…especially when you’re a day late on posting an Earth Day poem. Big thanks to Angélique Jamail who featured “Precita Park, April 22″ on Sappho’s Torque!
It is easy, I think, to get subsumed by the local, the collective, the known. Living in the Denver Metro area, surrounded by dozens of amazing poets who all live within a 25 mile radius of me, I tend to think of them as my — as the — poetry world. And that world is big enough. Reading them and getting to know the poets they read – a collective, local canon – that can sustain me. And then I go to AWP, and I’m surrounded by thousands of poets, but still I seek out my friends, the ones who live far away, the poets I know and love, and my world feels both bigger and smaller and very satisfying. But it can also fee claustrophobic, clinging to who and what I know, finding my understand of aesthetics verified in the work of the poets I love and even in the work I don’t like from the poets I love.
So my favorite part — and the scariest part — of AWP is the stranger. It can be hard to meet strangers because so much of AWP is having someone to meet somewhere. “Hey, how are you? I’d love to catch up but I’m on my way to meet…” And once again I gird myself in the known. Because it is safe. Because middle school was rough. Because to be alone in the poetry universe means to be slightly unhinged. Disconnected.
I met Kierstin Bridger on the plane back to Denver from Seattle. We were seated in the same row, separated by a professional recruiter. I saw at least three poets I know board and take their seats somewhere behind me. I settled in with a copy of Versal and imagined that I’d spend the 3+ hour flight reading. But the professional recruiter was chatty and soon engaged both Kierstin and me in conversation, and I met a poet stranger. And the conversation turned – as most conversations among poets do – to poets we like and poets we read. But instead of each of us establishing the boundaries of our own community as I think often happens (not as an intentional act of exclusion but as an unintentional act of self-identification), we noticed the alignments of our communities, the overlapping, the striations that result when communities move along each other.
Kierstin lives in Ridgeway, CO and is getting her MFA at the low residency program at Pacific University in Oregon. She doesn’t have a book out yet, but it’s only a matter of time, and her poems can be found all over in little and big lit mags like Memoir (and) and Pilgrimage. She writes like a scientist looking into a microscope. Or like a detective at a crime scene, honing in on the small details and sussing from them what they can tell us. But unlike a scientist or a detective, she forces no conclusions. She doesn’t treat them as evidence secondary to the big claim or epiphany or discovery. They tell their own stories, and she lets them.
Take the following three stanzas from her poem “Because Now There Are School Shootings”:
They must exist,
immune from ice,
singing ridge line songs
through several sets of teeth.
They must wear a bear tooth
on their necks,
a dominance amulet,
and unexpected predators
to most but me.
Kierstin creates a terrible, terrifying creature, primarily because it is a phantom anchored in the real world by “bear tooth” and “dominance amulet.” The details she lights on, like “immune to ice” and “several sets of teeth” are janus-like in what they reveal and hide. And the best thing Kierstin does is let the hidden stay hidden. She doesn’t force a truth.
And then these lines from her poem “Dinner Party”: “as we tried to dance off / the aphrodisiac’s damage.” I’m not going to get into the lovely aural things these lines are doing. Instead I want to end here. On this image. Because it says what I’ve been trying to say about the known. The attraction of it. The damage.
Okay. So I’m not doing great on the whole daily blogging goal. But I’m going to keep going, even if it means I only manage to talk about four poets I admire.
And admire is exactly the word I would use for Camille Dungy. Maybe even venerate. Because Camille write historical documentation like I want to write historical documentation and will never write historical documentation.
Let me back up. I LOVE poems and poem series that explore history using archival source material. Some of my favorites include Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom, David Mason’s Ludlow, and Tyehimba Jess’ Leadbelly. I know there are dozens and dozens of other poets who have blazed ground in historical documentation (C.D. Wright and Muriel Ruckeyser immediately come to mind), but these three were foundational for me as I worked on Uprising.
And then I read Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow. Using diverse archival sources, Camille creates linked fictional narratives of Virginia slaves in two households from 1842 to 1850, ending a little over a decade before the Emancipation Proclamation. She also pulls in the story of a free black man (Joseph Freeman: “Hadn’t been a slave // in his Daddy’s line since ’73.”) who gets sold into slavery. He is separated from his wife Melinda and son Jacob, for whom he pines.
What strikes me most about Camille’s poems isn’t the fact that she made successful poems out of documentation (which is so hard), but that she created evocative, compelling, heartbreaking, and visceral poems out of documentation. Take, for example, this except from the poem “Born on this Place,” which is written in the voice of Molly, a slave on the Jackson Farm, about the loss of her mother and two siblings.
