Book Review

Light That Catches Dust
The Unbuttoned Eye
Poems by Robert Carr
3: A Taos Press, 2019
Reviewed by Reuben Gelley Newman

From the beginning of Robert Carr’s The Unbuttoned Eye (3: A Taos Press, 2019), I found myself haunted by “the piling of bodies” during the AIDS epidemic and the beautiful, disturbing photos of Robert Mapplethorpe. The notorious gay photographer features prominently in the book; letters addressed to him or from him begin each of the three sections. Mapplethorpe thus became an entry point into a book whose lens continually expanded, in continuously engaging ways

In the first “Letter to Mapplethorpe,” the speaker meditates on Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, and Z portfolios. With the exception of Y’s portraits of flowers, the explicit photos are alluring precisely due to their sexual unpleasantness, something like Carr’s phrase “Polaroid fuck collective, porcelain models pulled from Mineshaft piss.” (the Mineshaft, I learn, was a 1970s gay sex club in Manhattan frequently photographed by Mapplethorpe.)

“What draws me back?” to the photos, Carr’s speaker asks, and says later: “Stop asking, Robert, why, when the air is still, finally breathable, and the deadeye of the world is counting blessings, I am writing endings.” But Carr — here the speaker is clearly an incarnation of the writer — is not just writing an “ending” to the era of the Mineshaft, underground gay sex, and AIDS. He draws the reader back along with him on a much more complicated journey. As a gay guy born 30 years after Stonewall, I am learning a history. I am learning about what Carr calls “the texture of possession,” a phrase made most literal by the visceral end of a first, untitled poem:

          I’ve seen the piling of bodies I desire, lost my given name. An open mouth sips air,
upheaval hangs in an empty highball. Stomach churn. Threads of meat between worn teeth.

This spare yet harsh tone carries through the first third of The Unbuttoned Eye. Not all the images are beautiful, and ugliness clashes with grace throughout: “Totem,” a poem that begins with the lyrical “Heel to head he’s kissing my shield / of scars” goes on to visualize the “long-healed puckers” and “animal pocked eye appendectomy” in phrases crowded with consonants. “We are the timeless fuck in skinless / dark,” declares the speaker of “Soldier and Commander.” “We slide shining-smooth surfaces / inside each other,” and then the brutality of living with AIDS seeps into the poem:

Release of shit in a death-bed, spread
	of blood shaken over birth. Salt of first cry, sugar
of breast milk, black rattle vomit.

Is this death, then, also a kind of birth? “G.R.I.D,” whose title echoes the original name for AIDS — “gay-related immune deficiency” — addresses the disease with devastating irony, and ends with a revelation of betrayal, but also strange innocence:

Come, come to me

in the startled brow

of a lover who called me

his only one,

the small voice saying

the sarcoma on his arm is

a birthmark I’ve forgotten.

The small voice is not the lover’s, but the speaker’s, who, in an earlier poem, recalls how he “fucked in countless numbers, / blades of park grass.” The speaker — also named Robert — tries to hide his loss of innocence, but his desperation remains evident, and he is, in some ways, guilty.

I’m unclear as to who, exactly, the Robert is in the second section of the book, which begins with “Letter to Mapplethorpe.” When Carr writes how “in convex Robert / peers over a shoulder / his face cracks in / carnival glass,” it seems to be Mapplethorpe, the voyeur, except he’s watching a sick man in “Breaking the Fever,” not photographing a nude model. “Researching His Cancer,” meanwhile, addresses a Robert wearing “a white lab-coat” with cancer cells dotting his “unblemished skin.” This surreal characterization is part of the disarming genius of The Unbuttoned Eye, as I took in the poems’ wide range of emotion. Correspondingly, the poems in the second part branch out, including floral metaphors for love and sickness, such as those in “Less Light,” a gem that I’ll quote in full:

Planting a mountain laurel, I strike a root

the thickness of a wrist. Bones in my hand

buck against the splintered handle of a shovel.

a tingle watering heartwood, thick cord of spine

dropped into a hole. A tiny shoot climbs out

of my throat, reaches for the light beyond teeth.

There is winter in the angle of sunset.

There is winter, perhaps, but light does shine through. The third section opens with a second “Letter to Mapplethorpe,” the most complicated of the Mapplethorpe poems, whose speaker — always “that voice preventing and spreading disease” — once ordered Mapplethorpe to fuck “a body substitute” instead of himself. “Robert, even now, we are not lovers,” he writes, but also asks him to “please come home.” The poem becomes both an ending of the era of disease and a new beginning: at home, the speaker will only allow Robert “a bronzed urn on the mantle…You will be light that catches dust through an open window.”

Light that catches dust, not dust that catches light — it’s a striking phrase, and perhaps one that emphasizes just how much history has transpired in this book. Mapplethorpe’s photos, through light, capture the “dust” of history; Carr’s poems, perhaps perform a similar function, while creating a light for future generations. The third section chronicles an older speaker, one who’s made “the defiant transition from glory hole to Daddy”; he has a first anniversary with his husband, “a grownup son” who’s moved away. Now, the speaker, partially freed from the ghosts of his past, can let himself play, as shown most clearly by the delightful poem “Prop the Camera,” where he describes his wish that he’d taped himself and his husband making love, then would write in his will to show it “at the funeral”:

                    …set up a wide screen. Dim

the lights in St. Eulalia, Stephen’s family

church. Tell guests to kneel, hold a hymnal

between elbows, lean into the pew.

“A wide screen,” an “unbuttoned eye.” Puzzling over that beautiful and strange title, I remember that an unbuttoned eye also implies an undressing, a nakedness. Carr’s book, giving us “a wide screen” to view a personal gay history, is naked in the sense of being raw and unfiltered, but also in a playful sense. Both aspects are only accentuated by the nude photos of Carr’s younger self sprinkled throughout the collection, beautiful images taken by the 80s photographer K. Max Mellenthin. From Mapplethorpe’s lens to this last, propped camera, The Unbuttoned Eye is a virtuosic display.

Reuben Gelley Newman, Reader and contributing writer, hails from Brooklyn and is an English major at Swarthmore College. His work appears in Alexandria QuarterlyWhat Rough Beast, and HIV Here & Now, and is forthcoming in The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, 2nd Edition. When he’s not reading or writing, he enjoys singing and listening to classical music.

If you enjoyed this review, consider making a donation to Indolent Books, a nonprofit poetry press.

Separate Sensibilities and a Shared Vision

A discussion with JoAnne McFarland
and Sasha Chavchavadze

By Gerald Wagoner
Culture and Media Correspondent for Indolent Books

SALLY: An interdisciplinary exhibition conceived by JoAnne McFarland and Sasha Chavchavadze, opened on October 26, and will be on view through January 26, 2020, Fridays, 3 pm – 6 pm or by appointment. The exhibition encompasses three distinct venues: The Gowanus Dredgers Boathouse, Artpoetica Project Space, and Old Stone House & Washington Park.

