Poetry Squawk

Indolent authors and friends share their perspectives on the life and craft of writing

Tempering Your Poetic Temperaments (grâce à Gregory Orr)

A Poetry Squawk
By Michael Broder
Author of Drug and Disease Free and This Life Now

les_hallesI do believe some much-need Squawk relief is quivering on the horizon, but I hate seeing these weeks go by without a fresh Squawk, so yes, okay, I’m going to Squawk again myself.

I’ve been doing various kinds of poet mentoring lately, and I keep telling my mentees about my favorite craft essay of all time, “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry” by Gregory Orr, which you can find in the excellent book, Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, edited by Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryant Voigt.

One mentee asked me whether their highly story-centered poetry was inconsistent with contemporary poetic standards. Made my day! And so, for my own Squawking pleasure if not yours, I reproduce here an appropriately edited version of my comments to them.

Story-centered poetry is not at all inconsistent with norms and standards of contemporary poetry—whatever that actually means (fodder for another Squawk and yes, I’m going to keep capitalizing Squawk). Very established, in fact, as one type of contemporary poetry. People often make a distinction between “narrative” poetry and “lyric” poetry where narrative poetry tells a story and lyric poetry expresses thoughts and feelings or uses language in a relatively abstract way. I don’t really buy that distinction. I think it’s more of a spectrum. Which brings me back to Orr’s “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.”

Orr talks about poetry living on a sort of matrix in which story, structure, music, and imagination are the four quadrants (temperaments). Any poet finds their comfort zone somewhere on this grid, with sort of a primary “temperament” and at least one secondary temperament. All poems, according to Orr, have all four elements to one extent or another.

It’s fine to be a “story” poet by temperament, but to be the best poet they can be, a story poet needs to figure out how to integrate the other temperaments. It gets a bit more complicated because the temperaments are divided into two pairs, finite (story and structure) and infinite (music and imagination). Ideally, any poet’s secondary temperament would be of a different kind from their primary temperament. Story and structure are finite (meaning they tend to set limits on the poem), so these types of poets would want to try to cultivate music or imagination (which are limitless qualities, according to the way Orr uses these terms). And vice versa.

For Orr, and I think for most of us poets, music means things like rhyme, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and simply the sounds of words themselves—short words, long words, sequences of words, balance of vowels and consonants, where stresses and pauses naturally fall, etc. Imagination may  be the squidgiest of Orr’s terms, but it’s also the one I am most intrigued by. He divides imagination into concrete imagination and abstract imagination. Concrete imagination is what we usually call “imagery,” sensual or sensory language, actual things and how they look, sound, taste, smell, or feel to the touch. Abstract imagination is thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideas. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” (Whitman is the quintessential modern poet of abstract imagination).

Personally, I think I may be a story + abstract imagination poet. Maybe this poem is a good example.

Only you can say what your combination of temperaments is as a poet. If you buy what Orr is selling, and you feel that your primary temperament is story, then you want to push hard to cultivate music or imagination, either concrete or abstract. That doesn’t mean you pay no attention to structure (stanzas and fixed forms like the sonnet or villanelle and so forth); just keep in mind that your stories already structure your poems to a great extent, so you may not want to push too hard on the formal type of structure, it may render your poems overly “finite” and lacking in the dimension of infinity lent by music and imagination.

And that’s about where I left it with my mentee. If you haven’t already done so, get yourself a copy of Orr and Voigt’s Poets Teaching Poets and read Orr’s “The Four Temperaments” for yourself—it’s not much longer than the overview I’ve given here, but it’s infinitely richer in the original Orr. And think about your own poetic temperaments. Then go out and Squawk.

Michael Broder is the author of Drug and Disease Free (Indolent Books, 2016) and This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. He holds a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from New York University, and a PhD in Classics from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the founding publisher of Indolent Books and the creator of the HIV Here & Now Project. Broder lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of stray and feral cats.

Hammer Will Sing: Building Poetry Community in South Jersey

A Poetry Squawk
By Emari Digiorgio
Author of The Things a Body Might Become

headshot_digiorgioI learned early that one does not bring poetry to people. It’s already there. Or here in Atlantic City, backlit by casino glare, it’s a silver dollar wedged in boardwalk pilings.

Even if people don’t call it poetry, they’re writing or singing or making music. They’re telling stories and delighting in language.

When I lived in New York, I could find a reading, or five, any night of the week, and because I was in a graduate creative writing program, people who read and wrote and valued the life of the creative mind surrounded me. Members of my MFA program were my community.

When I graduated and moved to southern New Jersey, I grew nostalgic about readings at the Bowery and late night poetry conversations at the Kettle and brunch workshops at my friend Gavin’s apartment. I was quick to assign my longing to New York, as if the place itself fostered community, but then I remembered being invited to a workshop in the East Village and being patronized and attending lots of readings where I was not treated as part of the in-crowd. So it wasn’t New York that I was missing but the people who supported my writing.

I was returning to South Jersey and Stockton University, where I had completed my undergraduate degree, so I knew the literary landscape. If I am honest, I will admit that I had my doubts about the no-scene scene. True, there were pockets of activity: a visiting writer series at the University that brought in four to six writers throughout the year and a few inconsistent open mics at local coffee shops. The region’s literary highlight was/is the long-standing (and fantastic) annual poetry and prose retreat The Winter Getaway, organized by Peter Murphy.

Instead of retreating to my apartment with my then twenty-year-old cat, I attended the inconsistent open mics, and at some point, I quieted my own wistfulness long enough to listen to what the members of the preexisting communities wanted. People wanted to share their work. They wanted writing prompts and workshops. They wanted these events to be free and well organized. They wanted to feel welcome and to improve their writing. I wanted the same.

The primary thing that separated us was that I had access to resources: I taught at the local university and could book space on campus or at any of the satellite sites, I knew poets I could invite as featured readers or to teach workshops, and I had experience teaching poetry outside of the academy.

Why not use these resources to help build the community we all wanted? But where and how to begin?

I chose to start in the classroom.

I have taught creative writing in community settings since 2004 to a variety of populations, including disabled adults at Goldwater Memorial Hospital; youth in the pediatric units of Weill Cornell University Medical Center; cancer survivors and caretakers at the South Jersey Chapter of Gilda’s Club; and elementary, middle, and high school students in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, Newark, Middlesex, Bridgeton, Galloway, Atlantic City, and Cape May Court House, among others. In 2005, I was formally added to the roster of New Jersey’s official Teaching Artists.

These teaching experiences, Stockton University’s “undisciplined” liberal arts tradition, and June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program led me to create GIS 3307, Why Poetry Matters. As a capstone General Studies course with a mandatory service-learning component, undergraduate juniors and seniors of all majors study international and American poetry, learn how poetry can be used as an agent of change (socially/politically/medically), and examine the ways in which poetry has been taught to foster a love of language and writing. Working in pairs or small groups, students offer one-hour poetry programs to underserved populations for six weeks.

