Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Cold War, which was one of Publishers Weekly’s best books of 2011; The Search Engine, which was selected by Derek Walcott for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize; and Cinephrastics, a chapbook of movie poems. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Poetry, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Washington Post, The Believer, A Public Space, and Poetry Review (London). She teaches at The New School in New York and online for The Poetry School of London. She has received a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.


The individual self, the I, the speakery-poet, &c.

My task today is to consider how poets can be people.

Marianne Moore said “The passion for setting people right is in itself an afflictive disease,” but she presumed and so will I.

I submit that we write our poems for people to read. I propose that we speak to them as they need to be spoken to.

To speak as they need to be spoken to doesn’t mean to speak words, phrases and sentences that confirms what people already feel, with the purpose of making them believe they are deep (“I think in poetry!”). Far from it!

To speak as they would like to be spoken to means that the words, phrases and sentences you write empathize with the people who you hope will be reading them. And enlarge them (the people).

To do this it is likely that you will have to enlarge yourself.

People may not know how they want and need to be spoken to. But poets have to love people enough to know this for them.

You may say: B-but this famous poet was an asshole…that famous poet was an asshole. This may be true.

We are on this Earth just the once, as far as we can tell, for 100 years tops.

No one can avoid being an asshole during those 100 years, one way or another – a power-hungry influence-snob dweeb; a thin-skinned hermit-twerp; a smiling manic empty-sex-crazed vicious-cycle zero; a commercialist display-rack; a donate-to-fix-the-mouths-of-third-world-kids-but-fry-your-colleagues uber-winner; a woman-who-slices-men, a man-who-rips-women. Every system is designed to form people into assholes.

I am all in favor of smashing systems. But 100 years is not really that long in system-time.

Isn’t it good that we have our poems where we can act out our non-asshole individual selves?

There may or may not be a distinction between the speaker and the poet, but there most definitely should not be a chasm between poet and people.

All us helpless assholes are in need of your poems!

Like Frank O’Hara, I can’t conclude my manifesto without the word love.

I submit that loving people is the only purpose poets and poems can possibly have. That love can make poems comforting, fun, illuminating. Our poems can act toward people as a mother to a child.

“My aesthetic, love it or leave!” It’s not likely that the only people capable of writing good poems are you and your friends, is it? Be generous with your attention and your praise, be wide in your loving ambitions toward your readers. It will make you a better (more open – have some negative capability, poets!) poet and person.

In the process, we poets become people, a golden transformation.


Juliana Spahr’s most recent book, Army of Lovers, was co-written with David Buuck.

Essay Written on April 1

I confess, I couldn’t figure out what to write. I had been writing too much and then I had been writing too much defending what I had written because I kept writing things that were getting me in trouble with variouses. I had been reading too much also, in cities on the coasts, and by reading I mean talking too much. I felt like a mouth and not like an ear and ear is what I want to be most days. So I wanted to back out of this short essay that I am now writing. And yet I couldn’t figure out how. I first thought I might just email and say I had suddenly realized that I hated National Poetry Month. Jim Behrle kept posting instagram photos of cartoons he was drawing making fun of the idea of NPM and I kept clicking like and each time I did this I thought how I just wanted this to go on all month: another dumb cartoon then me moving my finger in such a way as to make another heart show up. Finger to heart so as not to be so much a mouth. But around this time, hearts began to show up in my dreams. Not necessarily in a good way. And I realized that heart was the friend of mouth, not of ear. Plus I don’t really hate National Poetry Month. I just don’t care about it. But I care about poetry some and that is why I had agreed to write a short essay. And the request had been so modest: 200-400 words, just a thought. But what thought? And then I realized that all I might want to say about poetry today is that I think Inger Christensen’s It might be the best poem ever. Today. I think that today. I’ve gone through a number of best poems evers. For a long time it was Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Then it was Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. Then it was Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. There is an Alice Notley Descent of Alette moment in there also. And a Bernadette Mayer Midwinters Day one. But today it is Inger Christensen’s It: “It. That’s it. That started it. It is. Goes on.” But the It that I have today on this day that I think that It is the best poem ever is the It that can only be read after reading the Kumulipo (the Rubellite Kawena Kinney Johnson translation), best poem of yesterday as I read it several times yesterday.