This is an ambitious exhibition of 21 women artists whose work is installed in one or more of the three participating venues: Lauren Frances Adams, Meredith Bergmann, Deborah Castillo, Sasha Chavchavadze, Maureen Connor, Katya Grokhovsky, Robin Holder, Jee Hwang, Tatiana Istomina, Fabiola Jean–Louis, Carole Kunstadt, Paula Lalala, Nancy Lunsford, Jennifer Mack–Watkins, JoAnne McFarland, Elizabeth Moran, Amanda Nedham, Ann Shostrom, Marisa Williamson, Philemona Williamson, Hong Chun Zhang.

On a recent revisit, I re-examined the work in each space, curious to know more about the women who curated this collection with such sensitive attention to the relationships and breathing room among the pieces. Sasha Chavchavadze and JoAnne McFarland, the co-curators, agreed to disclose the criteria and the skills they harnessed to realize SALLY.

While Chavchavadze and McFarland came to this collaboration by different paths with different histories, they had known each other and had worked in the same building for a number of years. The two began their creative collaboration after discovering that they shared a vision about life and art. Each woman is an experienced curator and artist in her own right, and each has a history of creating projects that present art in a unique environment. Chavchavadze’s long-time space was Proteus Gowanus, McFarland’s is Artpoetica. Their first collaborative project was called Sediment. SALLY is their second project together.

While both have many year experience curating alternative space galleries, they bring their individual sensibilities to this collaboration. As artist and curator, Chavchavadze excavates women forgotten to history, and explores how past reveals present. “The importance of artifacts and documents is that they are talismans of meaning—a lamentation, an empathetic cry of pain for who or what was lost,” she said. An active facet of her art making has been manifested in yearlong thematic projects that involve community building. “The SALLY project is an extension of my practice as an artist. I’m painting with a broader brush by engaging a community of artists and others in a theme that inspires me personally. I think of SALLY as an ongoing project that JoAnne and I are creating as artists in collaboration with other artists. I get creative satisfaction from this process.”

McFarland asserts that the artist’s work is a world, and that every world has value. “I see art as a way to organize experience, so I relate to a range of artworks,” she said. “My mission as a curator is to arrange a group of worlds so that each is accessible to the viewer. Every artwork is a map of someone’s interior world. As a curator, I look for the passion behind the work; the sense of what is compelling the artist. When I succeed, every artist feels seen, and the viewer feels that their time looking, being receptive, has been rewarded.”

Chavchavadze told me she initially envisioned the project as an extension of her Proteus Gowanus practice, which de-emphasized visual art, focusing on other disciplines. The SALLY exhibition, Sasha said “is truly an exhibition of visual artists riffing on forgotten history through a hands-on visual process.” Text in the exhibition, whether poetry or short historical biographies, serves to enhance the power of the visual work.

McFarland is intrigued by how the human drive for connection and intimacy has impacted women’s lives and professional careers. “For me, the union of Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father, and Sally Hemings, slave woman, became a metaphor for questioning contemporary valuations of blackness/whiteness, youth/age, male/female,” said McFarland. “SALLY was a way to examine how women use art-making and other creative endeavors to thrive. It was a way for me to explore whether every world indeed has value; to assert that all worlds, all experiences are equivalent and magical. The SALLY Project also became a way to address new attacks on women’s autonomy. In military terminology, a sally is a sudden charge against the enemy out of a besieged place. I see violence and creativity as diametrically opposed—art making thwarts violence’s aim to destroy.”

There are, of course, differences between the collaborators’ individual sensibilities. Chavchavadze explained that she leans “more towards work that references specific historical women, which is again related to my own art practice; my project about Margaret Fuller for example. JoAnne, on the other hand, brought to the project her broader idea of including artists who were working on a metaphorical level”.

McFarland noted that while Chavchavadze was particularly focused on how SALLY related to historical women whose lives had been erased or forgotten, McFarland herself tends to gravitate more to the aesthetics, and get excited about what creates visual impact. “I’m passionate about space and see spaces as energy portals,” McFarland said. “When I say energy portal, I mean that a space can be organized to facilitate interaction. For instance, Hong’s scroll is integrated into the space so that the wall and the artwork merge,” she said, referring to a piece in the exhibition by Hong Chun Zhang. “It isn’t that the artwork is sitting on a dead wall, as I often see the typical gallery space. The walls, ceilings, windows are animated by the art and vice versa. This interactive exchange, especially in settings perceived as safe, can set the stage for explosive change.”

SALLY is installed in three different venues, about which McFarland stated: “We were not creating one show that happened to be in three places; rather we wove a theme through a series of community and living/working spaces that fall outside traditional art venues. SALLY’s three venues, gave us the opportunity to break one theme into three distinct modes that would flow through each other to form one complex, cohesive exhibition.”

Chavchavadze elaborated, saying that SALLY is “an exhibition consisting of one general theme realized in three separate iterations and spaces. Old Stone House, a Battle-of-Brooklyn oriented venue, emphasized the historical aspects of the show. Artpoetica gallery focused more on the metaphorical, and the Gowanus Dredgers Boathouse exhibition included imagery of shipwrecks, boating, and fiddler crabs, reaching out to the community that uses the boathouse.”

McFarland and Chavchavadze both value skilled, hands-on visual art making; both share an interest in building community through collaboration; and both aim to weave themes through non–traditional art venues. This process, they believe, revitalizes the art which compartmentalization has cut off from its potential impact on the viewer.

Both curators have a strong sense of what it takes to work day to day in an art economy that can be hostile and market-driven, rather than focused on social issues that matter. Their aim is to use community and shared goals as leverage against aggression and encroachment. “I’m protective of my own and others’ ability to work.” McFarland says, “Women in particular have a tendency to either de-value or undervalue the artifacts of their lives, evidence of their histories.” Their belief in a culture of generosity rather than a culture of scarcity, make McFarland and Chavchavadze a good team as they create new collaborative creative communities.

Gerald Wagoner is a former Studio-in-a-School-Artist and New York City elementary and secondary English teacher. Born in Pendleton Oregon, he holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Montana, and a MFA in sculpture from the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY). His artwork has been exhibited at The Drawing Center, The Queens Museum, and PS 1. In 2018, Wagoner received a six-month visiting artist residency at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (sponsored by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation). During this residency, he wrote a series of poems inspired by the Navy Yard’s history, and by the people who labored there. His poems have appeared in Right Hand Pointing. Wagoner has lived in Brooklyn since 1984.

