Intern Update: Dustin Diehl

Today’s Intern Update features Dustin Diehl, who worked as a nonfiction editor on Issue 4 of Superstition Review.

With a BA in English Literature, a minor in Religious Studies, and a Certificate in LGBTQ Studies, Diehl recently started working as the Director of Strategy and Performance at Digital Current.

He has also worked as a freelance writer for both Here Media publications (including OUT Magazine) for 5 years and East Valley Tribune for 9 years, delivering both editorials, travel writing, and pop culture content.

We are so proud of you Dustin!

If you’d like to learn more, you can visit Dustin’s LinkedIn page here.

Guest Post, Jessica Goodfellow: Consciousness of Humans and of Trees

pines

A few years ago, my 80-year-old father had a bad accident and broke his neck. For a time, we did not know if he would survive; when he did, the extent of his paralysis was the next unknown. My father’s recovery, full or partial, from his traumatic brain injury depended on his grasping the
seriousness of his condition and cooperating with therapy regimes, an ability his compromised brain seemed to no longer have.

Within a year of my father’s accident, my best friend of over 30 years began having an unrelenting series of strokes, hundreds of them, with an unknown trigger. For a period of time, not so short, it was not clear if she would survive. Then, when it seemed she would, the extent of the damage done to her brain was not fully known. And then it was, but how much she will recover was, is, uncertain.

I live in Japan, far from my father and my best friend. While waiting many time zones away to hear about first their survival, then their prognoses, and later still the extent of their brain injuries, I wrote the poem “How I Know My Grief” which appeared in Issue 22 of Superstition Review. The poem begins:

Nothing green
grows faster
than bamboo.

This is how
I know
my grief’s

not green.
Pine trees,
season-

blind, are green.
This is how
I know

my grief
is green.

In English, the word pine means both ‘the evergreen’ and the verb ‘to yearn’. The Japanese word for the pine tree, matsu, also has multiple meanings, including 松 (matsu) ‘the evergreen tree’, and 待つ (matsu) ‘to wait’. During the period when no one knew what would happen to my father or my best friend, I grieved for their futures or their lack of futures, while later I grieved for their pasts, their memories, which included memories we shared, or perhaps no longer did—I would have to wait and see. Waiting, it seemed to me, was all about yearning. Later, after each of these two patients stabilized, yearning became all about waiting, waiting for something to be different, even if only waiting for the pain of things never being different to become less unbearable. Waiting and yearning: pine and pine.

Many years ago, I read in The New Yorker about a sacred tree in Madagascar under which people leave offerings such as slaughtered goats, rum, and money, in hopes of gaining good fortune in child-bearing, business dealings, school entrance exams, love, etc. The tree is called kakazotsi fantata, which translates as ‘the tree whose name nobody knows’. That is, the name the tree is known by is, apparently unironically, ‘the tree whose name nobody knows’. Knowing is a function, chiefly, of the brain—though of course also a function of the body, the bones and muscles too—but foremost of the brain, which is itself part of the body. With brain injury or strokes, what is known becomes the unknown, becomes the thing that nobody knows—not the patient, not the people who observe the patient, and certainly not the people who love the patient. What is it for patients to not know what they don’t know? What is it to not know the person you
have always known, to not recognize them, or be recognized by them? Is this not grief?

Recent research into the social systems of trees has revealed the surprising extent of their interconnection and interdependence, in contrast to the previous notion our species had of trees as competing with one another for sunlight and other resources. For example, we now know that the roots of trees, together with underground fungi, form mycorrhizal networks through which information is passed, mainly about distress and danger. There are mother trees, with extensive fungal connections, who sense struggling younger trees and divert flows of nutrients to them. Under attack by foraging deer or insects, certain trees emit pheromones, alerting their neighbors to increase their own production of foul-tasting substances in their leaves which might help them escape a similar fate. Whether or not there is intent to warn, however, is controversial, with some scientists disputing such an interpretation.

