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EJ Koh is a poet and translator. Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Southeast Review, La Petite Zine, Fence, Narrative Magazine, Columbia Review, among others. She has work forthcoming in World Literature Today, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics from Black Ocean Press (ed. Andrew Ridker Black Ocean 2014). She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has been covered in Time Out New York, GalleyCat, and Flavorwire’s 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University in New York and is a recipient of the Kundiman Fellowship at Fordham University. She blogs at http://www.thisisEJKoh.com

 

In my own Utopia, every man and woman would write a poem. They would write it with intent and care, re-write it several times, read it in a whisper, place it under the pillow before bed, and then tear it up.

For me, I became a grown-up with zero exposure to poetry. I felt love without having to write it down, or pain without trying to find a measure. Now, I write couplets to feel love, entire poems to remember pain. It’s all backwards ever since I have decided to let poetry into the center of my life.

The truth is I want to stop. Not only stop writing, but also, speaking. I want language to end for me because I’m sick of saying the same thing about my mother, about my grandmother, about my inconsiderate childhood—for years. When I’m sick of hearing myself, I turn to the craft of the poem, and even then, the rhythms sound like me. I become sick of me. No one is sick of me more than me.

Despite the lows between manuscripts, rejections, joblessness, it’s an honor to be a poet. That’s my unpopular opinion—that a poet must remain humble, changing, and sincere. In exchange, I will opt for the shorter life, and potentially destructive, because few things in occupation depend on sincerity.

I recall this piece of information I had tucked away: There is an ancient Chinese belief that if a carp swims up a waterfall, the carp will turn into a dragon. To me, the waterfall is the life that I watched from a distance. When I read poetry, I am standing under that waterfall. I am experiencing the brunt of every droplet—of incident, memory, and dialogue. So what is it like to write poetry? There is a shift much like swimming upwards and reaching wisdom outside of my normal self.

Somehow, the image of a carp swimming up a waterfall sums up poetry for me. Standing under the water, you live more than your share of one life. Sometimes it’s hard because the things that are painful are amplified, but so are the things that are beautiful. Going up the water, you become more than you could in one life. And that is worth something to every man and woman—enough to write a poem, to re-write it, to read it, to sleep against it, and to shred it into pieces again and again.

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Jenn McCreary’s new full-length collection, & now my feet are maps, is now available from Dusie Press. Other works include The Dark Mouth of Living (Horse Less Press), :ab ovo: (Dusie Press), a doctrine of signatures (Singing Horse Press), & Odyssey & Oracle (Least Weasel Press). worrywort, a collaboration with Pattie McCarthy, will be published by Little Red Leaves Textile Editions in 2014.  She lives in Philadelphia with her family, where she co-edits ixnay press with Chris McCreary & was recently named a 2013 Pew Fellow in the Arts for Literature.  

 

That I seem to have always been taking notes. 

That the hunting & gathering/collection & compilation may be accidental or intentional.  That there is much sifting, scratching out, steeping together. 

That it is both composting & distillation. That there are fortunate accidents & unexpected tangents.  

That there is always a project.  That it serves, though, as a form to accommodate the mess. That is, provides the lens through which larger issues are examined, dissected & reassembled. That it is part bricklaying, part lacemaking. 

That it is ever a conversation.  That there is dialogue & exchange.  That there is breath beyond the confines of the margins. That it lurks like a dragon under the earth. 

That there is ambiguity & contradiction. That the everyday is transcendent.  That the formal lies down with the colloquial. 

That the space may be navigated. That there are possibilities & limitation.  That language serves as toolbox. That it bends & stretches, snaps & shatters. 

That the resulting shards may be reconstructed.  That there is manipulation toward unification. 

That arrangement is alchemy. 

That it is a sort of science. 

That it is a state of temporal grace.

That it holds promise.