Over the past nine years, my undergraduates have facilitated 65 six-week community writing workshops in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, working with a variety of populations including homeless youth at Covenant House; incarcerated teens at Harbor Fields Correctional Facility; children and teens through Family Service Association’s Partial Care Program; and youth at Stanley Holmes Community Center, Martin Luther King School Complex, and the Atlantic City Police Athletic League. As much as these programs offer young people an opportunity to express themselves and to share their stories, they also serve as a bridge, establishing true relationships between the undergraduates and the workshop participants. Everyone emerges a little changed.

While I was starting my literary citizenship mentoring undergraduates and providing free community workshops during the academic year, a local librarian, Aubrey Rahab, was starting her own open mic. Though the series was evicted from multiple sites, she was committed to finding it a home, and her passion and perseverance for creating a safe space for writers of all stripes was exactly what I was looking for. I committed myself to attending that series, even when it was held on the playground behind Ventnor City Library. When the series finally found its home at Stockton’s Dante Hall Theater, it was renamed World Above. As Aubrey accumulated additional duties as Director of the Northfield Library, I gradually found myself introducing the guest poets, hosting the open, and soliciting readers for the series. As I become more involved in planning the events and hosting them, I realized we could do a better job welcoming new voices and bringing in more diverse guest poets. In January 2015, Aubrey gifted me with the series.

To attract guest poets and to appropriately reward them for their travel and talent, I started asking the University and private donors for money. I began advertising the series in the local paper, through social media, and on the Poets and Writers calendar. I also restructured the reading itself, starting it with the open mic (and requesting that everyone read only one poem less than two minutes long). This order ensured that the feature would have time to answer questions and sell books and that individuals wouldn’t feel intimidated by the guest poet or arrive later to only participate in the open mic. I enlisted the help of the wonderful poet and teacher Barbara Daniels to write a monthly take-home writing prompt that we could distribute between the open and the feature, encouraging everyone to stay and to give everyone a literary parting gift. And I started inviting the guest poet out to dinner before or after the reading.

My hope is that each of these changes has made the space more inviting for monthly participants and for guest poets. Offering guest poets a modest honorarium and dinner (and my air mattress, if necessary) shows that we value their work and time, and more poets are willing to travel to Atlantic City for a two-hour reading. A more diverse group of guest poets has led to new attendees, and the stricter open mic rules curbed any of the over-sharers and encouraged more individuals to share their work. Similarly, the monthly prompt provided a mini-lesson for those who were interested.

While I was working with Aubrey Rahab on the World Above series, she and I met to talk about running a monthly intergenerational poetry workshop at the Northfield Library. The library had a vibrant programming calendar, and I knew from my own experience offering creative writing workshops to older adults that there was demand for a monthly program. Again, I wanted to secure funding for the series and applied for and received internal funds through Stockton’s Center on Successful Aging. Not only have we been able to host fantastic guest poets each month (including Diane Lockward and Lois Harrod), but we’ve also been able to assemble participant work into a perfect-bound anthology and to celebrate their writing with a reading and book release party. In the three years I’ve facilitated the series, monthly attendance has increased by 40%, several participants attend the World Above open mic and featured reading in Atlantic City, and two individuals have started submitting their work to regional/national literary journals.

No one encourages you to be a good literary citizen. In fact, many writers and my own mentors have warned how service to the literary community can and will distract from your own writing time. This is true. But I’m also capable of distracting myself from my writing with activities that don’t sustain my creative life (i.e. Facebook or a multi-step process for dry-frying tofu). I can’t tell you how many hours I spend mentoring students and helping them with their community poetry projects or facilitating World Above and A Tour of Poetry. I don’t need to know; for me, the trade-off is a community of which I am excited to be a part.

Emari DiGiorgio’s debut collection, The Things a Body Might Become, is forthcoming from ELJ Editions. She is the recipient of the 2016 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize Honoring Jake Adam York and has received residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony. Her poems are forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Compose, Glass, The Indianola Review, Opossum, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Redactions, RHINO, Southern Humanities Review, and Split Lip. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at Stockton University, a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Poet, and the host of World Above, a monthly reading series in Atlantic City, NJ.

Writing to You (or, Generally Speaking)

A Poetry Squawk
By Michael Broder
Author of Drug and Disease Free and This Life Now

1-1The first words of poetry I wrote as a grown-man poet were “Before you say a word.”

As a boy in love with writing, I wrote poems and stories. But more stories. And in any case I put the pen down for about 10 years, beginning at age 18. (Fodder for another Poetry Squawk.) When I resumed writing, it was stories. And my fiction writing energized me for several years. But at a certain point, fiction began to feel more like lies. Perhaps because my fiction was mostly autobiographical. I wasn’t inventing a character. I was donning a mask. And that came to feel false. And in response to that feeling, I thought something like, “I wish I could just say it.” It, meaning whatever I really meant. And when I sat down with steno pad and green felt-tipped marker to give it a shot, it came out as a poem of direct address: “Before you say a word, I am yours.”

That began a period of some ten years in which I wrote primarily what you might call classically lyric poems, poems of love, longing, and loss addressed to a second person, addressed to a you. I’m a [trigger warning: pejorative term for sexual minority reclaimed in a reverse-discursive gesture of self-empowerment] FAG, so my addressee was…well…not really anyone is particular, and yet little pieces of a lot of young men. It was sort of what I was supposed to have been doing in writing fiction: inventing characters. For some reason (which reason you’d think I would identify in this squawk but I’m not sure I can), I could do it more easily in verse than in fiction. Perhaps because it was a you. Perhaps it was easier for me to reimagine you than it was to reimagine me.

I believe my attraction to the lyric poem of direct address was a legacy of my life as a classicist, i.e. a student of Ancient Greek and Roman language, literature, and culture. Cf. Sappho, Fragment 31, which begins (the translation is my own)


He seems to me to be equal to the gods,
that man who sits across from you
listening to your sweet voice…

The poem goes on the explain how “that man” keeps his cool, while the speaker, on the other hand, totally loses her shit—heart pounding, speechless, burning, blind, deaf, sweating, trembling, pale, she feels as if she is about to die.

We don’t really know who the speaker is—how much it is Sappho and how much it is not. And we don’t really know who “that man” is. To me it is has always felt like a generalization or a hypothetical, not any specific real-life man. It does seem to be a man, as opposed to a woman, because Sappho uses a masculine form of the adjective “equal” in line 1 and uses the word “man” in line 2. On the other hand, until quite recently, writers often cast their same-sex desires as opposite-sex desires to defy censorship or persecution. So who knows?

But more important, for my purposes here, is how these indeterminacies serve the poem. This goes back to what Poetry Squawker (and my husband) Jason Schneiderman wrote a couple of weeks ago about poetry and autobiography. In fact, when I asked him to write that Squawk, I was struggling with this Squawk. Jason wrote about how autobiographical detail can work in a poem if it serves a purpose larger than autobiography. Or as Jason put it, “If it’s a meditation on a theme, good. If it’s just stuff that happened to you, bad.”

