Poetry Squawk

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

Putting down “Taproot”

A Poetry Squawk
By Jee Leong Koh
Author of Steep Tea and The Pillow Book

Jee Leong Koh AuthorWhile feasting on poetry workshops at Sarah Lawrence College, for some reason I thought I should imbibe some science. The science faculty was giving lunchtime talks on a subject not in their field of specialization, in the name of continuous learning. These informal weekly seminars attracted a modest but devoted audience of about 20 people, not a bad showing for a small liberal arts college. The free pizza might have helped too.

It was either a physicist or a chemist who spoke about the spotted knapweed, a pioneer species introduced into the United States from Eastern Europe. She found the weed while working in her garden and went online to research it. I followed her lead. My search turned up State Department and university websites aimed at American farmers. The websites, with titles like “Idaho’s Noxious Weeds” or “Invasive Plants of Wisconsin,” were similarly organized: Description, Prevention, Management.

Having just emigrated to the States in order to come out as gay and a poet, I was sensitive to the characterization of the spotted knapweed as an alien threat to native plants. You might call me touchy. The language of the description, so eerily similar on all the sites, started me thinking about what makes a plant a crop and not a weed. Human needs, yes, food, clothing, shelter. But also cultivation, which necessarily implies human culture. The difference between weed and crop is, in a significant sense, a cultural distinction.

As I was writing a series of historical persona poems at that time (“The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity,” “The Emperor’s Male Favorite Waits Up for Him,” “The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys” etc.), I tried to stuff the knapweed into the mouth of a straw man. The first stanza went like this:

An Immigration Official Speaks on Pest Control

The spotted knapweed has dispersed from ten
counties to three hundred and twenty-six,
reducing the bluebunch wheat
grass and re-routing the elks.
Thirty-five states index it an invader.

Overrun by the weed of excitement, I took the draft to my writing class. I also submitted it for critique at Poetry Free-for-all (PFFA), an online poetry workshop I had belonged to for some years. The draft was justly torn apart. Neither dramatic nor a monologue, it was, as Ted from PFFA nailed it, “a book report.” Its attempt at irony was self-righteously polemic.

A PFFA exercise stimulated an overhaul of this initial draft. Challenged to write a poem in a mixture of different styles, I thought of weaving a personal narrative through the knapweed rhetoric, in alternate stanzas. I did not merely want to put a face to the debate, as immigration advocates would say; I also wanted to speak of my desires—to write, to love, to take root—fierce desires that seemed to justify anti-immigration fears.

A narrative would also give a shape, a momentum, to the poem, in this instance, the momentum of a journey through lower Manhattan that climaxes in a reversal of stereotypes, in an Asian male sexually penetrating a white man. At the time of writing, I was only vaguely aware of what I know now: the men I want to top are men I really like, and so, the apparent act of possession is, for me, also one of surrender. The clues to this lay in the last three stanzas of my next big draft:

In the train’s electric lighting, he searches for Matt
in the young white men and loves each one. The train sings.
33rd Street. He comes up for air, and wades
to the tower block. Stopped by a dark-suit,
he scribbles his name, number and address at the front desk.

Small populations can be uprooted. If not, spray Picloram
but not near streams. Experiments are on-going to determine if

bio-agents work. A species of seed-head attack flies seems promising.

He sees Matt hunkered down in his trench. He pulls
the fighter out of his chair, out of the white office, out of
sight, into the bathroom, and closes his sphincter-
mouth on his mouth. He works Matt’s belt loose and turns him
round. Matt puts a leg up on the china bowl. He grips
the shaft of Matt’s torso and plants his rice. This is also his farm.

The writing, like the sex, was still very, very rough, but the two different styles, highlighted by different stanza sizes, played off each other nicely. Having banged down the slats of the narrative, I then examined the selection of details. The knapweed stanzas still felt too prosaic and choked. The next thing that overran my field of attention was W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.” Also a poem that deploys two different styles, it accentuates the distinction through alternating two different stanza forms.

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities,
And shapes upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

The song measure in the first stanza orchestrates phrase and line, giving the story of Thetis and Hephaestus the appropriate classical grace and gravity. The second stanza depicting the modern world is written in iambic pentameter. The longer lines slow down the poem in order to convey a menacing dread. Though my poem was non-metrical, I thought I too could deploy shorter lines to lighten the knapweed stanzas. Shortening the lines required weeding the stanzas, a very good thing as it turned out. I reworked the tercets into quatrains, with one phrase to each line, and with a shift in the middle of the stanza, like that of Auden’s octaves. For instance, the first two knapweed stanzas:

The spotted knapweed has migrated to three hundred
and twenty-six counties, reducing the bluebunch wheat
grass and re-routing the elks. Forty states index it an invader.

The weed winters in a rosette of deeply lobed leaves.
You can identify it in summer by its pink to purple
blooms in stiff, black mottled bracts on stem tips.

were compressed in the revision into:

The spotted knapweed migrates fast,
decimating the bluebunch wheat grass.
You can identify it by its pink blooms
in black-mottled bracts on stem tips.

The stanza moves more quickly, at a speed suggestive of the weed’s dispersal, and of the speaker’s barely hidden panic. When I posted the revised poem at PFFA, romac agreed with Lola Two’s assessment that “the italicized conceit is carefully phrased (it could easily have lapsed into textbook prose) and effective. An excellent example of ironic illustration.”