If you enjoyed this discussion, consider making a donation to Indolent Books, a nonprofit poetry press.

BOOK REVIEW

Tracks
Poems by Lynn McGee
(Broadstone Books, 2019)
Reviewed by Gerald Wagoner

New Yorkers who ride the subway daily to commute, or irregularly for millions of other reasons, tend to look down. They look down at phones, at books, or at the floor. They tend to cancel out their surroundings with headphones. The subway is not the their living room, unless they are the poet Lynn McGee; then it is “the room I live in ten hours / a week.” (“The Subway Car Is My Living Room”). If you are Lynn McGee, the first thing you tell the reader in your new book of poems, Tracks (Broadstone Books 2019), is: “Don’t forget to look up” (“Jackpot”). McGee’s poems explore our primal need to connect with others. More specifically, these poems deal with the untimely death of the poet’s sister, and the impact of her sister’s death on their father and on her sister’s children. Using language that is at once unadorned and sensual, these superbly crafted poems are distinguished by the poet’s love of the body, and by a remarkably tender regard for her subject.

The first poem of the book, “Jackpot,” with its refrain of “Don’t forget to look up,” immediately commands us to pay attention to our surroundings, and to be optimistic. The anaphoric “as” invokes the movement of trains and of lives. McGee, the ever observing poet, gives the reader the tired, the children, the wounded woman with a black eye who “…holds her mouth taut, / moves the red tube tenderly / over her lips.” The poems enters a mode of the potential, the contrafactual: “That could have been you… / You could have been that man…” then brings us back to the specificity of the factual and the real: “but instead you inhabit this body / you were born into….”

Nearly all of McGee’s poems are composed with an awareness of the body, a sense of inclusivity, and a tenderness that is both painful and compassionate. “Kid’s on a Train,” for example, begins with the body:

A teenage girl sits on the subway bench,
legs apart, pops her gum
and gazes up through false eyelashes
at another girl who stands
facing her, pushing those legs wider.

The physical tension of teenage sexual play between two girls, one with legs apart and one pushing wider, is complemented by two older women, one who

          …talks softly with her
partner in a V-neck sweater,
gold cross dangling deep
into her cleavage.

and by a “beefy kid sprawled on the bench.” We think we are in a world of difference, but the speaker quickly affirms a kind of inclusive commonality:

I’ve seen this all before.
I have been the girl popping her gum,
the older woman showing
the shadow between her breasts.
I’ve been the boy wanting to be
part of something that doesn’t
want him, and I’ve been the stranger
watching, unwatched.

Her compassionate solidarity with the lone boy wanting inclusion is echoed in “Woman’s Long Commute,” a poem about a transwoman that concludes, “She looks tired / like me”; and again, in “Headphones at Rush Hour”: “Everyone around me / does the same”; and in “Flashback,” where a man, “breath flammable / face crumpled with damage / that took years to amass” bolts out of the car when he awakes to discover he’s on the wrong train. The speaker describes how the man

feints and dodges through
the crowd, his younger self
emerges all cheekbones
and speed, showing me how.

“Autism, Children’s Ward,” one of eleven taut poems triggered by the accidental death of McGee’s sister, exemplifies the poet’s ability to balance what James Wright called “tenderness and horror” (in “The Stiff Smile of Mr. Warren,” a review of Robert Penn Warren’s book Promises, which appeared in Kenyon Review, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Autumn 1958), 645-55). The reader learns that the speaker’s nephew will not be home for Christmas because he is on suicide watch. She describes a boy tragically ignored:

Nurses turn their backs
when he drops his pants;
puberty, a bully come too soon,
hormones mean as marbles
on a slippery floor—he is falling,
fighting, his world tipped
since birth….

There are struggles “placating his terrible need / to hoard,” as well as with ill-suited schools and medical bills. On a visit, the speaker sleeps in the boy’s bed, and leaves him words of tender compassion:

a note—You have so many
Good books! I liked
Monster Trucks the best
I did not touch
your other things.

The images of boy’s “tipped” world speak for themselves, while the note from his aunt speaks directly to the boy who lives in that world.

There are many equally potent poems in this collection, wherein tenderness, for McGee, is the lingering soreness of wounds that were once raw. It is also the gentle empathy for “the things I notice / about strangers—it’s as if / we were once close” (“Details Heading Downtown”). Her love of clarity, and of the American language, guides us through our underworld with uncommon tenderness while she takes notes, as she says: “to wake myself / and write this life / into something I want” (“Waking on the Long Island Rail Road”).

Gerald Wagoner is a former Studio-in-a-School-Artist and New York City elementary and secondary English teacher. Born in Pendleton Oregon, he holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Montana, and a MFA in sculpture from the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY). His artwork has been exhibited at The Drawing Center, The Queens Museum, and PS 1. In 2018, Wagoner received a six-month visiting artist residency at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (sponsored by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation). During this residency, he wrote a series of poems inspired by the Navy Yard’s history, and by the people who labored there. His poems have appeared in Right Hand Pointing. Wagoner has lived in Brooklyn since 1984.

Book Review

Un Amore Veloce
Poems by Hilary Sideris
(Kelsay Books, 2019)
Reviewed by Gerald Wagoner

Hilary Sideris’s new poetry collection, Un Amore Veloce, records the poet’s journey through stages of mature love. The book is organized into four sections, focusing in turn on the end of a first marriage (Real Estate); falling in love again (Un Amore Veloce); living together (Come Non Detto); and entering a second marriage (Anima Mia). Sideris’s poems, in the best lyric tradition, expand on moments of seeming insignificance to reveal a deeper truth. Like the moment itself, her poems are brief. Within their restricted compass, however, Sideris consistently establishes a creative tension between conflict and resolution.

Section I, Real Estate, presents a series of emotionally charged quotidian moments that provide insight into the speaker’s emotional adjustment to her separation and divorce, and to the demands of single parenthood. In the section’s opening poem, “Real Estate,” a list of items in a new apartment quickly escalates into a series of referenda on the speaker’s life and choices.

Your little sister pities you
the hardwood price, lack of light,

fact of working all your life
(does not include hot water, heat).

The speaker’s mother seems to be in denial about her daughter’s new life:

Long-stemmed glasses, dishes, pans,
potpourri your mother sends,

as if you’d married, not left him.

Finally, the speaker confronts the challenge of putting the past in its place, with all the pain and anger that entails:

Stainless steel spoons & forks

in a drawer you have to throw
your weight against to shut.