Regardless, there is an entire complex system among trees that, until recently, we did not know about. I tend to lean against anthropomorphizing, against generalizing the sort of consciousness we have to trees, despite their signal-sending. But how I want to be wrong about that, and how wrong I could be—we honestly don’t know. Here we can find hope in what we do not know—what might be true. I want it to be true that trees communicate with intention and compassion. I want trees to know things, to remember, even while I know that this would only bring them grief. I want, in a very human way, for trees to be more like us in the few ways that we as a species are good—I want kinship with a thing that will surely outlast me. Mostly though, I want to believe communication occurs that is unobservable to me—be it communication between trees or communication with patients who have had significant brain issues.

Robert MacFarlane, in his book The Lost Words, reports that the Welsh phrase dod yn ôl at fy nghoed means “to return to a balanced state of mind”, or literally “to return to my trees”. I’m happy to report that both my father and my best friend are slowly, slowly returning to their trees, with effort and determination and often with great frustration. In the meantime, I follow The Ice Age (@Jamie_Woodward_), twitter feed of Jamie Woodward, professor of physical geography at the University of Manchester. One day in August of this year he tweeted, “There are trees in the north that remember the wolves.” Contrast that with what poet Dorianne Laux has written: “If trees could speak, they wouldn’t.” Both of these statements, it seems to me, sound about right; both have hope in the consciousness of trees, yet both are laced with notions of grief. Hope, but also grief. Ever green and yearning.

Resources:

Grant, Richard. “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” The Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-whispering-trees-180968084/

Laux, Dorianne (2005). “The Life of Trees” in Facts About the Moon. New York, New York: W. W. Norton.

MacFarlane, Robert (2017). The Lost Words. London: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House).

Shoumatoff, Alex. “Our Far Flung Correspondents (Madagascar),” The New Yorker, March 7, 1988, p. 62+. http://www.dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com/our-far-flung-correspondents-madagascar/

Guest Post, Amy Stonestrom: All in the Family

Writing

All writing stems from the author’s obsessions. This is what Dani Shapiro told me and a room full of writers in a workshop held in Minneapolis this past spring. Whatever we can’t let go of, she said, whatever we keep coming back to, is most often what we end up figuring out on the page. I hadn’t thought of a writer’s subject matter in this particular way before but I nodded wildly in agreement from the front row.

My obsession exists in the form of a rough manuscript and it is aging, I hope, like a good wine (or at the very least an okay cheese) in a document on my desktop. The obsession in question, what my brain tumbles around like sneakers banging in the dryer, is the story of how I removed myself and my son from the once beloved religion of my childhood and how I inadvertently broke my mother’s heart in the process.

Like so many writers, voicing my obsession and maintaining peace within my family are at odds with one another. I need to decide what’s more important, getting this out or keeping my mother and I intact. This seems strange since I did not, in any way, have a Glass Castle childhood. (It’s a rare thing for a memoirist to admit, but my childhood was an embarrassment of stability and fond memories.) However, I know that publicly voicing opposition to my family’s long held belief system would cause my mother to feel deeply betrayed. 

As a result I’ve kept this project a secret from Mom which feels, I must say, pretty lousy. 

I accidentally found a temporary remedy to this conundrum when I set out to write Every Bird in the Nest, an essay that was published in Superstition Review’s 22nd issue. In order to authentically record an ill-fated fishing outing with my dad when I was six, I needed to corroborate my story.

After writing the first draft I called my parents. Dad did not remember the event in question but Mom, at age 81, remembered minute details down to which coat I wore that day. I collected her memories and she handed over the phone to Dad who answered all of my fishing and geography-related questions. Between the three of us, over several days and many drafts, we recreated a factual story forty years after the event. 

And that felt pretty darn good.

I honestly don’t know what I will do with my virtually dusty manuscript that I’m quite certain my mother won’t approve of. But I do know that my obsession surrounding this subject matter won’t leave me. I may just need to open it up, let some light in and . . . dial the phone.