Here’s the final poem, first published in Mimesis 1, and then collected in my book Equal to the Earth (Bench Press, 2013).

Taproot

His words desert him this morning for downtown Manhattan,
carrying briefcases, newspapers and coffee. They do not speak
to each other. They’re thinking of memos, faxes and phonecalls.
They do not look at him, a Chinese wetback waiting to be picked
for a day’s work. Tiny jaws gnaw at him and he wants Matt.

The spotted knapweed migrates fast,
decimating the bluebunch wheat grass.
You can identify it by its pink blooms
in black mottled bracts on stem tips.

He hurries past fat black women prodding snappers which gape
on beds of ice, past the row of crones blistering next to their red
talismans and Iching hexagrams, their faces cracked
like parched ground, past the old men hunched over their paper
chessboards, rolling a cannon across the river or retreating an elephant.

Small populations can be uprooted
by digging and pulling. If they’re established,
spray Picloram at point five pounds
per acre when the plant is a bud.

He passes a boy practicing a Yao Ming hookshot seen on TV,
two young men outside Kowloon Trading stacking empty crates
into a van, the New Land Arcade that squats a quarterblock
and catches the eye with its tall, electrified gold letterings,
and clones of knickknack shops that claim Little Italy.

The weed is not just hungrier. Its taproot
secretes catechin which triggers natives
to kill their own cells. It is not just lean,
as one scientist puts it, but mean.

He plunges, two steps at a time, into Canal Street Station.
In the car’s electric lighting, he looks for Matt
in the young white men and lurches into them. The train shrieks.
Fulton Street. The grid has crazed into a maze dead ended
by tower blocks, to be traced with the red thread of a previous visit.

Trials are being carried out
to determine if bioagents work.
The weevil is a candidate. A species
of seedhead gallflies looks promising.

He pulls Matt, word made flesh, out of his standard chair, out
of the office and its mite dusted carpet into the men’s and locks
their mouths. He works his man’s belt loose and turns him
round. Matt pulls his tan shirt over his head and arms. The tenant bends
over his white boy’s blue veined torso. This is also his farm.

Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet Press, 2015), named a Best Book of 2015 by the Financial Times, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His collection of zuihitsu, The Pillow Book (Math Paper Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize Nominee for English Poetry. A book of essays, which includes “Putting Down Taproot,” is forthcoming from Ethos Books.

On Writing about Family

A Poetry Squawk
By Rosanna Oh
Whose recent work appears in The Harvard Review Online

Author PhotoMy interest in family tropes and allegory in literature—especially Greek mythology, and the poetry of Whitman and Wordsworth—arose from my own personal experience. Before I gained any awareness of myself as an individual, I was conscious of my role as the eldest child in my Korean immigrant family. As such, I was expected to be a role model to my younger siblings and an ambassador. These were not duties that an adult should outgrow, as some of my American friends would have me believe, but lessons on love and compassion that have guided my life and writing.

My father loves to say, “If you bite a finger, the entire hand hurts.” My family of five saw itself as extensions of one another. Family meant putting another’s need first. Family meant absorbing another’s pain, not causing it. These lessons served us especially well as my brothers and I grew up at our family’s grocery store, which my parents had built from nothing.

There were long periods of time during my childhood when the hurt never seemed to cease. Working at a small family business constantly had its own challenges, but daily encounters with customers, who were mostly white and did not consider us to be a part of their world, constituted the most memorable rite of passage. I remember my parents’ reactions of frustration as much as the racism or ignorance that provoked them. And I remember still the confusion and pain I felt, as a witness and participant, that eventually moved me to poetry. Reliving those moments through writing allowed me to control some of the helplessness. I wrote almost exclusively in the first person; my emotions, my perspective, took priority.

It didn’t occur to me that writing about my family could mean, to return to my father’s metaphor, biting the hand that fed me until graduate school. A professor asked during a workshop of my poem, “Is the point ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’?” echoing Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse.” The subject of the poem in question was a childhood memory: a customer had said, “Give this garbage to your children,” while returning what he believed was a rotten mango to my father. Recognizing that it was ripe, I had asked my father if I could eat the fruit, but he had refused my request, and had eaten it himself. My professor interpreted this gesture as greed, which had not been my intention at all; rather, the act was one of self-sacrifice. Later, I saw the language that justified my professor’s reading, in which the narrator saw herself as a victim.

Writing gracefully about my family’s life at the store has been a challenge. Even now as I write, I am conscious of what I reveal of my family out of fear of being judged in a way that diminishes either them or myself. A friend once pointed out Louise Glück, a hero of mine, as a master of sublimating personal and familial suffering into art. “She can use that knife,” my friend argued, “because she turns the knife on herself.” Over and over, the narrators in Glück’s poems seem to speak with a prophet’s urgency to get at the truth, which is often devastatingly sharp. And they do so with such original language that the reader’s overall focus is on the craft rather than the lives whose voices ring from the pages.

After that conversation, I continued to write poems about the store. However, I made sure that the speaker was not only miserable, but also self-loathing and guilt-ridden because I believed that this winning trifecta of qualities would endear her to the audience. But even I grew sick of her. Is that all what families did—suffer? Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if everyone stopped suffering?

