A few quotes + links (please click through!) from the Poet Bloggers Revival Tour, plus occasional other poetry bloggers in my feed reader. If you’ve missed earlier editions of the digest, here’s the archive.
Forgive me if I editorialize here just a little. This week, I’ve been reminded of how much we need poetry, whether we know it or not. The racist lies from Trump and Fox News about the migrant caravan of desperate Hondurans led directly to the most violent anti-Semitic attack in the history of the U.S., capping off a week in which pipe bombs were mailed to Trump’s perceived enemies (starting with that bogeyman of anti-Semites, George Soros), and a gunman killed two African Americans in a grocery store after trying and failing to enter a Black church. And today we learn that Brazilians have elected a straight-up fascist demagogue despite—or perhaps because of—his violent threats against his opponents. This lurch toward intolerance and xenophobia is world-wide and didn’t begin with Trump, and poetry alone is far from sufficient to counter it, but if we’re going to retain any shred of sanity in the weeks, months, and years ahead, I believe we need honest and unflinching language more than almost anything except love itself.
Poets have certainly been rising to the challenges of the political moment — none more so than Natalie Diaz. So I’d like to begin this week with the latest poetry film from Motionpoems, director Mohammed Hammad’s adaptation of Diaz’s poem “American Arithmetic,” which had its web debut at the blog Directors Notes on Monday.
Taking a statistical approach to the underreported issue of systemic injustice directed at the Native American community in modern-day America, New York based, Saudi born filmmaker Mohammed Hammad’s revelatory documentary American Arithmetic adapts Native educator and poet Natalie Diaz’s original poem for screen as part of season 8 of non-profit arts initiative Motionpoems. Making its online premiere here today, DN asked Mohammed to share how he created this intimate look at a community of organizers reclaiming land and culture, whose lives have all too often been derailed by police intervention. […]
How did your conceptualization of Natalie Diaz’s poem evolve from an initially abstract narrative to its current form and how do you feel the use of portraiture and mixed format cinematography strengthened your interpretation of the poem?
I initially had a visual treatment that was more abstract and super ambitious production-wise relative to the budget we were working with. Part of the initial concept was to film portraits of residents of the reservations. After much consideration and a push from my producers, we decided it would be best to have the film feature portraits of indigenous people living in a city to better relate to Natalie Diaz’s depiction. We felt it would create moments of intimacy that would contextualize the statistics mentioned in the poem.
I felt that the camcorder footage would add that extra layer of intimacy between the film and the viewer, to show a more intimate perspective of the illuminating conversations happening behind the scenes.
From its opening moments, American Arithmetic’s soundtrack is peppered with a multitude of vocal fragments discussing the hostile environment encountered by the Native American community. Could you tell us more about the process of building the film’s soundtrack?
The more I embraced the portraiture treatment of the film, the more the pieces of the puzzle came together more, especially with regards to the audio part of the film. It just made sense to add snippets of our subjects’ interviews and to weave together a collection of reflections, each contributing to the conversation on what it’s like to be a Native person in America today.
Do you feel that your experience of having lived in several countries meant that you approached this project from a particular vantage point?
My experience living in several countries taught me to be malleable and I definitely applied that into the process of making this film. The film itself took me out of my comfort zone as I was making a stylized hybrid poetic documentary/narrative piece which I can’t say I’ve ever done before.
