Guest Blog Post, Emily Cole: You Are Already A Poet

Last year, I had the extraordinary privilege of teaching an undergraduate class on music and poetry. I was thrilled to witness the camaraderie that developed between the musicians, poets, and fiction writers who enrolled as they built our classroom community through workshop and discussion. I watched them collaborate, and watched many genuine friendships form. During the last week, I put together my last planned lesson of the course, a sampling of “how-tos” for the professional writing world – how to publish in undergraduate literary journals, how to write a cover letter, how to find resources and enroll in online poetry classes, etc. Thirty seconds into my presentation, one of my students – let’s call her Viola – said, “but Miss Cole, how do you know when you’re a poet? When do you count?”  

This question both deeply resonated with me and also broke my heart. I abandoned my previous lesson plan, reentered the circle of students, and told them that when I was in my second-ever poetry class, I capped off my portfolio with a poem called “When I am a Poet.” The poem itself has been lost, but the general gist was “when I’m a real poet, my work is going to be so much better, I’m going to be so much smarter, and I’ll be taken so much more seriously.”

To be an artist of any kind is to live with the constant, nagging doubt that your art is not legitimate. We believe, instead, that our legitimacy as artists comes from the world around us – from poems and books we have published, to accolades we have won, to degrees we have earned. We believe that these things are concrete and tangible proof that we “count” as artists in our chosen fields.

And it’s not to say that those things don’t matter. They can be helpful to a poet’s career, especially if one wishes to enter academia, where right amount of acclaim and professional connections can sometimes translate into a teaching job. Publication increases our work’s visibility. Awards and grants provide us funding to continue our work. Books allow a poet to showcase a range of work that readers can keep on their bookshelves or bedsides.

But none of these trappings, however useful to someone’s poetry career, make us poets.

Fewer than ten of Emily Dickinson’s poems were ever published during her lifetime, all of them anonymously, possibly without her knowledge, and she is one of the greatest American poets of all time. But even her greatness, her innovation and brilliance is not what made her a poet. Her poetry made her a poet. And that lesson is less about poetry itself, and more about the system that young American poets are brought up in, a system that teaches them to value their work based on publication credits, awards, Facebook likes, and, ultimately, money.

As poets, and all too often as people, we define ourselves by our external accomplishments because the “marketplace” of poetry – of capitalism, of America – teaches us that the value of our artistic work is directly correlated with how many people see that work and thus how much money it makes and/or how famous we become because of it.

Until Viola asked her vulnerable and important question, I was doing all my students a disservice by focusing their attention on publication, rather than teaching them the far more important lesson that their work has intrinsic value all on its own.

So I invoked another metric. “Class,” I asked, “How many of you think that Viola is a poet?”

The class responded with a chorus of affirmation that, yes, Viola was not only a poet, but a talented poet, one with a gift for strange, defamiliarizing syntax and potent, memorable metaphor. “But you’re my friends!” Viola cried.

“Precisely.” I said. “Now, is there anyone else who feels that they aren’t a poet?”

Every hand went up. Including mine.

When they stared at me—but you’re the teacher—I told them that the “marketplace” of poetry would have them believe that they are not a real poet until they’ve collected a certain, often arbitrary, number of accomplishments. I told them that even with dozens of publications in nationally-recognized journals, with a CV full of accolades, a chapbook publication, an MFA, there are days, weeks, whole months, that I don’t feel like a real poet. I told them about poet-friends I know, friends who have books and NEA grants and lists of accomplishments pages long, who still consider themselves to be “emerging” poets, because the poetry marketplace has told that they don’t count as “real poets” yet.

Viola isn’t alone. Every poet I know wonders, at one time or another, at what point they “count.” At what point they will count as “real.” But that’s just the marketplace talking. It’s an easy thing to forget, in the midst of all the other noise, but it’s the poetry that makes the poet. Not the money. Not the brand. Not the number of fans, or of followers on Twitter or Instagram.