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Jamaal May was born in 1982 in Detroit, MI where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer. His first book, Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), received the Beatrice Hawley Award, the American LibraryAssociation’s Notable Book Award, an NAACP Image Award nomination, and was shortlisted for ForeWord’s Book of the Year Award. Other honors include the Indiana Review Prize, the Spirit of Detroit Award, and the Stadler Fellowship. Most recently, Jamaal has been awarded Rose O’neill Literary House’s 2014 Cave Canem Residency, the 2014-2016 Kenyon Review Fellowship, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy. Jamaal’s poems appear in such periodicals as The New Republic, The Believer, Poetry, Ploughshares, NYTimes.com, and Best American Poetry 2014. A graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program, he co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series with Tarfia Faizullah and teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. 

Negation in Alan Dugan’s Closing Time at the Second Avenue Deli

            I often use techniques pilfered from better writers to work out tricky emotional arguments. One I swiped from poet Alan Dugan let me talk about Detroit in a more balanced way. In “Closing Time at the Second Avenue Deli,” the final poem in Dugan’s final collection, negation is used to create the kind of simultaneity I needed in the poem “There are Birds Here” to talk about my lovely, complicated hometown.  

            The poem begins by illustrating its central mechanism: the speaker can see the potential for metaphor but refuses to let anything mean something else:

                                    This is the time of night at the delicatessen

                                    when the manager is balancing

                                    a nearly empty ketchup bottle

                                    upside-down on a nearly full ketchup bottle

                                    and spreading his hands slowly away

                                    from the perfect balance like shall I say

                                    a priest blessing the balance, the achievement

                                    of perfect emptiness, of perfect fullness? No,

The power of Dugan’s negation here is dependent upon an assumption that the reader will at least partially see the metaphor as plausible. Dugan does not leave this up to chance because negation works best when the poet and reader are in sync. This synchronicity is controlled by managing expectations, created or latent. The description of the balancing act is a highly detailed sentence that spans the poems first nine lines. Dugan is aware of readers’ disposition to see heightened meaning in anything described in great detail. He knows that when a metaphor is presented with this much attention and care, the work of moving from line one to line nine makes it feel spot on. The simple “no” at the end of that line is not only a punch in the gut, it’s a punch in the gut from someone we trusted enough to show our underbelly to. The “No,” holds as much power as the nine lines preceding it because all of the power that was accumulating is still there. The speaker is still in a position of authority. That said, we couldn’t easily dismiss the preceding metaphor.

            The speaker continues to tear down the metaphor by working four negations into the space of only four lines:

                                    this is a kosher delicatessen. The manager

                                    is not like. He is not like a priest,

                                    he is not even like a rabbi, he

                                    is not like anyone else except the manager

Now that the point is driven home that this is not a metaphor, why do we still feel a slight philosophical “aha” when we read “as the / cashier shall I say balances out?” Because we want to believe it. Dugan is also preying on our predisposition as humans or, more specifically, as lovers of art and literature to look for meaning in everything. He even lets us linger there for little longer as the “No” falls on the next line. This back and forth illustrates Dugan’s point. His point is that the argument for metaphor in everything may be a specious one. He makes it clear that “This / is not the time for metaphors.” And as we began to look at “time” as something bigger than just the time of that moment, as in “not the era for metaphors,” Dugan stops it from being that easy. Whenever our imaginations could take it to another level, he uses specificity to make that leap difficult: “This / is not a time for metaphors. This is the time /” (oh yeah, here we go) “to turn out the lights.”(Oh.) This tug-of-war continues as Dugan returns to the metaphor that we’re practically begging him to be true at this point, only to under cut it again:

                                    imagine it, those two ketchup bottles

                                    will stand there all night long

                                    as acrobatic metaphors of balance,

                                    of emptiness, of fullness perfectly contained,

                                    of any metaphor you wish unless

                                    the manager snaps his fingers at the door,

                                    goes back, and separates them for the night

                                    from that unnatural balance, and the store goes dark

At this point, even if we want to stick with the metaphor, we have to deal with the new knowledge of that “balance” being “unnatural” in the first place. The negation here moves away from simply saying “no.”. Here the manager physically negates the balancing of the ketchup bottles thereby negating the metaphor on the physical plane as well.

            Dugan uses specificity again towards the close of “Closing Time at the Second Avenue Deli” to undercut yet another potential metaphor:

                                    Shall I say that the container can not

                                    contain the thing contained anymore? No.

