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.

#ArtLitPhx: Come to the Table

Come to the Table Opening Reception: August 31 at 2:00 PM

Curated by Leela Denver in collaboration with Wren Awry, with additional curation by Dr. Laura Vázquez Blázquez.

Come to the Table presents work about, inspired by, and in conversation with food. This exhibit explores the many forms of food poems that exist while also asking “what can a food poem be?” Organized by four fundamental stages of a food experience—growing, sourcing, cooking, and eating, with a highlight of food culture along the US-Mexican border—this exhibit explores the various ways poetry uses food and food uses poetry. Come to the table and join us for an interactive exhibit where you can explore the world of food poetry and share your own with us.  

Exhibitions are displayed in the Jeremy Ingalls Gallery of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona, 1508 E. Helen St., Tucson.

Contributor Update, Emma Bolden: ‘Plenary Absolution’

Join us in congratulating SR poetry contributor Emma Bolden. Emma recently published a poem with The Adroit Journal titled, “Plenary Absolution.”

Emma is the Associate Editor-in-Chief for Tupelo Quarterly and recipient of a 2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship. Her work includes House Is An Enigma (Southeast Missouri State UP, 2018), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016), Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013), and four chapbooks. You can also find her writing in several journals.

To read Emma’s latest poem, click here. You can also find her poetry from SR’s Issue 23 here.

Congratulations, Emma!

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

#ArtLiPhx: First Friday Poetry

Peter Twal, winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, reads from his debut collection, Our Earliest Tattoos.

These long-lined sonnets, inspired by the LCD Soundsystem song “All My Friends,” celebrate the surreal, embracing the nature of memory as fragmented and inherently bizarre.

Open reading follows.

ABOUT THE POET 
PETER TWAL is a Jordanian-American poet, an electrical engineer, and the author of Our Earliest Tattoos, winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize (University of Arkansas Press). He earned his MFA from the University of Notre Dame, where he was awarded the Samuel and Mary Anne Hazo Poetry Prize. Since then, his work has appeared in The Believer, Best New Poets, Kenyon Review Online, West Branch Wired, Ninth Letter Online, Berkeley Poetry Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Pleiades, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. Drawing from his professional career, Peter’s poetry seeks a common ground where the seemingly disconnected worlds of writing and engineering learn from each other’s malleability and strength. Our Earliest Tattoos, his debut collection, furthers that pursuit through the use of poetic form, imagistic layering, and more.

EVENT INFORMATION

Location: Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 S. McClintock Dr., Tempe

Date: Friday, August 2

Time: 7 p.m.

For more information about the event, click here.

#ArtLitPhx: Morgan Lucas Schuldt Memorial Reading

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 5, 2019 – 7:00PM

The Morgan Lucas Schuldt Memorial Reading features emerging and innovative poets. This event is presented annually as part of the Poetry Center’s Reading and Lecture Series, and is named after poet and publisher Morgan Lucas Schuldt (2/11/1978–1/30/2012).

This year, the University of Arizona Poetry Center is proud to present Erika L. Sánchez and sam sax, who will read from their work. After the reading, there will be a short Q&A and a book signing.

Erika L. Sánchez’s debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, was published by Graywolf in July 2017, and was a finalist for the PEN America Open Book Award. Her debut young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, published in October 2017 by Knopf Books for Young Readers, is a New York Times Bestseller and a National Book Awards finalist. She is currently a 2017-2019 Princeton Arts Fellow.

sam sax is a queer, Jewish, writer and educator. He is the author of Madness (Penguin, 2017) winner of The National Poetry Series selected by Terrance Hayes & ‘Bury It’ (Wesleyan University Press, 2018) winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. sam has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, Lambda Literary, & the MacDowell Colony.

Location: University of Arizona Poetry Center, 1508 E. Helen St., Tucson

For more information, click here.

Contributor Update, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo: ‘When We Were Seeds’

Join us in congratulating SR poetry interview contributor Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo. Xochitl was invited as a guest instructor to teach a class on poetry for current times at Writing Workshops Los Angeles. The course takes place from July 22 to September 16 and allows students to read, analyze and discuss contemporary poetry from women, people of color, and queer poets “cultivating their own poems of resistance, persistence, and celebration.”

To read more about Xochitl and her upcoming workshop, click here. You can find her interview from Issue 19 here.

Congratulations, Xochitl!

#ArtLitPhx: Whitman Summer Social

Poetry selections from the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music

WEDNESDAY, JULY 31, 2019 – 5:30PM

This event takes place at the Copper Room at Hotel Congress (311 Congress St., Tucson AZ).

Join the University of Arizona Poetry Center for a short reading of poems that the Poetry Center library staff has selected for the programs of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music (AFCM) Programs over the past two years.  Supporting AFCM’s diverse and excellent programming, the featured poems speak to the pleasures of music and the transformative experience of excellent art.  Poems will be read by Library Director Sarah Kortemeier and Senior Library Specialist Julie Swarstad Johnson. The band Young MacDonald will play before and after the event.

There will be a short 20 minute reading of curated poems.  Event will feature complimentary snacks and a cash bar; doors at 5:30, program at 6 p.m.

Click here for more information.

Contributor Update, Joannie Stangeland: Crosswinds Poetry Contest Winner

Join us in congratulating past poetry contributor Joannie Stangeland. Joannie recently won Crosswind Poetry’s grand prize for her poem, “Air on Air.” The Crosswinds Poetry Journal looks for well-crafted English language poetry on all subjects, supports poetry and outreach efforts, and completes charitable work each year.

More information about Joannie and her award can be found here. You can find her poetry from Issue 10 here.

Congratulations, Joannie!

Authors Talk: Megan J. Arlett

Authors Talk: Megan J. Arlett

Today we are pleased to feature Megan J. Arlett as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, she takes the time to discuss her nonfiction piece, “Narrative,” published in SR’s Issue 21. The lyric essay explores the 2008 disappearance of Amy Fitzpatrick as well as language and storytelling.

Megan looks back at her 2017 notebook to discover what she was reading while she drafted “Narrative” and to find out which texts influenced her work. While she struggles to remember an initial spark of inspiration, aside from constantly thinking about the disappearance of her classmate and neighbor, she does notice how certain writers have tapped into her “brain space” to influence what she originally “thought was going to be a poem,” but later became the lyric essay that sits nicely between the nonfiction and poetry genres.

Looking to the musings in her old notebook, Megan discovers that she was obsessing over the poetry of Li-Young Lee at the time. She had written a note to herself about his work that reads, “Long poems need externalities.” In her old notes, she also finds a scribbled question— “Bowman-style meditation for the cyclical obsession with missing people?”—referring to Catherine Bowman’s poem “A Thousand Lines.” Lastly, Megan realizes that the newsprint style of “Narrative” was influenced by Jehanne Debrow’s The Arranged Marriage, which helped give her lyric essay form and made the nonfiction piece feel complete.

It seems that Megan’s creative work was driven by her obsessions at the time: her fascination with poets Li-Young Lee and Catherine Bowman, her admiration for Jehanne Debrow’s literary style, her love for true crime, and her curiosity about Amy Fitzpatrick’s disappearance.

Reflecting on her writing, Megan wants her readers to acknowledge that beauty and horror can exist simultaneously, concluding “There can be voicelessness even amid countless voices.”

You can read Megan’s work in Issue 21 of Superstition Review.