Amorak Huey is author of the forthcoming chapbook The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl Press). A former newspaper editor and reporter, he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems can be found in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, The Collagist, Menacing Hedge, and many other print and online journals. Follow him on Twitter: @amorak.


One afternoon during the recent AWP Conference in Seattle, I played hooky from the panels and readings and bookfair to visit the Gum Wall. It was at once less impressive and more memorable than I expected. What I remember most vividly are the colors: surprisingly bright reds and blues plastered against the brick building in a complex, lumpy porridge. Gravity is at work on many of the pieces, stretching them toward the ground like teardrops, icicles, stalactites. Zombie Pollock: the colors shambling downward. Wikipedia says it’s one of the germiest tourist attractions in the world, and I didn’t have any gum with me, so I escaped without touching the wall, without the tactile experience of pressing my own chewed blob carefully into the mess – attempting to leave a piece of myself without taking away anything unpleasant. To touch without being touched in return.

I promise you nothing about this is a metaphor for poetry or for anything else.

Meanwhile, at the conference itself, I attended session after session – philosophy and poetry, the poetic sentence, rhetoric and poetry – where the word “disruption” bubbled to the surface. The choice to write – the choice to create art – these are choices to disrupt the world. Poetry is disruption. The poetic line disrupts the sentence. Rhetorical figures disrupt the language by organizing it in a particular way. Poetry disrupts meaning. Defies it.

(This has created something of a crisis for me. I fear my own poems are not particularly disruptive. I feel paralyzed by my relationship with syntax, my obedience to its invented conventions. Blame my years as a copy editor; my existence as a rule-following, approval-seeking eldest child; my ambition; my uncertainty.)

Back to the Gum Wall. The temptation for the poet is to witness such a thing and to shape it into a metaphor. Yet such a one-sided metaphor – the use of one thing to explain another – is doomed from its inception. The world resists this easy path to meaning, and so too must poetry. A metaphor illuminates both of its halves or it illuminates nothing. The poet is witness; a witness disrupts. The world observed is the world disordered.

The gum changes the wall as much as the wall changes the gum, and if you trust this sentence to teach you something essential about poetry, you do so at your own peril.


Jessica Laser’s poems have appeared in Boston Review, Lana Turner, MiPOesias, Materials, Petri Press and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.

They That Have Power to Hurt and Will: On Enjambment

We are only undeceived. Deception is our original state. The only action taken upon us is to undeceive us of a primary deception. We might see in this the pursuit of knowledge. When we incorporate new information or experience, our previous worldview can look like self-deceit.

In what is for me a persistently memorable enjambment in East Coker, T.S. Eliot guides us through a process I’ll call learning. Before we confront the enjambment, we are led to think the “only” the focus of the sentence, that there is nothing to be but undeceived:

We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.

After the break, the “only” expands to point to one of a number of forces of which we might be undeceived, leaving us still deceived of others. I am grateful to Eliot for the commas surrounding “deceiving,” guarding it from personification, leaving the responsibility for deception on an entity that deceives. Here, it is not deception itself that harms, but instead an active force employing this preexisting deception as its medium. “That” is an entity—a person, a belief—by whose injury we discover deceit, and in relation to that entity we have the capacity to develop immunity—not to deception, but to the harm.

A poem is a safe place to practice what can be a painful lifelong process: learning. Safe in the way a roller-coaster is safe. I’ll speak for myself. I come to poems expecting to be seduced into experiencing some truth. I don’t mind the rhetorical harm done along the way—I seek it. Before Eliot broke the line, deception was the innocence I possessed. I knew I would lose it, but I trained my mind to it all the same. I didn’t retreat from the challenges to my assumptions occasioned by his enjambment—I expected them and found them thrilling.