                                    Just that the lamb stew is leaking all across town

                                    in one place: it is leaking on the floor of the taxi-cab,

                                    and that somebody is going to pay for this ride.

Calling the stew “the thing” and playing off of the ambiguity of “container” could create a metaphor that in some ways reconciles the experience of not being allowed to accept the poem’s initial metaphor. This metaphor could have said the other wasn’t possible because the “thing” cannot be “contained.” This is thrown out there only to be negated because Dugan knows that negation is also a process of narrowing down. If this is not that then there’s a better chance that it’s that over there. Here the reader is further frustrated from those easy answers we crave.

            One might be tempted then, to say the poem basically tells us nothing. I’d disagree. The poem is an enactment of a vision of life that resists those easy answers. Dugan shows us that not only is balance unattainable, but we can’t even hope to rationalize this fact. We can’t order the chaos or explain why we can’t. In addition to this revelation, we are shown just how easy it is to be tricked into thinking we can. It’s just a “ride” and “somebody is going to pay for [it].”

Closing Time at the Second Avenue Deli
Alan Dugan

This is the time of night at the delicatessen

when the manager is balancing

a nearly empty ketchup bottle

upside-down on a nearly full ketchup bottle

and spreading his hands slowly away

from the perfect balance like shall I say

a priest blessing the balance, the achievement

of perfect emptiness, of perfect fullness? No,

this is a kosher delicatessen. The manager

is not like. He is not like a priest,

he is not even like a rabbi, he

is not like anyone else except the manager

as he turns to watch the waitress

discussing the lamb stew with my wife,

how most people eat the whole thing,

they don’t take it home in a container,

as she mops up the tables, as the

cashier shall I say balances out?

No. The computer does all that. This

is not the time for metaphors. This is the time

to turn out the lights, and yes,

imagine it, those two ketchup bottles

will stand there all night long

as acrobatic metaphors of balance,

of emptiness, of fullness perfectly contained,

of any metaphor you wish unless

the manager snaps his fingers at the door,

goes back, and separates them for the night

from that unnatural balance, and the store goes dark

as my wife says should we take a cab

or walk, the stew is starting to drip already.

Shall I say that the container can not

contain the thing contained anymore? No.

Just that the lamb stew is leaking all across town

in one place: it is leaking on the floor of the taxi-cab,

and that somebody is going to pay for this ride.

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TJ Jarrett is a writer and software developer in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, African American Review, Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, DIAGRAM, Third Coast, VQR, West Branch and others. Her debut collection Ain’t No Grave is published with New Issues Press  (2013). Her second collection Zion(winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition 2013)  will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in the fall of 2014.

Stop Me. I Have Some Telling to Do.

            Anyone who has ever worked with me in my official capacity (I am a software engineer) knows that I don’t know how to do it if not for love. I take things apart. I put them back together again. This is who I am. I don’t know how to work without finding where something is broken, and trying to make it whole. But I’m confronted all the time by my coworkers who find out that I’m a poet and they wonder why I do it. Or maybe they wonder how. I tell them that it’s all the same impulse but they never believe me.

            Except. Except. Except.

            What I say above is true. But I’d never send it out. The above paragraph fails for me in the way most poems I write fail. I wrote what I wrote because I thought I knew what I was talking about. I’ve been saying exactly that so long that I reflexively give that answer. The rhetoric here falls apart not because what I have said is not true, but because I had not interrogated the specifics. The FACTS, if you will. I think once we really start telling the truth about things—the unvarnished, nasty truths about things—we begin to grope toward meaning, in this case toward fierce ambivalence that heightens the stakes.

Example:
My job requires 100% of my attention
My poems want 100% of my attention

            The word choice alone should tell a reader what I think of the dilemma—what is required of me v. what I want. I am clear and I have no need for embellishment or metaphor here. I am telling the reader what I believe they need to know. For all the literary tools that we possess, I appreciate frankness the most. If we were to revisit the earlier syllogism about how I love my job and poems for the same reasons, we could say that the most important thing I said in that paragraph was: I take things apart. I put them back together again. It is the sparest and most concrete of my truths, and carries all the weight of the argument. If I were writing a poem (or an essay) about my ambivalence about my job, I would start there because the discursive notion of ‘loving my job, yaddayaddayadda’ is abstract and isn’t signaling my intention. Just because *I* know how I feel and I’ll get to it eventually doesn’t mean the reader has to trust me that I’ll get there.