MarBelle, Mohammed Hammad Explores the Influence of Police Intervention on Native American Lives in ‘American Arithmetic’
Today I’m going to get up early and get ready for a “virtual” book club visit to talk about Field Guide to the End of the World. It’s a good opportunity to talk about poetry with other people who care about books, which is always cheering. One of the ways I cheered myself this week despite rejections and relentlessly terrible news was turning off the television and computer and reading books. Books remind me of how I developed my own set of ethics as a kid – how The Lorax helped me develop into an environmentalist and Horton Hatches a Who a reminder of keeping promises. How reading books by different authors from different countries helped me imagine what it was like to live in a different country, speak a different language – how The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Weisel helped me understand the horrors of what people did to Jewish people just because they were Jewish, how reading Cry, the Beloved Country helped me know the evils of apartheid, all the dystopias I read about as a kid – from Handmaid’s Tale to Brave New World to 1984, from Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone stories – illustrated the possibilities of evil, and how to stand up against it. Madeleine L’Engle’s Swiftly Tilting Planet and the nuclear fears of the seventies and eighties. Books changed who I was and how I saw the world, how I saw right and wrong, and this gave me hope. Maybe by writing something – we can help others understand and empathize and connect with a world not their own. We should fight for libraries and help teach books that reach beyond out own experiences and encourage others to read and talk about books as much as we can.
How to Do Good
If you, like me, have been struggling with despair in the face of horrific hate, racism, and evil, think of what we can do to bring light. Yes, books – reading and writing and encouraging others to read them. Yes, voting – even if you feel like it’s a pain and you’re worried your one vote won’t make a difference, it can. Yes, giving money to charities – from fighting diseases to fighting childhood poverty to support for causes like the environment or ending racism or rights for the oppressed and refugees – and if you can’t afford to give money, as I couldn’t for some years, you can volunteer, which always helps you to connect to your local community, which can lessen a feeling of alienation. I had a dream last night where I was asking famous women about how to do good, and they sat down and talked to me about practical ways to put good into your world instead of evil. Spreading a little kindness – I talked in my last blog post about telling writers who have inspired you about how they’ve impacted you, but calling a lonely relative or friend who’s been going through a hard time, standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves – all work. I woke up feeling less despairing – the brief blue sky that appeared this morning didn’t hurt – and maybe I’m naive, but I still believe – just as much as when I was a kid – in facing evil and fighting it with the resources we have.
As October comes to an end, I hope you get a chance to see the moon through the clouds – and the light, even as the darkness seems to stretch out and overpower it.
Jeannine Hall Gailey, Poems on the Moon, Going to Book Club, and How to Try to Do Good and not Despair
A powerhouse poet and my friend, Jeannine Hall Gailey, has been blogging and posting about her own discouragement and trying to restore herself by focusing on literature she loves. Thinking of her, and also about the Civil-Rights-inspired poetry my students are currently reading, I asked the members of an undergraduate seminar why they were studying English and creative writing, why that seemed worthwhile to them when there’s so much anti-humanities rhetoric swirling around. What can poetry do? Why read, write, and study it?
They gave practical answers about learning to write and wry answers about being too unhappy to thrive without English class in their daily lives. They also talked about how reading certain books had educated them, extended their empathy, and set them intellectually afire. They referenced poems and prose that had reassured them they were not alone and not crazy, although the world has gone mad and it can be hard to find your people. Yes to all of those reasons. I definitely treasure the company, these days, of the poets and bloggers, the English majors and Creative Writing minors, and everyone else who loves literary art enough to get a little obsessive about it. So many Americans seem angry at the wrong people or, what’s even more bewildering to me, too apathetic to take even the smallest of stands against this administration’s destructiveness: to vote.
The poets, though–they’re trying to change the world. I see them writing their way out of insanity in the books, the magazines, and in the submission pile. I’m doing it, too, even as I remain skeptical that poems (or blog posts) are effective places to fight political battles. Certainly they’re not the ONLY place we should be fighting. But they can constitute zones of kindness and good company, alternate worlds of clearer thinking and human connection and occasionally something more magical than that–something like sustenance or transformation. Like Jeannine and like my students, I continue to feel relief and wonder when I visit them.
Lesley Wheeler, Scary days, undignified cats
Last night I read about the death of Ntozake Shange, most famous for her play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. I remember the line of the play which seemed so revolutionary when I heard it at a performance I saw in grad school (early 90’s):
“i found god in myself / and i loved her / i loved her fiercely.” My grad school feminist mind glommed onto the idea of a god as female. Only later did I think about the other idea in this quote, the idea that we find God already inside us. It reminds me of much spiritual teaching, that we already have everything we need. Some traditions take an opposite approach, that we’re born broken and only when we heal our brokenness will be be redeemed/find what we’re looking for.