To seek truth, you must be, in the words of my friend, poet Eric Linsker, “open to being wrong.” You must also be open to staying wrong long enough to learn. The space of an enjambment, after the line breaks but before it resolves, offers that opening to those willing to live in it.


B. K. Fischer is a poetry editor at Boston Review. She is the author of three books—the novel-in-verse Mutiny Gallery, which won the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize from Truman State University Press, St. Rage’s Vault, which won the 2012 Washington Prize from The Word Works, and Museum Mediations (2006), a critical study. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Hopkins Review, Ekphrasis, Southwest Review, Western Humanities Review, FIELD, Literary Mama, and other journals. She holds degrees in writing from Johns Hopkins and Columbia, and a Ph.D. in English from NYU, and has taught writing and literature at Columbia, NYU, Marymount College, and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, where she lives with her husband and three children.


I’m not alone in loving Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, a book that becomes a sacred text because it inhabits our intimacy, seeps into the cellular spaces of our erotic thinking. It has our number, dials us up, indulges our agony, then hangs up on us and hangs us up, weeping, to dry.

And it is ripe for a redo—taken on a slant that is not male, French, or esoteric, but female, American, and tacky. Taken to the mat, taken to the cleaners, taken from behind. This is what I want: a book whose necessity is to be found in the following consideration—that a lover’s discourse is not an extreme solitude but an extreme plenitude. A gorgeous mess. Not soliloquy but colloquy, collusion between ripeness and rot, pillow talk between doze and decompose. This discourse too is spoken by thousands of subjects, by men and women, but warranted by no one: it is fulcrum, foam-at-the-mouth, meniscus, hangnail, hinge. The knotted under-tapestry. The fusebox, the figuring out which one is blown. The verso, the thread hanging off an old nightgown.

My lover’s discourse picks up the things Barthes left lying around. Ransom, ricochet. The faint murmur of draining bathtubs. The head held underwater. The cocoon. A certain tiny stain. My lover speaks to me of amen and invective, hemlock and whiplash. I hear a counter-rhythm: something like a syncope in the lovely phrase of the loved being, the noise of a rip in the smooth envelope. My lover’s discourse flabbergasts and capsizes, irrigates and embalms. It is not watertight. It is the site of someone speaking within herself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak. She rants. She begs. She tergiversates on virginity, ceilings, maenads, blow jobs, room service, Sappho, amusement parks, and Medusa. She gets in hot water. She goes swimming.

Once a discourse is thus driven by its own momentum into the backwater, overbrimmed by its own emotion, its clammy exclamation, its incontrovertible kitsch, the prose overflows. Hence verse. The difference between prose and verse is the difference between wearing pants and wearing a dress, no more no less. A skirt invites a breeze. That affirmation, American and feminine, is, in short, the subject of the book which begins here.


kathryn l. pringle is the author of Temper & Felicity are Lovers (forthcoming 2014). fault tree (Omnidawn, 2011), RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY (Factory School, 2009) & The Stills (Duration Press, 2006). A new book is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2017. in 2013, she was a Lambda Award finalist & the grateful recipient of a gift from the Fund for Poetry. she lives in Durham, NC.

every time I think I know something about poetry I end up forgetting the beauty of poetry & start wishing I could forget what it was I thought I knew.

I want to place blame for the act of forgetting beauty on the page & not inside me—a habit of my most unexceptional (& sometimes it is my most exceptional, it really depends) self. so ungenerous. it is this lack of generosity that empties me, not anything the poem has or has not done.

the poem is always what it is, plus the reader.

what a poem can do is break you open and rearrange the physiology of you. the event of the poem is movement & movement is the event in which you are changed from who you were before to who you are. & you carry this with you. all of this. the poem. the former you. the event. the change. the you now who walks from place to place through time carrying all of what once was and all of what is now with you—the ecosystem is you.

hopefully you are able to carry it all & still be with us. in the event. in the action of what is a poem. hopefully you are open to the breaking open that poetry requires.

the path the poem decided to take.