So the question I had to answer as a poet became: how do I remain true to suffering but rise above it? And I found the answer in the people who inspired my journey as a writer: my family. As I reworked my poems, I recalled the many moments of joy we had shared—around the dinner table or during a long night spent finishing orders at the store. I remembered the laughter that followed the arguments. These moments, despite their smallness, revealed generosity and spirit that allowed my poems to grow, and reach toward healing.

Rosanna Oh holds degrees from Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard Review Online, Best New Poets, 32 Poems, Unsplendid, The Hopkins Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She also has received scholarships and awards from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and the Academy of American Poets. A proud Long Islander, she lives and writes in New York City.

Writing, Spinning, and Perpetual Apprenticeship

A Poetry Squawk
By Julie Marie Wade
Author of Six and Catechism: A Love Story

Julie.DaniaI started spinning four years ago because, like most people, I benefit from robust, aerobic exercise— and because, like most writers, I need a way to be busy with my body so I can be free with my mind. For years, I have swum and run to cultivate the simultaneous effects of the physical endorphin rush and the mental field day. It is a perfect storm. I have designed classes this way. I have written books this way. I am writing this post this way right now.

Here’s what makes spinning so spectacular to me: It is a high-heart-rate, repetitive-motion activity that I can perform with my eyes closed. While lightning may force me out of the pool and flash-floods may force me off of the road, spinning is performed in dark, temperature-controlled spaces at fixed times on stationary equipment. In such spaces, I can embrace the paradox of going nowhere fast. There are no lane changes to consider, no traffic to watch out for, no onerous battles with the elements. It’s just me, on my bike, with the classic rock or the pop song blaring, and I find that my mind also is traveling at warp speed.

I think every writer needs something to do that isn’t writing, some way to get outside the writing self in order to appraise that self, its wants and needs, and in order to feed the important work that self is doing. For me, spinning has made possible the best and most essential ekstasis of my literary life. When I say spinning makes me ecstatic, I mean it in every sense of the word. I mean, while riding, I am displaced, I am entranced, and I am joyful.

Now spinning may not be your Something Else, but no doubt, as you find the portal to your preferred ecstatic exercise, the writer in you will not be able to avoid drawing certain parallels between that thing you do that is not writing and that thing you do that is. Inevitably, by way of analogy—and writers have been blessed and cursed with a great capacity for analogic thought—you will find yourself mulling over what kick-boxing or late-night driving or French cooking or Zumba class has in common with the art, the craft, the practice of creative writing. How are these two things—the writing and the not-writing—linked?

I don’t always spin with my eyes closed, and when they are open, adjusted to the dark, I am watching the rider in front of me or a rider at the front of the room. This isn’t an act of voyeurism; it is an act of emulation. When I started spinning at the Hollywood Y, I watched Maria. I had always told my students in workshop: “Find the writer in this room who is stronger than you are now, whose work is more controlled and muscular than your own. Then, silently but diligently, apprentice yourself to that writer.” With Maria, I was practicing what I teach.

Maria is a stronger spinner than I am: sleek in form, precise in movement, and prodigious in speed, even while climbing the steepest simulated hills. I admire the way she has learned to lift her body but retain her speed, even with the addition of the body’s weight. To come out of the saddle, as it’s called, is simple enough—a basic maneuver—but Maria knows how to elevate with advanced power and balance, overcoming even the extra turn of resistance so her legs never stall or falter, so she carries the seated momentum with her into second position or third.

I have learned to ride the way I read, the way I encourage my students also to read—as a perpetual apprentice to someone stronger. In this way, I have become an intermediate spinner. By analogy, I have become an emerging writer.

The lexicons of spinning and writing also dovetail nicely. In both practices, the words tension and cadence hold particular significance. Most anyone can sit on a bike and pedal, but without ever increasing the tension (by turning the resistance knob to the right), your muscles will never grow, your stamina never increase. It’s easy and effortless, but as a consequence, unrewarding. Likewise, most anyone can sit at a computer and type: this happened and then this and then this. But if there is no passion, no conflict, no wrench of desire or threat that desire might be thwarted, how will the writer, the reader, the character or speaker ever learn, ever stretch, ever grow?

Writers increase tension by turning as well. The volta is not just for poets and not just for sonnets. I think of the volta, each volta, as a turning point in the poem, essay, or story. I also think of the volta, each volta, as a diminutive of voltage. Science tells me that as the voltage (read energy) increases between two points (read plot points) separated by a specific distance (read narrative arc), the electrostatic field becomes more intense (read greater tension, read more at stake, read “turning up the heat”). Spinners sweat, and writers sweat, too. That’s how we know we’re doing it right. That’s how we know we’re working to capacity and expanding what that term means.

The cadence of a poem or work of prose refers to tempo. The same is true in spinning. Specifically, we do cadence counts to calculate our revolutions per minute, our rpms. When we simulate going uphill or downhill, riding on a flat road with a head wind or a tail wind, crossing over potholes or weaving through cones, we expect the cadence to be different. We expect variation in speed proportionate to variation in terrain: the gravel versus the concrete versus the turf. And don’t we expect, and indeed require, similar variation in writing? Consider the pace of a manifesto, a rant, an elegy, an ode. Consider the mad dash toward the climax of a story, then the ruminative decline of the dénouement. Also, consider how we modulate our literary pedal-strokes: with enjambments versus end-stopped lines, with stream-of-consciousness versus single-word sentences. The writer’s cadence count involves syllables, stressed and unstressed—the practice of scansion sometimes. Think of the caesura and the double space. Think how punctuation can throttle, and also paragraphs—where we indent or don’t, where we break or block the text.

