, guilty of abusing italics. I just can’t get enough of them.
It’s rare that I decide on the structure of a poem before I write it. The form—like the content– usually reveals itself to me over time.
It’s hard to know what readers will take from my poems and it feels audacious to hope that they will take anything. Still, I write for a reason–because it’s my way of understanding my experience in the world. Like most people, I want to be understood, or at least heard, and that’s why I put my work out there. Writing is such a solitary endeavor and I don’t have many readers before my work is published, so I often feel like I am writing into a vacuum. But really, I am always writing to someone. My poems are missives that want to be received.
There’s a poem in Body of Work called “Jamming” in which I call my family “the one living poem I’ve made.” By family here I am talking about my husband and three children and by made, I am quite literally referring to my children. As ordinary as it is to have children—to paraphrase the comedian Michelle Wolff: Making a kid is easy. Making a croissant, now that’s hard. Who here has made a croissant?– I have to assert that making and raising human beings remains extraordinary to me. It’s an incredible emotional, psychic, and physical challenge. When you ask what I am leaving behind for my children, I certainly don’t think of my poems. I hope to leave a legacy of love and trust. I hope that my children are happy—if that’s the right word–to find themselves in my poetry, since they are so central to my experience. Still, I wouldn’t think of my life as fully realized, if I had neglected the people I love to write a few decent poems. So, for me—like everyone else—life is a balancing act.
Chelsea Rathburn is the author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently Still Life with Mother and Knife, a New York Times “New & Noteworthy” book released by Louisiana State University Press in February 2019. Rathburn’s first full-length collection, The Shifting Line, won the 2005 Richard Wilbur Award, and her second collection, A Raft of Grief, was published by Autumn House Press in 2013. In March 2019, Rathburn was appointed poet laureate of Georgia.
Buy Still Life with Mother and Knife.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
It took me years to realize that the fun – and the real work – of poetry is in the revising, not the drafting. Very rarely do the words spill out of my brain and onto the page fully formed. This is the opposite of how I viewed the writer’s craft when I was younger. Then, I viewed writing as an intensely private act, and an act fueled by genius and inspiration rather than intention. Now I might take years tinkering with an idea before it finds its way into the final poem.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when I was in poetry workshops in college, I revised my poems for the portfolio due at the end of the semester but changed them back as soon as I’d handed the portfolio in – so convinced was I that my initial vision was the right one. Instead of approaching revision as a way of re-seeing or transforming the poems, I was revising for no other reason than to satisfy the requirement that the poems be revised. The funny thing is that at the time I would make fun of these guys at my college – they were always guys – who bragged about getting staggeringly drunk or stoned and writing in some sort of ecstatic haze and who then tried to force their poems upon innocent bystanders. (“You’re a poet,” one might say to me at a party. “Here, you’ve got to listen to this.” And then he’d pull an ode to a bong out of a back pocket, pausing dramatically at the words “inhale” and “exhale.”) While my poems were better than the ones I made fun of, I didn’t understand that I was guilty of the same attitude: if I could get a draft finished to the point of taking it to workshop, I was certain it was brilliant. Graduate school cured me of all of that. I was suddenly surrounded by poets working at a higher level than I was – in both the poems submitted for workshop and in the published work we studied on the page. I shed my hubris, learned to approach revision as a transformative act, and began to read more widely and deeply.
For me, Claudia Emerson’s 2005 collection Late Wife is a perfect book, one I return to for inspiration and consolation. At only 54 pages, it’s focused and lean, its three sections, “Divorce Epistles,” “Breaking Up the House,” and “Late Wife: Letters to Kent,” working together to build a narrative of heartbreak and new love – love that is made possible only by the death of the new husband’s first wife, his late wife. I admire the way darkness coexists with light, despair with hope. I’m impressed by the book’s tenderness and also its control. Every metaphor is resonant, every word precisely the right one, every line break perfectly chosen. Of the three sections, two are addressed to a specific “you,” Emerson’s ex-husband in the first section, and her new husband in the last. Those sustained direct addresses create a sense of intimacy, the illusion of natural speech, when Emerson is carefully crafting an experience for the reader. Dealing as it does with the human heart and our capacity to love again, the book offers us a timeless reassurance that at our loneliest, we are not alone.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
Czeslaw Milosz declares in “Ars Poetica?” that “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person,” for “invisible guests come in and out at will.” Milosz goes on to write that poems should be composed “rarely and reluctantly” and “with the hope / that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”
For me these lines get at something essential about poetry’s potential. Haunted as we all are — by the people who have influenced us, by social institutions, by our personal and public histories — our poems necessarily are shaped by those “invisible guests” who have shaped us. Sometimes those forces “choose us as our instrument,” and sometimes we rail against them, attempting to override them. So our poems may reflect our attempts to remain one person, that is, to make a cohesive self, and sometimes they reflect our attempts to enlarge ourselves or our world.