I originally began this note for National Poetry Month with a political statement or two. but I don’t really want to do that. the truth is, the place I write from is so deep inside me that to force something outside of me upon it would be to forget the beauty (& by beauty I mean everything) of poetry. it would make me feel strange & empty.  it would feel like an attempt to hold poetry down & strangle it. this is just me. I don’t have answers. I just have questions.  & the reason for this is selfish, really. I learned a long time ago that when I think I know something, I close myself off to it. & I can’t want to close myself off to poetry. to writing. to reading. to learning.  to what is & what was & what may be. I just have questions.


Erika Meitner is the author, most recently, of Copia, forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2014, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (Anhinga Press, 2011), and Ideal Cities (HarperCollins, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry Series winner. Her poems have been published in Best American Poetry 2011, Ploughshares, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, APR, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program.  You can find her online at erikameitner.com

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 32,000 people in the US are killed by guns each year, and ever since Newtown—since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings—I’ve been writing poems about guns and gun culture and gun violence.  I can’t seem to help it.  I have a first grader and a toddler.  People keep getting shot.  Children keep getting shot.  I’d like to stop, and write about sex, or trains, or graffiti, or television, or all the stuff I used to write about, but there have been 44 school shootings since Newtown.

“My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –” (Emily Dickinson)

I teach at Virginia Tech.  I arrived here in the fall of 2007, right after the largest gun massacre in US history.  As a professor who is assigned mostly poetry writing courses, my job, for three years while I still had students who had been here during the shootings, was to help my students write about unspeakable violence—mediated enormous public tragedy.  But how do you teach students to write about personal trauma from a large-scale violent event when their images and language and experiences have been hashed over, co-opted, reported on, pimped out, and broadcast all over the world?  Is there a way to succeed at that job?

“Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?” (Heather McHugh)

Since I started writing about guns, the language in my poems has changed.  It’s become plain-spoken, urgent, and deeply narrative.  The narratives trail off and pick up again, and wind around other narratives.  When a bullet moves through a body, the shot is rarely clean.  Grief, too, is tangled, is narrative, is lyric, is sound beyond language.  The way a gunshot cracks the air.  A car’s backfire.  A nail gun.  The lid of a dumpster snapping shut.  And we all start—sit up straighter in our chairs in the classroom.  Look to the emergency message board to see if the pixelated time-date starts to scroll with instructions.  Secure the room.  Shelter in place. 

Make sure your firearms are locked up, our social worker would say on the phone before each of her home study visits required for our adoption paperwork, and I’d remind her that we own no guns.  What kind of people own guns? I’d think as I hung up the phone.

Many of my neighbors own guns.   Before my son goes to play at someone’s home, I feel compelled to have an intimate and awkward conversation with them. Do you have guns in the house? I’ll ask.  It’s a poem; I am the speaker.  Do you own firearms?  Do you have instruments of metal, of sound, of force?  If the answer is yes, I ask to see if they’re locked up, if the ammunition is kept separately.  The bodies of guns tucked in drawers or closets or file cabinets or garages, lined up proudly in glass cases, dissembled, together, cocked.  Loaded.  To keep us safe.

“I don’t need a class in safety or marksmanship. / If I ever use it, it will be at close range.” (Robert Thomas)

The other week, I spent hours on the phone with a photojournalist who documents the impact of gun violence on communities in and around Durham, NC.  He is tired, he says, of photographing children in coffins.  He is also a gun owner, and offers to take me to a little-known range one county over to show me how to shoot.  Everyone offers to take me to the shooting range to learn to fire a gun:  my neighbor, my neighbor’s husband, a local cop.  There is no one who does not offer to take me to the range.

