Guest Post, Patricia Caspers, Poetry: A Meal Served at the Table of Resistance

Poetry: A Meal Served at the Table of Resistance

Patricia Caspers headshot

 

 

 

On a recent Saturday morning seven of us sat around a table with steaming cups of tea and homemade blueberry muffins. Good friends, we spent a fair amount of time sharing our common despair over the current state of the U.S. government. We had come together to talk writing, but the two Ps – politics and poetry – seem to roll around each other like shards of broken glass in a swelling sea.

 

I do know English and, therefore, when hungry, can ask for more than minimum wage, pointing repeatedly at my mouth and yours. – Eileen Tabios [1]

 

We live in Northern California’s red towns. The conversation we had wouldn’t be welcome in other parts of our lives: at work, with our neighbors, with our families. The ability to speak freely felt like discovering a camellia tree pink as a valentine in bloom during a long, rainy winter.

12.what once passed for kindling

13.  fireworks at dawn

14. brilliant, shadow hued coral – Danez Smith[2]

 

As we finished up, gathered our bags and coats and headed out the door, I was filled with dread at the idea of going back out to a world where I look at everyone I meet and think, “Did you vote for this?” knowing that half of those people would say yes.

In the entryway, I said to my friend, “Time to return to the unsafe spaces.”

It wasn’t until later it occurred to me: I said these words to a woman who at one time was forced out of her home because she’s a lesbian. She’s been living in unsafe spaces for years.

 

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk –
Audre Lorde[3]

 

As a white, able-bodied woman who’s married to a man, I’m not really experiencing unsafe spaces, other than the usual walk through a dark parking lot with my keys between my fingers. That’s nothing new.

Now, though, I am afraid – of what? – that someone will wear a “Make America Great Again” hat to our neighborhood block party, and we’ll no longer have conversations over the fence while pulling weeds? Yes. But what’s the worst that’s really going to happen at that party? I might feel compelled to turn in early for the night.

 

Someone asks 

if the black girl knows she has already been beaten, as if 

the black girl hasn’t always survived beatings. – Deonte Osayande[4]

 

It’s not on quite the same level as a black person who’s worried that the neighbors are white supremacists who feel they’ve been given the go-ahead to burn down homes because racism is now employed in the highest levels of government.

There’s nothing I am or wear that makes me a target.

And yet, every day feels like a long walk alone through a poorly lit garage.

 

I pay taxes and I am a child and
I grow into a bright fleshy fruit.
White bites: I stain the uniform.
I am thrown black type-
face in a headline with no name.
– Morgan Parker[5]

 

I’ve always been prone to bouts of inexplicable sadness, but since November there have been so many nights when, last to bed, falling asleep in the dark, I’ve wished I wouldn’t wake, and in the grayish numb dawn the heaviness clings to me, and I have to talk myself into an upright position.

 

Quit bothering with angels, I say. They’re no good for Indians.

Remember what happened last time

some white god came floating across the ocean – Natalie Diaz[6]

 

My conversation with myself begins this way:

If I die, someone else will raise my 9-year-old son, and she’ll let him watch rated-R movies and swig Monster energy drinks for breakfast.

If I die, my daughter will drop out of college, and unable to re-pay her student loans she’ll be forced to live on the streets.

 

Isiah is dead— or

Isiah is standing right in front of me,

he doesn’t even know what a bullet means.  – Sean Desvignes[7]

 

If I die, my husband will become an alcoholic, lose his job, lose the house.

No one will walk the dog and as a result he’ll bite people and have to be put down.

If I die, I won’t be here to see the glorious defeat of evil.

I want to see the glorious defeat of evil.

Finally, the fact that I choose whether or not I continue to live is my white privilege.

It’s highly unlikely that another person is going to take my life because of who I am, and I understand that there are so many who aren’t given the choice to stay alive.

 

for even after the dead, there are things to learn,
like reading, and maps, and minus one.
– Zeina Hashem Beck[8]

 

I’ve heard people from marginalized communities say again and again: You thought America was a safe space? That’s cute. Welcome to our reality: Educate yourself.

It’s fair.

 

No difference

if we don’t get along with each other

or speak perfect English—

you can’t help mixing us up –Amy Uyematsu[9]

 

And little by little, I am trying to educate myself, beginning with poetry.

A few kind people have pointed me in the right direction, some poets I have discovered on my own, and some I am reading anew.