I like this notion of the poet as both a unique self and an instrument for her time. I think poets are able to respond to social issues — racism, misogyny, homophobia, violence — in a way that makes those issues a visceral experience for a reader. I don’t think that the poet is obligated to do so explicitly, though. Sometimes the poet addresses the public through contemplation of the private.
ON FORMAL COMPOSITION
Throughout college, I wrote exclusively free verse poems and resisted all instruction in form. In graduate school, I was asked, forced really, to write a hundred lines of blank verse, and by the end of the exercise, through sheer repetition and exposure, I had internalized the iambic pentameter line. I won’t say I had mastered it, but I could hear metrical rhythms in a way that had always eluded me. This was a surprise to me. More surprising, though, was the way my lines got sharper, not only in their diction and syntax, but in their content. It was as if occupying one part of my brain with counting the beats freed up another part of my brain to take imaginative leaps and greater emotional risks. At that point, I began to experiment with rhyme and realized that I could use formal elements to amplify or undercut the content of poems. And that’s still the appeal. In a poem like “Introduction to Statistics,” for example, which describes escaping a menacing stranger in the woods at a neighborhood park, the poem’s strict form works to provide what I hope is a chilling detachment, the idea that things could have turned out much worse, but if they had, we would have been just another set of statistics. The poem began as several pages of notes describing the park, the landscape, the particular sinkholes in the limestone we used to prowl around, and so on. Eventually I came around to a Petrarchan sonnet, which served to constrain the horror and what-ifs.
ON ENDINGS (ON DARKNESS)
Oh gosh, do I understand how I arrive at darkness or why I dwell in darkness? I’m not sure I do. I know that there are poets I admire greatly who are expansive, who want to praise the whole world. My natural pull has always been toward darkness, toward the elegy versus the ode. My worldview, for better or worse, tends to be that darkness prevails – every day on earth is one day closer to death, etc. (I’m a lot of fun at parties.) Really, though, when life is relatively smooth, I tend to be suspicious, waiting for the bad thing to happen. I will say I love the world even though it hurts me. And I want to believe in goodness and kindness. And maybe that’s why I am pulled toward order and resolution in my endings. Essentially I am reaching toward an ending that feels inevitable and that continues to resonate outward.
It may sound like an exaggeration, but I owe Medea my life. When my daughter was born, after a complicated pregnancy that required surgical intervention, I had severe postpartum depression, but it took me a long time to recognize it because my experience didn’t match the stories I’d grown up hearing. (The book opens with a poem about the impact of hearing stories of my female relatives’ violent fantasies.) My experience wasn’t violent at all. I never wished harm to my baby. I simply hated myself. I thought I was the worst mother in the world and that my family would be better off without me. Naturally, as a poet I process everything though the poems I write. I didn’t know what to do with my postpartum experience, or how to process my profound sense of failure as a mother. Then I met Medea.
I was teaching Euripides’ tragedy in a world literature survey, and while preparing notes for class, I came across Delacroix’s 1838 painting of Medea, Médée Furieuse. I’d never laid eyes on it, but there was something in his Medea’s face that I felt I knew. I felt I understood her, and I felt seen and understood. (Maybe it was that here was a true monstrous mother, and my sins didn’t seem so bad in comparison!) I couldn’t understand my attraction to the painting, so I began to write about it, and that led me to a lot of research, and eventually to Lille, France, where I was able to sit in an office at the Palais des Beaux Arts with Delacroix’s preparatory sketches. What I found was that Medea gave me a way to tell the truth but tell it slant. Writing poems in conversation with Delacroix’s images (and with Euripides’ tragedy) allowed me to access my worst fears as a mother but to come at things obliquely. That trip to France, incidentally, was my first time away from my daughter for more than one night, and it marked the beginning of my return to selfhood and the rest of my life.