“Nothing ever absolutely has to happen. The gun / doesn’t have to be fired.” (Matt Rasmussen)

One of my former undergraduates who was at VT during the shootings—a poet, who’s working on his MFA now—writes to me.  How do you navigate the difficult shoals of politics and art? he asks.  I answer back, and say I think the only way to navigate politics and art is to move your body through both at the same time.  Put your body your poem your body between the bullet and the target.  But we are all weapons; we are all targets.  The body the bullet the gun the poem.


Jeffrey Pethybridge is the author of Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press 2013).  His work appears widely in journals such as Chicago Review, Volt, Poor Claudia, The Iowa Review, LIT, New American Writing and others. He is also the North American Editor for Likestarlings, a web-archive of collaborative poetry and poetics. He’s currently at work on a documentary project centered on the recently released torture memos entitled "Found Poem Including History, an Essay on the Epic." He grew up in Virginia.

To Be The Imaginary (In April)

In a Roman legion the Imaginary, was the officer charged with the responsibility of carrying an image of the Emperor in parade, in ritual, and in battle. What follows is a series of figures for poetry, epitomes of spirit, or method, of intent, and consequence. A new metaphor––like a new measure––is a new mind. This essay then will be the imaginary for poetry, the emperor of no country I know.        


Susan Howe begins her crystalline book The Souls of the Labadie Tract with a description of the eighteenth century preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards making his parish rounds. As he rode he thought, and to help himself remember his ideas, and insights for later writing, Edwards pinned small pieces of paper to his clothes. The elegance of this intertextuality is like a mathematical proof.

Howe discovers a conceptual rhyme between Edwards’s memory technique––pinning pieces of paper on his clothing in order to fix a “particular insight” in his mind––and Edwards’s ethical-aesthetic vocabulary, what Edwards likely thought of as a theological-linguistic rectitude or responsibility: “Extricate all questions from the least confusion by words or ambiguity of words so that the Ideas shall be left naked.”

Edwards making his springtime rides, the tabs of thoughts pinned slightly flutter in the breeze. The image speaks to the spirit and means of poetry both: itinerant, implicated in metaphysics, and a piecemeal materiality. All our thoughts only a collage of/from the common resource of the Language. And we take this inaugural image as kindred for her own methods of composition. Later in Souls we see the connection extend to include Stevens on his daily walk to and from work, writing on scraps of paper, envelopes etc. 

“Poetry,” Howe writes “is love for the felt fact stated in sharpest, most agile and detailed lyric terms.” Following as it does from Edwards’s credo to leave Ideas naked and free of confusions and ambiguities, Howe’s definition of poetry as the “felt fact stated in sharpest, most agile and detailed lyric terms,” strikes me as a kind of conceptual rhyme––the ideas or values return but in a changed form just as sound returns slightly altered in rhyme––as language crosses from a theology to  poetry.

It’s April not yet Easter, and to untangle a knot of thought and a half-articulated sentence, I took a walk; barely out of doors into the overcast light, the words resolved themselves.


In section CXLVIII, the antepenultimate section of The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill hazards a quick series of questions and answers about the nature and function of poetry: 

So––Crocker, MacSikker, O’Shem––I ask you:

what are poems for? They are to console us

with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.

Let us commit that to our dust. What

ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad

and angry consolation. What is

the poem? What figures? Say,

a sad and angry consolation. That’s

beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry



If the poem is to be “a sad and angry consolation” then the poem will always already be an elegy––an elegy albeit removed from the traditional consolations of the genre: the religious consolation which mitigates grief with the thought of the dead in Heaven or its like; or the natural consolation which lessens grief with an image of the dead become one with Nature. Hill’s poem is a survivor’s song, a song in the wake of devastations and defeats, a song of and for the wreckage of the long twentieth century.