Agreed. But something else, too. Something more specifically about the poem of direct address. I’m not here to say what makes a good poem or a bad poem, or what makes a poem good or bad. But I am here to say that poems of direct address may be more successful, may be more satisfying both to poet and to reader, if the poet generalizes both the “I” and the “you” of the poem.

Let me state right off that by “generalize,” I do NOT mean you should eliminate specificity, especially not specificities of race, ethnicity, class, sex, or gender. This is not about Aristotelian “universal in the particular.” This is NOT about making all poems White People Poems. Rather, I am talking about generalizing from the poet’s own experience, which is, of course, always specific, and always racialized, classed, sexed, gendered, etc. But even intersectionality can be generalized as a matter of poetic craft.

As I write this, I’m thinking about a particular poem of my own, “Instead Of Names,” which appears in my first book, This Life Now. The first stanza reads

Now I wait in familiar locations—
the park, the promenade,
any place I think you might find me.

Now, This Life Now is chock full of poems addressed to a second person. The “I,” however, is not the same in all the poems, nor is the “you.” And by that, I do not mean merely that they refer to different real-life people, although that may be the case, too. What I really mean is that the “I” varies in how much it is or is not me, the poet, Michael Broder. And the “you” varies in how much it is or is not any particular “you” (Randy, Marcos, Tony). And if that’s not already freaky enough, the “I,” and in particular the “you,” can change on successive readings. And even freakier yet—I, the poet, Michael Broder, can understand the “I,” and especially the “you,” in a particular poem differently over time.

The reader soon learns that “Instead of Names” is describing a cruising scenario (cruising, as in men in public places looking for other men to have sex with; it’s a thing from before the Internet). The speaker, it turns out, is not waiting for any absent beloved (slash) old boyfriend at all, but rather for what we used to call a “trick,” someone to have sex with just this once, right now, in this park or, well, maybe not right there on the promenade (although if I remember correctly, there was this one time on the Brooklyn Heights promenade…). The “you,” then, is the guy the speaker encounters: “When you arrive / I sidle up….” Okay, fine.

Or is it? Later we read, “For a while you stay and I think it’s what I wanted….” So, wait a second, when did this all happen, exactly? It didn’t. Or it did, but the poem is not referring to any one specific time, any one specific episode of cruising, any one specific trick. This is just a sort of thing. The sort of thing that happens (to wit, the very first word of the poem) now. And when, precisely, is “now”? (Not to be confused with “How Soon Is Now,” a classic Smiths song; the Smiths—it’s a thing from before the Internet). (But I just stopped to listen to “How Soon Is Now” and the song and the poem are TOTALLY RELATED, so, there’s that.)

So, this is all very nice explication de texte, but I fear I’m losing the thread about autobiography versus generalization and the poem of direct address. To keep it in terms of my poem “Instead of Names”—Yeah, I, the poet Michael Broder, cruised for sex in parks, promenades, and other public places. Successfully. I mean, there was the having of sex. Sex was had. In public places. By me, the poet Michael Broder. And that more than kind of makes its way into this poem. So you could say that’s autobiographical. But that’s not really the point (or as the poet once said, “That is not what I meant, at all”). The poem, it turns out, is really about that very first word: Now. Before, the speaker was intimately connected to people he knew by name. Now, it’s different; casual, anonymous: No names—This is what we have instead of names.

And so, yes, it’s a poem about AIDS. Sort of. I mean, for me, all those classically lyric poems of direct address about love and loss were about what it was like for me to be me, in my late 20s (slash) early 30s, living with HIV, facing not only the possibility (slash) probability of my own imminent doom, but also what it was like to be, for all intents and purposes, perfectly healthy in this world of gay death, dying, and ongoing, immeasurable, seemingly insurmountable grief. And for me, for whatever reason (which reason I said many paragraphs ago I did not think I could identify), these poems had to be poems of direct address, poems to you. I mean, there’s no reason a lot of those yous could not have been hes:

Now I wait in familiar locations—
the park, the promenade,
any place I think he might find me.

See? Perfectly fine. Or is it? Clearly, I, the poet Michael Broder, did not think so back circa 1995. “I saw you standing on the fire escape” could not be “I saw him standing on the fire escape” (“Variations”). Nor could “the dark hole you sleep in beneath your parents’ house” have been “the dark hole he slept in beneath his parents’ house” (“Tony Poem”). In fact, when I was writing “Tony Poem” (which took YEARS), an often very wise teacher said the poem did not work with a second-person addressee, not because Tony was dead, but because Tony, wherever he was, as a poetic fiction, as a person in the poem, already knew all of the biographical details about Tony. So my recounting to Tony the details of his own life did not make sense and tended to push the reader out of the poem. I didn’t buy that. Maybe because I grew up with a mother who had no problem accusing you repeatedly of wrongs you committed 30 years earlier (and, I mean, in the second person, imprecations of direct address, to be sure). Maybe because I believed that Tony, wherever he was, LOVED hearing me address him directly. Could not get ENOUGH of me talking about him. And WANTED me to refer to him as “you,” a poetic memoir, or memorial, or elegy, of direct address.

Mostly, I think, I wrote poems of direct address because I wanted intimacy. And of course, a poet can write an intimate poem in the third person, letting you, the reader, in on the secret of him, her, them, or it in the poem. But that did not work for me, at least not in the poems I was writing then, the poems I was writing then about a new kind of now that, at least in the opinion of my Muse, demanded a return to some very ancient poetic traditions.

Michael Broder is the author of Drug and Disease Free (Indolent Books, 2016) and This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. He holds a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from New York University, and a PhD in Classics from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the founding publisher of Indolent Books and the creator of the HIV Here & Now Project. Broder lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of stray and feral cats.

Writing While Old

A Poetry Squawk
By Michael Broder
Author of Drug and Disease Free and This Life Now

1-1I’m not supposed to write the Poetry Squawk. Other poets are supposed to write the Poetry Squawk. But I’ve failed to line up a Poetry Squawk for today. So I’m writing the Poetry Squawk.

And I’ve decided to write about Writing While Old. Which I am. Old. And writing. While old.

Indolent Books—whose guiding tenets include diversity, inclusion, innovation, provocation, and risk—started as a home for poets over 50 who did not have a first book. That mission expanded; but Indolent remains a press on the lookout for poets over 50 who write worthily but have managed, despite their best efforts or because of them, to stay under the publication radar.

But this post is not about me being an old fart publisher, or Indolent books having an eye out for old fart poets. This post is about Writing While Old.

Writing While Old is a thing. Because Everything While Old is a thing. The other night on Better Things, the quirky and wonderful and wonderfully quirky new sitcom by Pamela Adlon (who just turned 50 ), Adlon’s character, Sam Fox, asks her gynecologist after a routine exam, “Have I shut down down there? Am I a man yet?” She has not, as it turns out; in fact, her gynecologist tells her, she has “the reproductive system of a 16 year-old.” So the episode turns out to be about Sam’s dealing not with aging out of reproductivity, but with the persistence of fertility, much to her surprise, and even to her chagrin, as she expresses a fervent desire to be done with fertility: “Please tell me I’m close to being a man,” she says, “no more periods.”