Particularly powerful is the poem “Custody,” addressed to the speaker’s daughter, in which a “tiger-striped, / tangerine-glazed, tomcat-head” teapot, made by the daughter at ceramics camp, becomes a flash point of raw emotion. Though the daughter was loathe to admit it, it turns out that the teapot was intended for her father’s wife, her stepmother, and not for the speaker, her mother. Presumably in an apostrophe, rather than a truly direct address, the speaker reproaches her daughter, who “uttered the name that beyond / the face of diplomacy remains, / in this household, unrecognized.” Then she begs her daughter’s pardon:

Forgive us. We will not transcend.
Your father will call & we’ll

sputter our toddler lines: I want
that teapot. No, it’s mine.”

It hurts to sunder a marriage, and collateral damage is unavoidable.

In Section II, Un Amore Veloce (in English, “a fast love”—that is, a love moving at a fast pace), the poet’s new language, Italian, becomes the language of love, where words become things, and love seems characterized by a materiality made all the more palpable by the need of both lovers to navigate strange linguistic waters. In the poem “Fluency,” language is barely penetrable, but love makes everything easier. After a series of linguistic fumbles, the speaker recounts, “Gin & tonic deliver us / to that safe, opaque place / where I simply // give him what he / asks: more kiss.”

The first poem of Section III, “Come Non Detto” (in English, “as if not said”), explores, as do the other poems in this section, the tensions of mature love and cohabitation through the little things we do in relation to one another. “I confessed I loved / living alone,” the speaker says, and although she tries to recant, she soon realizes there is “no such / thing as unsaying.” “Common Law,” with its double entendre title, addresses agreeing to disagree; “Venerdi Sera” (in English, “Friday evening”) touches gently on resentments; “Figlio Tuo” (in English, “your son”), exploring the problem of family relationships that predate the current one, ends with an aptly analogous image of the husband’s grown son’s rage:

I watch him fainculo.
A yellow Hummer

runs the light. I cede
my right of way.

The final section continues to examine the complexities of mature love. Foremost on the speaker’s mind in the poem “Marriage” are aging and death: “We take our pills, // the adversary still // a breath away….” The mundane—the world, not the heavens—still reigns in these poems about the tensions inherent in married life. In “Wind,” nominally about the intricacies of long “i” and short “i,” time and change are what’s really at stake, as the wind

                   …blows
tonight, more than

a breeze, less than
the kind that gives
us chills, a change of
season we can stand.

The early ardor of  “more kiss” has cooled, not died, and, “your old Omega’s / gold crown turns” reassures the reader that the relationship in the turning seasons is still precious. The final poem of the book, “Anima Mia” (literally “my soul,” but in effect, more like “my soulmate), sets the balanced tensions in the kitchen. At first, the spouses argue about the proper way to operate the coffee machine; but in the end,

we end up in this kitchen,
where our mothers still

tell us how much the meals
we cook would cost
if we ate out.

As the old saying went where I grew up: lovin don’t last, cookin do. In Un Amore Veloce, while relationships always contain conflict, the successful ones nourish the partners.

Hilary Sideris’s poems live in the ordinary, the daily, and the quotidian. The poet’s concision, and the subtle implications of unerring details, masterfully sustain tension, the movement between conflict and resolution, to reveal the essential. And yet, throughout the book, Sideris resists the lure of an over-the-rainbow conclusion, in which love conquers all. As the book’s penultimate poem, “Animal Channel,” concludes—

Man & sloth must face
adversity, whatever

form it takes, an eagle
circling, a woman
bent over a sink of knives.

Watch out for those knives: like love, they can move at high speeds.

Gerald Wagoner is a former Studio-in-a-School-Artist and New York City elementary and secondary English teacher. Born in Pendleton Oregon, he holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Montana, and a MFA in sculpture from the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY). His artwork has been exhibited at The Drawing Center, The Queens Museum, and PS 1. In 2018, Wagoner received a six-month visiting artist residency at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (sponsored by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation). During this residency, he wrote a series of poems inspired by the Navy Yard’s history, and by the people who labored there. His poems have appeared in Right Hand Pointing. Wagoner has lived in Brooklyn since 1984.

Why write poetry now?

A Blog Post                                                                                                                                                                    by Ina Roy-Faderman

In the two months before the US midterm elections, I stopped writing poetry. In fact, I stopped being a poet, with all that implies beyond writing: participating in panels, providing poetry workshops to local kids, assisting in online poetic projects. In the welter of day jobs, parenting, day-to-day “women’s work,” and pacifying the machine that keeps my chronic illness under control, I felt that I couldn’t add anything else. Given the potential impact of the midterm elections, and the fact that I can no longer pull all-nighters, I decided that poetry had to go.

The current state of US politics is damned personal in my household. I’m a birthright citizen. My spouse is Jewish. We’re an interracial couple. My parents were immigrants at a time in which only ten people were allowed into the US from their birth nation each year. My in-laws are gay and were only able to get married thanks to Gavin Newsom. Basically, we’re the kind of family a small, currently-emboldened sub-group of Americans would like to remove from this country and maybe this planet.

So I stopped writing poetry.  Instead, I engaged in the political activities which so many middle-aged women are quietly engaged in: calling Congresspersons and emailing Senators, protesting, phone banking and texting, squeezing a few dollars from family budgets to support organizations that stand between us and the mob that seems to be running our country.  Creative writing was even, in a way, involved: I texted potential voters with personal messages and sent postcards of encouragement to far-away blue voters.

But now that the midterms are over, barring ballot counts and recounts working their way through bureaucratic tar, I’ve got a moment to look at the decision I made.  And I am reconsidering the idea that it had to be a choice: writing or activism.

Since 2016, talented, well-known writers have filled the online multiverse with entreaties that and reasons why We Should Continue to Write In These Dangerous Times.  Often, they are fiction writers, not poets — maybe because fiction writers have a direct awareness that the dystopian elements of the political current climate are seeping into writing everywhere. Fiction, after all, has the ability to illuminate and comment, more or less directly, on the ills of our time. In contrast, poetry seems indirect, almost indulgent. Why write poetry now?

After wrestling with the question and with my conscience, I’ve identified three reasons that, for me, writing poetry in these times is not just necessary but right and important.

1. Creativity is a bulwark against authoritarianism

I was recently a panelist at a speculative fiction writer’s convention. Another writer described a science fiction convention that was held in the PRC prior to the advent of the internet. The underlying “ask” from invited American speculative fiction authors: tell us how to do this, because we don’t know how.

Hierarchical cultures and authoritarian political systems stifle creativity. It need not be in the form of a conspiracy or a conscious plan (but see e.g. the UK’s Profanity Act, the PRC’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the USSR’s Glavit). Rather, creativity depends upon individuality and in turn nourishes it.   Through existence and manifestation, creativity subverts external limits placed on individuality, including those of oppressive governments. Creations built of words threaten the foundations of authoritarian systems, since those systems rely on people believing that the world is “as it is told to us.” Tell a different story, and the imposed system is no longer a given, “just the way things are.” As poet-activist Francisco X. Alarcón has said, “Poets question dogmas, notions taken for granted, and speak ‘truths’ that defy the ruling order of things.”