Her work transformed me in other ways, too. That relentless exploration of how difficult life is for modern women seemed radical at the time. Her work was part of the feminist work of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s that told us that regular life was worthy of artistic exploration and expression too, and it was such a strong counterpoint to the message I got in grad school.
And of course, her work looked at the lives of minority women who faced problems unique to them. I haven’t read her work in decades, but I imagine that it still seems sadly relevant.
Many of our social scientists tell us that we won’t see societal transformation until we have done the work of recognizing and naming the problems that afflict a society. It is often through the work of writers like Shange that we are able to empathize, even if the problems don’t afflict us. It is often through the visionary work of a variety of writers, spiritual and otherwise, that we can start to imagine what a better world could be.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Loss and Reformation
I work as a nurse practitioner at a rural family medicine clinic. Although I call myself a poet, I have worked all of my adult life in the health care system. We had a staff retreat yesterday, which turned into an emotional event, changing (at least my own) irritation at having to go to a early meeting on Saturday morning to gratefulness that I have a job that matters and work with people who matter to me. It could have been a gripe session– as medical providers we are, of course, very privileged economically, and yet find plenty to gripe about in our work settings. So it was heartening to find that our strongest consensus concerned asking leadership to be more generous and more committed to our support staff– the nurses and medical assistants, the front desk and call center staff– without whom nothing would happen at the clinic. There has always been something family-like about working in health care, whether in the ER at Beth Israel Hospital in NYC; doing abortions in Tallahassee, Florida; providing care to HIV positive women in the South Bronx; or providing palliative care to trauma patients at Harborview in Seattle. There is the sense that we understand what’s at stake and therefore, are able to look beyond our differences and actually care about each other, take care of each other.
So unlike the way the world seems to be working these days.
On the poetry front, I have a review of Robin Becker’s The Black Bear Inside Me up at the Rumpus. […]
Things I think I know for sure:
I’m voting against tyranny and hatred.
I’m working, at least until I retire, which I expect to do in 2020
when I turn 70.
Poetry has saved my life. More than a few times.
Risa Denenberg, Sunday Morning from Moue to Musing
I had a couple of perfect days recently: one was an exquisite balance of walking, friends, color, nature, and the absorbing work of editing. The other was a wonderful balance of solitude, making applesauce, and the absorbing work of editing.
I love editing far more than I love the act of making work. I often do the work of writing by having one eye winced closed in case I’m making crap. Or I’ll write while pretending to think of other things, the way a cat friend of mine used to look away insouciantly as he hooked a plastic spider ring and flung it to one side. Then he’d leap after it as if it were prey. In this way I sometimes find half-forgotten things in my notebook that I can leap upon with edit-lust.
This time though I had the rare pleasure of feedback from people whose opinions I care about, and could delve in to their notes and make multiple copies of possible versions of the poems while muttering things like, yes, yes, okay, you may be correct here, or no, no, you’re wrong, utterly wrong, or, not infrequently, both in reverse succession.
But I also love the balance of mind and body, the meditation of walking, the pleasurable act of squishing apples in my hand-turned apple squisher device. The act of editing is both such things — establishing rhythm, noting details, turning chopped stuff into smooth, and balancing words and silence.
Marilyn McCabe, Callooh Callay; or, A Brief Note on Editing
Dear Editors, why I won’t pay you to reject me
Because I’m work-from-home online adjunct, mom of four (soon to be five) kids whose husband works in the food industry.
Because your contest fee means a night of not ordering pizza out even though morning sickness has me on the floor OR telling my kid she has to wait a while for her new shoes OR missing out on the field trip because even though its five dollars a kid, we have a lot of kids.
Because I don’t believe that literary magazines and contests should “narrow the pool” financially, keeping those who don’t have professional development funds or wealthy spouses or deep pockets from being able to enter.