            Sometimes, a writer is not listening to what the poem wants to say. That happens less often than one would think. We are often struggling to say exactly what we are putting on the page. Confusion comes when we as writers refuse to let the reader know what the poem is saying. Occasionally it’s because the writer is being evasive themselves but more often, I see a lot of showing when telling the reader would do. There are myriad ways of telling it slant, or being a little elusive about the details or delaying the delivery of facts. This isn’t about the poet being front and center in the poem either; there is such a thing as poetic intelligence that can be in or out of frame. It’s not my concern how tightly the poetic intelligence wields the poem; it is enough that I know as a reader that it exists and it is ultimately in control.

            Maybe this is why we get so excited when we watch a poem almost pull away from the poet, only to see the craft pull the reins again. The reader is not afraid of what is wild in the work. The reader comes to the work for its wildness. But the reader WILL bore of it without the writer providing context. All rhetorical language isn’t bad. It’s like zoos for animals or amusement parks for children. Life in a natural habitat of danger isn’t thrilling precisely because it is routine. Jumping off a bridge without a bungee cord has finite results; jumping with a bungee cord introduces uncertainty. We desperately want the writer to lead us through it and tell us its dangers and provide us its rules.

            So the axiom is not: Show, don’t tell. It is closer to the grade school exercise of Show and Tell. When I come to a poem, it is because I am hungry to know something. Tell me something secret or true. Hell, lie to me as long as I’m in on it. And when you lie to me, tell me late that you are lying so that that I can go through all the motions of shame. Hang that lush language on some guideposts and as a reader I will follow it anywhere, even into the uncertain places. If we are honest with ourselves, this is the place we needed most to go. 

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Ethel Rackin is the author of The Forever Notes (Parlor Press, 2013). New poems appear this spring in Colorado Review, Court Green, Kestrel, and Volt. She is currently an associate professor at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania.

For several years I have been writing odes or praise poems. My interest in the form began when I was completing my first collection, The Forever Notes, a book of short lyrics. I continue to be drawn to both the immediacy and meditative possibilities of this form of lyric address.

Addressed to persons, places, or events, odes were originally accompanied by music and dance.  The Greek poet, Pindar, the ode’s first known practitioner, composed long, formally complex odes for the purpose of celebrating athletic victories. The Roman poet, Horace, wrote briefer, less formal, more personal odes. Since, the ode has been adapted into varied irregular forms, including Romantic odes, which often situate an extended meditation within a description of nature.

After reviewing ancient and Romantic odes, and seeking models that would offer a greater sense of immediacy, I was grateful when a friend reminded me to turn back to Neruda. Here were the ordinary objects—the tomatoes, the socks—I longed for. Almost naïve in their earnestness, Neruda’s odes sometimes begin by addressing such objects as if they could hear and respond to their poet admirer. At other times, the object serves as a jumping off point into meditation. Either way, before poem’s end, Neruda has reanimated object matter into the stuff of poetic inquiry. Some of my odes also address objects—a lamp, a wand, the Elgin marbles. Others address beings, places, states of mind. Odes have come to occupy a central place in my imagination and on the page, revitalizing my relationship with things.

As a form of lyric address, odes offer the intimacy of an I/You relation, while simultaneously questioning the stability such subject positions imply. In teaching the form in workshops, I’ve found that the form of praise offers us both an occasion for speech and a proximate interlocutor, taking much of the initial pressure off of us as writers. What’s perhaps more intriguing is that odes both welcome us in as readers, and create a distance. When we are praising something or someone, we are always at risk of objectification or even dismissal. (You look so nice, today.)

By attending to the dialogic possibilities of such a form, we are reimagining the space of lyric. I try to capture bits of polyphonic conversation in many of my odes, including “Ode to a Lamp,” which incorporates the comments that accompany Facebook likes. For the contemporary ode, the monument is drifting.