Guest Post, Jess Williard: On Boxing

boxing gloves

“To look into my heart is to look into a muscle. To really look inquiringly inward as Sidney advises or as the most well-intentioned guru advises is to encounter, at least on some very honest days, my own space; it is to discover how empty I am, how much an onlooker and a gazer I have to be in order to write poems. And, if I am lucky, it is to find out how I can be filled enough by what is not me to use it, to have a subject, and, consequently, to find myself as a poet.” -Larry Levis

It would be too easy to say that I began writing and boxing at the same time. As compelled as I am to make that correlation it would, in fact, be a lie; I didn’t actually begin writing until I entered high school, several years after I took up the sport in a serious way. My start with boxing, however, was concurrent with, and, as I now understand, instigated by my desire to write, my thinking as a writer. My gazing. Or at least the recognition of the gaze, putting a name to a quality I’d always thought separated me from the world in many ways. I’d wanted to write for no other reason than the idea contained a palpable kind of energy, much the same way a fight (or the context of a fight, the preparation for it) contained energy.

I am not a violent person. I am, though, completely wound in what Joyce Carol Oates describes in her book On Boxing as the sport’s “systematic cultivation of pain in the interests of a project, a life-goal: the willed transposing of the sensation we know as pain (physical, psychological, emotional) into its polar opposite.” And while I’m hesitant to utilize boxing as a direct metaphor for writing (largely because I disagree with any necessitation of “pain” in writing or the writer’s life, at least an understanding of the writer that privileges some kind of transcendent suffering), it’s too close, particularly in my experience, not to. The thing is: I hate competition. I’m not at all interested in it. It makes me sick. It is the context of legitimate competition, however, that makes preparation as important as it is. I’m drawn here to Ezra Pound’s Canto 74:

I don’t know how humanity stands it

with a painted paradise at the end of it

without a painted paradise at the end of it

Competition is no paradise, but it’s the prospect of that “purpose” (the metaphor now extends far beyond either boxing or writing) that enables “standing it.” That spot on the horizon is, as Pound (and I think, I) understand, is manufactured. It can be there or not, and has all the power you wish to give it. “One might compare the time-bound public spectacle of the boxing match,” says Oates, “with the publication of a writer’s book. That which is ‘public’ is but the final stage in a protracted, arduous, grueling, and frequently despairing period of preparation.” And while I don’t disagree, it’s impossible for me not to acknowledge that in this and all other arenas, I believe preparation in itself is an end. Perhaps the only end. My interest in boxing spawned as an interest in the craft, one cultivated towards the very particular goal of fighting another human being, and persisted only as an interest in the craft. Oates describes the boxer’s training as the “fantastic subordination of the self in terms of a wished-for destiny,” and I’d like to take it further by defining it as the necessary subordination of the self in terms of an omnipresent and impossible destiny. Pound’s painted paradise. Oates continues that “to not only accept but to actively invite what most sane creatures avoid—pain, humiliation, loss, chaos—is to experience the present moment as already, in a sense, past.” Or, “It is to ease out of sanity’s consciousness and into another, difficult to name.” It’s a continuum I can’t even begin to understand, but one I’m constantly making myself a part of. I’d never suppose myself to be good at boxing—at really any athletic endeavor, for that matter—and the handful of matches I’ve had speak to this. I do know, though, that I can prepare like a professional, and this is what I find meaningful. I’m again explained to myself by Oates in her assertion that “if this is masochism—and I doubt that it is, or that it is simply—it is also intelligence, cunning, strategy. It is an act of consummate self-determination—the constant reestablishment of the parameters of one’s being.” Being, here, indicates both more and less than philosophical or spiritual contention. It’s literal. It’s your body.

I don’t box anymore. I still practice boxing, when I have the space and appropriate equipment, but distanced myself from the discipline of that particular craft quite some time ago. Discipline of craft, though, has remained, perhaps strengthened, and has manifested in other physical pursuits, namely weightlifting. While that’s an equally rich arena to consider, I’ll offer only this illustration as the way I think disciplined resistance training and poetry cooperate: strength is only secondary in Olympic weightlifting. It’s about technique more than anything else. The capability is in getting the heavy thing to move, and then using that kinetic energy to propel the weight and, ultimately, fall under it. It is using the dormant jewels of an object against itself, and then getting out of the way, positioning yourself to receive that energy safely. Think about words: all that latent energy, the inertia things can take on if we aggravate them in the right kind of way. And finally, just moving period is crucial. Perhaps Mark Strand said it best:

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

I’d like to invoke a final parallel between boxing and poetry, as articulated, again, by Joyce Carol Oates: “So much happens and with such heart-stopping subtly you cannot absorb it except to know that something profound is happening and it is happening in a place beyond words.’ This subtly is the devastating force. The devastating force. Thank god there are no words for it. Otherwise there’d be no poems.