We don’t have to live in a formally authoritarian government for poetry to illuminate the limitations of narratives supported by people in power. Against an apparent, militaristic threat to the US’ European allies, WWI soldiers exhibited both strength and heroism, characteristics we admire and promote. But e.e. cummings’s poem, “’i sing of Olaf glad and big,” reminds us that there are other incompatible, but equally moral, stances to be taken by those drawn into war.

2. Poetry is community

Community is at the heart of activism. When our actions are motivated by the needs of more than ourselves, we are activists working with and for a community.

Inherent in the use of language is a presumed audience. When we create with words, we are presuming that we are not alone –- that the possibility of communion with an audience exists.  In creating with words, we both assume and create community.

Poetry, as a creation of words, is founded on the knowledge that we can share a vision with another. This sharing is the beginning of a greater understanding of what we might to for others. As poet Sonya Renee Taylor says in an interview in Autostraddle, “…art is an essential element of how we make the messages of activism accessible and how we invite new people into the dialogue and how we open up new minds to the issues. “ By existing, the poem creates an audience-shaped space. The audience enters that space, and a community is born. And the best thing about the space – it can expand as needed. It is an encompassing space, but not a constricting one.

3. Silence = Death

I was fortunate. When “Silence = Death” was coined, I survived. I was a medical student in the San Francisco area when AIDS appeared. People in my community were getting sick, quickly, and we had no idea why. Most healthcare workers — who were not, by and large, personally affected by illness raging through their communities — were still hurting. Doctors were forced to suit up in plastic to comfort beautiful people who were dying. This is not the way to comfort anyone, but it was what we were told we could do.

The community that finally did — that went beyond what we were told we could do — wasn’t largely healthcare workers. Rather, community activists — suffering and watching suffering — refused to stay silent, who refused to stand by while lovers, friends, and neighbors died.

My activism then, such as it was, was small. I held the hands of men in wheelchairs who knew they’d never walk again. I gave blood. I lent my hands in the clinic in which some students refused to work. I came left the clinic and took shifts caring for a dying friend whose parents had left his clothes in a box on the street when he became ill. I acknowledged that there were many other people who were dying with no help at all.

I hadn’t written anything creative since my teens, but I started writing again. It was therapy, an outlet. But at some point, the outpouring became more; it became my hope for conveying to people who were in outside the zone of suffering just what suffering looks like.

To be silent is to allow pain, need, anguish to go unnoticed. For a poet to be silent is not just to silence herself but to let others, those in power, determine what is important and what is not –- who matters and who doesn’t. Poetry balances the scale; in writing it, we say, “We live. We matter.”

The midterms are over, and I have space to breathe. But the long-term work needs to be done, and it won’t get done by short-term actions, no matter how necessary. The people who are close to me, and the people who aren’t but are also fighting for their lives, their identities, their rights to pursue simple peace, are being subject to shock after shock in the US.  And that is not okay. While the last two months required immediate action, I cannot continue to put aside my contribution to longer-range change. I can’t let those who feel no pressure to go into hiding, feel no fear of hate being unleashed against them, live in their quiet, safe bubbles. I will make the time for poetry. I return to poetry to say, “No, you don’t get to look away. Not from me, not from mine, not from people you think don’t matter. We live. We matter.”

 

Ina Roy-Faderman (inafelltoearth.com) teaches college and graduate biomedical ethics and is an associate fiction editor for Rivet Journal and librarian for a school for gifted children.  Her poetry, fiction, interviews, and literary analyses have appeared in The Rumpus, Transition: Poems in the Aftermath (Indolent Books), HIV Here and Now, Inscape, Midwestern Studies in Philosophy and elsewhere.

“Lapse”: Jorie Graham and the Impossible Poem

A Blog Post                                                                                                                                                               by James Diaz

There will be two worlds, poor child, always, between you and your heart’s desiring eye. Your passport – a pen, dollar store, faded, unsteady ink, some letters will not do their job, like you – they are half formed.

I want to hold you, little version of way-back-then, wild and broken, the dirt that became a second skin, edges of your journals smudged with prayers of brown and grass. You were not loved well, oh child, I know you hurt in ways that were impossible to crawl out of. Why did you think you could do it, poem your pain/ palm your dirt?

Jorie pushes her little one somewhere – is this a place you know, this earth where things are connected to their thingness and the will to say them, place, person, world, light, happening? This is her poem, not yours, and yet yours, she keeps you from dying hence you are here because she willed you through – what miracle, did you repay her, thank her improperly, bowed head, blushed, stammering, oh, tell me how the poem works, mother, tell me, how do you open it so easily and I – so, impossibly trailing behind, always behind?

She will run her fingers through your book, her book, one that you have carried for a decade, you even put that razor blade on top of it once, but her poem said; sleep it off again this time – and you did. Will you tell her this – no, this is too much, even for a poet, to bear. You run your fingers through my/your/our book looking for the misprint in the original design, oh, how more than metaphor opens up between us here (our flawed disintegrating world) there it is, the word runs off the page, see, you say, holding yourself out to me, it is you on that page, is it not/ You that saved me?

Your molecules press into parchment, my passport between two worlds, I carry you home now, skin, dna, enmeshed with flaw, the unspoken thank you for this second life, this one that is already quickly ending, you’ll chart it in Place, Sea Change, I see change but it’s not pretty, has no proper voice, no gentle hand, oh world, here, you give – like broken bread, like light, to the child.

In “Lapse” you are pushing love from a womb into wind, the world – broken, opens that way, of necessity- you must see for her, for us? Oh seer, what is beneath the braille? My fingers are dumb/blind. Can’t you show me how without making it obvious, that it comes from… you? This poem. My poem. Every —— one’s….

how you could see over the tops of the houses
up and over to where your own house is down there—
and the housing development, and the millions of leaves, and the                        slower
children lagging behind

I am stopped short, is there more? Isn’t it all right here: your own house – housing development, slower children – lagging – looking in on your scene of love/contemplation? Am I the other child, the one you do not mention, do not add the word public to? Am I fully or only half Hispanic, disadvantaged, otherworldly. I won’t know the love of your hands to the small of my back, the push off into the unknown, won’t have this poem to remember the world by, my house is on fire, I cannot be put out, I will burn, so many things here will burn.