It’s fascinating to me that Adlon’s character (written by Adlon) talks about menopause in terms of becoming a man. Aging out of womanhood and into manhood by becoming infertile and non-reproductive (or as a virologist might say of a virus, replication-incompetent). Interesting, too, that this episode of the series is called “Period.” A term of punctuation, yes. Also, though (here comes my inner classicist), a Greek rhetorical term that means “the way around,” from the prepositional prefix peri– (around) plus the noun hodos (road).

While period is etymologically a Greek term, the notion of periodicity was probably more crucial to Latin rhetoric. The Roman statesman and orator Cicero may be said to have perfected the periodic sentence (from the Latin noun sententia: thought, idea, or opinion), which is sort of like the blade on your food processor, with two curved, wedge-shaped wings that meet at a central hub. The classical Latin periodic sentence starts, be it with a shout or a whisper, incomplete, tantalizing, arresting, like Gypsy Rose Lee peeling off one glove. Clause by clause it unfolds, blossoms, such that maybe you know where it’s going, or you think you know where it’s going, or you hope it’s going where you think it’s going. It appears to be opening outward, but in fact its force is centripetal—seeking the center. Then it hits the hub, comes to a pause, a bare momentary standstill, like a ball you toss up, at that infinitesimal moment of stasis before it comes back down. But it’s not coming straight back down; it’s rolling down the side of a mountain, gathering momentum, speed and force. As it hurtles towards its conclusion, the sharp point on the other side of the rotary blade, the Latin period resolves all its syntactic cliffhangers, ticking them off one by one in reverse order, so you comprehend the hub of the sentence first, then each wedge of this verbal color wheel gets its complementary opposite—red its green, yellow its violet, blue its orange, until it reaches it rhetorical climax, its Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? moment.

Older age can feel like a period in the punctuation sense, an end, the end of fertility, aging out of replication competence, drying up, fading, withering. As young poets, we bear every verse like a child, we conceive it, gestate it, give it birth, and rear it. And that seems to make sense to us when we are young poets, when we are in our reproductive years, when we are having our period, or as Adlon’s character puts it later in the episode, giving an impromptu speech at a women and girls empowerment program at her daughter’s school, when we are “bleeding.” As older poets, we may have stopped bleeding, or we may have atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, slow, sluggish blood. Just as we saw our youth as a metaphor for our poetry, we may come to see our older age as a metaphor, too, and our poetry may suffer, our sense of being poets, our sense of being competent to write poems. I know I struggle with that seemingly inexorable paradigm creep, that the aging and increasingly infirm state of my body, and even of my mind, may become, may already be one with the decrepit state of my creativity, my poetry.

So what do we do? What’s the secret to Writing While Old? I dunno. I don’t know where this is going. I hope it’s not going where I sometimes, where I often fear it is going. This is probably not a one Squawk topic. This is probably just the initial throat clearing of a much larger, longer, louder, more plaintive and wailing squawk.

But I can offer a few suggestions. Some pretty self evident so I hesitate even to make them. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keeping submitting work to journals. Keep working on manuscripts and imagining them growing up and getting out of the house and moving into their own homes on printed pages between two covers in people’s hands. Go to readings. Read in open mics. Socialize with younger poets, so you know what direction they are taking poetry in; and socialize with older poets, poets your own age, poets who share your concerns about aging, and poets with whom—don’t underestimate the importance of this—you can bitch about younger poets: about how they are (sometimes?) getting valued for their youth and beauty, their taut bodies and their robust and regular menstrual periods, as much as for the accomplishment of their poetry.

And one last thing: read Plato’s Symposium. It’s about a lot of things, but in part it’s about philosophy as a creative and reproductive process. In the speech of Socrates, this philosophical creativity is posited as homosexual and opposed to heterosexual biological reproduction. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But you can also apply what Socrates is saying to other realms, to other binary opposites. You can apply it to age versus youth, for example, instead of (or in addition to) homosexual versus heterosexual. And you can apply it to poetry instead of (or in addition to) philosophy. In fact, for the ancient Greeks, poetry and philosophy were never far apart. The Greek word sophia, wisdom, was often applied specifically to the wisdom of poets, as we see for example in the odes of Pindar. Once we are willing or able to view wisdom as an aspect of poetry, it’s not a huge leap to conclude that old age, which allows for the possibility of accumulated wisdom if not its certainty, may in fact be a very ripe environment for the ongoing creation of poetry. And that the period at the end of our youth, the age at the end of our period, may be the point at which our poetry has just reached its centripetal hub, the point at which it begins to spin out towards it periodic conclusion, gathering force, resolving its syntactic cliffhangers.

At long last, have you left no sense of decency? Perhaps not, in the sense of decency as standards of propriety and literary decorum. Perhaps, as older writers, we are finished with that. And perhaps that’s a good thing. For poetry. For Writing While Old. When the universe shuts down one period, perhaps it opens another.

Michael Broder is the author of Drug and Disease Free (Indolent Books, 2016) and This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. He holds a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from New York University, and a PhD in Classics from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the founding publisher of Indolent Books and the creator of the HIV Here & Now Project. Broder lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of stray and feral cats.

When Trans Life Becomes Trans Art

A Poetry Squawk
By Noah Mendez
Poet whose work appears in Defining Myself: Transmasculine Experience Through Poetry

noah mendez, transIn my experience, there are two common pieces of advice you’ll get about writing poetry: (1) write about what you know, and (2) write about what you don’t know. In the first half of my writing development, I tended to go more Tumblr style: combining the fantastic with extensive metaphors and overly obvious sentences. But as time went on, I realized I was slowing down in my writing process and bumping into writer’s block, even as I continued to have experiences that were definitely worth incorporating into my poetry. I was blind to all the memories and childhood moments that would actually be relatable to my audience, and yet I was still wondering why most of my work didn’t seem very popular with readers.

This all changed when my boyfriend David (not his real name) broke up with me two days before my birthday. I was taking solace in the arms of my best friend and I mentioned that I was slightly happy about the whole situation, because then I’d never have to tell David that sometimes I felt like a boy. Eventually, those feelings of sometime became full time, and I slowly started coming around to the fact that perhaps I was a boy. In order not to get overwhelmed by these feelings of confusion, internal denial, and budding discovery of men’s fashion, I turned to my writing to let out all the thoughts and questions I had for myself. Like, what was the etiquette for men’s bathrooms, what name did I want to go by, and how would my friends and my lovers take my transformation even as my physical self didn’t change? I put all my fears and worries into poetic verse, shying away from fantasy and into almost biographical prose. My writing ended up evolving with me: from internal disgust and fear at myself and my situation, to acceptance and careful exploration, to advocating for my right to co-exist in the world, as well as the right of others.