It’s not perfect, this fragile understanding. It will never be perfect, but I keep reading, along with many other forms of resistance. Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t. In any case, I don’t want my death to be a tiny white flag of surrender. If it comes to it, I want to die fighting this beast, a sword in one hand and a poem in the other.

 

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying,  

            eating of the last sweet bite. – Joy Harjo[10]

 

 

[1] “I Do,” Eileen Tabios, Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53813

[2] “alternate names for black boys,” Danez Smith, Buzz Feed: https://www.buzzfeed.com/danezsmith/not-an-elegy-for-mike-brown-two-poems-for-ferguson?utm_term=.owQXarYpp#.viXVe12oo

[3] “A Litany for Survival,” Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn

[4] “Gradual Transformations,” Deonte Osayande, COG: https://www.cogzine.com/deonte-osayande

[5] “I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp, White Background: An Elegy,” Morgan Parker, Apogee: http://apogeejournal.org/2014/08/27/i-feel-most-colored-when-i-am-thrown-against-a-sharp-white-background-an-elegy/

[6] “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglican Seraphym Subjugation of Wild Indian Rezervation,” Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec

[7] “In Offense of Vision,” Sean Desvignes, PANK

[8] “The Invented Mothers,” Zeina Hashem Beck, Heart Online:

http://www.heartjournalonline.com/zeina/2015/6/6/two-poems-by-zeina-hashem-beck

[9] “Someone Is Trying to Warn You,” Amy Uyematsu, Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain

[10] “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” Joy Harjo, Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/49622#poem

 

#ArtLitPhx: Ms. X’s Ocean by Elizabeth McNeil Book Release

Ms. XFour Chambers present’s their latest book release, a collection of poems entitled “Ms. X’s Ocean” by Elizabeth McNeil. THe event takes place Saturday, February 18th, 2017 at  7 pm  at the Hive 2222 N 16th St, Phoenix, AZ 85006. This event is free and open to the public. Parking is available along Cypress St. or surrounding neighborhoods. For more information visit their website or RSVP to the Facebook event. You can download a press release or the event flier. For a sneak preview, you can view a packet of sample poems.

Like Anne Sexton’s Transformations nearly half a century before her, Ms. X’s Ocean harbors a host mythical revisions—Daphne, Mary Magdalene, the mermaid, the fairytale haired girl—while presenting, in broader strokes, an allegory of contemporary femininity. Scouring the ground of trauma, Ms. X shape shifts her way through incest, rape, sexual abuse, and abortion. Ms. X endures with unflinching grimness, driven by the fact that she simply has to survive. With a masterful grasp of imagery and craft—ranging from the ragged grit of hard-boiled noir to the high, transfigurative lyric of an aboriginal dreamtime—McNeil creates a shattered looking-glass, its language sharp as shards, portraying a woman who, through the sheer determination of her self-authorship, through her re-immersion in pure mother earth, finds a way to fit the jagged pieces of herself back together, walking “unafraid at last / into the church of [her] beating heart.”

Elizabeth McNeil is an instructor in Languages and Cultures at Arizona State University. She also teaches memoir and poetry writing in the greater community, working with children, veterans, inmates, church groups, and writers over fifty. She has published numerous scholarly and creative works, including poetry in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fourteen Hills, Flyway, and the Chaminade Literary Review, among other journals; the award-winning chapbook Why We Need to Come Home (Butte County Poetry Center & Press, 1988); a monograph, Trickster Discourse: Mediating Transformation for a New World (Lambert, 2010); and, as lead editor, two scholarly collections with Palgrave Macmillan, Sapphire’s Literary Breakthrough: Erotic Literacies, Feminist Pedagogies, Environmental Justice Perspectives (2012), nominated for the 2013 Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Frederic W. Ness Book Award for an outstanding book that “contributes to the understanding and improvement of liberal education,” and Mapping Queer Space(s) of Praxis and Pedagogy (Queer Studies in Education Series, 2017).

Guest Post, Kamilah Moon: Beyond Looking

Beyond Looking: Revealing What’s Hidden in Plain Sight

 

Kamilah Moon bio photoBearing witness in poetry is about intention, empathy and clarity; the ability to zoom in and out of an emotion or event with a camera’s precision, yet calibrated to the human pulse. I believe it is our charge and bond as poets, and as human beings, to acknowledge and bolster each other as thoroughly as possible. To bear is to be able to carry, to sustain. At our most significant life events, we require a signature, some sort of proof that yes, these people love each other and promise to do so for a lifetime. Someone has accepted a position or calling of great responsibility, standing before others to be sworn in. A precious child has arrived on earth and his or her parents, along with chosen community, have circled in a ritual of dedication to assist in this person’s life journey, agreeing to nurture this child’s spirit and burgeoning potential. And when someone prepares to leave this plane of existence, there is usually a vigil of loved ones, and an official declaration followed by a ceremony honoring that this person was among us and lived.