Before class ended that day, I asked my students to do one more thing. They looked to their left and their right, and told each other the one truth that I hope they’ve taken away from class, the truth more important than any advice about publication than I could ever give them: You are already a poet, they said to one another. You already count.

#ArtLitPhx: Seven Ways to Disrupt Your Poetry with Terese Svoboda

Date: Saturday, April 20, 2019

Time: 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.

Location: Piper Writers House, 450 E Tyler Mall, Tempe, AZ 85281

Cost: $99 Regular, $79 Student

Event Details:

About the Class

Re-lineate, incorporate, untranslate, narrate, collaborate, investigate and capsize your ailing poem. Participants will look at the work of Brenda Hillman, Sean Singer, Latasha Nevada Diggs, Tusiata Avia, Maureen Seaton/Neil de la Floor/Kristine Snodgrass, Jayy Dodd to illustrate charged ways to reinvigorate stale or unformed material. Please bring a poem that needs resurrection and be prepared to celebrate at its innate genius – and play.

Meet Your Instructor

A Guggenheim fellow, Terese Svoboda is the author most recently of Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship (poetry, 2016) and Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet(biography, 2018), and Great American Desert (stories, 2019). She’s won the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Prize for poetry, an NEH grant for translation, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, the O. Henry award for the short story, the Bobst prize for the novel, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. Her opera WET premiered at L.A.’s Disney Hall. She’s taught at Williams, Columbia School of the Arts, William and Mary, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, New School, Davidson, the Universities of Tampa, Miami and Hawaii, as well as in Tbilisi, Nairobi and St. Petersburg for the Summer Literary Seminars.

For more information or to register for the event, please visit the Piper website.

Contributor Update, Christopher Citro: 2018 Meek Awards

Today we are happy to announce the news of past contributor Christopher Citro! Christopher’s nonfiction piece, titled “Root That Mountain,” published in 2018 by The Florida Review, has been awarded the Review’s 2018 Meek Award for Creative Nonfiction! Furthermore, three of his poems are forthcoming in the newest volume of Raleigh Review.

More information about “Root That Mountain” can be found here, more information about his forthcoming works and events here and Christopher’s poems in S[r}’s Issue 9 can be found here.

Congratulations Christopher!

#ArtLitPhx: MFA Student Reading Series: Annie Vitalsey and Leah Newsom

artlitphx

Date: Thursday, Apr. 11, 2019
Time: 8 p.m.
Location: The Social Hall (715 S McClintock Dr) Tempe, AZ
Cost: All are welcome.

Event Details:
Calling all lovers of poetry and prose! Join English’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program for the first semester of a special 8-part reading series featuring brand new work from ASU graduate students. Each reading will highlight two to three students at The Social Hall, a new destination bar and restaurant in Tempe. Do yourself a favor and support the arts by taking a night off to enjoy some of the best work our community is producing.

The readings start at 8:00 p.m., but come early to grab a drink or snack and mingle!

Authors Talk: Paisley Rekdal

Paisley Rekdal

Today we are pleased to feature Paisley Rekdal as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her discussion with fellow poet and classicist Kimberly Johnson, she takes the opportunity to talk about working with classical literature, the complexities of language and translation, women as translators of the classics, and the themes of the classical writings which the two have used as inspiration for their own work. They discuss mainly Paisley’s work with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Kimberly’s translation of Virgil’s The Georgics and how they have found inspiration in these classical poetic texts. And with their work, they’ve become “steeped in an ancient idiom” which has influenced their own poetic style and translation methods.

Paisley speaks to her own journey in contemporizing Ovid’s myths in her book of poetry Nightingale which is to be released in May. She notes that one of the trials of her work was finding how to “contemporize the myths without becoming a slave to just retelling them” and how she wanted to try “translating images of power” and “structures of change” that exist within the myths into her own poetry. She details the struggles and trials she faced in her work with the text and more.