What the writer calls imagination, the spinner calls simulation, but in both cases, a blank page and a plain floor must become a world—every bit as difficult and believable, mysterious and authentic as the World itself. The writer and the spinner are perpetual apprentices to real-world conditionsand to the most artful simulacra of those conditions—that the art, the craft, the practice can provide. In both cases, emulation is our most powerful teacher. We can only learn by doing, but we do best by attempting what we have witnessed before. The writing teacher says, “We must taste that madeleine along with Proust and trust it was really there.” The spinning teacher says, “We must feel the road beneath us and trust it is really there.” In both cases, the literal nowhere we are going must be a mythical somewhere the mind accepts and the heart receives as its own. Then, and only then, can the real work, the real sweat, begin.

Or, in other spells: Be busy. Be free. Watch, watch, watch—then close your eyes and see.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of four collections of poetry and four collections of prose, including the Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016), selected by C.D. Wright as the winner of the AROHO / To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. A recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives in the Sunshine State. Find her at www.juliemariewade.net.

Secrecy and the Writing Life

A Poetry Squawk
By Jenna Lê
Author of Six Rivers and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora

Jenna LeLike all kids who grow up to be writers, I was a daydreamer from the start. My childhood daydreams were straightforward wish-fulfillment fantasies: I dreamed of winning Olympic medals in figure skating, of being a detective who brought criminal gangs to their knees, of owning a goldfish, of being someone’s best friend. These daydreams were nothing special; I expect there are millions of kids around the world nursing these exact same daydreams at this very second. What made them special to me was that they were secret. If my schoolmates had been able to see these hyperactive Technicolor filmstrips flashing through my brain, I would have died of shame; keeping my daydreams secret meant that I could revel in seeing visions of alternate realities and possible futures that those around me were not privileged to access. In a sense, those mundane childhood daydreams were my first pieces of writing, although I never wrote them down.

Entering adolescence, I began tentatively committing words to paper, in an effort to try to make sense of the flurry of feelings I was experiencing. My feelings at that age largely revolved around boys I had crushes on, authority figures I resented, and symptoms of diseases I fancied I had, so it seemed only natural to keep my writings secret. I went from having a ribcage full of secret daydreams to having a bottom desk drawer crammed with
secret poems.

At times, secrecy seemed a necessary prerequisite for bravery, the bravery to think and write honestly, with an independent mind. Other times, secrecy appeared to be merely an offspring of fear: fear of being rejected, laughed at, psychoanalyzed, pitied. When I submitted my writing to a literary magazine for the first time, I did so in secret, looking back and forth furtively before quickly releasing my carefully spit-sealed envelope into the mailbox’s maw, my face as hot as if I had been helping myself to a handful of the school nurse’s prominently displayed free condoms.

Even after I began accumulating publication credits, I kept my writing vocation a secret from my family and friends for several years. I simply didn’t mention my unconventional pastime to anyone I knew, and since no one reads literary magazines anyway (wink-wink at my fellow travelers on the literary path!), the fact that I was a writer flew beneath my acquaintances’ radar for far longer than you would think possible in this era where Google
knows everything. Only when my first book, Six Rivers, was published did I finally come out of the literary closet. This abrupt discarding of secrecy shook up my inner ecosystem like the introduction of a predatory carp species into a Northwoods lake: for one deranged instant, I even wondered whether it was the cozy knowledge of having a secret that I had loved the most about being a writer, or was it the actual writing?

Today, five years after my first book’s publication and four months after the publication of my second, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, I still feel a teensy bit uncomfortable about being the public face of my own writing. In this age where she who conquereth Twitter and Tumblr ruleth the world, I’m that dunce in the back of the classroom hastily looking up “brand building” on Wikipedia. Living openly and authentically as a writer is invigorating but also rather like being the spokesperson for one’s own cereal brand: Don’t look at me; focus on the flavor of those cornflakes I’ve placed before you. I put my soul into growing those grains, and trust me, that bowl’s sweeter than I am.

Jenna Lê is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations appear or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. Le is a second-generation Vietnamese-American, born and raised just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. She holds a BA from Harvard University and an MD from Columbia University. Learn more at jennalewriting.com.

Why I Bury My Treasure

A Poetry Squawk
By Antoinette Brim
Author of Icarus in Love and Psalm of the Sunflower

Antoinette Brim photographI love trash T.V. Not the trash television of Kardashian fame. But, real trash—Flea Market Flip and Antiques Road Show trash—stuff found in dank basements. Stuff that has been polished into its former beauty. Stuff that lends itself to breaking and remaking. It’s about the transformation, whether that transformation happens in the eye of the beholder when Granny’s tea set fetches a king’s ransom or when the transformation is in actuality a physical one, like when the steamer trunk becomes a hipster bar for a NYC apartment. And maybe it’s not just the transformation, but the transformative power that saves these found items from oblivion that most appeals to me. Akin to the collectors who come to these shows clutching their treasures to their chest, I covet found fragments of eavesdropped conversation, bits of Ripley’s Believe It or Not trivia, wisps of song lyric, faded photographs, and newspaper clippings, so sure that some DNA strand of truth resides within them. Perhaps it’s part hoarding and part existentialist crisis. I, myself, am becoming vintage—somewhat chipped and awash in patina, but all the more elegant for the time spent soaking up the dust and worries of the world around me.

Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. Perhaps, it’s a matter of respecting time—apportioning a while to true observation. Consider the beige pseudo-suede couch by the dumpster. I found it while walking the puppy in the early morning snow. It glowed under the lingering moon and seemed to wantonly collect the confetti of snow that came to rest upon it. And I wondered how long it had been the embrace of comfort for a tired workman or the trampoline for a barefoot toddler before it became the beer-soaked weathered resting place for head-banging coeds. The collector in me couldn’t let it go. I snapped a shot of it and now the couch is ensconced in a mixed media collage with an old clock, a murder of crows, and a haiku on ochre crepe-textured paper.

I am still wondering about the woman with the vacant eyes in the subway, who sang out “Control” every so many beats, allowing us to hear the accompanying Janet Jackson lyrics in our own minds. Her clear peals of declaration flew out and away from her and then returned to her in measured time. This is rolling around in my pocket with the buffalo head nickel I found that same day.

As I get older, I fear loss. Poinsettia painted teacups. Lovers. The B-side of Motown 45s. Bone buttons. Art Deco earrings. The names of ancestors. Addresses. The denim blue skies over the Long Island Sound. One day, someone will toss my place. Send my stuff to thrift shops and libraries. So I bury my treasures in my poems. I trust that archivists will sense them. Excavate them. Curate them. Keep them safe.

Antoinette Brim is the author of the poetry collections Icarus in Love (Main Street Rag, 2013) and Psalm of the Sunflower (Willow Books, 2009). She is a Cave Canem Foundation fellow, a recipient of the Walker Foundation Scholarship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. A printmaker, Brim recently exhibited both poetry and monoprints in Jazz: An exhibition of Poetry, Prints and Photography at the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery in New Haven. Learn more about Antoinette at antoinettebrim.com.

A Shouting in Heaven

A Poetry Squawk
By Joss Barton
Blogger at New Amurican Gospels and HIV Here & Now

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 1.11.45 PMI don’t believe in heaven. I believe that heaven and hell are found right here on this beautiful and terrifying planet. And I believe that we all have the chance to find and fight for our own freedom if we can break down the walls the world uses to entrap our consciousness into paradigms of oppression and isolation. Writing is how I break down the walls built around me as a child growing up in a rural, deeply conservative Christian community. Writing has also been how I’ve coped with six months of intense grief and death. It has been the key to the most somber of houses that has kept me believing that hope may still exist in an incredibly violent world.

My mourning began at dawn in January when I discovered Bryn Kelly had committed suicide. I met Bryn at an LGBTQ writer’s workshop in the summer of 2013 and from that moment we began a friendship grounded in our identities as artists, writers, and as transgender women. Her death was soul shattering because we were again losing a transgender woman to suicide and to the constant psychological and physical violence trans women endure in America where 14 trans women, almost all trans women of color, have already been murdered in the first six months of 2016. Her passing also cut deep because she was a brilliant writer who wrote brutally honest pieces that spoke truth on the pain of living as a poor, HIV+ trans woman, and still found gorgeous love and biting dark humor in all of it. The morning we learned she was gone, I touched base with friends, I sobbed, I read a poem on grief, and I wrote. I cried as I wrote EULOGY, my dedication to Bryn, and although it was intended to honor her memory, much of it was a way for me to process the grief of losing her. I wasn’t alone. Dedication after dedication flowed across my news feed in the first weeks and months after her death from her community and queer family across the country, all of us grappling in the dark house of grief, looking for the light in each other’s words. I contributed again with a much more focused literary analysis of Bryn’s work with THE WORLD IS A VIRUS as a declaration that Bryn’s writing is some of the most essential work on contemporary trans and queer literature. I wrote because the legacies of our queer and trans creatives and artists must be preserved for future generations.

I found myself back inside grief at the end of May as my grandmother entered hospice and slowly began dying from cancer. My grandma always painted. She was the first artist I ever knew, the first I ever loved, and as I watched my mother and my aunt stand vigil over her bed, wetting their mother’s lips with tiny pink spongers and feeding her morphine with syringes, her body slowly starving itself, I thought of how a woman is a tree, and how a tree is a ladder that reaches to the things the world tells us we can’t have. My heart was breaking once again as death made itself at home, and as I held her hand through the night, her unconscious breathing growing deeper and heavier, I watched as a spider crawled across the wall like an omen spinning above her head. I sobbed and screamed and wailed but none of that would end up healing her body or bringing her peace. My aunt set up her tablet in grandma’s room to play a bluegrass gospel radio station as I stroked my grandmother’s arm. A gospel spiritual I recognized from childhood began to play: IT’S SHOUTING TIME IN HEAVEN / A SINNER ONCE LOST IS FOUND / IT’S SHOUTING TIME IN HEAVEN. I grabbed a notepad and a green ink pen and took a moment to walk outside. I sat by my grandmother’s pond and wrote brief memory sketches of her slicing strawberries and cantaloupes, us listening to the sound of locusts during summer evenings at her house, her red hummingbird feeders. She died four days later. I began to tie those green sketches into a memorial poem A TREE IS A LADDER I read while standing in front of my family at her funeral. I still can’t stop hearing the last words she spoke to me: I have such good babies.