Bearing witness is an attempt to honor the magnitude of beauty and struggle on our bewitching planet, to affirm as many manifestations of life as possible for each other. It is one of the most crucial, loving and generous things we can offer to another human being and shouldn’t be taken lightly. As poets, we work in the often inadequate medium of words to glean meaning from and give voice to what David L. Ulin calls “the succession of simple moments, the bedrock bits and pieces of reality by which we compose our days.” We turn to craft to build what we hope will be indelible records of existence that address our collective and inextricable fates in a valiant effort to celebrate, explain, interrogate, foster and lament our interactions with the world and all of its inhabitants.

This is not easy work. In fact, my fellow writing friends and writers for centuries have remarked on how foolish we are. What many people spend their entire lives avoiding because of its challenging nature, we willingly sign up for. We stare at voids and imagine what could be. We run back into the hard places and record what it means to endure and escape, or succumb. We document the transformations and the failures. We plumb depths as often as we seek transcendence. We agree to be small in the enormity of the sublime and risk being consumed by it in order to share whatever the results are—a triumph, a close call, lessons of survival. We cull moments of grace, recognize and banish shame, restore dignity. We sign up to be mirrors of treachery and glory, reflecting everything underneath, above, between and within every surface we encounter, literally and figuratively.

The willingness to get lost and the faith to handle what is discovered as a result is essential not only to bearing witness, but to creating something new. And sometimes when something is familiar, we don’t explore it as thoroughly as we should; it can remain hidden in plain sight. Known but not understood, thus valued. A witness interprets and values what he has seen, far beyond simply looking.

Below are two examples of when craft, experience and spirit meet in the creation of poems that unabashedly bear witness. In the first, I retrace my own process of conceiving and composing a poem. The second is an exploration of another poet’s poem.

The first example comes from what I now see as a turning point in my own work. The summer after graduating from Sarah Lawrence, I received a fellowship to attend the Prague Summer Writing Institute. To walk down completely unfamiliar streets and be immersed in language completely foreign to my ears was both delightful and disorienting. Discovery in every sense of daily life would surely lead to new perspectives and ways of bearing witness to my own journey and the journeys of others.

We visited Terezin Concentration Camp. I had no idea of what to expect. The first thing I saw was this huge Star of David looming out of a bed of roses. For a place that had experienced such a harrowing history, it was so pretty and peaceful. We read bios along the walls of those who lost their lives there. Scientists, housewives, musicians…oh the musics lost in that compound! I’d read many accounts of the Holocaust…as I walked around the empty rooms of this former death camp, I knew I had to respond somehow. I wanted the terror to be immediate to someone who didn’t know what happened here, or who knew and had let it become a numb, inert history—which sets up the possibility of return.

I turned to formalism. To enter something this big, I needed a small container to hold part of this outsized grief. Rita Dove calls form “a welcome cage.” I chose the villanelle because of the repetitive nature of the form, building in meaning and impact like an obsessive lullaby (which always tend to be scary, ironically.)

In terms of content, my mind kept returning to a small photograph that had been in a room that had served as a kitchen.  It was a picture of detainees peeling potatoes. How mundane and odd in such a place, was my first thought.  Secondly I thought, “how terrible to prepare dinner for your executioners?!”

My reference point for this kind of sick circumstance is slavery and Jim Crow in America: maids cleaning a bathroom they aren’t allowed to use; mammies nursing children being taught to hate her own children—who miss her presence at home due to long, grueling hours; packing the picnic a family might eat at one of the lynchings depicted on postcards, as if attending a sports event…cruelty, like love, needs no translation and is universal in its reach.

I knew that this photograph was the content—the common, repetitive action of peeling potatoes as the metaphor for the vicious end these people were about to face. Old story, new way to view it; a way to remember the ferocity in order to guard against its resurrection. Simple, direct language. Image-driven, quiet so that the violence screams between the lines.

 

PEELING POTATOES AT TEREZIN CONCENTRATION CAMP

 

Ribbons of skin pile at our feet;

we count wet orbs like heads.

Beneath the blades, white meat.

 

Their kitchens are not kosher, or neat.

The knives engrave our dread.

Ribbons of skin pile at our feet.