Guest Post, Asa Drake: Keep a Record

Poetry

When I tell anyone about my work, I want to say that everything I have written is entirely accurate. Of course, my poems aren’t accurate. I lie for concision, and that doesn’t bother me. Ours is a language inadequate to our needs, so I think a good poem is willing to be inaccurate and still be a document of our times. I often write about current events, things in my life, things said to me — and on revision, I find that the number of people or the number of actions involved in a poem can be overwhelming. So lately, I find myself consolidating. Maybe a coworker is five coworkers. Maybe a sentence is multiple conversations. So long as the poem still reads emotionally true, this kind of lie is doing the work I need with the content I have. I think it’s the information professional in me that makes me look to cataloging as a shortcut for consolidating experiences in a way that can make for an interesting poem.

Lately, I’ve been interested in apologies. The conversations I pull from, the speakers I use, they’re unrelated except through content, and the apology in many ways provides a format for interpretation and consolidation. I transcribe these conversations with no intent to reconcile, but a poem has to do something more because, on some level, a poem is about understanding. I found it impossible to believe that what was said to me was designed to set me at ease, like in “Tonight, A Woman.” There’s a moment where another speaker enters, points to the narrator’s face and tries to set it apart from herself. This was, at some point, part of an apology, but no one says “foreign” as an act of love.

So I study the structure of these apologies. I try an experiment. I let these statements stand without my response. I leave the dinner, the breakfast, the breezeway. I read a letter and put it away. I speak to the people I love. But then, the conversations return. A colleague walks a little faster in the parking lot. At the table, someone asks if I’ve lost my tongue. I draft an email I don’t send. I cry a little. The academic vestige is lost. So I discontinue my experiment. I look back at my transcripts. I’ve lost interest in the conflict, but I know I have a poem to write because I have an obsession. I’m interested in how apology becomes performative redress. In this way, the speaker maintains their status by clarifying that I did not perceive you as one thing because you are so clearly another. So frequently, these apologies are another question. They ask me, are you from this country, and I have never lived anywhere else, except within that question. So that’s where I write from. I want to understand what people say to me, and I only have this language to answer myself with, which is difficult.

Guest Post, Dana Curtis

poetry

“Palimpsest” is one of the poems I wrote in response to a friend’s death. It is not just about my own “sadness” and “fear” but my friend’s. Her pain was so much greater than my own. This poem is one of the ways I grappled with the inevitable and my helplessness. It is also meaningless in the face of reality. I have trouble grasping that the world could continue without her, that despite my knowledge of the terrible unfairness of existence, I cannot help but continue my protest and record my objections, as though they matter.

I did not realize I was writing a palimpsest until I had completed the poem. It was obviously one thing written on top of another and in the end, which was on top was irrelevant. Sadness and fear interact within the dark room that is this poem and can never be separate, maybe that is always the case: no escape.

Wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the darkness? For me, the worst thing is that writing the poem is an escape and did make me feel a little bit better. Of course, this also led to a sense of guilt and the feeling that I was exploiting not just my friend’s death but my own feelings about it. The starless night pulls me in, sits me down, and delivers a stern lecture about the world/unworld that expects me to do something, anything about it. And again, no escape.

I do find some refuge in Elixir Press. I really love reading all those manuscripts, seeing all this great poetry and fiction before anyone else then bringing at least a little bit of it into print. There is usually very little conflict between my own work and the work I do with Elixir. I’ve gotten pretty good at carving out time for myself without taking anything from Elixir. I have to spend some time on my own work, or I wouldn’t be able to run Elixir at all.
I think most people understand this.

