Last night I read my poetry master’s thesis in my childhood bedroom on a Zoom call. The walls of my room are painted like the rainforest from third grade when I obsessed over jungles and canopies. In the background, my cohort and professors could probably make out the blue sky painted on the ceiling of the room and the closet in the background that still houses old dresses, short-shorts, and cosplay costumes from high school.
I haven’t lived at my parents’ house consistently for over six years. Part of that distance has to do with coming out as a queer transgender person. I have returned after my housemates and I were unable to make rent in our New York apartment due to COVID19 closures and uncertainty of future employment.
The juxtaposition between my childhood bedroom, a place where I grappled for the first part of my life with gender, sexuality, and mental health, and the achievement of finishing an MFA as a queer trans poet, is, ironically, something I could see myself having written into a poem months ago before any of this began.
In my poetry, I often turn to the surreal, the fantastical, the paranormal, and the absurd to make sense of the fulcrums of my life and my place in society as a queer person. The deeper we wade into the pandemic and into the increasingly disturbing and violent American landscape, the weirder and weirder I have found my poetry becoming. Usually, before the pandemic, I would take notes to write poems daily but I have found myself waking up and leaning into whatever images are stalking my thoughts. I find comfort in my strangeness because the worlds that warp and distort time feel more real and true than the present.
This past week I have been reading a collection of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who I admittedly only stumbled upon because there’s a Frank O’Hara poem I love titled by his name. In his poems, I find the threads of my own tilting away from realism in order to grapple with injustice. There is a sad humor to his speakers similar to O’Hara’s. In, “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage,” he writes:
And beyond that village yawned a hole, into that hole- and not just maybe – the sun for certain always rolled, slowly, surely, daily. At morn to flood the world again the sun rose up- and ruddied it. Day after day it happened this way, till I got fed up with it.
And one day I let out such a shout, that everything grew pale, point-blank at the sun I yelled: “Get out! Enough of loafing there in hell!”
This moment in the poem sticks with me because the idea the sun could retreat into a hole and then the speaker’s anger and address to the sun tells us something I think is incommunicable without turning away from “reality.” The earnestness of the speaker and the futility of yelling at the sun is much like how I feel right now. The bends in perception capture what we are experiencing as humans who also implicated and interpolated in complex systems of oppression in a time of great loss, grief, and injustice.
The speaker shouting “Get out!” embodies how I have been experiencing time. I forget what day it is. An afternoon takes eons and then a week is totally gone. The speaker wants the persistent cycles to stop and even chastises the sun for his role in this.
I wish I had more time to find endings. Instead, I have been brought back to a physical place full many of my ghosts.
In the absurd and surreal I find my contradictions survive together. There is healing in letting the worlds of my poems unravel in ways the physical word doesn’t allow for. I’ll leave you with the last lines of a poem I wrote today:
i hope the sky is eventually mauve. i hope the stone melts to magma & the mountains finally get to experience a real transformation. i too turned to liquid & cooled in the stream. pillow over my head. the sun is blinking or winking who can know which?
Today we are excited to welcome back poet Sarah Carey on our Authors Talk series. In this podcast, Sarah shares some tips for getting “unstuck” in your creative process. She revisits an unfinished poem and walks us through her process of revision with fresh eyes—giving us some incredible insight along the way.
“Don’t give up, explore the hidden…practice self-love, forgiveness, kindness towards yourself and others, and rest.”
thinking about the world we will leave our children. In the wake of what is
happening with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many people mourning the
inability to return to a world as we knew it, yet this may be the only world
that today’s youth will have any memory of.
line; fissure; an inability to reason with the past.
The instinct of a
new writer might be to create drama in a piece—at least that was what I found
when teaching. Some teachers I had forbid us to kill anyone in a poem or story
because we felt the need to create stakes by doing so. To make people care. A
professor of mine once said that all poems must have conflict, but that
conflict might be as subtle as the way the light falls across the road. I want
to believe him, to value that, to be able to sit still, but, when I am called
to write, the ghosts ascend, the sky falls, and I can only see what is down the
dark tunnel in my mind.
written from a place of risk: what do I need to say? Why is that? Is the dramatic
situation complicated in an interesting way? Do I recognize the difference
between melodrama and drama? Why am I attracted to poems where the stakes are
high? Must every poem be about death, somehow, some way?