A great poem, surely, it exists. You are the sturdier voice, the note hit just right. You know the landscape better than I and I love you for that, I am here because of that. Footprint in parchment, I was parched, drank from your ink, how could I not admit it, you are the greatest poet, I will not hesitate to say it…

Only, I think of the lagging, slower children, the (public) housing not our own, the fires raging, the poverty of… spirit/words. I think of our poems, such lesser species, how could they not be, I am asking, how could they not be lesser things? It seems you should want the answer as much as me, do you- want it? The world already is shrinking, will not have enough room for all of us/ species. How many poems will the aftermath want? How many lagging, slower voices/ will be fit into tomorrow? I am asking, how many?

Is there a poem for each of us, on that swing/ eternally – impossibly pushed/described with such perfect desperation? The slow, lagging speaker haunts me, it’s why I do not really say thank you for this second life, it’s why I never again open the book you left your skin cells on. It’s why I love you all the more for all that I can never write the way that you can, as if it is all there, as if we are all there, though we are not.

As if I had a house of my own. Oh slow children, what type of house should we build, public or private. I am asking, how many of us will fit into tomorrow?

 

Author’s Note: Quite a few years ago I attended a reading at a small upstate New York Library where Jorie Graham read from her latest collection. This essay, in part, describes the encounter between us as she leafed through my copy of a book that sustained me for a decade and a half, The End of Beauty, searching for the flaw in her book’s design, the place where the words ran off the page.

Another time, while reading Jorie’s poem “Lapse” — available online at the American Poetry Review — I was struck by the image of her and her child in a park, overlooking their house. It reminded me of parks in the rich part of town my father would take me to sometimes, on the weekend, when he had a day off from the factory. I was split inside. In some ways I’ve felt mothered by Jorie throughout my life. Her poems have walked me back from suicide countless times, and her love for her child in “Lapse” is so palpable. Yet this feeling of being on the other part of town arose in me. What to do with it? That’s one of the things I’m grappling with in this essay.

 

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published on James Diaz’s personal website.

 

James Diaz is the author of This Someone I Call Stranger (Indolent Books, 2018). He is also founding editor of the literary arts & music journal Anti-Heroin Chic, which will be celebrating its third anniversary as a publication in January with a book launch of AHC’s very first print anthology: What Keeps us Here: Songs from The Other Side of Trauma. His work has appeared most recently in Drunk Monkeys and Peculiars Magazine. He lives in upstate New York. Visit him at https://jamesjdiaz.weebly.com/.

Illusions of the Writer’s Lifestyle

A Blog Post                                                                                                                                                                    by Jada Gordon

In the past month, veteran actor and former Cosby Show star Geoffrey Owens was photographed working in a local Trader Joe’s bagging groceries, and with the social media-centric world we live in, the picture found its home on the internet for the world to see. When I first saw the picture, it was on Twitter and Fox News had shared it with the caption “‘Cosby Show’ actor Geoffrey Owens spotted bagging groceries at NJ Trader Joe’s.” The article went on to talk about his stints on The Cosby Show and other shows and the person who took the pictures. However, that’s all that was discussed, practically “job shaming” him for bagging groceries; he was painted as an actor who went into obscurity. After this, people began not only to condemn Fox News and others for their “job shaming” of Geoffrey Owens, but also to question our perceptions of artists and their lifestyles. This leads me to think about the stereotypes we hold about writers’ lifestyles. We as a culture have an inability to see creatives in all fields as laborers as well. Is it our fault? Is it society’s fault? People have their dated stereotypes of writer’s lifestyles that we must slowly but surely dismantle.

I remember sitting in my Intro to Literary Studies class reading Madame Bovary for the first time. I was enraptured by this book that spoke to the wives stuck in boring rural village life who flexed their imaginations through romance novels. The main character, Emma, lives beyond her means to achieve a luxury lifestyle of wanderlust, adventure, and passion. I saw myself in Emma, a young woman looking for a way out. Like Emma, I was fixated on an image of what my life should be. I, however, fixated on achieving the typical “writers’ lifestyle” that was portrayed on TV: that of someone who is educated, has famous connections, spends their ample free time writing in cafes, and lives in a loft in the “artsy” part of town. My favorite part of the image is that money is often scarce but the writer manages miraculously to live alone.

Much of this imagery of a writer’s lifestyle is rooted in the twentieth century and further back in time. The writer lives in times of turmoil or the aftermath of chaos and war, like The Great Depression, the World Wars, or the Vietnam War, and has to leave America for Europe for cheaper rent and greater artistic freedom. This image has a massive influence on American ideas and perceptions of literature, and it’s inaccurate and dated.

The writers I automatically think of when I think of the “writers’ lifestyle” are James Baldwin and Ernest Hemingway—Both writers who seem to fit into the quintessential lifestyle and aesthetics of the perceptions of writers. Both were wildly popular twentieth-century writers who went to Europe and wrote excellent works of art, both fiction and nonfiction. However, Baldwin left America for completely different reasons than Hemingway. Baldwin left because of the constant discrimination he was facing as a black man in America. As a writer, he was respected, but because he was black, he faced the threat of racism and prejudice in even the typically liberal New York City. He escaped to France (as many Black artists did) to write freely without the looming threat of racial prejudice over his head. In a discussion of his life, Baldwin said he didn’t want to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” Baldwin would go on to join a  radical movement in France, live, write, and eventually pass away in the south of France in 1987.

Hemingway, along with his first wife, left for Europe to be a foreign correspondent and fell into the modernists’ movement of writers and artists in the 1920s. This movement was called the “Lost Generation” and was a collective of the expatriate community. One could go on for days about the experiences he went through to create his classic pieces of literature.  Hemingway lead a life that I thought writers were supposed to lead. The fact that I couldn’t do the same created a wave of envy in me. As a writer, I wanted to get out and explore life to create effectively like Baldwin, Hemingway, and many other writers. I chased the idea of the lifestyle I thought I needed to live. However, I was stuck in college and a retail job that I felt didn’t allow me to exercise my thoughts or challenge me. I also had to realize that these times in which Baldwin and Hemingway were exploring themselves and their artistry in France were different from the present. Traveling wasn’t as expensive, the culture was different, and the counterculture existed (arguably).

Writers, poets, and artists are laborers, whether it’s working within your artistic medium for compensation or working an outside job. Today more than ever, writers need multiple jobs to make ends meet just like everyone else in different artistic fields. Every writer’s lifestyle is not the spot-on depiction of the typical writers’ lifestyle. Very rarely today can a writer live solely on the income provided by their writing—as opposed to writers in the 20th century and before, who could live off book sales and articles published in newspapers. It’s a constant hustle—more now than it was back then. Unless your book is turned into a movie or miniseries, it takes a lot of work to get writing off the ground and into publication. We juggle paying the bills, creating, and handling life’s various curveballs as anyone else would.