In his essay “The Emergency,” Andrew Joron argues for a conception of poetry’s potential not in memorial terms, but rather mathematical ones. In Joron’s essay, as in a Venn diagram, a radically “renewed” poetry exits at the intersection of overlapping fields: political emergency, political catastrophe overlap with the emergence of the radically new out of a mathematical catastrophe, which intersects with language, itself a complex system out of which a poem erupts. And since the poem is an “ontologically unprecedented spring[ing] forth,”  a radical object that “tunes itself toward a state of criticality, a condition of language in which single words have the wides possible range of effects,”since the poem is all this, it is an elemental force. 

Joron is most interested in a range of effects he calls “the Cry,” or “lament,” or “deep blues.” “The blues, all blues,” he writes “are the matrix of the world’s subaltern cultures, an expression of triumph in defeat. The raising the voiceless voice, omnipresent roar of that river forced underground.” 

In the sounded cry and the lament, we hear not only the reality of resistance, but its surreality––resistance as “an overflowing of reality.”

Elsewhere Joron has said that “sound is the dimension where poetry, or language itself, intersects with the body at a primary level, and allows poetry to reconnect with cosmic movements and cosmic dimensions. Sound is also an utopian, liberatory dimension of language because it where the body, which is redolent of the cosmos, connects with language at a primary level.”

“The Emergency” is clear-sighted about the history we inhabit, and radically idealistic about the potential of the poem in, through and beyond history; it is an absolutely essential document. And the book fits in your pocket. 


In a post over at Jacket2, the editors of Commune Editions (Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, Julianna Spahr)  propose the riot dogs of Athens as just figures for the contemporary poem. Such a poem they write might provide a mix of “support and strangeness,” and be “a companion to struggles and manifestations.” Their gloss on the riot dog figures poetry as “minor” force, limited to “providing inspiration,” and unable to do much to alter the balance of forces, other than “some barking, some letting you know the cops are at the door.”

If Joron’s concept of poetry as the emergency is idealistic, insisting that the poem through the elemental force of sound has cosmic potential; the poem as riot dog is realistic, chastened even, about poetry’s range of effects, a figure intent upon rejecting some of the inherited arguments about the political dimension of poetry. And yet don’t we feel the suggestion of something slightly above ordinary reality in the fact that the dogs chose the side of the anarchists (and others protesting austerity); there’s something strange that Kanellos and the other riot dogs knew who was right; something archetypal, mystical in that recognition and election by a familiar or spirit animal. The Commune Editions collective reminds us the poem, too, is dogged: chased out of the city proper, and living on scraps, but still there barking from the margins––you get can’t get rid of us!                                    


Some time during the tenure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa an “unnamed Indian woman” petitioned the Amnesty Committee to grant her amnesty for the crime of “apathy.” Her application read:

as individuals can and should be held accountable by history for our lack of necessary action in times of crisis…in exercising apathy rather than commitment we allow(ed) others to sacrifice their lives for the sake of our freedom and an increase in our standard of living.

I found this poem embedded in an essay by Jacqueline Rose in 2003 or 2004. I’d picked up the issue of Raritan absolutely by chance. I read it drinking the “Rocket Fuel” roast at Osama’s coffee in Columbia, Missouri after, and before conversations with friends: the bright, early days of graduate school.

Ultimately the Committee denied her application for amnesty. The unnamed woman’s confession, and the exacting vision of responsibility and accountability that it implied exceeded the Commission’s Mandate, exceeded how the Commission’s structuring language understood acts both “whose motivation was political,” and that occurred within a bounded period of time (between the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994). The Amnesty Committee judged the exercise of apathy did “not disclose an action or omission which amounts to an offence or a delict in respect of which amnesty can be granted.”  In the end the Committee called her application “intriguing.”

This is a story of guilt and failure. This is a story of the radical ethics––a momentary utopia––of an unyielding responsibility. A momentary utopia, albeit disappointed, then disappeared by the custodians of the administered world. Not absolutely invisible yet, it waits, humming, in the archive, waiting for you and your library card, a kind of key (still). A kind of key to cities, Otherwise & If. 

Or the poem finds you.