A week after the funeral, I gather with 200 of my queer and transgender family for a weekend of camping and floating on the Niangua River outside Lebanon, Missouri. We drink, and dance, and revel with drugs in the woods in a campsite devoted to queer pride and identity. The days and nights blur together until Sunday morning as we board dusty yellow buses packed with coolers and water guns for a day on the water. I sit hung over and tired when I hear the words: GAY BAR, BIGGEST MASS SHOOTING EVER, 50 DEAD. We all look at each other in stunned, numb silence. I try to hold on to the power of the queer love around me for the rest of the day, but the despair begins to grow louder with every minute that passes. I return to Saint Louis to a flood of memes, vigil photos, think pieces, and cable news tickers all detailing the horror of the Pulse Slaughter. I look into queer Latinx and Black faces and I know that once again our black and brown bodies are being slaughtered. The grief is even more overwhelming as it settles into an even deeper well of sadness and despair within me. It begins to feel pointless, trying to survive against a world that constantly wants us erased. I wonder if hoarding two months worth of Ambien would be enough to kill myself. I cry in the middle of the night and tell my grandma how much I miss her. By mid week, the depression locks me in my bed, it now occupies every corner of my body and mind, I try to write but nothing but white space comes through my hands.

By the end of the first week post-Pulse, I have nothing inside me but a deep, seething rage. I go to a local punk show and my body begins to wake with each crashing, pulsating, screaming noise. It sounds like anger and chaos and I recognize it within my bones. I attend a grief-processing event for LGBTQIA folks to talk about Orlando. The despair, the tears, and the rage begin to make sense as the strangers in the room one by one mirror my own pain. We are exhausted by the constant erasure of queer and trans people of color by GAY WHITE INC. We are pissed off that our cisgender and heterosexual allies deflect and distance themselves from our daily suffering. We don’t give a fuck about gun control in a nation where our collective deaths have been called for again and again by Christian theocrats. A beautiful, queer Latinx friend in the room calls bullshit on the white fags holding candles at vigils but keep no Fats, no Femmes, no Latinos, no Asians, no Blacks in their Grindr profiles. I speak Bryn’s name and tell the room that no one seems to give a fuck about us as we slowly die every day from poverty, addiction, and suicide, or when my trans sisters are brutalized and mutilated in the streets. Some of us cry for the loss of yet another sanctuary for queer people of color in a whitewashed gentrified world. Others rail against the violence of assimilation. I read a poem. We snap our fingers, clap our hands, and laugh.

It all begins to sound like a shouting in heaven, glorious and defiant, righteous and subversive, holy and healing.

Joss Barton is a writer, photographer, journalist, and artist documenting queer and trans* life and love in St. Louis. She was a 2013 Fiction Fellow at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging LGBT Writers Retreat and was an exhibition artist for St. Louis Nine Network’s 2015 Public Media Commons Artist Showcase. She is also an alumni of the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission’s Community Arts Training Institute and this summer she will be a fellow with Topside Press’ Writing Workshop for Trans Women Writers. Her work has been published by Ethica Press, Vice Magazine, HIV Here & Now, An Anthology of Fiction by Trans Women of Color, LOCUSTS: A Post-Queer Nation Zine, and Vetch Poetry: A Transgender Poetry Journal. She blogs at New Amurican Gospels and HIV Here & Now.

Family Photos, Grief, and Poetry

A Poetry Squawk
By JP Howard
Author of SAY/MIRROR

JP HowardIt has been six months since my Mama passed away. My debut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR, was published last year and explored complexities, as well as joys, of growing up with a Leo diva for a mother. My mother was a successful black runway model in Harlem in the 1950s long before she became a mother, and my book includes some of her vintage modeling photos. Mama’s gorgeous sepia-toned photo on my book cover, a rhinestone-studded smoking pipe confidently dangling from her mouth as she sits in a vintage car, staring seductively at the camera, makes me remember when I first showed her the book in her hospice room last year. Her body was frail, but her mind sharp. She held it in her hands, slowly traced the cover with her thin, wrinkled fingers, then looked up at me with a mischievous smile and said, “Damn, I look good!” We both laughed and I loved that, at 91, she was still a diva.

My book was a small part of a larger memoir project that I had been working on prior to her death, inspired by hundreds of vintage and family photos that Mama had gifted me a few years earlier. I had begun to explore our complicated single Mama/only child relationship in memoir form. After her death, I didn’t know if I would be able to write about Mama again. My entry back to writing about us has been slow and sometimes painful. Initially, I spent days looking through her photos, vacillating between crying and laughing. Some brought unanswered questions or prompted historical research about my family’s longstanding presence in Sugar Hill, Harlem. Hardest to view were childhood photographs of Mama and me.

Ultimately, I discovered a smorgasbord of buried treasures in those gifted photos: that small house in Atlantic City that Mama rented for the two of us for one week each summer, with its pastel-pink walls; a Polaroid shot of Mama and me on the boardwalk in rented bikes, Mama in her colorful dashiki, her huge rhinestone-rimmed sunglasses, dangling silver-sparkly earrings and those chunky high-heeled mules she always wore, with me by her side on a purple bike, a skinny little girl with ponytails and lavender barrettes, always slightly embarrassed by Mama’s flamboyant personality; a weathered photo of six-year old me grinning, front tooth missing, next to my huge doll collection; my favorite photo of teenage me and Mama, beaming in front of our Sugar Hill apartment building, and stiff professional studio shots Mama made me sit for each year. I looked sad and distant in some photos and happy, especially in our summer beach photos, where Mama stayed sober all week. I realize now that those photos, initially a painful reminder of my loss, are really generous gifts, and now writing prompts for my memoir.