What I learned
through this crisis is that I have trouble writing a quietly complicated moment
because I have not had time to appreciate those moments in my life in a great
while. Right now, I swing between the inability to get out of bed (inertia) and
being overly productive as my two coping mechanisms. I’m not sure which is less
effective. Yet, crises have come in waves over the last few years, whether in
the form of catastrophic weather (hurricanes on the Gulf coast where I was
living), or gun control, or money problems, or health issues, or the deaths of
loved ones. How can anyone be expected to write about the light falling across
the road when all around us worlds are falling? On the other hand, I read
Tranströmer, for example, and understand that both are possible at once.
[The site of
resistance as the body]—
My father died when I was nine. I’ve written about that incident a lot. I’ve resisted calling it trauma. Yet, right now, children are experiencing trauma in a new way that feels much like that event: something that they won’t realize is traumatic until years from now. I’m trying to stay hopeful that the lives children dream of will one day be possible. I worry that, much like many of our ancestors, there will not be a place beyond struggle to reach for—which brings me back to my question: what world will we leave our children?
Today we are pleased to feature poet Catherine Kyle as our Authors Talk series contributor. Join Catherine as she shares her thoughts on using a fantastical framework to talk about real feelings and experiences and how poetry provides a unique medium to do so.
“When you think of a metaphor, it’s almost like you’re casting a spell on one thing and turning it into something else.”
I’m Catherine Kyle, and I’m going to be talking a little bit today about poetry
and magic. When I looked back over the two poems that were published in Superstition
Review in issue 11, all the way back in 2013, the biggest thing I noticed
was that both poems have this kind of sense of myth and mysticism that I think
is still really present in the kind of poems I write now.
2013 was a long time ago—it’s seven years ago—and since then, I’ve experimented
with poetry and magic in lots of different ways. I’ve had a few chapbooks come
out since then, and one of them was about a kind of “guardian angel of art” who
wanders around an abandoned city rescuing library books and forgotten paintings
and things like that; the two poems that Superstition Review ran ended
up in a chapbook called Flotsam, which was all about the ocean as a
symbol of the unconscious that has a lot of mermaids and seaside villages and
kind of a fairy tale vibe—things like that. So it’s been a definite thread in
my writing for a long time, and in all these cases, I want to have stakes in
the real world, but it has always been really helpful to me to frame real
feelings and real experiences in this kind of mystical or magical light—to kind
of approach it through a different angle. Part of what I’ve been thinking about
a lot lately is why poetry seems like the best way to do that, as opposed to a
different type of art. Why I’ve gravitated to poetry specifically to do that. And
something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been trying to untangle that knot is
that poetry is really rich in metaphor, and I think there’s something almost
inherently magical about metaphor. It’s transformative, right? Like, when you
think of a metaphor, it’s almost like you’re casting a spell on one thing and
turning it into something else. And to me, metaphor feels different from simile,
because when you’re using a simile, you’re saying, “This was like this,”
which is something you could do in creative nonfiction, for instance: say, “This
experience was like being in a fairy tale.” But in poetry, you can use
metaphor more freely, I think—in metaphor, you’re saying, “This was this.”
It’s just a little bit different, but it feels powerfully different to me. Again,
in a poem, you’re not necessarily saying, “This felt like a fairy tale,”
you’re saying, “This was a fairy tale,” and there’s room in the poem for
those two things to be true simultaneously. The literal thing is true, but also
the figurative thing is true, and they’re existing simultaneously in this almost
paradoxical and, to me, kind of magical way. It’s a liminal space where two
things can be true at once.
other thing I’ve been thinking about a lot as far as why magic is this thread
in my poetry is that honestly, I’ve loved science fiction and fantasy as genres
for as long as I can remember—my whole life. And it took me quite a while to
realize that part of what I really like about sci-fi and fantasy is also part
of what I like about poetry. I think they both have the ability to ask, “What
if…?” and answer it in some new way. They both rely on imagination to think
about things that maybe don’t exist yet or could never exist in real life, that
are only possible in the realm of art (at least at this point). For example,
about a year ago, I wrote this sequence of poems where, like, an older, cooler
version of me drives around in a car and picks up younger versions of me who
needed a big sister figure and shakes them out of whatever situation they’re in
and gives them a little life advice and dusts them off and kind of holds space
for them. Obviously that can’t happen literally, right? Like, I can’t literally
time travel. But the fact that it can happen in a poem makes a kind of
catharsis possible that’s not possible any other way that feels almost
supernatural to me. So those are a few of the things I’ve been thinking about.