Because if this is how the literary world always revolved, you would be pre-rejecting Lovecraft, Oscar Wilde, Gwendolyn Brooks, if the patriarchy didn’t get to it first.
It isn’t about “not believing in my work” or “not supporting the arts”–it is about $20 not being much to you, but being too much of a risk for me.
Because I know you work hard, and for little, but so do I. And my work is not worthless, and it is not worth so little that I must pay an editor to even look at it.
Renee Emerson, Dear Editors, why I won’t pay you to reject me
I only have two.
They grow and shrink, lumps
and bones, distorted
and perfectly flawed.
They arc in lovely
lines, dangling toe-buds
like pearl drops & chains.
They are beautugly.
PF Anderson, Feet (Bodymap, 1)
When William Burroughs did his cut ups, he often cut two pages of text down the middle and juxtaposed the different halves. I’ve been messing about with this method, using fiction texts to see what might surface. I’ve moved from two to three juxtaposed texts which seems to widen the ‘phrase field’ a bit, and the one above generated the line ‘overlap of a moth’. I decided to coin the term ‘overlap’ for this type of poem. The result is quite open and experimental; the words still seem to be in flux. I like this – the way meaning doesn’t seem to be fixed. Anyway, here’s the poem. See what you think.
I don’t know exactly
the bit I see infallibly
the glass door
respectful and cold
the way she talks about
the inner significance of things
gone soon enough
to the window
feverish at eye level
between good and evil
free to acknowledge this
all the time very uncertain
pitiful isn’t it?
Julie Mellor, Overlap of a moth
[Jeanne] Oliver suggests making your storyboard from “colors, textures, images, art, magazine pages, objects, travel, architecture, history, family, vintage ephemera, fabrics, and online searches regarding people or places.” I decided to make a storyboard out of the things I’d gathered as well as new images. I pulled out some old magazines, papers I’d saved, old photographs, and other bits and pieces.
In a short while, I had a pile. I selected items from the pile and taped them, more or less at random, to a piece of poster board. When I was finished, I saw that I had placed a photo of my father from 1957 next to the word “Stay” in the upper right-hand corner.
In the opposite corner, I had taped a photo of my German grandparents’ house in Mexico City below to the word “bones.” Above that, the words “a beautiful life” and “lost.” In the middle of the collage, I placed a picture of Little Red Riding Hood facing the wolf.
Other things on the storyboard include a page from To Kill a Mockingbird, the words “dreams & theories,” photographs of my grandparents, a forest scene, and a piece of handmade paper.
The next step in this process is to explore those connections through writing. Oliver: “Is there something in your past or present that you never considered incorporating into your art? Could there be new inspiration right in front of you?” From this exercise, I’m able to ask myself what connections there might be between a house in 1936 Mexico City, Little Red Riding Hood, and a conversation between Jem, Scout and Dill in front of Boo Radley’s house.
“I find the gathering part of this exercise extremely relaxing and meditative,” Oliver writes. I enjoyed the hunter-gatherer aspect as well, paging through my notebooks, ripping pictures from magazines, and adding the odd bits I’ve collected over the years.
Erica Goss, Storyboards for Creative Writing
Recently, I dreamt of falling water and gently swaying scarves and weavers who crafted magical cloth. I dreamt of dancing, silver bracelets shimmering on my arms, and resting on a mystical shore used for healing sleep. And for the first time in what seems like forever, I sat down yesterday and spent a few hours writing in my poetry journal. I now have the seed of an idea for a new poetry chapbook.
For a long time, I’ve puzzled over why I’ve been struggling with writing poetry. I don’t want to poo-poo the idea that learning difficult things is valuable. There is a great value in learning something that requires time, study, scholarship and devotion. But isn’t the point of all that said scholarship to then to take it into the greater world and share it for the good of others? Or to put it to some sort of practical use? There is much lamenting in the poetry world about how no one reads poetry. Yet poets by and large have spent a lot of time in narrow enclaves, writing for each other in a specific, learned language that isn’t interesting or accessible to the general public. By the time I stepped away from poetry to focus on writing my novel, I was worried that I would begin to cement that same language, with its inscrutable trends and impenetrable aura, into my own poetry. Writing poetry felt constricting rather than expansive; anxiety-producing rather than joyous.