Jim Whiteside is the author of a chapbook, Writing Your Name on the Glass (Bull City Press, 2019). He is the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a residency from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and he was recently named a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. Jim’s recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Pleiades, Crazyhorse, and Gulf Coast. Originally from Cookeville, Tennessee, he holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He tweets @whiteside_jim.
Buy Writing Your Name on the Glass.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Poetry happens because we need it to happen – it’s something inside of us that needs to come out – but it also doesn’t happen unless you make the time and space for writing and reading. I’m my most creatively productive when I’m also actively reading. I currently work a 9-5 and have a significant other, so I really have to carve out that time for reading and writing. I try to read at least one book of poems a week – usually a contemporary book of poems. I try to sit down with a couple books and my notebook, or to revise poems for three or four sessions a week. Sometimes I meet this goal, sometimes I don’t. I have to be okay with it, and know that all writing comes in waves.
Being a poet in this world means being actively engaged with the world. I try to be observant, but I think that’s harder and harder in our constantly distracted society. I love my smart phone because of how it helps me stay connected with people I care about, but I’m also constantly afraid of what it’s done to my ability to engage with the world. Taking a walk and really looking around is much more of a challenge than it used to be – I worry about what technology is doing to our brains. I’ve looked at my phone twice since beginning to answer this question. Sheesh.
So, I’m looking into ways to combat this. I recently heard that Linda Gregg required her students to document six things they saw throughout their day, every day. I’m looking forward to incorporating that into my practice.
There are so many wonderful books from the past that simply don’t get enough air time, it’s hard to pick just one older collection to recommend, but what I can tell you about the next book I’m reading from a poet who has passed on.
In graduate school I was assigned The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Nancy Milford. I haven’t read the collection again since grad school, but I intend to revisit these poems. Millay is often remembered more for her politics and personal life than for her poems – she was a feminist, bisexual, very outspoken. But she was a sort of early rockstar poet who was extremely popular in her time, selling out nationwide reading tours in big auditoriums. In her introduction to the book, Milford describes Millay’s poem “First Fig” as “the anthem of her generation:”
My candle burns at both ends;
oooooooIt will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
oooooooIt gives a lovely light!
Short, lyric, bold. These are poems I think we all can learn a thing or two from. I read a lot of contemporary poetry, but I sometimes wonder if I read a little too much contemporary work and I’m missing something. I’m really looking forward to reading something at least a little older.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
I often talk about how poetry is a conversation. Poetry is the best thing I know of that makes me feel connected to a larger group of people who have similar concerns as mine. Poems are these magical machines that break the space-time continuum. I can read a poem written a hundred years ago that speaks to my experiences today, and I can read poems written today that do the same. Similarly, I can write my own poems that react to my experience of reading either the older or newer poems. To write a poem is to engage in a practice and a tradition as old as human history.
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I want my poems to participate in the conversation about queerness in contemporary life, and to add to that conversation, to create nuance. Poets may not frequently write letters to one another anymore, but we write poems and publish them in public spheres, we write books. These conversations are happening everywhere all the time, and it’s thrilling to feel like the piece you’re adding is being heard.
In writing a poem I feel like I’m speaking back to the past, speaking to others, and most importantly speaking to my past self. Personally, writing a poem helps me understand who I am, who I was, and who I want to become. Poetry is a crucial part of my personal evolution. My hope for readers is that they can see this development, this reflection and introspection, and perhaps see a bit of their experience in mine. Poems are like little balls of empathy we throw out into the world – and when a reader makes a connection with our work, we’ve completed the circuit. I want my poems to provide comfort and solidarity for my readers in the LGBTQ community, but I also want my poems to be meaningful for straight people. I think they’d find that the specific experiences in my poems are queer, for sure, but their driving emotions are universal.