I’ll just read you a couple of poems from my two collections that came out last year. I had a chapbook come out from Ghost City Press called Coronations that consists of some fairy tale retellings, and I had a book come out from a press called Spuyten Duyvil called Shelter in Place, which, unfortunately, now is a phrase many more people are familiar with. I’ll read you one from Coronations first and then one from Shelter in Place. In Coronations, again, my goal was just to revisit traditional fairy tales and give some of the princesses a little bit more agency. Other writers have done this, but I wanted to try it out for myself. I’ll read you one called “Collective,” which is inspired by Swan Lake.
Somewhere adjacent to the world, we rule, gowns our feathers.
When stars blink out like carbonated water, limbs re-human. We rub
ourselves with bath salts, make a bonfire, and dance. Lake a slice of armor,
silver breastplate we surround. When dawn begins to infiltrate
the copse with prying hand beams, we stamp out what orange coal still smokes,
pack up our camping gear. We do not wait around for arrows, heartbreak, drowning—
none of that. We pirouette to bird form. We sail beyond its reach.
Okay. So that was one inspired by Swan Lake. I just always liked the character of Odette and was sad that she meets a tragic end in the original. I think in some versions all her friends, her swan attendants die with her, so it was just putting them in a contemporary setting where maybe they would have a little bit more agency.
The other poem I’ll read you is from Shelter in Place. While fairy tales are my favorite type of magic or allegory that I visit in poems, Shelter in Place has more of a cyberpunk feel. The whole book is set across a backdrop of this dystopian, futuristic city, and I tried to use that not only to talk about some of the grief and heaviness I feel when I think about some of the problems the world is facing right now—environmentally, economically, in terms of human rights, all kinds of things—to articulate the pain of living in a time where we’re facing the things we’re facing, but also to look for metaphors of hope and resistance in the face of all of that. So, I’ll read you one that was inspired by a flower I saw on a walk one day that was just bursting through the cement. It was just bursting through the sidewalk, right in front of me. There were no other flowers around—it was just this sea of concrete and then this very healthy-looking flower somehow, despite it all, against all odds, living there and thriving in the sidewalk. So, this is called “Blossoming 1.”
On these evenings our heads tilt up and become flowers, busting out of our collars, all iridescent. Geranium, freesia, gladiolus erupting straight out of our used T-shirts. With smartphones in our pockets—our long winter coats. Our cheeks shift to druzy, a spiked hymn of glitter refracting and clutching the siren-scraped light. The red -green-yellow No Vacancy din. We are all wind, all magenta. Our laughter a rooftop vertigo, a circle of lips on a bottle’s swan neck. Geode heartbeats keeping time. A wallowing, a daisy in cement.
Okay. Thanks. I’ll stop there, but thank you so much to Superstition Review for inviting me to be part of this series. Thank you for listening in. It was really fun to be part of this, and I hope you’re reading and/or writing something fun today. Thanks again!
Today we are pleased to feature author Adam Houle as our Authors Talk series contributor. Adam talks with Mason Yarborough, discussing his poem, “A Time to Tear and a Time to Mend” which was featured in Issue 24 of Superstition Review.
Adam goes through his poem in detail, remarking on inspiration behind lines, the narrative the order builds, and how to know when a poem is finished. Adam also talks about how his writing has changed over the years, relating his work now to back when he first contributed to the magazine.
You can read Adam’s previous work “Three poems” featured in Issue 9 of Superstition Review.
You can also check out Adam’s book, Stray, at Lithic Press.
Today we are pleased to feature author Todd Dillard as our Authors Talk series contributor. Todd answers questions submitted by his Twitter followers, building a discussion of his new collection: WAYS WE VANISH, his methods, and ninja turtles.
WAYS WE VANISH centers around the loss of his mother and his grief at her absence. Todd details how he curated his collection, how he originally failed, and why his collection is better because of it.
Todd also talks about poetry in general–from knowing how to revise, to knowing when a poem is ready for publication. He also touches on a wide variety of other points like the importance of the musicality of poetry, line lengths and their effects, and how to assemble a book of poetry.
You can read Todd’s work “Rewind” in Issue 21 of Superstition Review.
Check out Todd’s website and preorder your copy of WAYS WE VANISH.
Congratulations to Sam Sax for his recent poem Hangover 1.1.2019 published in ZYZZYVA’s issue 117.
Sam Sax is a queer, Jewish, writer & 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.