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Sommer Browning’s new collection of poems is Backup Singers from Birds, LLC. She runs the Bad Shadow Affair, a monthly reading series, and is a member of the poets theater group GASP. She draws comics, writes jokes, and works as a librarian in Denver

more ninis                  moon hat
           moonball                   heavy

a child says

more milk                   more ninis     
                        happy                         no more

says before spelling
says before order, while kneeling
says out of a volcano

Says her blanket, her E.

Says eeeeeee
as she struggles with a box
wrestles the stepstool to the sink.

bulbbulb                    mama            
            Noah                           heart                   beepbeep

I think about language I drown
until dinner.

I see a friend’s child, the same age, utter the same words. And I am afraid
that I am afraid we are too much the same.  

guitar                          moon             
            up up                          go go go                      loud

She says it like this: one two one one one one.
That way we counted.

She says they all are red.
We said red
or blue or red.

bye bye                      more              
            more milk                 that that that

For some, she’s normal
like a poem
titled with a date.

But—lemme say it like the ancients—
she’s not not normal.
 

Says: she’s my first real owl

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Monica Mody is the author of Kala Pani (1913 Press) and two chapbooks of cross-genre experiments. Her poems have appeared in &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry, Boston Review, Eleven Eleven, The Volta, Dusie, and MiPOesias, among other places. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame and is currently in a doctoral program in East-West Psychology. 

Living with Language

Let’s say nature is sentient & alive, & that everything in nature is also sentient & alive.

Stone River Genome Abrasion

Flight path L&fill Stigmata OS

Laughter Erhu Dreams Fibula 

Sun Lozenge Radiation Terror

Animists would also say:

Let’s say all parts of the natural world are interrelated—that we are kindred.

Language, then?

Is language alive & sentient?

Is language kin to us?

& what does that imply for us, poets: hosts of language, co-creators of language, primal lovers of language/ lovers of primal language?

& what can living, primal language bring forth? Must we be accountable for—or to—it/them? Do we have a responsibility to bring it/them forth? Do certain realities need us to be the intermediaries that bring them forth? Does something or someone wait for us to be in relationship—in right relationship?

& what do these bring up in us: “accountability,”  “responsibility,” “need”? “Right relationship”?

This provocation itself—is this the experiment we are waiting for?—the cutting edge, knife’s edge?

Of form of genre.

Of performance of media.

Of language.

Of borders of temporality.

Of regeneration of worlds.

Of resilience of vulnerability.

Of resistance.

Resistance/ what remains standing is the sensing that poetry is illimitable. The space of the impossible humming with possibility. Indescribable beauty & sorrow, horror shimmering in its depths. Indescribable horror, beauty shimmering in its depths. Strength, knowing, putrefaction of the human body, & the non-human finding us always in its uncanny ways. To be accountable could not after all mean the kind of moral weakness that cannot take the shot colors of reality & imagination & everything that crosses between there & here—

It must be willing to host ambiguity, uncertainty, heat of fires at the core of earth, weariness before we reach the fire, freezing of waters before they are thawed, songs of moonjaw & droppings of human waste left behind on the moon after human visitations, toxic or composting—

It must have the stamina to compost the enormous fear & hatred & gullibility that make up the human experience—

(into love)—

To fill our mouths with blood/water sucking it from wounds of the earth/soul although our cheeks, distended, may turn grotesque—precisely so that we may hold the dual nature of our human/non-human selves & the multiple networks of reality—

networked realities—

In love & in kinship—to be bound by “obligations of responsibility, solidarity, and care”—

locally & translocally.

"Everything come up out of ground—language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass. That’s law." –Hobbles Danyari

“If writing cannot & writing must change things, I thought to myself, logically of course, writing will change things magically.” – Kathy Acker

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Gale Marie Thompson is the author of Soldier On (Tupelo Press, 2014) and two chapbooks, Expeditions to the Polar Seas (Sixth Finch) and If You’re a Bear, I’m a Bear. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Souvenir, Columbia Poetry Review, Better, They Will Sew the Blue Sail, Volt, Best New Poets 2012, Guernica, and others. She edits Jellyfish Magazine and writes, teaches, and lives in Athens, GA. 