The month a milk cow shattered Mama’s shoulder
and left her worth little more than half a hand,
Jackson threw in Sol’ and Hannah when he sold her
to a trader came here on his way to Tennessee.
Didn’t hurt him much to lose Mama and two quarter hands,
Jackson raised his stock so well. They say
my father was the stud who worked this farm one week,
a wedding gift from the Missus’ father to his newest son.
Twelve children were born in this place in March of ’33.
I could go on about the craft of this, how Camille juxtaposes one family against another and draws a comparison between the slave owner’s coupling to the inhumane forced couplings on his land, or how the title of the poem drives home what it means to be “born” a slave. But really, just, holy shit. These poems aren’t the reconstruction of dusty bones. They are a resurrection of lives lived.
The whole book is amazing, including the last poem of found text and the “Primer” at the end, in which Camille discusses her archival sources through captivating lyracism.
Camille’s latest book is Smith Blue, and I can’t wait to read it.
My April-is-the-cruelest-National-Poetry-Month commitment is to write each day about a contemporary poet I admire…Blew it on day one. I fell asleep after deciding to lay down for a second between folding the laundry and putting it away. Today I’ve developed a better strategy: write my blogpost before doing any domestic chores. The guilt factor of falling asleep before the dinner dishes are washed isn’t as intense.
So in the spirit of making April a little less cruel, I’m going to cut myself some slack if I miss a day here or there, but I’m going to try to write about 30 poets. And I thought about my approach a lot. Well, more about explaining my approach a lot. Creating a rubric that defended my choices. Should I focus on poets who don’t seem to get much attention? I’d lose out on writing about some of my biggest influencers. Should I write only about poets who have published books or chapbooks? I wouldn’t be able to write about young, fresh, exciting poets who haven’t yet found a home with a press yet. Should I avoid writing about friends? Come on. So many of my friends are poets. So many of the poets I know are friends. It’s just the company I keep.
The rubric I chose is randomness. What I pull off the shelf. That poem in the journal I read last month. A book I’ve been intending to read but haven’t yet. No logic. Mostly chance and circumstance.
NPM Feature #1: Sandy Longhorn
I met Sandy at the Black Lawrence table at AWP Denver in 2010. We crossed paths later at a reading at a very elegant and seemingly private club that in no other circumstance would I (or any other poet I know) gain admittance. I bought her book Blood Almanac (which won the 2005 Anhinga Prize for Poetry) because something she said made me think that she would write interesting poems. I forgot what that something was, but it was a beacon.
Sandy has a dynamic relationship with music in her poems. She approaches it, bargains with it, fights with it, plays with it, abandons it, embraces it. She breaks it and fixes it. She uses it. Sandy and music are like young, brash, tempestuous lovers. You never know how they are feeling about each other. And it’s so exciting to watch the relationship develop. Take the first two stanzas of “Incarnation” from Blood Almanac:
My previous bodies:
a wooden boat
a tangle of vines inching up ruins,
a misnamed saint poisoned and preserved.
There is never an escape, a rest,
from the audience and its eye.
O, Reader, you leer and peer
and pry, but I have helped you
loosen the fence board. Tho’ I am shy.
My favorite two lines are the first. The way she plays with all of those long and short “o” and “oo” and “u” sounds is close to chanting, as magical as past incarnations. And then the second stanza is almost song, but she won’t let it be completely song. The rhythm stumbles, as if in the shyness pronounced at the end.
I’ve recently received my copy of Sandy’s latest, The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. I haven’t yet had a chance to read through it, but a quick sampling reveals poems as tough and violent as prairie weather, and it’s no accident that many of these poems use weather and the elements as their lexicon. My favorite so far is “‘Touch Me’ Misread as ‘Torch Me,’” and I’ll close with my favorite line:
In winter and alone
we have each craved the match, the smoke and ashes.
Most of you already know that Uprising is coming out this fall. October 15, to be precise. And it’s available now for $9.95, which is $5 off the cover price ($5.05, to once again be precise).
So if you were thinking of getting it, now is the time. And if you weren’t thinking of getting it, at this price you should think differently. You’ll get corrupt politics, secret police, agent provocateurs, and family secrets for the price of a movie.
You can pre-order it on the Black Lawrence Press site. The discount disappears once the book is released, so order it soon. Or order it now.
And if you run a reading series and are looking for some sizzling historical documentation cum novel-in-verse (if verse is more like dramatic monologue), send me an email. I’d love to come attempt my best Hungarian accent for you.
The automated poetry assessor determines the level of “professionalism” of a poem. Everyday Genius decided to spend a month publishing poems that are decidedly amateurish (bad, very bad poems). “Life on Pluto” got a score of -0.0989661016949 — another bit of evidence that those in power have no respect for the little guy.