Being a trans male has led me to realize that my own life experiences are worth incorporating into my writing and toying with to create a both relatable and entertaining piece that touches people’s hearts. I did a poem at a slam last spring on being trans and having sex, and afterwards I had a fellow contestant come up to me and tell me their boyfriend was moved by the poem. These days, I mostly stick to writing about romance and life and how specifically I navigate that while being a male with the body of a female. I think it has made not only my poetry better, but my life. I see life as a masterpiece, and through the art of writing, I’m just filling in the canvas. I can only hope others will enjoy the outcome as much as I enjoy the process.

Noah Mendez’s work has appeared in journals including The Phoenix Rising Review, Brouhaha Magazine, The HIV Here & Now Project, Thank You For Swallowing, and Three Drops from a Cauldron, as well as in the anthology Defining Myself: Transmasculine Experience Through Poetry (Boundless Endeavors, 2016). He has performed at Urban Word and the Apollo Theater. Noah is a first-year student in forensic psychology and English at Syracuse University.

When Is It a Poem? (and Not Just Something that Happened): Poetry & Autobiography

A Poetry Squawk
By Jason Schneiderman
Author of Primary Source and other books

autobiographicalWhen my mother read my first book, she said, “You were paying closer attention than I thought.” Then, over the years, before she died, she expressed her amazement that I was so comfortable revealing so much of myself.

When my older brother read my first book, he picked up on his one cameo in the whole collection, and tried to set the record straight: “I didn’t tell you that the word gullible means how strong you are; I said it was the sum total of a person’s positive qualities.” I told him that my memory was the same as his. I changed the detail because it made it a better poem.

Novelists are often assumed to have pulled their narratives from headlines or autobiographies (c.f. Philip Roth’s inability to set the Wikipedia article straight for The Human Stain), but the reader knows that novelists are making their own world, regardless of source material. Memoirists are expected to just recount what happened, with some license for hyperbole (I’m looking at you, David Sedaris), but not too much.

Poets end up in the middle. Because we work in persona, if we’re doing our job right, the reader feels an intense intimacy with the speaker of the poem, and how can that speaker not be the poet? Anyone who has tried to run a workshop will know how terribly difficult it is (but how necessary) to delineate between speaker and poet. Have you ever been in a workshop where you find yourself saying, “I think the speaker of the poem needs to break up with the boyfriend in the poem, because the boyfriend in the poem seems not to be as into the speaker, even though the speaker seems in denial about the ways the boyfriend in the poem is actually kind of a jerk.” I have. Not my proudest moment.

Readers also have to remain skeptical on both sides of the equation. You can’t assume that everything really happened to the poet, but you also can’t assume that everything didn’t. You have to stay in this gray space, where the speaker is and is not the author. I used to enjoy poetry gossip because it clued you in to who was being autobiographical and who wasn’t. Now I guess you just ask the poet on Facebook—if you want to know. Which much of the time, one doesn’t need to.

Since I have to offer some advice here, my basic rule for what makes a good poem is roughly the same as my rule for what makes a good memoir. If it’s a meditation on a theme, good. If it’s just stuff that happened to you, bad. My favorite memoir is Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, which is a meditation on what it means to be disfigured. Dave Egger’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a meditation on grief, loss, and responsibility for about eighty pages, and then becomes just stuff that happened to him (an unsuccessful audition for The Real World is a hard fit for a meditation on grief, loss, and responsibility). Grealy omitted the fact of her unblemished twin sister because readers would have seen her as a parallel version of her without cancer; the other Gwyneth in a literary Sliding Doors.

In Marie Howe’s masterpiece What the Living Do (Cornelius Eady, I have your copy, and if you want it back, let me know), a number of the poems seem to transcribe conversations with her brother before his untimely death from AIDS-related illnesses. Consider the ending to her poem “One of the Last Days”:

One of the last days, I told him, You know how much you love Joe?
That’s how much I love you. And he said, No. And I said, Yes.

And he said, No. And I said, You know it’s true.
And he closed his eyes for a minute.

When he opened them he said, Maybe you’d better start looking for
somebody else.

It’s almost impossible not to attend to the prosody of the poem—the omitted quotation marks, the sentences that start with “and”, the pacing and the lines. But it also proves, I hope, my earlier point about the double skeptic mind of a poetry reader. Starting with the assumption that this must be factually true, which is why it is so moving, is an insult; similarly starting with the assumption that this must be made up, or embellished or constructed is also an insult. The power of the poem lies in a messy nexus of craft, theme, history, biography, and love. There is no centrifuge that can pull these components apart, and thank God for that.

Consider this passage from Carl Phillip’s famous poem, “Singing”:

late, this morning: Don’t blame
me, if I am everything your heart
has led to.

Here is that moment where, as a reader, I don’t care if that’s factually true or not. If Carl Phillips actually heard that on the morning he wrote the poem is entirely beside the point. The thematic encapsulation is so perfect, only the most literal of readers would demand to know if Phillips actually overheard that line. And now that I’ve conjured this imaginary literal reader, it breaks my heart to think that he could be unmoved by this poem without knowledge that it actually happened.

Before I met my husband Michael, I had only written explicitly about people I knew a handful of times, only to be told some version of “That’s what you think of me?” Michael encouraged me to write about him, and we’ve had something of a love affair across five books (two of his, three of mine), and everything we’ve said about each other is true—but partial. When I was listening to Michael read poems about me at a reading in Atlantic City recently, I was deeply moved, but almost in the way that I would be if I weren’t me. In fact, the host asked me if I’d like to read a poem that evening, and I was honored, but I declined. I didn’t want to interfere with the version of myself that Michael was about to create.

My mother thought that I had revealed a lot more of myself than I actually had. For me the most embarrassing poems are not the ones that deal in autobiographical fact, but the ones that reveal my thought process and desires. I feel truly naked as a thinking and feeling being, not as a guy to whom things have happened. I’m rarely interested in biography, and while I don’t believe in the universal human subject, a poem cannot help but traffic in experience that is larger than authors themselves. To write autobiographically, experience has to be a mode of inquiry, not an end unto itself.

Jason Schneiderman is the author of Primary Source (Red Hen Press, 2016) winner of the Benjamin Saltman Prize; Striking Surface (Ashland Poetry Press, 2010), winner of the Richard Snyder Prize; and Sublimation Point (Four Way Books, 2004), A Stahlecker Selection. He edited the anthology Queer: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press 2016). His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Poetry London, Grand Street, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Story Quarterly, and Tin House. Jason has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center, and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  He was the recipient of the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2004, and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in 2011. He is Poetry Editor of the Bellevue Literary Review and Associate Editor at Painted Bride Quarterly.  Jason Schneiderman is an Associate Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the City University of New York.