National Poetry Month EssayletStevie Nicks, Serial Poems, Voyager, and the Arecibo Message

Out of the almost impossible range of choices, I think the thing I love most about Stevie Nicks is that she just can’t finish a damn song.

While this isn’t one hundred percent true, certain songs like “Sara,” “Angel,” and “Storms” seem to carry on and on far past when the typical “song” might have finished, reaching farther and farther out into the recording space. Past the easy ending, out comes something else; then we’re allowed to sit with it; then here comes another phrasal unit, all relatively disconnected from previous lyrics, but seem to envelop image after image into what’s already been presented in the “main” song. A pinwheel of a song, given that we have enough air to keep it going, until finally she fades out (Lindsey’s doing, I’m sure). I love that. It’s walking through the snow, slowly, only enough to keep from freezing to death. It’s refusing to let us (or Lindsey) off the hook. I think of these endings as why I am so fixated on longer, serial poem types, particularly those in the female voice, and really, why I write poems at all.

 “Storms,” for example: already haunting and hollow and a kind of clawing out, the satisfying ending would be:

so I try to say goodbye, my friend

I’d like to leave you with something warm

but never have I been a blue calm sea

I have always been a storm

Instead, we reach this ending and we stall, hesitate, hover over this moment for a second—(Susan Howe, in My Emily Dickinson: “HESITATE from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer.”)—then she moves on. We receive a string of phrasal fractures, beginning with “We were frail,” then moving on to unit after unit (“I should have known from the first,” “I’d be the broken hearted,” “I’ve loved you from the start,” “Save us,” “And not all the prayers in the world / could save us”), all about 15 seconds apart from each other. We become stuck, then we break free, only to become stuck, calling out, again.

I am thinking of the Arecibo Message, broadcasted from Puerto Rico in 1974 toward globular star cluster M13. It contains codified information about us for extraterrestrial species to receive, and a reply will come, at the very earliest, in 25,000 years. When we learned that Voyager 1 had left the heliopause and truly entered interstellar space, Golden Records—with a calling out from 1970s Earth—intact, I thought to myself: “and the starling flew for days.” That’s a line from “Sara.” What am I doing but a continual calling out, and then a wait, a calling out, and then a wait. When we shine a beam of light out into absolute darkness, the only way we’ll be able to see it is if something with visible mass interrupts it. Rain, dust, the ground, another person. Who I am only exists in my points of contact, in what is reflected back.

Taking into account any live version of one of these songs, and you’ve got a performance time that rivals a Phish jam session or Metallica drum solo. “Sara” in particular, on recent tours, includes a Buckingham/Nicks slow dance interlude and a microphone switch in which Lindsey sneaks up behind Stevie and smells her hair. But that’s another story. 

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Rusty Morrison’s –Beyond the Chainlink- (Ahsahta) was published in January 2014. Her book -After Urgency- won Tupelo’s Dorset Prize. -Book of the Given–is available from Noemi Press. -the true keeps calm biding its story- won Ahsahta’s Sawtooth Prize, Academy of American Poet’s James Laughlin Award, Northern California Book Award, and DiCastagnola Award from Poetry Society of America. –Whethering-won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. She has received the Bogin, Hemley, Winner, and DiCastagnola Awards from PSA. Her poems and/or essays have appeared in A Public Space, American Poetry Review, Aufgabe, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Lana Turner, Pleiades, Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets, The Volta’s Trash Issue, and elsewhere. Her poems were anthologized in Beauty is a Verb, the Norton Postmodern American Poetry 2 nd Edition, The Arcadia Project: Postmodern Pastoral, and elsewhere. She is co-publisher of Omnidawn.

A Coalesce of Displacements; A Coalesc-ary

I’m thinking about “image” again; but I don’t want this thinking to be “again,” I want to wet its surfaces and then stretch it. But I want more than porous, I want poltergeists, or maybe poltergeists of intuition, who will shift around unexpectedly inside the meaning I had for image.