I recently wrote a short essay connecting Mama’s death to one of my most painful childhood memories and was encouraged when it was accepted for publication. Losing Mama, yet having this huge gift of photos, has allowed me to reminisce, explore and document, via memoir, both beloved and complicated childhood memories.

mama me teenJP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is the author of SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System, 2015), a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, and a chaplet “bury your love poems here” (Belladonna Collaborative*). JP is a 2016 Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writers Award winner. JP curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon  (WWBPS), a forum offering writers at all levels a monthly venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. JP is an alum of the VONA/Voices Writers Workshop, as well as a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Poetry Fellow. Her poems and/or essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color, Muzzle Magazine, PLUCK! Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer WomenThe Best American Poetry Blog, and others. JP holds a BA from Barnard College, an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York, and a JD from Brooklyn Law School. You can find her online at jp-howard.com.

 

Toward an [Ins]Urgent Kind of Intimacy

A Poetry Squawk
By B.B.P. Hosmillo
Whose work appears in a recent issue of Sundog Lit

Bry HosOnce an American scholar in Japanese Studies shared a Japanese folktale with me:

A woman fell in love with a man and suddenly the year was about the passing of things. Soon her shoulders slowly fell off her body like withered twigs. Not too long after, her entire body dissipated like the sand gathered in the palm somebody finally releases and devoured inevitably by the ever hungry air.

Perhaps one would say this is a way of defining love: self-destructive and heavily controlled by time. Although fundamental in the folktale, love does not invite me to see it for it is not experienced. What I find so visibly arresting here is defiance, the acceptance to lose oneself, to be something else, and only through its altitude I’m enabled to think that love is believable, even if it is not at all actual. In fact, I would like to think that love is the strongest only when it is imagined. Among other things, love imagined as defiance informs my writing.

In 2012, in Singapore, I committed to writing poetry. I began without any idea what I would produce. What I knew exactly was I can only speak through my queerness, what constantly made me feel unrecognizable, illegible. The blank page welcomed me, no matter what. Writing was a way to be fully aware that queerness is an interior structure, something that puts my body and imagination together for collaborative work. It was also a way to discover that queerness is a means to develop an [ins]urgent kind of intimacy. In “Visiting the Island of the Goddess of Democracy,” poet Henry Wei Leung writes, “Did holding hands in the rain change the nature of rain?”

This question suggests the possibility of intimacy in unusual circumstance. Holding hands in the rain is romantic! But far more than this, the question forwards that such possibility when made public is a kind of protest. When I write about two men kissing, I do not just commit to the human lips supposing goodness, but more to the unsettling transformative protocol of intimacy when enacted against the powers which have established the oppressive regimes contradicting queerness. Writing an (ins)urgent intimacy then is most of all a critique of democracy since, as a political framework, democracy is largely a heteropatriarchal (white Anglo-European male-dominated) project.

When asked, once, why I continue writing given that protest is most visible if brought to the street, I said there’s no way I could underestimate the capacity of writing. As I surrender to the promise in/of arranging words, I’m blessed with the spirit of contemplation. Writing is a time when I can be intimate with myself and it is the most meaningful experience I could escort my body and mind to. Born in a postcolonial world where language is multiple and weirdly inflected, I may sound new but I’m already hurt. In addition, whenever I think of my queerness, my illegitimate difference, I think that my body doesn’t belong to me, that my body will never be at peace. This is certainly a perceptual mistake and most probably all those whose bodies are perceived as cultural signs of otherness are victimized by this mental error. But writing is such a liberating choice! Not only that writing sharpens my senses to discern and overcome the failures of heteronormative social reality, it also cleanses, widens my mind to the extent that I could generate inspiration from death or deadly desire, that I could celebrate even loss. I’d like to think that poetry is not only a curator of torment; it also is a school where we learn we are and can be beautiful in spite of ourselves.

B.B.P. Hosmillo is a queer poet of color. Pushcart Prize & two-time Best of the Net nominee, he is the author of The Essential Ruin (forthcoming) & Breed Me: a sentence without a subject (AJAR Press, 2016) with Vietnamese translation by Hanoi-based poets Nha Thuyen & Kaitlin Rees. His writing is anthologized in Bettering American Poetry (2016) & has recently appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, SAND: Berlin’s English Literary Journal,  Transnational Literature, & minor literature[s], amongst others. With Cyril Wong, Hendri Yulius, J. Pilapil Jacobo, & Pang Khee Teik, he co-edits Queer Southeast Asia: A Literary Journal of Transgressive Art. He is also a guest poetry editor at Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, a Hong Kong-based English publication co-founded by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming & Jeff Zroback. Contact him at bryphosmillo@yahoo.com.

The Mirroring Blade: On Poetics and Power

A Poetry Squawk
By Phillip B. Williams
Author of Thief in the Interior

phillip b. williams picWriting a craft essay is difficult because the idea of craft, for me, stems from a kind of magic paired with intelligence. There is as much inexplicability in craft as there is measurable rationale and that is what interests me the most: not always knowing at what time which is consciously activated. So a craft essay is reverse alchemy, making gold into lead.

I suppose one way to tackle this is simply to close read a poem. I chose “cutting greens,” by Lucille Clifton to look not for answers but for more questions, more fodder for my curiosity.