ON THE BODY
One thing my partner often brings up about the day we met is that I told him that “bodies are weird.” I think it’s so strange to have a body, to be walking around in this thing that I simultaneously feel connected to and weirdly distinct from. My whole life, my father always told me “take care of you little body” as a sort of parting message. He was motivated to say this, I think, by seeing too many people treat themselves irresponsibly or die prematurely, but also as a reminder that you’re one little thing in a pretty big place, and your first responsibility is to look out for yourself. As a result, I feel like I’m really responsible for my body, and I’m constantly worried that I’m failing it or that it is failing me. I write about the body so much because I’m constantly afraid that my body might not be enough to protect me.
But the body is also the way we can experience all the wonderful things in this world, all its sensory and intellectual wonders. The body is a conduit for joy and for its converse, pain. In love and desire, it is the way we experience the beloved, physically and intellectually. Love, desire, and intimacy all begin with the body. In the most basic, carnal way, when writing about the beloved, you have to write about the body, the physicality of it all.
I think that, also, as a queer person writing about love, I’d be doing everyone a disservice in avoiding writing about the body. The body is obviously very much a part of love, and it therefore must be a part of writing about love. I think it’s important for readers – queer, straight, or otherwise – to see that love in an honest way, and that includes the body. By writing about the queer body as a physical, breathing, loving body, I’m creating a space for us to exist, a place for conversation, legitimization, and reassurance.
In a world where discrimination against the LGBTQ community exists, representation of queer lives and queer love becomes ever more important. Queer writers provide comfort and solidarity for queer readers, hope for queer youth, and honest representation of queer lives that straight people can see and accept. Most importantly, though, I want my work to engage with the larger conversation around contemporary queerness. I grew up in Tennessee and spent the last six years in North Carolina, so my poems feel more Southern to me – they’re hot and humid, there are dogs and open windows and bugs and a lot of things I think need to be part of the poetry of queerness. It’s my job as a poet to try and explore this space, to make room for others.
At the same time, I think it’s really important to show the queer body as a queer body, to write about love and the body and all its beauties and struggles. It has to be raw and real. I’m not in the business of whitewashing queer love for the sake of straight people’s comfort or convenience – I’m in the business of creating space for real conversations and representations of queerness.
There’s so much melancholy throughout this collection – it’s a strength and a weakness that I have to reckon with. In a chapbook, I think you really only have time for one or two themes, and you can develop those themes only so much.
Writing these poems was part of the healing process from a pretty traumatic breakup – or, rather, a time in my life when I was experiencing a series of traumatic breakups. These poems represent the latter part of the aftermath from that time in my life, and many of them were written a year or more after I had any contact with the people that inspired them.
Any of my reactionary writing that comes from a traumatic event is just that – reactionary and, honestly, not very good. I have to learn to exist with those emotions and memories before I can write about them.
There’s also an intimacy that comes from writing or reading poems of healing, a real closeness that can form between poet and reader. I trust poets who write honestly, and I hope to engender trust in my reader. Even writing into a creative space, the emotions, the situations of loss are very real and relatable, and I hope that the poems are as much a comfort to others as they are a healing balm for myself. If someone can read one of my poems and see a bit of relatable pain, I think we’ve made a connection. Hopefully, I’ve helped them see they’re not alone in their search for peace and healing.
My most recent example of delayed response relates to my father’s death. He died in July 2016, and it’s just been in the last six months or so that I’ve felt able to write about him coherently. Two years of silence, of sitting with my grief. Two years of trying to wrap my head around his absence, of developing a conception of the world without him in it. Then, slowly but surely, the poems started making sense. I was far enough removed from his loss to look at it objectively, still close enough to feel it acutely. Suddenly, I have a bunch of these poems not only about my father, but also about the place where he grew up, and, somehow, my childhood growing up as a queer kid in a rural place. I think it might be my second full-length, this weird grieving thing that’s also full of cornfields and cows and fish. It’s all very new and something I’m looking forward to focusing on over the next couple of years.