Guest Post, Christopher Burawa: Writing as Seeking: A Perspective on Contemplative Practice & Poetry

zen stones

When the three poems of mine appeared in Issue 10 of the Superstition Review in 2012—“An Act of Ghosting to Avoid Complications,” “Like a Good Horse,” and “Vultures and the Constant Application of Them”—I had just experienced a creative burst after almost a year of not having the time or energy to write because of my job as an arts administrator at a state university and also because I had founded a Zen Center in Clarksville, Tennessee. And most importantly, I had become a father in 2011 and was spending as much time as I could with my daughter and wife.

I wrote these poems (and four others) after returning from a dai-sesshin (or intensive 7-day Zen Buddhist retreat) in California. I began my Zen Buddhist practice in 1994 at Haku-un-ji Zen Center in Tempe, Arizona, and my teacher, a Japanese Zen master, had ordained me as a monk in 2005. I’ve come to understand that a contemplative practice like zazen (often translated as meditation) is very much like what is often called “the creative process” (and I would extend that to include the “scientific method”). The practice emphasizes quieting discursive or conceptual thinking which makes room for the intuitive mind to enter and form new experiences of understanding (which relates to “solving” Zen koans). Contemplative practice is, in fact, the foundation or matrix for all wisdom traditions; however, writers and artists employ it all the time. Poetry, to me, is another manifestation of contemplation in action—like walking meditation, samu (or work practice; like sweeping)—where self-consciousness drops away and the intuitive appears and plays, albeit a serious form of play. In Zen Buddhist terms to achieve this state the practitioner must “break one’s bones and sweat blood,” which essentially means to establish a routine and put in the effort.

I had developed a rather careful writing practice when I was in the MFA program at Arizona State University. I meditated early in the morning, wrote in my notebook for at least two hours and would draft poems on my laptop in the afternoons. But this routine didn’t transfer into my life after the program. Once I entered arts administration, my free-wheeling life was curbed by my responsibilities which included travel, after-hours work at home, and attending programs, among other things. And yet I kept to the notebook writing and when I had the energy or time (vacations were limited to consecutive weeks) I would draft and edit one or two poems. I was slowly assembling a manuscript, or so I thought. However, whenever I sat down to review the manuscript, the poems just didn’t seem to be in harmony, and then one day, last year, I had an epiphany: I was writing two books, not one. One book continued my preoccupation with Iceland and reinterpreted its canonical history as well as my own biological family’s (versus my adopted family) history. The other book was poems I wrote out of my insights into Zen practice.

Like a good horse on who a whip alights, be earnest and energetic. By faith, discipline, vigor, concentration, and discernment of truth, expert in knowledge and action, aware, slough off this mass of misery.

Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha, translated by Thomas Cleary, p. 49

So the poems in Issue 10, as I have mentioned, sprung from a sesshin and the notes I took at night under the covers of my bed. One poem, though, bridges the two books, “Like a Good Horse,” which turned out to be an elegy for my beloved Icelandic uncle, whose health after a nonstop working life was in decline. The title is borrowed from the first line of the Dhammapada, or the Sayings of the Buddha, from the penultimate verse in the chapter about violence: how violence against others is violence against oneself (i.e., on how important it is to cultivate compassion):

My uncle was a large and physically strong man but had a sweet nature, one that endeared him to every child that ever met him. However, there were men who, because of his legendary strength, wanted to take him on and thereby elevate their own prowess. My uncle, though, never succumbed to their taunts and actually abhorred violence. And so the poem.

Of the other two poems in Issue 10, “An Act of Ghosting to Avoid Complications,” is not about ending a relationship by suddenly disappearing. The term, “ghosting” was used by my Zen teacher to describe the activity of becoming the other. Dissolving one’s I-am self to join in a profound relationship with another person or even thing. And this definition should probably have appeared as a note at the bottom of the page. My bad. The other poem, “Vultures and the Constant Application of Them,” is about acknowledging and restoring our connection (as humans) to the natural world, from which we have become separate. So is it Zen? To me, yes, but perhaps not to some readers.