They also take time to discuss the trials of translation of the classics and Kimberly’s work with Georgics. Kimberly notes that she “lives the world in lines” as a translator and poet, wanting to preserve the experience of the original poem. She and Paisley “reside in that complexity of language” which is inherent to poetry as an expressive art. Their extensive interest and creative engagement with the classics also helps them speak to modern topic of women working in classical translation and the appeal of the classical myths to a modern audience. For them, “the classics holler out to us from a period of imagined stability” and the themes and unique stories of those works are particularly attractive to modern readers. To hear more about the intricacies of their creative processes and their perspectives on the classics, please take the time to listen to this fascinating podcast.

You can read our interview with Paisley in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.

Contributor Update, Sarah Wetzel: The Davids inside David

Today we are happy to announce the news of past contributor Sarah Wetzel! Sarah’s newest poetry collection, titled The Davids inside David, was published on March 15th by Terrapin Books. According to Marcela Sulak, another past contributor, “This is a memoir of a woman who moves through art as through the world, who moves through the world as through an ever changeful museum of art.” Sarah will be attending and conducting a few events, leading up to the official book launch on May 29th.

More information about the poetry collection can be found here, more of Sarah’s poetry can be found in S[r]’s Issue 11 and Issue 14.

Congratulations Sarah!

#ArtLitPhx: New Voices Live Reading

Date: April 5th, 2019

Time: 4PM

Location: Trans Am PHX, 1506 Grand Ave, Phoenix, AZ 850007

Event Details:

Join us for a night of live readings from the Phoenix College Creative Writing Department. New Voices will feature student and faculty reading their poems, short fiction, and brief non-fiction pieces before a live audience.

If you’re a Phoenix College student and would like to read, please submit your piece to josiah.kilduff@phoenixcollege.edu before March 30th.

This reading is hosted at Trans Am PHX in the Grand Ave Arts District.

Contributor Update, Nicole Sealy: Princeton Fellowship

We are happy to announce the news of past contributor Nicole Sealey! Nicole has been selected as one of the five creatives chosen to be a Mackall Gwinn Hodder Fellow (2019-2020) at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University. An award-winning poet, Nicole has had poems published or recognized by The New York Times, The Paris Review, NPR, etc. While a fellow at the Lewis Center, Nicole has committed to tackling the erasure of the Ferguson report by the United States Department of Justice and will also engage with the Princeton and literary communities through lectures, readings and other events.

Our interview with Nicole from Issue 21 can be found here, and more information about her two poetry collections and awards can be found here.

Congratulations Nicole!

Contributor Update, F. Daniel Rzicznek: Settlers

Today we are happy to share the news of past contributor F. Daniel Rzicznek! Daniel has just announced his third poetry collection titled “Settlers.” The collection is available now and Paul will be reading and signing copies at the Portland AWP Conference. Stop by and say hello to Paul and S[r] staff at our table! The collection is centered around the landscape of the American Midwest, and the conflict of ease and resistance in the process of settling.

 

More information about the collection can be found here from Parlor Press, his poem Wiggle Room can be found published in our 22nd Issue here.

 

Congratulations Daniel!

 

Guest Blog Post, John Walser: In Praise of Not Knowing

Courtesy of the contributor, John K Walser“We are hungry for the secret news about life.” – Stanley Kunitz

As writers, as readers of poetry and prose and drama, we are, more or less, hungry for mystery and surprise, hungry for understanding that is not washed in the dust of everyday living.  We are hungry for the secret news about life.

Like the mythmakers before us, who were trying to ground a belief system and initiate people into society through the use of story and poem and play, we too are hungry to explore who we are, why we are here, the purposes of living and dying, our places in the worlds of space and of time, what love is.  Unlike the mythmakers before us, though, as we deal with these existential realities, we know that we don’t have the answers; we know that we don’t know any secrets besides our own; and we know that most of those are still secret from us even after we have spent our lives searching for them.