I’m flying from San Francisco to Cincinnati, and on the plane I’m reading in the current Denver Quarterly a thoughtful interview with Kate Greenstreet conducted by Adam Clay. It ends with Kate G saying: “Without books and music I never would have survived my adolescence. Seriously. Strangers saved my life. I can’t repay those artists. But is it too much to hope that we might be able to give to someone what has been given to us?”

I know this question intimately. I want to believe a poem of mine might give to a reader, in the ways that the poems I read gave and gave to me. I want to pay it forward. But there’s also selfishness in this. I’m struggling to keep saving myself, too. I haven’t stayed saved.

I’m thinking about how to recognize the alteration in my awareness that saves me, that comes to me in some poems I write, and from some poems as I read them—a marvelous disruptivity that rewrites me, at least for a time, and I widen.

Image is, and isn’t, the word that will let me frame this event, as it occurs in poems.  I want it to have a good name, so that I can say hello to it when I’m reading poems by others and I recognize it. And so that I can call to it, as I’m writing my own poems, talk to it…

Still on the plane, still reading that issue of DQ, I see that there’s also a review of Kate G’s YOUNG TAMBLIN by Sarah Boyer. It begins with a poem quoted from the book: “Woke up screaming? Woke me up screaming. / I have a translation for you./ A dark corner lit.”

These few short sentences shift radically their ideational registers. They make a quick-moving energy that hastens a little shockwave in my imagination which won’t coalesce as something seeable and certain, yet does coalesce as a kind of pure movement that I’d not allowed myself. It’s a movement that I can see I, too, might wield—I could move through experience that fast. It ends with “A dark corner lit”—but it is the lit-ness of it that I’m thinking about, not what might get seen in the light, not what got “cornered.” It’s the sense of being “lit” by this language and feeling not only struck with light, but maybe a little tipsy from imbibing the “screaming,” and then the acceptance of it, and then the offer of a “translation” which nearly suggests that the scream is already moving on into something else, somewhere else, and needn’t stay “corner”-ed by mind’s any single sighting it.

As I read the lines, I recognize what happens inside me—but so quickly, it’s hard to parse, to qualify. I don’t know that the paragraph above does it justice. But it’s happening—I feel seen by the language, and when I see through it, I’m seeing wider, I’m feeling saved.

I know it’s not formally accurate to call these three lines an image, but I sense them as a whole event in the poem for me, the energy of it as a constellating arc. “Image” is the word I have for a multi-sensory experience constellating in language something that I haven’t understood before. So, “image,” I say to it, “hello!” But I want to give it a more personal name, too, so I’ll try calling it a coalesce of displacements. Or, a de-coalesce. Or maybe a coalesc-ary (which harbors “sc-ary” in it; and “scary” and seems right!). So I’ll try that. For now.

I’m remembering that in the preface to Michel Foucault’s THE ORDER OF THINGS, he discusses the power that a fantastical taxonomy by Jorge Luis Borge had upon him. Borge includes in his list of supposedly kindred examples a range that defies logic as Foucault understands it. This heterodoxy allows Foucault to consider the narrow interstitial space between the each thing. This space holds the items beside each other equally, in extraordinary unity, and also divides them, allowing their divergent separateness to act upon him, and upon all of us, Borge’s readers. Foucault’s discussion travels a very different arc than mine, but his thinking helps me consider not only the language in a ‘coalesc-ary’, but also the importance of the narrow space between each phrase. In that interstitial space, between phrases, is the pure energy, moving unseen, that has the power to hold separate enormous distance, and yet allow a reader to cross it.

I do not think of my work, my writing poems, as an attempt to harness that energy. But by recognizing it in other writer’s poems, and in my own, I can call to it more intuitively, more often, and listen to its power as it appears to me. And, in my own life, I can consider how becoming aware of that hidden energy—the energy that both holds enormous difference and yet allows me to cross it—is what saves me.