Is poetry to be hoarded amongst those who can devote their lives to its mysteries– something holy to be gate-kept by a few high-appointed guardians? Or do we as poets have a responsibility to ensure its ideas and joys are shareable to a wider audience? I guess the answer to that conundrum lies in what one believes the function of poetry is, or if you even believe it needs a function beyond itself. Personally, I believe all art should be functional to some degree or another, but I’m sure greater minds than mine would disagree. If the role of the poet is to experiment with language and push boundaries, then is the sacrifice inevitably accessibility? Then again, isn’t the ultimate point of language communication? And why am I wasting my time and my readers time ruminating on these questions when all I really want to do is write a game review for the vintage “Vampire: The Masquerade?” I don’t have any answers. I just want to see if it’s possible to write poetry that would appeal to people who would normally never read poetry. Anyone with actual intellectual depth, please feel free to weigh in. Two paragraphs of this and I’m already mentally exhausted. (A PhD in the making I am not.)
Kristen McHenry, Choking in the Shallow Water, Vintage Game Review Tease
After our grandmother died a long month after a cancer diagnosis, Mark started to get terrified. Suddenly, everything, including himself, was mortal. He lay in bed, eight, and I sat beside him, eleven and a half, and he asked quivering questions to the ceiling, no light except for the occasional blue blinking of his computer’s power button:
“What does it mean to die?
“When will I die?
“When will you die?
“Where do we go when we die?
“Why do people have to die?”
And to all these I would answer, “That’s very, very far away, don’t think about it now.”
Then I’d go back to my own bed, walking through the hallway with my eyes closed, in case I saw her ghost. Some nights I would have nightmares.
The worst dream I had I was in Mark’s room with Mark, and he was asking those questions, and then her ghost appeared, suddenly, leaning over a lamp. I pointed to her, and Mark turned around, but he didn’t see her…
We were like turtles in the dark, wanting to swim up towards the moon’s shape on the surface of water. But we kept mistaking each other’s pale lit shell below us for the moon, and so we’d spiral back, and back.
“This space is how much I love you” – guest blog post by Rainie Oet (Trish Hopkinson’s blog)
Travel and illness are both estranging, and I’ve managed quite enough of both of late. Yesterday I felt like myself again and promptly wrote a poem about a visit to the Chihuly show at the Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore. I found this surprising because I no longer write many poems where the “I” is so clearly related to me. Lately I’ve written two long series of poems that ostensibly have nothing at all to do with my days, though of course that’s a feint, a bull’s red flag, a dropped handkerchief. Maybe the little poem was just grounding me–hey, I’m back in my life!
After that, I worked on a forthcoming novel. I had a dead man to tote to another part of the manuscript, and then I–poof!–turned a long passage of description into a scene starring the main character interacting with various things, including the hair of that aforesaid dead man.
The dead are heavy but portable. Sometimes they make more sense in one place than another. This is true in life also, but we don’t get to choose. Although I do know a few people who carry around the dead in urns. On a mantlepiece, the dead are strangely magnetic. They provide a kind of focus to a room. Not the fashionable kind that house decorators desire… This seems wrong, of course. The dead are already magnetic without being physically present in a room. They follow us whether we will or no. They crowd around as we grow older. We ignore them most of the time, but now and then one becomes vivid.
Marly Youmans, The dead man in the huckleberries
The first time I came to Skye on my own was to Write. The capital letter is deliberate. I’d signed up for an MA in Creative Writing. As I’ve said before, it was rubbish, but that was at least in part because I was, too. Suishnish, on the left, and Boreraig are sites of 19thC. Clearances, and I was going to Write Poems about them having read everything John Prebble could tell me about the business. Anyway, I hiked over the moor to Boreraig, and on another day, tramped up the metalled track to Suishnish, where there’s a house that was inhabited until relatively recently, and also big fank…a sheep station barn. There are only ruined walls at Boreraig. The crofters were driven to subsist on the poorer land on the opposite shore, or shipped off to Canada. Or they just died.