Because of this, because the human mind cannot be easily explained, the creation of art, as well as art itself, is unpredictable.  Sure, we can break down the processes of the brain to synapses firing and axons stimulating and all that electrochemical junk (scientific terminology there), but the mysteries of the mind, of its processes of creation, of why we have certain thoughts and why certain people can produce new cuisines, or a starry night on canvas, or a little night music, or a midsummer night’s dream is beyond us.  In fact, that it is beyond us is the very thing that gives art in any form its power; that they had not thought of it in quite that way themselves but they make the connection the artist created nonetheless is what makes an audience say, “Yes.”

Where scientists create narratives of the brain – big bangs and quantum mechanics, electron transfers, and quarks – explainable, empirical, and, they hope, synchronic – we writers are doing something equally important, creating verities of the mind – a man who turns into a domed beetle, a woman weighted down by her waterlogged dress and sinking below the surface of a clear stream growing murky, a catalog of unabashed gratitude – each one a little mysterious yet still familiar, each one individual yet understandable.  

Writing (like any art) in its own peculiar way holds up mystery in order to be confirmed; it holds up proof in order to show the question mark.  Art is natural science, history, philosophy, psychology, theology, experience and enigma pressed into a superball, but one with a big chunk missing from it.  And that superball is bounced in a child’s room, with unheard of abandon, and with all of the crazy spin that missing chunk causes and that child can muster. Where it ends up – under the bed, crashing into the lampshade, hidden among the toys, lodged between the wall and the dresser, simply gone until it strangely, magically reappears months later in a shoe that had already been checked – is anyone’s guess.

Art is all of this.  Writing is all of this.  And here is the most wonderful thing about it: it always fails to satisfy our hunger completely.  

And this, for me, is where the joyful pain (the painful joy) of writing lies.  

Whenever I sit down at my desk, I’m hungry for words; I’m hungry for understanding – even though I know that they’re not completely available to me, that they are in a sense beyond.  I believe in the pursuit of words, in asking questions, in exploring the ambiguity and complexity of being human. I feed my insatiable hunger for language as I write: for sound and sense, for rhyme and reason, for glee.  I write, and I know that I’m writing from and within my own ignorance and toward my own failures, my inability to know it and to say it exactly the way I want to say it, whatever it is.  

Wordsworth said, famously, that the process of writing poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.”  For me, though, it is the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in anxiety and uncertainty, in pain-behind-the-eye head-thumping mistake-riddled frustration, and finally (every once in a while) in satisfaction and thus something that resembles tranquility (until I of course work on the next poem, or until a month or two or a year down the road I of course see something in my finished poem I don’t like.)  

Feeling comfortable in this unsure process, having the techniques learned, then letting both go, letting the unanticipated, the newness take over, in a sense, feeling lost, that is what gets me moving toward something.  As I write, it is right for me to feel lost. Because that spurs discovery. The great guitarist from the band King Crimson Robert Fripp once said, “The key characteristic of mastery is the assumption of innocence within the context of experience….If you walk out on stage not knowing what you are going to do, you might just do it, but not as a novice, where you really don’t know what you are doing.  The master has integrated all of the skill set of a professional and then throws it away. Or assumes the innocence.”

So…

Planning, practice, patience, passion, concentration, discarding, perseverance, worry, wonder, confusion, ignorance combine to move something forward toward artistry and someone forward toward mastery.  I know I must approach my work with arrogance and humility. We know this. When we create art, we want our god hand to shine like yellow fondant-drape sunlight on the steeple, on the whole cathedral of our creation; we think that we can satisfy that hunger for knowing and saying, but the closer we get to art, the more we appreciate what we cannot do and what we must push ourselves to become.  

And for me, more and more, what I cannot do yet (and may never be able to do) and what I must push myself to become (yet may never become) are the true gifts, the ones that keep my hunger gnawing.