Poetry Is a Living Fossil

A Poetry Squawk
By Ricardo Thomas Manuel Hernandez

Ricardo Thomas Manuel Hernandez, fossil“Poetry is a living fossil.” That’s a rather bold statement to make about poetry in the 21st century. Maybe it’ll be received as one poet’s abstract perspective on the poetry scene in the modern world, or as an opinion that might hold some validity if broken down using the lens of said poet. Perhaps it’s simply a title to get you engaged in a subliminal conversation: that poetry is an under-appreciated and under-sought out art form.

Think about it, how can an art form be considered as a living entity that owns many characteristics holding true to its ancestral roots, and that has come and gone and returned back into existence anyway? You might think to yourself: what is this guy smoking? And if asked I’d probably tell you something cosmic to view an art form this way—that and regularly attending poetry open mic series, slam competitions, curating and hosting poetry readings, as well as performing spoken word pieces to packed coffee shops, bars, bookstores and school auditoriums.

Let’s add the experiences of speaking with people of all walks of life about poetry with every opportunity that presents itself, and by then we might get to what ultimately led me down this road of thinking. Maybe it’s more along the lines of being a coping mechanism, as to say: my poetry and the poetry of others are worth the modern world’s time—if the modern world would notice that we’re very much still here.

Now in order to tackle the entire scope of this conundrum, of a one-time highly-revered art form becoming what I perceive to be a modern-day living fossilized art form, we have to define what a living fossil is and look at the first poems of the world. Where could they be found? Who wrote them? Why were they written? And do the first poems resemble modern day poetry at all? Also, when did poetry vanish (so to speak) from the public eye or ear for that matter?

To start, an organism that is a living example of an otherwise extinct group and that has remained virtually unchanged in structure and function over a long period of time (like sharks and horseshoe crabs) is considered to be a living fossil. There are two categories of living fossil: 1) those believed to have changed very little over time and still to retain a close resemblance to their older extinct relatives, and 2) those believed to be extinct, but to have been rediscovered in modern times.

It’s already sounding like a bit of a stretch but stick with me.

The answer in short as to where the first poems were written actually predates literacy, so technically they were not written at all, instead they were memorized and performed. It is here we find the art of oral tradition being where the first poems of the world existed. The art form was employed to remember historic events, genealogy, and common law. It also thrived in ways such as: instructing everyday activities, education, the telling of heroic tales in order to inspire young warriors, religious stories to continue the faith, as well as love songs and songs of common angst—all of which could be found in modern day poetry with renewed content and use of language.

Gathering this information and putting it into perspective you can see poetry has come a long way. So long that it was around before cuneiform-script was invented, before clay tablets and papyrus was used by ancient civilizations. Heck, I had a poetry mentor of mine put it further back in history, into prehistory, and to sum up his viewpoint on the matter I’ll paraphrase what was said one day in his workshop:

“The first poem spoken into the world had to have been from the caveman. Emerging from his dwelling to let out a great big sigh to the morning sun so as to say, here I am!”

I’m certain it sounds a bit abstract, or crazy even to consider, but it made so much sense to me and other poets alike—to know that something as small as a sigh to the morning sun from the dawn of man is oozing with poetic vibes.

Now let’s mix into the equation the personal experience (that I’m sure I share with many other poets) of speaking to people about writing poetry, or performing poetry on a monthly or weekly basis, and that sometimes (or quite often in my case) they would give the most inquisitive look and openly-question: do people really perform poetry still? Sometimes the question is: do people really write poetry still? And that could pang any poet’s heart to understand—that there are people who don’t believe poetry exists anymore, that poets don’t write let alone perform poetry any more—as if it is extinct!

So, to some, maybe poetry did vanish off the face of the earth—only to reappear now as Facebook invites to poetry open events from maybe a co-worker, past high school friend, or maybe you have a close friend that’s a closet poet who shoots you an invite to test the waters.

By now I hope you’re able to read the title with a different lens, a slightly different abstract perspective on the art form many adore. The rich history of poetry, the personal experience I have within the field, and the conversations I have with common folk that make me feel poetry in itself is a living fossil, an art form that has died many times over but yet constantly reappears throughout different cultures and regions of the world since its inception. One can easily argue the point that poetry is not a very lucrative endeavor, yet hundreds to thousands or even millions of poets have existed at every given time during human existence.

Poetry may not be as cool to some as sharks or horseshoe crabs, but I can assure you it’s up there. The layers of poetry are countless, and those who peel back the layers indulge in the beauty of all the spectrums of the human experience.

Ricardo Thomas Manuel Hernandez is from the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. With influences from early hip-hop culture, Ricardo is inspired by the written form of graffiti and the spoken word of rap. From painting walls under the street lights to hanging out on the corner kicking freestyle rhymes with friends, Ricardo found himself expressing the world around him through the arts. Today the spray can is no longer in hand, but he hasn’t put down the pen and pad. Ricardo is a veteran of the United Sates Air Force and served with the 71st Fighter Squadron. He is one of three host/curators for Poets Settlement Open Mic Series at Breuckelen Colony. Ricardo was named Brooklyn Poets‘ Yawper of the Year for 2014, and will be featured in the inaugural volume of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (slated for release by Brooklyn Arts Press in 2017.)

Suffering Comes Naturally To Poetry

A Poetry Squawk
By Sharon Mesmer
Author of Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place

Sharon Mesmer on poetry and suffering
Photo: Robert Fass

That’s a pretty dismal title, isn’t it? You might well wonder: Is she having a bad day? No, actually. This has been a good day. (Meaning, to be precise: “There have been bad days. This isn’t one of them.”) At the risk of telling you something you already know, it’s not that depressing once you understand that catharsis abides in the heart of suffering, and poetry gives access to catharsis: to release, redemption, renewal.

“Catharsis” is a favorite word of mine: it’s Greek — κάθαρσις / katharsis — and suggests purification/purgation. It was used by Aristotle in the Poetics. You know this, of course. I’m not merely pointing you toward to the difficult lives that poets — all artists — often lead, even though “suffering comes naturally to poetry” might lead you to think this is going to be about Lowell, Plath, Sexton, et al. No, don’t worry. I’m referring to suffering itself, only itself. And that suffering comes to poetry . . . naturally.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism deals with suffering. It’s like Buddha was saying, “Okay, let’s get this one thing straight right off, and then you can get on with your lives.” There are Four Noble Truths, and Buddha’s first teaching after he attained enlightenment was about them. That first teaching begins something like this:

“ . . . birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering . . .”

(I might add: “getting what one wants is sometimes also suffering.”)

I was brought up Catholic. If the mind’s literacy is images then “Catholic” is a kind of Black Hole. But my version was Vatican II, a dark-skinned, dark-bearded Jesus in my first grade religion book (“God Is Love”), my grandmother’s candles and novenas, and loving, watchful saints (like Anthony, who still finds my reading glasses — though why a desert hermit would become “finder of lost things” remains inscrutable). One thing we learned was the value of suffering. Not like: suffer more, you’re Catholic. But like: divinity communicated to us by suffering, so suffering, then, is a language, the language we all speak. Jesus may have been a poet, depending on your prism (and your translation). In Alone with the Alone, his great book about Sufi mystic ibn ‘Arabi, Henry Corbin says that the root of the name “Allah” is “sadness”:

The etymology it suggests for the divine name . . . projects a flash of light on the path we are attempting to travel . . . it derives the word ilah from the root wlh connoting to be sad, to be overwhelmed with sadness, to sigh toward, to flee fearfully toward.