Realizing that I’m not a writer who can whisk themselves off to different lands to create, I had to reevaluate my perspective and why I actually write. As a writer, I must create worlds and characters with my imagination. This comes from experience and applying them in a creative light. Putting thoughts, emotions, and perspectives into a cohesive and creative poem or story is what makes a writer, no matter what life you lead or the lifestyle you maintain. I write because it’s therapeutic and pleasing to my soul. Writing challenges me to break things down and build them into a new idea or way of seeing things. All of the experiences I go through make for poems, stories, and ideas I can build. As a writer, I must use all experiences and travels to inspire me. It all circles back to creativity—Working is what keeps the lights on, but it shouldn’t define life. Writers all live different lives that inspire their work, and that’s been true as long as people have been writing.

 

Jada Gordon is a writer, editor, and poet from the Bronx, NY. She won BMCC’s 2017 James Tolan Student Writer Award and published and edited the magazine for BMCC’s Writing Club, The Writers’ Guild. She’s also been published on WordPress and in Sula Magazine, and coedits What Rough Beast for Indolent Books.

Jenna Le Reviews Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails

Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails (Milkweed Editions, 88 pp., published Sept. 2018) is actually two books: the first 41 pages are devoted to “The Final Voicemails,” a selection of 21 of Max Ritvo’s late poems, culled by Louise Gluck after his death at 25 from Ewing sarcoma, whereas the final 33 pages are given over to “Mammals,” a near-complete reproduction of Ritvo’s undergraduate thesis at Yale, where he studied poetry writing under Gluck. The poems in ‘The Final Voicemails” are far more powerful than those in “Mammals,” due to their emotional stakes being greater, although “Mammals” offers an interesting glimpse of alternate directions Ritvo’s trajectory might have taken if cancer had not first shadowed and at last curtailed his days.

Prior to picking up this volume, I had already read a great many of the poems that comprise “The Final Voicemails” proper, having scoured the websites of literary magazines for any trace of Ritvo I could find in the days immediately following his 2016 death. Being reunited with these poems, inhaling their familiarity, after all that time, felt like a real tangible gift, a quietly nourishing experience. Two years have passed since the world lost this poet, two years during which many things have happened and we remainers have lived and changed; at the end of that interval, for us to come back to these poems, or to have them rise forth to meet us in the form of a newly printed and bound book, can seem surreal, all the more so because the thoughts and images in the poems have the air of being as fresh and immediate as they did on the first encounter. As the readers, we are put in mind of Einstein’s train-cars, the thought experiment used to explain the theory of special relativity, and for a moment we cannot be sure whether we are on the train-car that was moving or the train-car that was stationary the whole time.

The passages I like best are pretty much the same ones I liked best two years ago. Of particular note, there are the stanzas about red berries at the end of the title poem, with all its deliciously unexpected turns (mimicking the turns of the tango the poem references two pages earlier): at first, the berries serve as a simile for the “mild passions” that distract or detract from self-knowledge, but out of nowhere they pivot to become the most real thing in the poem, the thing on which everything else hinges. Anticipating/preempting an imagined interjection from his reader (or interlocutor), the poet assumes an intimate directness, saying, “Don’t ask me to name [the berries] — / I’ve never been that kind of guy. / Red berries — sour, sticky. / If you really want to know, / come here, just try them.” The language is at once disarmingly casual (“guy”) and intoxicatingly soaked in romantic nostalgia (“I’ve never been” — three words that lay out upon the table the poet’s whole childhood, his entirety of past experiences, subtly contradicting the poem’s earlier assertion that self-knowledge had remained elusive: “All this time, I thought my shedding / would expose a core”). This passage about the berries exposes a kind of core, revealing the poet’s self-understanding that he is not “that kind of guy”: i.e., he does not see himself as the type of person who stands on ceremony with regard to the technical nomenclature for things; he prefers lived experiences, things that can be touched and tasted. The stanza’s last line (“come here, just taste them”) is simultaneously an alms-giving and a seduction, proffering fruit that, just seconds ago, were no more than one abstract arm of a simile but now, through verbal legerdemain, have flared to life.

That poem’s my very favorite, but there are plenty of nuggets of beautiful wisdom to be found here. Consider “Quiet Romance,” where the poet re-frames the encounter of man with death as a two-way street, the two parties equally afraid of one another: “I can hear already / a roaring in the distance, / half salt, half horse, // I like this, I’m scared, but / so’s the sound. We’ll both be guests.” From reciprocal fear, it’s only a short step to reciprocal esteem and hospitality: hearing Ritvo say it with his voice’s customary air of trustworthy authority, I am greatly tempted to believe it.

Or consider “Earthquake Country Before Final Chemotherapy,” where the poet, just by saying so, magically transforms himself into “the ghost in the bridge / willing the cars to join me, // telling them that death was not wind, / was not weight, // was not mist, / and certainly not the mountains — // that it was the breaking apart, / the replacement of who, when, how, and where / with what.” Death, in this portrayal, is a corruption of sentence structure, a flattening of grammar; does this mean poetry, with its three-dimensional — sometimes even four-dimensional — grammar, is the key to achieving anti-death? Reading these poems, I come close to being convinced it is.

I want to carry this book with me as a physical talisman for a while. I feel a wish to press it into the hands of all my fellow sarcoma doctors, if not all other readers. There are many layers here, ranging from the surface bodily descriptions of the cancer experience (the cachexia, the pain, the loss of appetite) to deeper layers of evocation, and if you don’t pick up on all the layers the first time, you can keep coming back for the others. This book will keep existing, and there is something we could all learn from keeping it close.

 

Jenna Le (jennalewriting.com) is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2018; 1st ed. pub. by Anchor & Plume, 2016), which won Second Place in the 2017 Elgin Awards. Her poetry, fiction, essays, book criticism, translations, and visual art appear in journals including AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, and West Branch.

Finding Poetry in “Olga Picasso” – and Almost Everywhere Else

A Blog Post                                                                                                                                                                    by Larayb Abrar

Many professors in my college English classes ask their students to “define poetry.” What is it, really, if not sentences separated by line breaks on a page? Often, they receive answers like, “it’s beauty”, “it’s heightened language”, “it’s a distillation of feeling – but like in an intuitively unobvious way.” But there are many occasions when I find poetry off the page. Sometimes something as simple as watching people coincidentally walk across a park to the same rhythm of a particular song playing in my headphones gets me thinking of the clockwork nature of the world, of how the disparate puzzle pieces ultimately click. I see it in the way smoke lightly dances and twirls off a cigarette on a warm summer day. Or in the way the blinding red and orange lights of a car become soft pastel hues when reflected onto puddles. It’s moments like these when I see art created right in front of me.