Jaswinder Bolina is an American poet and essayist. He is author of Phantom Camera (2013), Carrier Wave (2006), and the digital chapbook The Tallest Building in America (2014). His poems and essays have appeared widely in the U.S. and abroad and have been included in several anthologies including The Best American Poetry and The Norton Reader. He teaches on the faculty of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Miami. He was born in Chicago.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
Crater your expectations. I never had any fantasy of my poetry landing me on Oprah, but I did have an inflated sense of its potential impact. I’d probably waded too deep into legends of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Allen Ginsberg, and Maya Angelou had just read at the Clinton inaugural a few years earlier so at that point, I think I had this embarrassing notion notoriety was possible and a measure of merit. Two decades later, my definition of success couldn’t be more different. I don’t want to go supernova or play Carnegie Hall or read my poetry to bureaucrats. It’s only the writing that enthralls me: the articulation of a rare, seemingly impossible line or the discovery of some riveting sentence by a poet I haven’t read before. Sitting alone in a café or dumpy bar or at whatever kind of table with a newspaper, a couple poetry books, and a notepad is the best our business has to offer. That’s the entirety of what I’m after: not truth or beauty, not influence or fame. I just want to read and cram as many disparate, improbable words as I can into my poems. This is my obsession. Sure, I want others to encounter the work and for reviewers to like it, but I think I have more realistic expectations of what that looks like now, and I’ve never felt freer to make art than I do in the absence of outsized ambition.
Any collected or selected by Robert Desnos. There are two volumes translated and edited by William Kulik, one he did with Carole Frankel and another with Carolyn Forché, that are both pretty wonderful. Desnos is a poet I first heard about from Dean Young, either when I was a student of Dean’s at Loyola Chicago in the late 90s or via references he makes to Desnos in some of his own poems. Whichever it was, I can tell you Desnos’ work is exuberant, bizarre, with countless utterly unexpected turns of phrase and image, and yet for all their gorgeous contortions the poems are completely recognizable in their pathos and humanity. He was a political force too and in far more dire circumstances than anything we face in this country. His support of the French resistance along with his writing eventually landed him in Auschwitz. I don’t know what the appraisal of his work looks like out there in the wide world of literary scholarship, but I do know, for me, he’s a singularity. His insight into our current condition is that the situation could be a lot worse and the poetry so much more explosive.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
I’m not sure the poet has much control over the social function of the poetry. Nobody’s singing into their backpack when they write. By this I mean that we all want to reach others with our work, but how our work is greeted, how it is valued by a reader feels a matter of serendipity or fleeting disposition. All we can do is imbue the poetry with potential. It’s up to the reader to make it kinetic. I remember finding Wallace Stevens dull and 7/8s impenetrable until I figured out Stevens was trying to be funny. Now, he’s only 3/8s impenetrable and otherwise very meaningful to me. I offer that as way of saying my failings and feelings as a reader have everything to do with how well I permit the poem to affect me. Some days I have no appetite for the most devastating writing of witness, identity, and protest. Those poems that reach for the sociopolitical — my own included — can feel somehow hollow, ineffectual, and even self-indulgent for their self-serious ambitions, but some days, I’m choked up at the front of a classroom reading those very same works to my students; I become a wreck of awe and gratitude and mortality. Maybe this is an odd combo, but I think my perspective on this is one part Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” and one part Cathy Park Hong’s “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” The former teaches me how loose our grip on our own work can or should be, but the latter reminds me of the far-reaching social contexts and consequences of our art. Hong tells me to punch the world in the face with my best efforts at poetic innovation even as O’Hara tells me the world might find my best efforts adorably inconsequential. I don’t find a contradiction in this. We are players rising out of a choir. In this, we’re equal to everyone even as we articulate our difference from them. This is why anyone listens to us if anyone listens at all, for the ways our distinctiveness makes us familiar. And if they choose not to listen, bully for them.
Diction and syntax take up the entirety of my attention as I write and revise. I mean, that’s the whole ballgame. Any rendering of subject or accident of insight is emergent phenomena as far as I’m concerned. I have no idea what the poems are going to be when I sit down to write them. I have next to no agenda at all. I really just want to get the words going, to catalogue some odd phrase caught in my throat and then juxtapose that with something unexpected arising from it. This might give way naturally to attentiveness to rhythm — and, thank you thank you for your praise of that aspect of the work. There are poets who compose by lyric argument and some who compose by narrative and others still who compose by abstract association. I compose by ear. The poem isn’t done until it sounds right. I wonder sometimes if there’s something clinical going on there that the DSM could better comment on. I do have an obsessive-compulsive streak in me in other contexts. There’s a correct way to chop an onion and vacuum the carpet and arrange the spice rack. I can’t sleep until the song is finished and the curtains drawn just so.