That bad word “religion,” by the way, comes from the Latin word “religare” = to bind, and is related, by its root “lig,” to the late Middle English word that we still use now, “ligament.”

So, surprise: A divinity bound to us by sadness, suffering. This suggests something sacred across the whole business. Nothing is not sacred. Nothing we experience is a mistake. Even the worst of it. Suffering was always already redeemed.

It’s hard to embrace this in illness. That’s why I taught a class at the Poetry Project a few years ago called “Cathexis/Catharsis: Writing To/Through Illness and Suffering.” I taught the class because I’d “suffered” a nervous breakdown and came through it without use of antidepressants (my choice; no disrespect). I wanted to share what I’d found in the poems and writings that acted as talismans for me during those two years. Also because, as I wrote in the description, illness and suffering are usually imaged as sites of trauma, feared as obstacles, rejected by a success-obsessed culture. But what if suffering were a language like any other that could be learned, manipulated and deployed in a powerful new way? As poets we all know this. We know to do this. But sometimes we forget, and I wanted to remember/remind.

Poetry both protects us (as a talisman) and breaks us open (as a catharsis). And a poem isn’t just cathartic; it is katharsis. You don’t need much to achieve it. As Reginald Dwayne Betts writes in “At the End of Life, a Secret” (from Bastards of the Reagan Era, Four Way Books, 2015)

The soul: less than
4,000 dollars worth of crack—22 grams—
all that moves you through this world.

The idea is for you to be moved. It may be through a labyrinth, but all Theseus needed was a skein of thread. What do you need?

To end, here’s part of a poem by Olga Orozco, an Argentinian poet who died in 1999. It’s called “To Make a Talisman,” and was translated by Stephen Tapscott. I found it in Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, edited by Stephen Tapscott, but I believe it’s also in her Engravings Torn from Insomnia: Selected Poems (BOA Editions 2002, translated by Mary Crow):

Your heart is all you need,
fashioned in the living image of your daemon or your god.
Only a heart, like a crucible of coals before an idol.
Nothing but a defenseless, affectionate heart.
Leave it out in the elements,
where the grasses like a crazed nurse will wail their dirges
and it cannot fall asleep,
where the wind and the rain whisper their whips in blue cold blasts
without turning it to marble or splitting it in two,
where darkness opens warrens to all the wild animals
and it cannot forget . . .
let it wail its delirium in the desert
till only the echo of a name grows inside it, like a raging hunger:
the ceaseless pounding of a spoon against an empty plate.

Sharon Mesmer is the author of Greetings From My Girlie Leisure Place (Bloof Books, 2015), voted “Best of 2015” by Entropy. Previous poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008), The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose Press, 2008), Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna Books, 2007), and Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press, 1998). Four of her poems appear in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (second edition, 2013). Her fiction collections are Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette Littératures, Paris, in French translation, 2005), In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose Press, 2005) and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose Press, 2000). Her essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in the New York Times, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and the Brooklyn Rail, among other places. She teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs of New York University and The New School and lives in Brooklyn.



Writing from Somewhere Else

A Poetry Squawk
By Sarah Wetzel
Author of River Electric with Light and Bathsheba Transatlantic 

IMG_4123“This must be where it all happens!” my friend quipped, examining the second bedroom of my apartment, the neat desk with several books of poetry stacked on one corner, bookshelves overflowing with books, many of which I’d even read. We stood at the room’s threshold, an air conditioner whirring softly behind us, light from the west-facing window reflecting softly off framed pictures of Rome and Tel Aviv, a small portrait of me that my father had painted.

I laughed, “You’d think, right?” She was referring to my writing life, but the truth was that almost nothing happened here. I’d written almost nothing in this cool quiet room or, in fact, anywhere in this or any other Manhattan apartment in which I’ve lived over the past eight years. If anything creative happened or happens, it’s almost always somewhere else.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. Several times I established strict writing schedules. For two hours in the early morning I would sit in front of my computer, cups of coffee going cold one after another on the desk. I’d sit for another two hours in the afternoon, this time with tea. I even tried moving my writing schedule to evening so that I could try it with a glass of wine and a slice or two of cheese. At first I attributed my writer’s block to the myriad distractions of home—laundry, shopping, rearranging the refrigerator, catching up on the news. But really, my husband and I are neat, eat most meals out, and between us create approximately 3.5 loads of laundry a week. I am, however, usually the first to hear of any natural disaster or terrorist incident.

Then I told myself that perhaps it was because I hadn’t created the “right space.” I tried rearranging my office, moving the desk from wall to wall, repainting the walls calming shades of peach and blue. I bought an antique green desk lamp with a dimmer and a new office chair. I tried writing in front of the window with a view over New York, though after inadvertently peeping into my neighbor’s bedroom a couple of times, I had to close the shades. Auden claimed, I read once, that only a maniac can write in front of a fabulous view. At least, I consoled myself, I proved I’m not a maniac. I tried writing on the dining room table, on the couch. I even tried writing in bed, which is where another friend of mine puts together all her short stories and reviews, her computer propped on her lap, a book or two buried beneath the covers. Every time I changed apartments, which I admit I excitedly do every two or three years, I’d tell myself that this time, this time I’ll design the perfect space. So far, it hasn’t happened. Not in Manhattan. Not in any of the cities I called home at one time or another during my adult life: San Francisco, Atlanta, Munich, Vienna, or even, for a long time, Tel Aviv.

I guess now is the time to admit that I spend several months of the year living someplace else. In January and February and for half of summer, I’m in Rome, where I teach at The American University. For another month or two I’m in Israel where I sometimes teach and lived for almost seven years after my husband and I married and where his children and our dog as well as several friends still live. And I travel, a lot. It’s odd but when I’m on the road, when I’m living out of a suitcase, I write. If I hazard a guess, I’d say that over ninety percent of the five hundred or so poems I’ve written over the past six years began in a city different than the one where my mail goes.

I do, of course, sometimes manage to write in Manhattan. But usually it’s in coffee shops and diners. I’ve also started a poem or two in The Museum of Modern Art and another few in The Whitney Museum. I’m writing the post you’re reading now in Big John’s Diner, a woman crunching noisily on a kale salad next to me, Amsterdam Avenue rolling past the window. I don’t think I’m alone in facing this kind of writerly block. One only has to spend a few hours in Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee, Poets House or the New York Public Library, to understand. Whether I’m in a cafe or a park, there are always one or two others hunched over an open notebook or a computer furiously penning a poem or starting a story. We’re everywhere.