 

They will salt these crops, a doomed fleet

torn from the earth’s cold bed.

Beneath the blades, white meat

 

to be mashed or boiled, a treat

ravished to nothing but shreds.

Ribbons of skin pile at our feet,

 

flesh carved in dangling sheets—

slice after jagged slice spread

beneath the blades, white meat.

 

We work under the glare, a street

of eyes gouged and shed.

Ribbons of skin pile at our feet.

Beneath the blades, white meat.

*

This poem needed to be a persona poem as the potato peelers/detainees. Writing outside of ourselves and our experiences fully invites imagination and encourages empathy. This could be as simple as writing from a perspective opposite of our own experiences—perhaps someone of a different race, gender or class background. Science fiction writers dare to go even further, imagining spaceships, life on other planets. On occasion, making the decision to inhabit our art as “aliens” regardless of genre is a way to keep the process surprising and our awareness keen.  The empathy required can erect sturdy bridges connecting our humanity, if enough of us are willing to do the grueling work of building them.

Writing this poem was a revelation to me in so many ways. It showed me the importance of being deliberate and listening to what each poem needs to accomplish over any ideas that the ego may have in mind. It made clear how imperative it is to respect a subject’s humanity. Otherwise, a poem can become spectacle without meaning, and come off as gawking rather than bearing witness.

Aracelis Girmay’s poem “on kindness,” is a tour-de-force of bearing witness with such a deep consideration, compassion and respect for herself and for her subject matter that packs an emotional wallop without venturing into a cloying sentimentality.

This poet-witness undeniably interprets and greatly values what she has seen, wielding exceptional lines and imagery that go far beyond simply looking at a scene transpiring outside of her window. It is almost cinematic in quality, with jump cuts and flashbacks. She excuses, implicates and forgives herself in the same poem. She juxtaposes her loneliness with the woman’s loneliness in the street. She acknowledges a kind of falling, and this stranger’s fallen war cry, the haplessness of it that indicts everyone –

I heard a woman screaming
about how she was lonely & so lonely
she didn’t know what she’d do, maybe kill
herself, she said, over & over like a parrot
in a cage, a parrot whose human parent
only taught it that one sentence

-until the poem parachutes open into the soft landing that the boy’s quietly heroic gesture provides to this woman in crisis, which inspires the poet and models for her what is possible.  This poem begins personal and rooted in a specific world-weariness and sweet melancholy that is ultimately hopeful (the attentive sisters, the mail lady’s greeting), veers into a moment of distress that feels intrusive and breeds resentment, admitting that sometimes the agony of others piled on top of our own agony is too much, then proceeds to avalanche into a breathtaking poetic treatise and tribute to the best in the human spirit.

The devotion to bearing witness is why we still have and return to Rumi’s and Hafiz’s timeless testimonies to being human, thousands of years later. It is why we can’t forget Stanley Kunitz “Passing Through”; Philip Levine’s faithful renderings of his brother’s factory worker life that the writing life saved him from; Marie Howe’s tribute and elegy for her brother in What the Living Do; Yusef Komunuyakaa’s decision to face it all—war, love, despair in his poetry collections with such eloquence and lyrical dexterity. It is Cornelius Eady’s bruised elegy for his father, You Don’t Miss Your Water. It is why we are forever devastated and unable to look away from Lucille Clifton’s first few lines in “jasper texas 1998” for James Byrd’s senseless death, chained and dragged behind a pickup truck by racists: “i am a man’s head hunched in the road. /i was chosen to speak by the members/of my body.” It is Sharon Olds’ compassionate, deeply self-aware and astute farewell to her ex-husband and their way of life together after many years in Stag’s Leap; the intergalactic reach yet earthbound realness and radiance of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars.

We affirm and grant each other worth through paying close attention, selectively using the craft tools we have available to, as poet Beckian Fritz Goldberg writes, “generation after /generation, speak to the broken horse / of the human heart.”

Guest Post, John Findura: Breaking the Block

John FinduraMy first full-length collection Submerged (forthcoming, ELJ Editions, 2018), came about from a nasty case of writers block and meeting the right reader at the right time. Of course I had the urge to write, I just had nothing to write about. I would sit at my computer and think of nothing. For hours and days. Everyone runs into this, but I didn’t expect my writers block to turn into something publishable, let alone a book, to say nothing of a book about a single, unified idea: the coming water.