ON AMERICAN POETRY
I’m infuriated by the exclusions in our American oeuvre, not just of peoples and cultures but also of language. If you took all the poems ever published in English, took every page of every Norton and counted every word, you’d still be nowhere near the planet-sized totality of our human language, and imagine the breadth of that language as it dilates across time. Put it this way: the gap between our anthologies and our dictionaries is geometric in scale. How dare anyone tell us poetry is finished or that it has no space for us and our words. It’s the stuff of narrow-minded gas bags to insist the canon is complete or sacred and infallible. I don’t go often into any temple or chapel, but when I do, I’m not there to worship. I’m there to pick a fight, to catalogue what the gods got wrong. So, sure, I adore plenty of the canon, but fuck it. As in atoms and galaxies, the canon is mostly empty space for all the language missing from it. There’s ample room in there for you and me and every other. For this reason, I am inspired to see so many who’ve been previously excluded asserting their language into our literature and our lives, and any lover and defender of poetry ought to be right there with me in my gratitude. All this to say, yes, absolutely, I set about getting my words into the mix, to articulate my life on Earth such as it is because it’s the only life I know. Whether my diction and syntax are colored by melanin or minority, whether such aspects of my writing are of much note or merit is for a reader to decide. All I’m doing is using the words available to me, and though they might’ve done it better, I don’t think Keats or Dickinson or Ashbery did it any different.
Fred Schmalz, the author of Action in the Orchards (Nightboat, 2019), is an artist and poet whose current writing responds to encounters with art. Balas & Wax is his ongoing collaborative art practice with Susy Bielak. He lives in Chicago.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
I believe strongly that your life will guide you to where your writing should go. In my experience, being a poet has meant I live attuned to encounters: with language, people, the environment, the senses. This attunement often feels like a balance of the intentional and the spontaneous, of staying loose and improvisational while doggedly pursuing a kind of attentiveness to the sonic, visual, textural, and textual beauties of the day.
For me this means embracing exposure to the new, the uncertain, the strange — however that may take shape. Reminding myself to go forth fearlessly, or at least in recognition of my fears, can offer the space for the kinds of encounters that provide the grist for artmaking.
Even within intentional encounters, there is great opportunity for chance. For example, I am a dedicated distance runner, so that enters my writing practice as a near-daily meditation and encounter with nature. As big a music fan as I am, I never run with music because it would compromise my immersion in the environment around me: the voices on the street, the birds in the park, the respiration of Lake Michigan over my shoulder.
As far as how that relates to writing, I feel like there are many ways to be a poet, and that part of the joy and the difficulty of assuming this role is in understanding how your voice is and isn’t like others’ voices, and making sure you allow yourself enough space to listen and grip exactly how it is yours.
We are in a fortunate age where so much vital poetry is being written and brought into the world. Teachers and librarians are encouraging kids to read living poets. It’s great! It’s also reminds me of my limits as a reader. I like to at least try to keep up with the breadth of that output while also returning to the poems and poets that have left their mark on me.
Poems are wily creatures. I so love that poems are patient enough to wait us out while we spend our time in the world, gathering the experiences that will make our return to them resonant. I recently had a wonderful concurrence, where someone recommended I revisit a Robert Hass poem at the precise moment that I realized I needed to return to it. The conversation we were having (about a poem we were reading) spurred a connection to the network of poems that are in conversation with each other, constantly accepting new entries.