Why is that? Or at least, why is that the situation for me? What is it about the space and environs of my Upper West Side place that makes it almost impossible to write there?

It occurred to me recently after reading the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky’s famous essay “Art as Technique” (yes, I know, I’m thirty years late to it) that it might have something to do with what he calls familiarization. Familiarization, in his definition, has to do with habit and how habit affects how we see or, more importantly, don’t see things. That is, if we look at the same thing over and over, looking becomes automatic, it becomes habit. And habit, he stated, renders us blind. I only have to ask myself the following questions to recognize how this applies to me. Did I vacuum the bedroom earlier today? Did it rain two days ago or was it yesterday? Did I kiss my husband goodbye? When did I move my desk to this particular wall and why is the wall painted blue? Which country invaded which other country today? In this way, habit devours work, clothes, furniture, my husband and friends, even, I suppose, the horror of war. The noise of living subsides and so too, I think, does my ability to locate its surprise. Of course then comes Shklovsky’s famous plea for art because he believed that art is the antidote. Art, and in particular poetry, exist so that the reader, the viewer may recover the sensation of life; art exists to make one re-see and re-feel things. To quote Shklovsky, art exists to make the stone again stony.

Yet, if the artist’s task is to defamiliarize the familiar, how does the artist himself or herself continually see the world new? How does the writer keep the world strange so that it can become visible to the reader? Because I think this question is at the heart of my particular problem. When I am in familiar surroundings, my favorite playlist rotating on the stereo, sitting in my Herman Miller ergonomically perfect office chair, my mind goes blank, my imagination deadens. I need to be, let’s face it, uncomfortable. At least if I want to write.

Yet oddly enough, while many of my poems take place or begin in Tel Aviv, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, Chicago, etc., the subjects of the poems often end up being something else. Of course the images or events I encounter, unexpected and unsettling, appear in the poems—a Bernini fountain rebuilt, a dead bird on an Israeli beach, Barcelona graffiti. But apparently, judging by the finished products, what I really wanted to write about was more personal, often abstract, even ephemeral: love and loss, my desires and dislikes, and, often, my failures. I’m currently finishing a third manuscript and a sampling of poem titles underlines this kind of displaced examination: “Otherlife,” “Girl on Roman Holiday,” “The Past as Beautiful as I,” “Postcard from the Expedition,” and, perhaps most tellingly, “The City Is a Metaphor for Everything I Want.” To put all of this another way, if memory and self are the tenors of my poems, place is their vehicle. Grace Paley said in a 1986 interview: “You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.” I love that quote, though I think for me it might be the opposite: I write from what I don’t know, but I write into what I do, or, anyway, I write into what I am trying to know.

So I suppose I have designed my perfect writing space. Unfortunately, it isn’t at home. It isn’t, in fact, often on the same continent. Of course, when I’m on the road I also have to admit that I don’t dust, I don’t clean the inside of the refrigerator, and I can go weeks without doing laundry.

Sarah Wetzel is the author of River Electric with Light (Red Hen Press, 2015), winner of the AROHO Poetry Publication Prize, and Bathsheba Transatlantic (Anhinga Press, 2010), winner of the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. Sarah teaches creative writing at The American University of Rome. She spends a lot of time on planes, dividing her time among Manhattan, Rome, and Tel Aviv. Sarah holds an engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology, an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Learn more at  sarahwetzel.com.

Grief and Grievance in Poetry

A Poetry Squawk
By Laura McCullough
Author of Jersey Mercy and Panic.

Laura_McColloughRobert Frost said that poetry is about grief and politics is about grievance, and yet we often come to our poetry with grievances, old and new, personal or global, and it is sometimes easier to speak of them than it is to dig into the underlying sources of grief. In therapeutic circles, I’ve heard it said that if you are angry, find out what it is that hurt you, what has made you sad. Yet it’s easier to speak of the former—the what-happeneds and the who-done-whats—the legitimate issues of loss and anger, and much harder to delve beyond the mere facts to craft poems lush with the weight of grief, the sadnesses, the sorrows. How do we write, not out of grievance, but from and toward grief? How do we transform our losses into art even as we, sometimes, still wrestle with healing ourselves?

Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” is much loved for many reasons, but one of them, I’d suggest, is that the voice of an adult reflecting on the grievances a son may have against a father ultimately goes beyond grievance to discover more complex aspects of love. The boy had grievances; the adult speaker has grief. It is what makes the last lines possible and so poignant, the movement from “no one thanked him” through “the chronic angers of that house” to “love’s austere and lonely offices.”

Another poem about parents and children, Tony Hoagland’s “Lucky,” is in the voice of an adult child dealing with an elderly parent moving, it seems, towards death, perhaps hospice, and the poem explores the change in power relations over a lifetime. The child the speaker was clearly had grievances; in some way, it seems, the parent was cruel or punishing when the boy was young. Now, she has become like a child, and the speaker, aware of his old anger,  is trying nevertheless to care for her. He mistreats her mildly—holding her newly bathed body in the air a little too long because he can—but also wants to feed her ice cream to please her when she has so few pleasures left. This is not a poem that lists the ways a mother might have failed; it is ultimately a poem about failing and forgiveness, about the difficulty—which is a grief—in relationships.

The poem “Quarantine,” by Eavan Boland, combines political and historical grievance (the Great Famine) with individual grief (a couple dying in the cold as they seek refuge). The heteronormative line “And what there is between a man and woman” really could be written, “And what there is between two people who love each other” (or some more beautiful rendering—I’m making a content point here) because the universal anguish applies to all couplings, even non-romantic ones. This could, for example, have been a parent and child in this horrific narrative. The power of the poem, however, is its movement from a political grievance (“the toxins of a whole history”) to a smaller personal (albeit anonymous) grief (“The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her”).

In closing, one last look at grievance and grief in poetry. Jamaal May offers a beautiful example of interrogating grievance and going headlong into grief and sorrow in his poem, “Sky Now Black With Birds”, which you can watch him perform on YouTube. May explores racial violence and its repercussions, the difference between revenge and justice, anger and restitution and what it means to be human. This was fertile territory for Homeric epic in ancient Greece, and remains so for poets today.

Laura McCullough is the author of The Wild Night Dress, selected by Billy Collins as a winner of the Miller Williams Poetry Prize and forthcoming in 2017 from the University of Arkansas Press. Recent books include the poetry collection Jersey Mercy (Black Lawrence Press) and A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia Press). Her other books of poetry include Rigger Death & Hoist Another (Black Lawrence Press),  Panic (winner of the Kinereth Genseler Award from Alice James Books), Speech Acts (Black Lawrence Press), What Men Want (XOXOX Press), and The Dancing Bear (Open Book Press).  She edited The Room and the World: Essays on the Poet Stephen Dunn (University of Syracuse Press). She teaches at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey and the Sierra Nevada low-residency MFA program. She is the founding editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations. Learn more at lauramccullough.org.