Guest Post, Hannah Lee Jones: Poet Expend Yourself

guest postPoet Expend Yourself 

Several years ago, I was a beginning poet determined to learn the craft of poetry without the rigaramole and expense of earning an MFA. Inspired by my friend Rebecca Wallwork’s model—interviewing accomplished writers to get at the gems of their craft, which she’d then share on her blog, The MFA Project—I launched my own blog, Primal School, where I would do something similar with poets.

What I knew then was that I wanted to connect with and learn from other writers. I was prepared to give myself over to everything the art and craft of poetry would demand of me. I wasn’t as prepared to run into my own resistance to everything else the poetry universe demands of its artists.

With the blog my project began easily enough, beginning with questions for the poets I interviewed: How did you come to write this poem? What did you mean by this particular line? Tell us about your revision process.  As I mined for the poets’ techniques and sources of inspiration and highlighted their work on the site, I got to know the people behind the poems. Relationships blossomed. Poets expressed their appreciation for the blog, for the attention and care being given to their work. In a few cases I even helped boost poets who were just starting their careers and whose credibility would be supported by an interview feature. As young as Primal School was, others had even begun sending their students to the site as a resource.

In the winter of 2017 I began a seasonal stint as an intern at Copper Canyon Press in what was then my backyard of the Pacific Northwest. I regarded this experience as another brick in the growing poetic education that was my self-created MFA. In a drafty building in the middle of Fort Warden State Park I made copies, filled book orders, and read the manuscript submissions that came in. In retrospect what was fascinating and almost funny about this period was how quickly my perceived status in the poetry world grew in a manner which had absolutely nothing to do with anything I’d written or actually done. I watched with fascination the god-like projections poets would lavish on Copper Canyon editors in spaces like AWP, some of which inevitably spilled over onto staff and interns including me. I noticed my ego eating it up. I also observed that something in me had developed an allergy to a disjunction I was seeing — between the artifact that is a poem and the life that is its habitat; between poet and other; between poet and the world. It was around this time that my writing dried up, and with it my personal life and the structures in my world which I had come to regard as given.

The exact source of this disruption is difficult to name. But I suspect that the seeds for it were planted during a trip to South Carolina for a writing residency in late fall of 2016. The election of our new president was around the corner; the lefties who were my peers at the residency were not the least bit concerned that this would be the outcome. I wasn’t so sure. For reasons of curiosity and cultural immersion I formed a deep relationship with a Trump supporter who had been kind to me, and as I got to know him, I understood instinctively that his stories were the life which had been missing from my experience. Life to me could no longer consist only of reclining on my chaise lounge with a volume of Tranströmer poems, so far removed from a world coming undone with its poverty, grief, abuses and addictions. I still wanted my poems, but their fuel source was out.

For the grand embrace of the All that is America, the poet we love returning to time and time again (of course) is Walt Whitman. Revisiting his “Song of Myself,” I detect an inspirational whiff of the thing that was missing and that I’d left behind when I committed my life to poetry:

I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes and mauls, of the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

When the calling came for the open road I knew I had to respond, which I eventually I did. My writing naturally was reignited.

Gary Dop gave a memorable interview on Primal School in which he advocated for poetry as one of the great healing agents in a culture which has lost its spiritual center. I think it’s worthwhile to examine the question of whether the literary community as a function of this wider culture has also strayed from its center — whether that’s in the way we write (towards a style or objective rather than our deepest selves); or in any number of paths we walk unquestioningly (first you publish poems in journals, then they win prizes, then those poems become a book, then the books win you more prizes, and you get to repeat the cycle ad nauseam till the end of your career); to our relentless concern for how others react or what others are thinking or doing, whether that’s in the reviews we write or how we go about sharing our work (we give readings, of course). I see nothing wrong with any of these things on their own; it’s the blind adherence to them as inevitable steps forward in the career every writer that I’ve begun to question.

As an experiment in confronting these time-worn paths and really challenging whether they are for me, I recently took a break from submitting to journals and have been giving my poems and other writing away on social media. I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this. The recent critiques and discussions around “Instapoets” are compelling for the questions they raise: What is “accessible”? Who gets to say what’s good, or what poetry even is? Why is it seen as a waste of a good poem for an author to post it to a social media platform right away (which constitutes publication) instead of submitting it for the formal validation of appearing first in a journal? Bob Dylan’s Nobel win, along similar lines, got me thinking about poetry as a wider arena that in a more inclusive world would encompass songwriters and spoken-word artists and others like them (I’m thinking of people like Gregory Alan Isakov, Cleo Wade and Andrea Gibson). As artists they are all masters of the creative giveaway, a concept worth revisiting in Whitman’s later lines:

What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever.

The older I get the more I believe that to expend oneself creatively is an act of communion that burgeons out beyond the individual into something that Gregory Orr describes as “the Beloved that is the world.” Recently I had an exchange with a poet who remarked quite cavalierly that he’d never understood poetry as needing a purpose that was rooted in anything that wasn’t the self. I disagree with him. Poetry demands that the self come to fruition and nothing less. But I think the self is just a conduit for the transmission; the real reason we write is to connect with the Other in as many ways as our tools will allow us. In a world steeped in suffering such as ours is in these times, the reason we write is because of our love and our pain, which are shared; our desire to sustain our belief in a world where goodness and mercy and mutuality have not been exterminated.