I keep returning to Inger Christensen’s Alphabet in Susanna Nied’s translation, rolling over its rhythms and investigations of natural beauty and the ways humans are damaging the world as it exists. Incorporating a Fibonacci sequence into its structure, the book expands outwardly from its first single-line section “apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist” to encompass the myth of Icarus and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It contains both the warmth of the natural world and its barrenness. It could have been written tomorrow. I think of how it informs and connects to much of the poetry being written today, both structurally and in its philosophical concerns, and I want everyone to read it. Whenever I find it in used bookstores, I buy it and hand it to the next friend I see.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
I see the potential of poetry in the societal interactions of the people who write. Poets exist in society as political beings — we vote and write and engage with our language in the context of civic discourse. The decision to become a poet, which is a self-designation, is itself a form of protest. It doesn’t fit capitalism, so it rattles the system.
Humans are social animals and language is central to that sociability. As poets, we acknowledge that and relate to each other by speaking up, by writing out loud. We share our identities, our concerns, and our understandings. We push each other to recognize our features and our faults, our privileges and biases.
There are poets who, to me, display poetry’s potential to improve communities. Eve Ewing studies Chicago’s school systems. Nick Demske works at the Racine Public Library. Sarah Rafael Garcia runs LibroMobile in Santa Ana. Chris Martin cofounded an organization that teaches poetry to neurodivergent learners in Minnesota. These poets seem to me to have an acute awareness that we are all in this together.
My writing in Action in the Orchards is not overtly political, but it is socially focused. What concerns me are the ways we relate to each other on a humanistic level, as well as the ways we engage with art and experience. How do we deal with closeness, aloneness, how do we go through cities gathering their sensory residues?
I am interested in the social value of noticing and of how that might manifest. I am especially interested in the inherent musicality of language and how that music can be emotionally evocative. Think of some snippet of language, some cross-talk overheard on the street, and how it can set your mind ablaze with narratives — about the speaker, their interlocutor, the street itself.
I wrote the poems of Action in the Orchards as a form of memory notation, as a way to pay tribute to the encounters that inspire me as a person, which are mostly encounters with other people. Those other people doing things — making art, playing music, dancing, acting, running, selling newspapers, cooking — give me a charge.
My poems grow out of a call and response between the quotidian and the spectacular in personal and shared experiences. They are a way of saying, “keep your antenna up and stay patient to how encounters might assemble.” The poem “The Line Ending Forever” grew out of a brief, intense period where friends kept coming to me with these striking anecdotes about their relationships. I thought about Anne Waldman’s book, Marriage: A Sentence, which guided me toward using the sentence as the poem’s unit of measure (I typically work by assembling fragments).
Many of the poems in Action in the Orchards also incorporate references to contemporary art and artists, so I don’t expect readers to enter this book knowing them. I also don’t want to be coy about those references. Rather than lard up the poems with explicit call-outs to specific artworks and artists, including notes at the end of the book felt like the simplest solution. Initially, I had included a bare-bones list of the artworks referenced in the poems, but was encouraged by others to expand those references, increasing readers’ access to the context feeding the poems. “Share more of what’s in the basket,” my partner Susy says. That felt like sound advice, especially considering that my poems often evoke their encounters obliquely.
For example, in the notes for the poem “New Museum (inside),” I mention that we bumped into Yoko Ono in the elevator of the museum after encountering Camille Henrot’s and Ragnar Kjartansson’s work. Reference to Yoko’s artworks did not make the poem, but the sight of Susy leaning into her to tell her how lovely it was to see her may be the most resonant encounter of the day, and seemed salient to mention in relation to a poem that ends with “for being / revolutionary and loving flowers.”
I hope the book can stir readers’ associations with contemporary art and artists.
I see part of my role as a poet as gathering the stories and experiences of my friends and family as well as myself, and writing from that multifarious voice. The writing, especially the poems related to artworks, are a form of witness. What is important to me are the ways, through language, that it is possible to expand my own perspectives and to incorporate our social selves into the wonder and strangeness of the world. I try to translate the energy of the encounter into the energy of the poem via a kind of ricocheting enthusiasm for both the experience and the language that adheres to it.
That I do it often in the first person may encourage certain autobiographical associations, but it’s a bit less 1-to-1 than that. I use “I” fluidly to engage with a broad range of experiences. Yes, in these poems, there’s often an I, but the I isn’t always me the author. They might be composites of friends’ experiences, or my own, or the overheard, or extrapolations on any of these conditions.