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
my hand,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.

It’s good to start with the basic structure: fifteen lines split into two sections where lines 1-7 introduce both the task at hand (cutting greens) and the psychological moment (“thinking of everything but kinship”), describing the greens in an erotic way both in relation to the speaker’s “kissmaking hand” and to the “collard and kale/ [straining] against each strange other,” to the last set of lines 8-15 where objects in the kitchen are described by color and immediately after the kitchen itself morphs by twisting “dark on its spine” that leaves the speaker, too, changed.

What’s dope about this poem is the simple language used to describe something so complex and it’s pulled of through juxtapositions and timing. The verbs are active and related by how they describe the tactile, the fleshy, the proximal. We have “curling” paired with the preposition “around” so that we feel the curling is not necessarily a solitudinous positioning as in to curl into one’s self. To curl around means something or someone else is present in order to be acted upon. So the verb phrase also performs a bit adjectivally.

In line 2 we get the verb “hold” and the description “obscene embrace,” giving us more intimacy, more of a lean into the shameful or maybe simply an elevated self-consciousness of sensuality, and showing the speaker as manipulator of the situation. When in line 3 we’re told the speaker is “thinking of everything but kinship,” we have even more evidence that this closeness is not about family or even friendship. The bond is other.

But (and I am skipping a lot of analysis here for sake of space), even the erotic is too simple. The speaker is too in control for the first half of the poem (“curling […]/ i hold,” “my kissmaking hand”). It is important to know that for something to be erotic it must not forced but shared, so this manipulation so to speak is a kind of violence and is lewd (“obscene embrace”) because it is forced.

It’s not until the last half of the poem that we see how complicated this becomes where everything is “black,” even the speaker’s hand, and it is at that moment where the environment itself morphs and it does so because the body within the environment has been made known by the speaker. It is the black hand, which looks like the black pot and the black cutting board that are both tools to break down the greens, that triggers the transformation and heightens the speaker’s awareness, “and just for a minute/ the greens roll black under the knife,” while the speaker is still cutting the greens, still enforcing an anti-erotic but now that enforcement is reflected back by nature of a shared adjectival positioning: blackness.

By the time the poem gets to the final three lines readers have been made susceptible to two manipulations/metamorphoses, one forced upon the greens and the other happening to the speaker.
The final transformation happens to the kitchen, the location in which the poem takes place and arguably the body of the poem (“and the kitchen twists dark on its spine”). By giving the kitchen a twisting spine it echoes back to the curling of the greens, thus giving the impression that the kitchen is also being manipulated, being transformed by some outside force that we find out is the actual appetite of the speaker:

“and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.”

Here, the word bond is tricky. Its positive connotation of an amiable relationship has the ability to dismantle its denotation that means link or tie. If the natural appetite is to control, to manipulate, to enact power—then the bond of live things everywhere is to be either in control or controlled. That’s a possibility. It is also possible that the word “bond” is used here to mean promise or oath, which means it is our oath to undo each other in “obscene” ways. That’s another possibility. And of course the idea of “cutting greens” has with it the southern and the racial, so what does this poem say about intracommunal (how entities within a community operate among each other) or intrapersonal (how a self speaks to and considers itself) power dynamics? How does on affect the other?

And too what is a poem but a power struggle between the writer and their imagination? And once the poem is completed, which it never is, isn’t it the imagination who comes out victorious?

Writing With a Flat

A Poetry Squawk
By Robert Carr
Author of Amaranth

With PK_originalOn the way to workshop I hit the curb in a Boston rotary and blow out a tire. I pretend it hasn’t happened, though the percussion of the rim on the Mystic Valley Parkway is deafening. Already, an inner voice is yelling, “Why the hell didn’t you pull over sooner, you’ll destroy your rim!” My reply? “I’m workshopping a poem about jerking-off and I want to get to class!”

So, I accept that I’m not going to make it another three miles to the poets that gather in Cambridge and I pull off the road. I’ve always had a lot of power in my head, but when it comes to being in the world of doing things—that’s been sporadic.

I’m fifty-six years old and I’ve never changed a tire. I text Tom, the workshop facilitator, and tell him I’ve broken down. I call my husband Stephen and tell him I’m breaking down. I need him to help me to find the thing you use to raise the car. The…jack, that’s right!

That’s when the next poem comes—it’s not about rotaries, or traffic circles, or round-a-bouts, or flats, or the grease that should be on my hands. It arrives with anxiety, sharpens like a high beam, speeds into the anger of being incapable.

The poem quickly finds the voice of a queer speaker. The voice is pissed. I’m on the memo app of my phone tapping out the words and by the time Stephen pulls in behind me there’s a baby poem in the world. With his tongue, the “you” flips lit cigarettes in and out of his mouth to amuse a child. I’m playing with line breaks.

When it’s not things like hitting curbs (or really anything that makes me feel something during the day), poems come at me at night like dreams or nightmares. In that half-space between sleep and waking, a word, a phrase, an entire poem shows up and demands to be written down. I keep my phone beside the bed and light up that memo app. (It’s 4:53 a.m. right now and that’s what happened about a half-hour ago when I woke up thinking about tires.)

The words in my head demand the writing. It’s pretty obnoxious. Even when I’m alone in the middle of the night. When I’m with other people (usually Stephen), it’s more obnoxious. “Stop! Pull over! I’ve got to get this down!” Otherwise, it’s gone.