I am grateful for and continue to hold in highest respect the institutions and individuals who train our poets, who publish their books, who promote their careers. Without them I wouldn’t still be writing poems. I’ll be culling from their wisdom and ideas as I find my own path forward. But I also care about whether we are connecting to the full with the world around us; whether we are honoring our contract with life by saying yes to our deepest and most colorful possible participation in the universe through everything we create. That would be something worth giving my life over to.

Authors Talk: Alaina Symanovich

Today we are pleased to feature author Alaina Symanovich as our Authors Talk series contributor. Alaina reflects on a question posed to her by one of her students: how can one’s writing be gloomy and melancholy while they’re usually the happiest person in a room?

By considering this question—along with “Out of the Box” and another essay, “Holy Ground,” published in storySouth— she muses on the importance of creative nonfiction. Alaina explains that creative nonfiction can be an entry point into somebody’s feelings and by extension, an opportunity to feel less alone. So while this talk is “rambling about [Alaina’s] high school students and their forlorn love lives” in a way, it is also a candid, funny, and thought-provoking look at the work that creative nonfiction does.

You can read and listen to “Out of the Box” by Alaina Symanovich in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

#ArtLitPhx: ASU MFA Reading Series feat. Steve Abell, Kalani Pickhart, and Jack Geist

The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University is hosting a special 8-part reading series featuring brand new work from ASU graduate students! Each reading will host 3-4 students at The Watershed, a beautiful waterfront restaurant and bar.

Watershed LakeviewThe next installment of the series will take place on November 7 from 7:30pm to 8:30pm, though you can come earlier to mingle, drink, and eat. You can find The Watershed at 5350 S Lakeshore Dr, Tempe, Arizona 85283.

The featured readers for the November 7 event are:

  • Steve Abell, Poetry
  • Kalani Pickhart, Fiction
  • Jack Geist, Poetry

(Update: Natasha Murdock has replaced Jack Geist as the third reader!)

We’re so excited for this installment of the series, especially because Kalani Pickhart was a contributor in Issue 19 of Superstition Review! You can read her piece, “Little Mouse,” here.

Stay tuned for later installments of this reading series! You can find more information on the event’s Facebook page and on the Facebook page for the ASU MFA Program in Creative Writing.

#ArtLitPhx: ASU MFA Reading Series feat. Charlee Moseley, Joel Salcido, and Edward Derbes

The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University is hosting a special 8-part reading series featuring brand new work from ASU graduate students! Each reading will host 3-4 students at The Watershed, a beautiful waterfront restaurant and bar.

Watershed LakeviewThe next installment of the series will take place on October 17 from 7:30pm to 8:30pm, though you can come earlier to mingle, drink, and eat. You can find The Watershed at 5350 S Lakeshore Dr, Tempe, Arizona 85283.

The featured readers for the October 17 event are:

  • Charlee Moseley, Fiction
  • Joel Salcido, Poetry
  • Edward Derbes, Fiction

We’re especially proud that this installment features Charlee Moseley, a former intern at Superstition Review. She served as our fiction editor in Fall 2016. Congratulations, Charlee!

Stay tuned for later installments of this reading series as well! You can find more information on the event’s Facebook page and on the Facebook page for the ASU MFA Program in Creative Writing.

#ArtLitPhx: ASU MFA Reading Series feat. Douglas Payne, Warren Glynn, and Edward Derbes

The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University is hosting a special 8-part reading series featuring brand new work from ASU graduate students! Each reading will host 3-4 students at The Watershed, a beautiful waterfront restaurant and bar.

Watershed LakeviewThe first installment of the series will take place on September 14 from 7:30pm to 8:30pm, though you can come earlier to mingle, drink, and eat. You can find The Watershed at 5350 S Lakeshore Dr, Tempe, Arizona 85283.

The featured readers for the September 14 event are:

  • Douglas Payne, Poetry
  • Warren Glynn, Fiction
  • Edward Derbes, Fiction

Stay tuned for later installments of this reading series! You can find more information on the event’s Facebook page and on the Facebook page for the ASU MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Contributor Update: Anthony Varallo

Hey everybody! We have some great news today that’s been some time in the making: past contributor  Anthony Varallo, featured in the Fiction section of our 5th issue, has a new short story collection titled Everyone Was There, out now from Elixir Press. You can read the title story of the collection here, and when you’re finished, go ahead and grab the rest of the collection at this link hereEveryone Was There was the recipient of the Elixir Press 2016 Fiction Award, and we here at Superstition Review could not be any happier than to have been there along the way to this wonderful accomplishment.

Buy this book!

Everyone Was There, the new collection of short stories out from Elixir Press, written by past contributor Anthony Varallo.

Contributor Update: Tayari Jones

Good afternoon, dear readers! Today, we are thrilled beyond reason to announce that former contributor and fan favorite Tayari Jones has a new novel coming out next year, titled “An American Marriage,” which will be put out by Algonquin Books. Jones has previously penned the novel titled “Silver Sparrow,” and was featured in the Interview section of our 2nd issue here at Superstition Review. “An American Marriage” is available for pre-order here, and the aforementioned interview can be read here. If you’d like to get the news straight from Tayari herself, sign up for her mailing list here.

The stunning cover for “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones, out next February from Algonquin Books.