The poem “Door in a Bath” was written about a friend who was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in his early thirties. He was given a one percent chance of surviving through the year (he is still alive a decade later). Elements from our conversations and his visits enter the poem. His calm — and his despair — make their way in as well. Using “I” and “you” in this poem allows interiority and intimacy to operate. I feel like this gives the poem room to incorporate the sensate body and the grip of mortality.
Jess Williard’s poems, stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, North American Review, Colorado Review, Southern Humanities Review, Poet Lore, and more. He is originally from Wisconsin and now lives in Atlanta. This is his first book.
The men who recur as characters throughout Jess Williard’s Unmanly Grief perform their masculinity in a variety of ways: boxing, theater, brotherhood, labor, and familial and romantic love. Marked by a sharp nostalgia, Williard’s poems move from Wisconsin to New York City and back, tracing the geographic movement of the speaker and his family: a teenage sister who disappears and returns, changed irrevocably; an older brother dismantled in adulthood; an ever-sacrificing father. Woven through the musculature of this varied and exciting collection, music appears as readily in dexterous formal verse as in lean, scrappy storytelling. What results is a crooning celebration of struggle and tenderness in this world, “where to be small and furious is enough.”
Buy Unmanly Grief.
TO A (YOUNG) POET
The writing world is affected by the conflation of art and commerce which has, I think, created a sense of urgency for writers to “produce”. As if the volume of material one puts out could be indicative of their legitimacy or value as a writer. With poetry in particular I view productivity in other ways: reading, of course, but also just listening, watching, moving mindfully through the world. Touching things and allowing oneself to be touched. Slowing down. Being opened from the outside in. That’s where the juice of any of this comes from. I also believe there’s a commingling of impressions that informs poems more than poetry can inform poems: film, music, dance, painting. Sports and machines. Work and conversation. Animals. Being outside. To a younger self (and all selves) I’d point to these things. Attention is always first.
Jack Gilbert. What you really want is the Collected volume from Knopf, but if I had to single out a book I’d say The Great Fires. There’s an overwhelming sense of wonder in these poems, something all too elusive in our routine societal purview. It’s work that reminds you to be amazed. And amazing about these poems, in their dispensation of an ego-driven “I” or locus within a discernable thesis, is that they ring as true lyric: they are not limited by the strictures of time or opportunism. Gilbert uses language to connect with and across time. And while some of this work is elegiac, it treats death with wonder, too.
ON POETRY’S POTENTIAL
With intent to share or connect, something is innately social. Poems, I believe, are innately social. But I’m wary of the word “function” for its imperative to the poem to be about something rather than be something. Dean Young’s assertion that in poem-making we are creating “birds, not bird cages” comes to mind. I think the rhetoric of agenda can really short-circuit poems, and the pretense of a poem serving a specific “function” impedes that piece from actually becoming a poem at all.
That being said, there are so many examples of “birds”, or poems that exist as singularly singing organisms, that also fulfill some kind of function in cause or witness. Marie Howe’s “What The Living Do”, for example, bears a very personal witness to the AIDS epidemic and by turn, I believe, lends dimension to an issue of wider social import. Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Dien Cai Dau”, in its representation/experience of the insane violence of the Vietnam War, manages to “make comment” on the atrocities of armed conflict not by “making comment” but by making poems.
In terms of understanding a poet’s capability, everything I read teaches me something about what is possible in poems. It’s part of what is so exciting about this genre: it is endlessly amorphous, inventive, and instructive. Lately I’ve been taught about the situated-ness of personal narrative within national and regional narratives in Grady Chambers’ “North American Stadiums”; the melding of vernaculars and varied cultural mythos in “Post Traumatic Hood Disorder” by David Tomas Martinez has widened my conceptions of humor and useful intellectualism in lyric; Carl Phillips’ syntax always brings new light to bear on the possibilities of the mechanics of language. And though it is through these tools that each poet achieves their respective social “function” (to gloss them — or my impression of them — here would be reductive and work against my point), it is the birds who are singing, not their cages.
Ruben Quesada is a poet and translator. His chapbook of poetry and translations, Revelations, is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. He teaches poetry for UCLA Writers' Program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He currently serves as the Executive Director of Arte Américas, one of the largest Latino cultural centers in California.