Returning to the subject of my notebooks and scribbling. Because I have amassed over 10 years (since my first book) of notebooks, I’ve begun to mine them, which led to the poem, “Desire, Speckled by Want,” in Issue 23. This poem incorporates an important Zen Buddhist theme, of developing compassion for oneself before one can expand it to others. It addresses obliquely the subject of my adoption and a feeling of loneliness I have always attributed to separation. The landscape, for me, is the interior of Iceland, where the barren stratified mountains lean into the floodplains with their alluvial fans. It is a haunted landscape that reflects extreme isolation. And the forgiveness sought in the final line is essentially that of my present self observing the past self, as an object, and thereby acknowledging that self’s struggle.

Guest Post, Kristen Keckler: The Art of Memory—Writing to Remember

Even in 2019, with trusty devices always on hand to capture my daily existence, most of my life goes unrecorded (thank God). My pre-device life, a Dark Age itself, is only documented by an occasional washed-out photo, receipt, ticket stub, or “remember when?” story passed among family and friends. 

I often lament never having kept a proper journal. Only once, at age eleven, have I ever faithfully inscribed dates and happenings; the diary had a pink, puffy plastic cover studded with rhinestones. Despite the security feature, a tiny gold key, my mother and younger sister broke into it—together! —and when they later admitted it, I was relieved that I hadn’t confided anything private to its pages: no secret crushes or burning questions about my awkward, beanpole body.

In my twenties, I wrote little poems and observations in notebooks—many little notebooks. These musings now seem written in code, as if I was protecting my words from an intruder, who, strangely enough, is myself! Today, I still draft in a random, haphazard way, in spiral notebooks, and keep several going simultaneously. Writing essays, for me, is like journaling twenty years after the fact. I go easy on myself and do not—simply because I now live in a digital age—expect perfection from my memory. I figure, if I only wrote about things I remembered very well, I might never have written anything at all. 

Recently, a former student, Maritza, reached out, seeking my advice for jumpstarting her writing. “I don’t know where to begin,” she confided, a phrase I recognize in my bones. The key, for me, is not a little gold diary key, but to start somewhere—with a moment, or maybe with a song, place, or detail. I write whatever pops into mind, and don’t decide if I remember “enough” until after I’ve given it a go. 

Jumpstarting sparks remembering; you have to get the car running so that you can actually move. For me that means sometimes turning an unproductive writing day, when I’m sleep-deprived, distracted, or just not feeling it, into a semi-productive one by inventing topics and ideas for later, for when the mood strikes. (How DIY of me: a book of handcrafted, shabby chic rainy day writing exercises!) In a blank or mostly blank notebook, at the top of every other page, I write a word or a phrase; each one is a prompt. When I’m looking for inspiration, I flip through this notebook; one of the headings usually calls out to me, and off to the races I go. Occasionally, a prompt even becomes the title for a finished piece, like in the case of my SR essay “A Merry Little Group Home Christmas.”

A few months ago, I came across the words “Memories to Age Six” written atop a blank notebook page, jotted by my own hand a year or so earlier. When I re-discovered it, my husband and I had been speculating about how much, if anything, our two-year-old son would remember about being two. (Would he recall his first trip to Florida, those two-foot long iguanas? Or his Matchbox cars being confiscated, temporarily, by mean Mommy after he clocked her on the head with a Mustang and left a boo boo?) As I started to freewrite about my own early years, I was surprised by how much I actually, truly remembered from my life, especially between ages three and six. Some of my memories originated in stories told by my parents throughout my childhood, but other moments I recalled simply because I lived them: I was there. Whether routines that occurred in a pattern, or one-time events, the more I wrote, the more I remembered, and the more material I generated, until I had a finished essay draft plus pages of extra notes. 

As I drafted a six-year-old memoir, I had to quickly decide: do I comment and reflect on the child’s life, or do I let her experiences speak for themselves? I decided on the latter, to focus on the child’s impressions and lived moments, allowing the adult writer to hang back, quietly choosing language and forming a structure. I find that when writing about a very distant past, concrete details are especially important, as memories need physical objects in which to take root, spreading their shoots into the darkness and reaching for context. My Six-Year-Old Memoir has many such anchors: a sewing machine, a horse track, green shorts with daisies, a tiny tarnished silver cup, a gun, a hospital bed, a two-toned Buick, and maraschino cherries. 