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Rebecca Lindenberg wrote Love, an Index (McSweeney’s 2012) and The Logan Notebooks (Center for Literary Publishing, 2014).  She’s the recipient of an Amy Lowell Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Grant, and several Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes, and residencies from the MacDowell Arts Colony and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  She holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah, and currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

Some Notes on the Conversation Poem

I’m pretty grateful to the people who make them that there are lots of different poetries in our time – formal or conceptual or documentary, a wild kind of lyric, minimalism,  contemplative verse, prose poetry, or the poem I see a lot of in submissions – long, un-stanzaed narrative verse, flush left and frequently with a capital letter at the start of each line.  Happily, all of these exist, and many more varieties of text experiment, sounding the possibilities of the page.  I can get excited by all of this.  But there are things I find myself returning and returning to, and one of them is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called (and now I’m running with it, like scissors) the “Conversation Poem.”

He used it as part of the title for “The Nightingale” but that has come to be grouped as such with similar poems (“Frost at Midnight,” “This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison,” “To William Wordsworth,” and more).  Critic George Harper described what they have in common, claiming all are “made with fine particularities to certain places,” “occasioned by definite events,” and above all noting that “even when they are soliloquies, the sociable man who wrote them could not even think without supposing a listener.”  The places are ordinary – a sitting-room, a back-garden; the events are personal, a winter night, a minor accident with some boiled milk that prevented him from taking one of his famous walks, a talk with a friend.  And they are probably the purest expression of Wordsworth’s Romantic notion that poetry should be written in “the real language of men.”  Their tone is intimate, the language (while exceptionally thoughtful and original) is unpretentious.  They seem, as poems, to belong to one of the most exquisite uses of poetry: To relieve loneliness.

Coleridge’s eponymous pieces form just one example, of course, in a long and storied tradition of what could all be called “Conversation Poems,” from Catullus (probably before) to the great Frank O’Hara (and beyond).  In his splendid lyric manifesto, “Personism,” O’Hara writes:

“Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity…It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”

Conversation poems aren’t light verse, though (as with Catullus, or our own contemporary Joe Wenderoth) they can be terrifically bawdy.  They aren’t confessional, though (as with the Frank O’Hara of, say, “Having a Coke With You” or “The Day Lady Died”) they can feel deeply familiar.  If they can, at times, seem naive or under-wrought, it is a deliberate aspect of their tender invitation.  What they are not, which makes them special, is defensive.

Now, I myself got a lot out of poetry workshops, but I was frequently lucky in who was in charge of those workshops, and above all, who else was in them.  Rather than someone asking, “Well, does the poem really earn this line?” or “What’s at stake here?”  I got asked stuff like, “Rebecca, why did God create the universe?”  Which, really, is a bigger question for a poet to contend with, and bigger questions usually give way to more interesting poems.  But I’ve noticed that one consequence of bringing work to be scrutinized, vetted, critiqued, analyzed, or possibly even dissed by a group of one’s peers (and even competitors) mediated by an admired elder, well.  It doesn’t always create a fertile environment for joy. 

And I think Conversation Poems, even when they’re bawdy or cheeky or quietly contemplative or struck through with pain or incandescent with grief, they’re kind of joyful.  Because conversation is, in itself, kind of joyful.  It’s a transit between two human imaginations, showing us ourselves in others and others in ourselves.  I have always been pretty firmly of the opinion that compassion is creativity’s finest enterprise.  I think that’s an aspect of the Conversation Poem I most cherish – the permission to partake of someone else’s questions. 

I guess you could say Conversation Poems are a species of the lyric, though I know that is a troublesome little word.  But I’m after this theory that what we mean by “lyric” nowadays has less to do with poetry’s attachment to music, or even its charged defiance of epic values, and more to do with a certain kind of logic – one that moves not by the narrative force of then-now, nor the analytical force of if-then, nor the argumentative force of then-this, but by a kind of hopscotch across associations.  Maybe Pound’s “logopoeia” is what I’m reaching for here, “the dance of the intellect among words.”  But what Conversation Poems bring to this movement, which I think is why they feel kind of joyful, is a splendid measure of velocity.  All poems have to move; some move sort of laboriously, which is sometimes okay but sometimes, you know, laborious.  (Perhaps a consequence of being weighed down with too much polish, or too heavily armored against critique.)  Conversation poems, which are directed right at their interlocutor, like a blown kiss or like a right hook or like a pie in the face, kind of sail.  And I like to sail.