Recently, while chatting with an author about their book of poems, I asked them about the ordering of their collection. I was particularly curious about the placing of a few poems about half-way through the book that focused on personal experience.
Reading these personal poems in the context of the prior poems, which were primarily concerned with the world outside the self, was incredibly striking. The author responded by first noting that he is always unsure how people will engage his books—whether they will pick up the book and read one or two poems and set it down, or if they will read the book in larger chunks or even in one sitting.
Poems are individual units of possibility. They enchant us and surprise us. We delight in their layers upon layers of meaning. But poems do not only contain layers of meaning—they contain layers of experiencing.
We can experience a poem through its visual appearance on the page, through its sounds and rhythms, through the way it feels leaving our mouths. We feel and come to understand all at once the tensions and releases found in reading both lines and sentences and seeing a poem as well as hearing it. These multiplicities are at the core of the lyric poem—they allow us to engage with the poem in a present moment and to return to its music often.
While we can experience the many facets of a poem all at once, often to gain a deeper understanding of the poem or an understanding of the ways in which the poem is crafted, we must isolate its particular components—such as solely examining a poem’s use of sound or whitespace. We often engage a poem not only in multiple readings, but in different readings.
I think this concept of engaging in multiple and different readings can apply to the poetry book. I also like the idea of applying some of Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric to poetry books. These books are rather different from other books we often read, such as novels. A poem within a poetry book is self-sufficient, yet is always altered by its existence within the larger text. And the text, the whole, exists as its own entity that at the same time cannot exist without the individual poems in their particular form and order. And in addition to the poem, there are other units within the poetry book that create complexity, such as series of poems and larger sections.
The complex dynamic between parts and wholes allows some poetry books to function much like poems. Through reading a poetry book, the reader is creating a web of connections and tensions that can be experienced in a present moment. This ‘web’ separates narrative forms, like the novel, from other forms, like the poetry book, which can be much more lyric.
While we can read narrative forms like the novel from beginning to end, we often read poetry books circularly—constantly referring to previous poems and ideas to consider the relationships between the many parts and wholes. When reading the last poem in a collection, we often return to prior poems in thought—the context of experiencing the whole changes the parts we have already experienced. We are continuously re-experiencing units of the poetry book in a ritualistic way, similarly to how we return to reconsider lines or stanzas or the title of a poem after reaching its end.
Just as there are multiple ways of reading a poem to yield new understandings or experiences, there are multiple ways of reading a poetry book. Sometimes, when poems expect a lot of us as readers, we must absorb them in smaller chunks. Other times, we may be able to read a collection straight through. After reading a poetry book in smaller chunks, we might consider re- reading it continuously. I think a continuous reading sensitizes us to the ebb and flow of a poetry book—to the various turns or climaxes within series or sections or the larger whole.
We can have a different experience through reading the last poem of a book back into the first poem. We could also isolate poems written about a particular subject or in a particular form and read them continuously rather than reading them in the order they appear within the collection. We could read a poem specifically in the context of another poem within the collection. These different readings will illuminate new aspects of both the poems and the book, providing us a way to experience the complexities of the poetry book as a form.
I am not advocating for a particular way we should be reading poetry books, but rather that many readings exist as possibilities for us to explore. Just as we delight in whole poems as well as in their lines, stanzas, sounds and rhythms, we can delight in whole books as well as in their individual poems, series and sections. We not only delight in these parts, but in the various tensions and connections present—the spaces that exist between these parts and their larger wholes. Regardless of how we read a poetry book, we should consider more often these spaces between—the wondrous web of meanings and experiences that draws us to encounter a poetry book again and again.
WHERE: Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, 1738 E McDowell Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85006
Past SR contributor Sally Ball has helped to bring about a discussion event at a local Tempe book shop with the notable authors Chris Nealon and Wendy Trevino.
The Marshall Chair Borderlands Poetry and Performance Series is presenting The Poetics of Borders, Race, and Capital, which is supported by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, is free and open to the public. The reading event will be facilitated by the two authors and will take place on November 22nd at Palabras Bilingual Bookstore.
You can learn about Chris Nealon’s new book of poetry, The Shore, here and Wendy Trevino’s recent work, Cruel Fiction, here. To read our contributor, Sally Ball’s poetry go to Issue 6 of Superstition Review.
We hope you are able to attend this thought-provoking event! You can also RSVP here, though it is not required to attend.
“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.