In the current book I’m writing “Found Poem Including History, an Essay on the Epic,” which is centered on the clutch of bureaucratic documents (from the early 2000’s) that have come to be called the “torture memos.” The book understands those documents to be the epic poem of America in the early twenty-first century, and in that book, she is the Guide.

Here, now, in the small theater of your reading, I want to be her Imaginary, and her plea––the poem. 


Aditi Machado is from Bangalore, India. She currently lives in Denver, USA, where she is a PhD student. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Better Magazine, LIES/ISLE, and elsewhere. Her chapbook is The Robing of the Bride (Dzanc Books, 2013). She edits poetry for Asymptote Journal.

I have been told that writers of fiction often study the way others speak in order to produce more capable dialogue for their fictions. If I have ever been the object of such an experiment, I should like to know the results. I am always and endlessly interested in myself. Any mirror, plane or distorted, will do.

Meanwhile, I admit I am a poet and I love to study speech as it is spoken. What a miracle that we produce sentences, often grammatically accurate, sometimes even elegant, hardly thinking to produce them. How does it happen?

It makes it all the more difficult to write a sentence that would find its place in a formal invention worthy of the name poem when all the time one notices the unpremeditated saying of “encounter” for “read” or “you know” for “I know” or the kindly way in which natives correct foreigners when they say “schedule” instead of “skedule.”

When I meet one of those astonishing humans capable of such economies as the mid-sentence “of whom” without so much as the glimmer of practice, I feel myself falling off a metaphoric chair.

I love speech. I love how people say things and then write the opposite of how they say them. I know I belong with such people because I do the same.

Among the most incredible sentences spoken to me is this one by an elderly gentleman I met on January 18, 2013 at a bus stop in St. Louis, Missouri: “He beating on you?”

What an outrageous question to be constructed as a declarative and how much I understood about the casual, articulable violence of this man’s world and how fascinated was I by that singular preposition. The phrasal verb “to beat on” is, I know, very common to American dialects, but how did it come to be? That little syllable imposes such distance between the action and the acted upon as if one had a need to beat, like an unavoidable bodily rhythm, and then one found the object to beat on. Do you make more or less music when you beat on a drum than when you simply beat it?

Prepositions I could write a whole other mini-essay on. Especially when they end sentences.

But mostly I want to say that these minor and everyday devastations of spoken language are equal to that other devastation to which I’ve committed myself and here is a sentence I wrote that I could never speak: “The problems of the real world to a less real one exquisitely apply.”


William Kelley Woolfitt teaches creative writing and American literature at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. He is the author of a book of poetry, Beauty Strip, forthcoming from Texas Review Press in fall 2014, as well as a fiction chapbook, The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (Epiphany Editions, 2014).

The Song That Comes to You

The poem I want to write is akin to Jake Adam York’s documentary lyric, which he describes as “a poem that’s strongly musical, that has a strong internal coherence, but which gestures outward, through documentary elements, including quotes, to a story that begins and ends outside the poem.” Indebted to York, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muriel Rukeyser, and other poets with documentary impulses, the poem I want to write might better be termed “the digger’s lyric,” a poem that calls out (or maybe even sings) while trying to piece together stories ignored or erased or silenced. The digger’s lyric sifts through archive bundles, sedimentary layers, the midden at a cabin site; it takes on shape and texture and voice as it accrues material from brittle pages, moraine pebbles, mud, and marl. The impulse to dig up, track, uncover, and bring to light runs through my scholarship too; right now, I’m hoping to research the work and life of Nancy Jeddore, a nineteenth-century Mi’kmaq storyteller whose “as told to” stories were published in 1893 and seem all but forgotten today. In the poem “To My Reader,” Irene McKinney suggests that poetry is “a song that [comes to you] through / a trail of nerves down the generations / through all we have read together / and all we have remembered.” I want to write a poem like that, a poem whose song and story echo the bodies and texts and memories that it has passed through.