A year ago, I visited the Musée Picasso in Paris. Its collection comprises several works and archives that document not only the masterpieces of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, but also his personal life and creative process. At the time I visited, a special exhibition called “Olga Picasso” which ran from March 21, 2016 to September 3, 2017, detailing the life of Picasso’s first wife, Olga Khokhlova, was on display. While Picasso is mostly known for his work on Cubist and Surrealist artwork, it was during this time period that he delved into portraiture depicting an often pensive and thoughtful Olga. Juxtaposed with Olga’s portraits were excerpts of letters sent to her and photographs she had kept of herself with her family. The exhibition as a whole spanned through 14 rooms over two floors, each room laced with its own complex representations of trauma, joy, family life and melancholy.

Olga Khokhlova was a Russian ballet dancer who met Picasso while on tour. In many of Picasso’s works, she is depicted in an established and static manner, likely due to the severe depression she was undergoing due to the economic crisis in Russia and food shortages her family was suffering. The exhibition started off by focusing on the life Olga left behind. The initial images we see are not Olga, Pablo’s happy wife, but rather the opposite. She is seen reading, or staring off into space, passive. She is an empty woman, afflicted by the pain of her migration, her inability to return home, her helplessness in the face of this crisis. As I reflected on 20th century paintings in light of today’s refugee crisis, the images struck a chord; Olga’s experiences became something I could live through vicariously. The poetry emerged completely off the page and hit me harder than anything words could muster. What’s notable here is Picasso’s perceptiveness in depicting Olga’s story, his empathy in unfolding her narrative so subtly and yet so precisely. It was a beautiful, pithy distillation of emotion.

A year after my visit to the Musée Picasso, in my last, dwindling days in New York City, exhausted from a full day of packing and scrambling to buy things last minute, I lay down on my bed, facing the window. It was a little after sunset and the Manhattan buildings against the sky looked exactly like something out of Picasso’s blue period. The buildings several shades of dark blue, their edges blurred against a slightly paler blue sky. Right in that moment I saw the puzzle pieces clicking, the circularity, life mimicking art, the artsy final shot straight out of a Woody Allen movie as my time in New York drew to a close.

Of course, not everyone experiences these moments, and not everyone can. Sometimes events are just random and it’s difficult to find any meaning in them at all. But while it may be easy to concentrate on the big event, the front page splash, or the major headline, it can be equally rewarding to notice the small peculiarities in the random. The French writer Georges Perec compiled a small, roughly 40-page document titled, “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” in which he writes down his observations of place Saint-Sulpice over the course of three days. Most of this text is written in bullet points, with many repetitions. He writes about the busses passing by, what color they are, and the direction they go in, he makes note of the pigeons around the central plaza, he notices when the pigeons have flown away, he writes down characteristics of the people walking past him, and even takes note of the words written on a woman’s handbag. It’s not as though Perec has taken these individual instances and delved very deeply into them, but rather the stringing together of these seemingly random occurrences produces a text which at once reveals the eerie, melancholic yet touching narrative of this area and exposes the repetitive nature of everyday life.

Perec’s focus on the small, mundane, daily on-goings of place Saint-Sulpice can be generalized to any place in the city. They may seem meaningless, seeing as hardly any of his observations connect with one another; there is no full circle magic Woody Allen moment happening here. And yet, he creates poetry specifically by focusing on the ordinary experiences of everyday life. While I still don’t know how to define poetry, maybe one way of seeing it is as something that does indeed transcend the page, and something we can find in an image, an encounter or in a speech. The poetic is all around us; we just need to stop looking so hard for it.

 

Larayb Abrar is a junior at NYU Abu Dhabi majoring in literature and creative writing. She contributes often to her independent college newspaper, The Gazelle. Her academic interests lie in post-colonial and gender studies. She has performed spoken word poetry at several venues in Abu Dhabi and occasionally dabbles in stand-up comedy.

Finding Inspiration Where You Least Expect It

A Blog Post                                                                                                                                                                    by Sophie Allen

In college, it gets easier and easier to narrow down your area of study until you’re just taking the courses that interest you and are pertinent to your major. I thought this would mean taking classes on writing, writing, and more writing, interspersed with occasional reading. While all those pursuits are useful and valid, I find myself writing pieces that don’t feel right and don’t feel like mine.

For context: I love trivia. I have a great memory for useless information, words that look good on a page and feel good coming out of my mouth, and historical tidbits to bring up if a conversation stalls. If I have a choice, my writing is always as precise as I can make it. I research extensively, even if I just plan to reference something in passing. In my poetry, I’ve made use of a lifelong fascination with Greek mythology, and if I write about the human body, it will always be anatomically accurate.

So it’s certainly worthwhile and useful to take classes about writing and how to do it well, but sometimes, it’s better to learn about something else and let that inspire your work. I’m struck by inspiration for my strongest work in non-creative writing settings. I found out that poetry could be about whatever I wanted and I ran with it. Most of my writing is autobiographical, but I love reading highly specific poems about things that might not always be considered poetic. Take “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die” by Hanif Abdurraqib! Is it really about Nikola Tesla? I have no idea, but I love it! What a great title! What a fascinating way to talk about love and death and Tesla! Abdurraqib is a great example of a poet who brings his knowledge of other areas to poetry to great effect, and oh man, I could write a whole blog post about it, but suffice it to say his writing is loaded with highly specific content that makes it that much greater.

Another great example is one of my favorite poems of all time, “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara. It doesn’t matter that the poem isn’t really about art, but mentioning it enriches the piece immeasurably. I didn’t know what the Rembrandt painting the Polish Rider was before reading the poem, but I’ve walked past the Frick Collection in New York City a couple of times since, and it always makes me think of O’Hara.

The places I’ve been and the things I’ve learned impact my writing significantly, and the more I know, the more interesting my writing can be. I have a friend who writes gorgeous poems whose descriptions of plants are always scientifically accurate, and another who has travelled so much through the Midwest that every city she describes becomes its own vivid, realistic world. I haven’t spent much time in the Midwest, but I’ve written poetry about New Orleans, New York, and Dublin. I plan to write more.

The point I’m trying to make is that all that stuff they tell you in high school about being well-rounded is true. I want to learn everything I can, both for learning’s sake and for how it can add to my writing. I can write about the process of glass shattering when a projectile hits it, or the things you can use instead of a hammer if you can’t find one when you need it, or how to say “I’m sorry” in five languages. Giving it form and making it technically proper might require a writing course, but there are so many amazing things in the world and I plan to write about as many of them as I can, however I can.

Sophie Allen is an English major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is an Opinion/Editorial columnist at the Daily Collegian, the independent student newspaper at UMass. In her spare time, she enjoys reading murder mysteries and writing poetry. In the future, Sophie hopes to write for late-night television.