Since writing is remembering, and writing is crafting, you often don’t know how much you recall about your life until you face the blank page (or screen) and dive in.  Memory is part black magic, a deeply intuitive conjuring, and part rolling a tumbleweed through the mind’s desert, gathering what sticks. The more I go with it, the more I think, (a fully focused, meditative-type thinking), and the more I perform other little exercises to jog my recollection, for example, looking at Google Maps street view or texting a family member or friend. 

It is usually not until after I’ve written quite a bit that I figure out what an essay is about, and often that “what” defies summary, is more of an emotional cue than a lesson or theme. For me, the purpose of nonfiction is not to see how much I remember, but to determine what I can do with what I think I remember. And when I’m finished writing a particular piece, I always feel like I remember those events more vividly than when I started—sometimes the writing and memories become intertwined, interchangeable. What has happened is gone, and let’s face it, there is nothing, not even writing, that can ever bring it back. What’s left is the art of memory. And I’m okay with that.

Guest Post, Dara Elerath: Going by Way of the Unknown

Writing poetry requires us to get away from the rote maps of meaning we follow in our daily lives and enter our imaginations. There are many ways of doing this, but one of the most helpful I’ve found is to focus on a subject I am not particularly knowledgeable about and have little to no emotional stake in. I don’t mean areas of expertise that are not my own, like cellular biology, beekeeping or astrophysics. I mean small things: words or objects I encounter that do not appear to carry great weight or significance. Certain objects, like knives, are so laden with symbolism that it seems almost impossible to approach them without invoking particular narratives; however, other, less freighted objects retain their mystery because they’re often overlooked. They exist in shadows—dropped under one’s desk, forgotten in a drawer or hidden beneath a pile of papers. An eraser, for example, is a small, functional piece of rubber that we’ve all likely interacted with on numerous occasions, but have probably never had reason to give much thought to. It embodies the concept of erasure, of course, but erasure on a small scale. I think of times I used one as a child—when trying to learn cursive, or when sketching figures in a notebook; otherwise, the object is not associated with any moment of great importance in my life. For me, these things make it an ideal starting point for a poem.

This brings me to the approach I took when writing “Oriflamme.” Instead of an object, I began with a word I did not know the meaning of (it was not oriflamme, incidentally, but another word with similar qualities). I chose it because it was not associated with any crucial stories or memories in my life; it was merely a series of syllables that pleased my ear. Granted, there may have been certain ideas the sound evoked, or echoes of other words that informed my thinking, but, on the whole, it was a sealed box I had to open by way of language. Knowing only the music of the syllables I was compelled to use my sonic imagination; instead of following a particular narrative thread, I imagined possible definitions of the word by following the syntax of the language and the sounds of the words, looking for rhymes, slant rhymes and patterns that might guide me towards meaning. I used this same approach when writing “{ }”; taking a mathematical symbol I had little knowledge of, I began to make associations with it visually. Over time I’ve come to realize that the more my sonic or visual imagination is engaged, the more elastic my thoughts grow; at such moments the language of metaphor and figuration comes to me naturally. 

Our minds want to make meaning; they want to recite, over and over, the particular myths and stories that constitute the logic of our lives. If we write expressively and choose a conduit through which to channel this poetic thought—be it a crumb, a pair of hands, or a beetle—these stories will begin to manifest themselves. The key thing is to surprise ourselves, and this is most possible when what we’re describing is somewhat unknown to us. Chances are that the image or sound will trigger some associated thoughts that, if we follow them deftly, will guide us down towards deeper meaning. There is also the fact that we experience these everyday things—an eraser, an orange, a word—tactilely and intimately, by the way an eraser feels in our palms, the way an orange smells and tastes, or the way letters look as our eyes move across them on the page. We can use these simple, physical facts to anchor our writing in reality and sensory detail. These objects and words (if we are speaking of words with definitions we choose to remain ignorant of) can have as much or as little meaning as we elect to ascribe to them, whereas the subject of one’s parents or other high-stakes topics come with expectations that we may be inclined to lean into. Often, the sentiments and ideas that emerge when I write about subjects of known importance tend towards the cliché, as though I’m merely reflecting back the many stories about birthdays, death, pet dogs, and so on, that I’ve heard or seen over the years, instead of discovering anything new about myself. 