At first I came up with a simple exercise: I would just type for as long as I could type. Nonsense or whatever, if it came out of my fingertips it went down on paper. I tried to type at least one full page a day – no breaks, no punctuation, just a block of text. The next day I’d start from where I left off. After a full month of doing this I had 40 pages of block text, most of it incomprehensible. Then I started digging. I went line by line looking for good ideas. I would look for good opening lines and good closing lines, and for any fully-formed ideas. If a line was horrendous I would leave it and just move on to the next for fear of erasing anything, even a bad line, which might find itself useful later on. This actually took a good two months or so, and eventually I began to see certain patterns. Water, for one, popped up everywhere. I had been having dreams of water frequently.

When I was young, my family and I would often vacation at the Jersey shore, staying at a bungalow right on the boardwalk with an uninterrupted view of the ocean. I would have nightmares of the ocean pouring in over the beach and sweeping us all out to sea. It was horrible. But I found those dreams starting to creep into the text. I began to cut away everything that wasn’t water related. The text was beginning to take a more definitive shape, with everything relating to the water and these dreams I had been having about it. Individual poems began to come into a clear focus. And then hurricane Sandy hit.

Like many, I suffered from losing many possessions to the storm, but I survived without any physical harm. The mental harm though, was great. As I worked on this massive chunk of text I began to add to the parts about water with events that happened during Sandy. I didn’t start out to write a series of poems about a hurricane, but it all fit together so well, like a puzzle, that I had to do it. It was almost as if the writing about the water was a kind of premonition.

Eventually I whittled the original hunk of text, along with the additions of the Sandy-related pieces, to stand-alone poems, close to 80 pages worth. Then I re-read them again and finally selected 40 poems that felt coherent and related to each other and retained the feel of what I wanted to do but still could stand on their own. I was quite happy with them, but it wasn’t “book-length” and I was pretty sure I had dried the well while writing it. I put it away in the spring and that summer packed my bags for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

At Bread Loaf I had the good fortune to meet some amazing people, including my workshop leaders Tom Sleigh and Brian Russell. Tom and Brian were the first readers of this new work I had been working on for over a year by this point. I took their suggestions seriously, especially Tom’s idea to include some prose sections, much like William Carlos Williams had done with Paterson. Having been born in Paterson, I thought that this was the greatest idea that ever came to be. I read a slew of books Brian recommended and took Tom’s advice to start writing prose pieces that aligned with the theme of the rest of the poems. It only took a good year and close readings by my friends Anna Guzon and Brian Simoneau to get the whole order and pacing of the manuscript right. But what I ended up with was a full manuscript that looked and felt right to me, and thankfully that sentiment was shared by Ariana D. Den Bleyker and the good people at ELJ Editions, who picked it up during their annual open reading period.

What had started out innocently enough as a little writer’s block breaking experiment is now forthcoming in early 2018 as a book titled Submerged. I hope my next bout of writer’s block works out as well.

Authors Talk: Eugene Gloria

Eugene GloriaToday we are pleased to feature author Eugene Gloria as our Authors Talk series contributor. Eugene discusses failure and its role in creating successful poems or stories.

He focuses particularly on how failure led to the successful publication of My Favorite Warlord in 2012. “Apricot Trees,” a poem that was published in Issue 3 of SR, is included in this collection of poems.

We are also privileged to hear a reading of “Allegory of the Laundromat,” and to learn the story behind this poem.

Eugene expresses that he needs to be “willingly ignorant” or “willing to embrace failure” when writing poetry.  He mentions this is also an important strategy to utilize in light of the recent political change.

You can read Eugene’s poetry in Superstition Review Issue 3.

Contributor Update, Catherine Pierce: AWP Reading

If you’re going to be in Washington, D.C. for AWP 2017, here’s something to keep in mind: Catherine Pierce, winner of the Saturnalia Books of Poetry Prize, will be participating in an offsite reading along with several other authors published by Saturnalia Books. This will take place on the 9th of February 2017.

To read her poem that was published in Issue 8 of our magazine, click here.

You can also check out some of her other poems on her website.

Catherine Pierce

 

Contributor Update, Rochelle Hurt: Second Book of Poetry

Rochelle Hurt’s recently published second collection of poetry, In Which I Play the Runway, has won the 2015 Barrow Street Book Prize. Richard Blanco, who selected her book for the prize, describes that her “words [are] spoken with a vigor and honesty that are felt in the gut; words that remain lodged in the back of the throat.”

To pre-order her new book, click here.

To read her poetry that was published in Issue 11 of our magazine, click here.

You can also read samples of her poetry on her website.