Going by way of my own unknowing (innocence with regards to the self might be another way of thinking about it) is certainly not the only way to approach poetry, but it helps me to overcome the cultural and personal maps of reality that I’m used to orienting myself by. It allows me to become disoriented, to discover the secret mythologies that my psyche is always trying to find a way to speak. Because the self is small and the heart is vulnerable, the smaller, more vulnerable and lesser known objects (in my experience) often make the best conduits through which to pull the weight of the tender and diffident psyche.

Guest Post, Emma Bolden: Notes on Writing “Laocoön and His Sons”

As a child, I spent a lot of time in the library of my family’s Catholic church, reading stories about the lives of the saints. Though ostensibly written for children, the books nonetheless attended to each saints’ tribulations in gruesome, grizzly detail: Saint Lucy, typically depicted carrying her own eyes on a plate; Saint Agatha, who did the same with her own breasts; Saint Rita of Cascia, whose head was marked with stigmata in the shape of the Crown of Thorns. The books terrified and fascinated me. From them, I learned much—not necessarily about the moral fortitude necessary to reach sainthood, but about one prevailing subject: suffering.

Perhaps this is why the subject of suffering remains an ever-present preoccupation in my work as a writer. It is not necessarily an easy subject to address in language. It’s impossible to exactly and verbally convey the experience of suffering, which is necessarily personal, as intimate as our own bodies. When writing about suffering, one therefore always risks running into cliché, in the tropes—religious or otherwise—we tell ourselves to make sense of our pain. Not that one can, ultimately, make sense of pain—another reason why writing about it is difficult enough to be a form of suffering in and of itself.

As I grew older, I sought out and studied depictions of suffering in other art forms, particularly visual art and music. While stuck in traffic on my evening commute (that particularly acute modern experience of agony), I found myself riveted by an NPR story about Michelangelo, whose Pietà is itself an awe-inspiring portrayal of grief, loss, and sanctification. The story centered around a hidden room in the Medici Chapels, where scholars think Michelangelo hid in the months after he betrayed the Medicis, his patrons. After cleaning the walls, a museum director found a series of sketches on the walls, now believed to have been drawn by Michelangelo while in hiding. 

One sketch depicted Laocoön and His Sons, or the Laocoön Group, a sculpture excavated in 1506. Like many artists of his day, Michelangelo studied Laocoön and His Sons with an obsessive fascination. The sculpture depicts the last moments of Laocoön, a priest of Poseidon, and his sons, poisoned by sea snakes. Versions of the story vary. In some, Poseidon sends the snakes to kill Laocoön, who warned the Trojans that the horse the Greeks gave them wasn’t a gift but a weapon (in Virgil’s Aeneid, Laocoön is the source of the lines that became the English proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”). In this version of events, Laocoön is killed for telling the truth; it seems fitting that Michelangelo would sketch this sculpture on the walls of his hiding place after speaking out against the powerful and poisonous Medici family.

This story fascinated me as much as the stories about saints; I knew, instantly, that I had to write about it. When I (finally) got home, I looked up Laocoön and His Sons so I could study it myself. What struck me most about this masterpiece is that it portrayed suffering in a way I’d never seen in hagiography, with its insistence that suffering led to salvation, that there was a meaning—redemption—at the end of the most treacherous road. In the Laocoön Group, there is no redemption. The figures writhe; even in photographs, the marble appears to be in motion. Though they die together, they find no comfort in family. In fact, they seem separated from each other, each existing in and aware of only their pain. It’s a searing portrayal of what human suffering, at its center, truly is: a force that separates us from the world, even from those in the world we love the most; a force that consumes us entirely; an experience during which, no matter how saintly the sufferer may be, the light of redemption cannot be seen. 

When I sat down to write Laocoön and His Sons,” the story that preceded it similarly darkened into disappearance. I found myself focused on the father in the moment of a death brought by the god he’d served for so long, on the wild terror of the human moment behind the stories of divine faith and redemption that we sculpt and share.

Laocoön and His Sons sculpture on display in the Vatican