That was over 12 years ago, and the past is another country. I wrote poems about it all, but as Helen Mort said to me “You can make a poem be, but it won’t be any good”. They weren’t. However. There’s a circular walk of 12 miles or so that starts on the other side of that Boreraig skyline. It starts from the ruined church of Kin Criosdh on the Elgol road, and can be walked clockwise, passing the doomed marble quarries to go over to Boreraig and then along the shore below the cliffs, up a cliff path and on to the Suishnish headland and track..it’s a bit of a plod along the road back to Kil Criosdh. I had always wanted to walk it, and when I hit 65 I had both hips replaced and six months later I did the walk, counterclockwise. The following year I did it again, clockwise. For my money, counter- clockwise is best…it gets the road and the lorries from the Torrin quarries out of the way while you’re fresh, and after that, you may see no one for the rest of the trip. If it’s pissing down they’ll let you shelter in the fank if they’re working that day. Golden eagles haunt the cliff above the track, and there’s often the sight of one being harassed by crows.
I’m conflicted by that bit of coast in so many ways. I want to walk it again, but my ankle’s useless, and I can forget it. I regret the whole business of the MA and the ill-considered writing. And every year, there they are, Suishnish and Boreraig, the first thing I see in a morning for a week in the year. Or don’t see.
They are shapeshifters. They vanish in a scrim of wet muslin. They shine in the sun. They are scoured by squalls of snow. Sometimes, after a snowfall one of the Red Cuillin peaks rises like a moon, and Bla Bheinn towers beyond the headland. I love them and miss them.
John Foggin, Notes from a small island
Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?
A~Write from the gut. Go to that dark place you want to avoid. Explore those issues that make you sick to your stomach. That’s where the poem is. I give myself this advice every day.
Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work?
A~I’m a white, privileged, bisexual woman from rural Alabama. As a child I was sexually abused by the Baptist minister’s foster son and have been sexually harassed for much of my professional life. My poetry is largely female-centered about issues that girls and women struggle with. The personal is political. Recently, I’ve worked with Greek myth, looking at those women whose stories weren’t told because women weren’t telling the stories. For instance, I imagine different poetic truths out of the mouths of Medusa, Medea, Leda, Eurydice et al. Much of the #MeToo Movement echoes the silenced history of these Greek archetypes.
Q~Who was your poetry first love?
A~Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” when I was sixteen. My eleventh-grade English teacher handed the class section one and asked us to respond. Like many teenagers, I was a disconsolate kid, always feeling alone and seeking something more. I felt like a lost soul and poetry became my refuge. A couple of years later I read Plath’s “Daddy” and felt confirmed. As Audre Lorde says, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”
Q~Who are you reading now?
A~If Not, Winter Fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson; The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald; Tropicalia by Emma Trelles; and Averno by Louise Gluck.
Bekah Steimel, Jeopardy / An interview with poet Chella Courington
We were four generations in Pittsburgh; my grandfather grew up in the Hill District, then moved to Squirrel Hill. He was an old-style family doctor who made house calls with stethoscope in his leather kit. He sometimes took his payment in garden vegetables, or a chicken. When the Hill became mainly black neighborhood, he stayed working there and some patients, the story goes, named their kids after him (Reuben).
They davened in Synagogue Beth Shalom; were long members there until my parents moved to Rodef Shalom. I can’t imagine the decades were easy. I heard stories of some families during the Depression having to put their kids in Jewish adoption homes, and were lucky if the kids were there when money came back in.
My father worked outside the city in the mining counties. It took not recklessness but confidence to be that “Jewish buccaneer.” It was possible. Sometimes he had to shine a powerful flashlight down those hollers.
How far have we not come? We’re subjects of history’s hills and shadowed valleys. My grand-parents and parents, who have all passed, would have been surprised if they’d been told to take literally the psalm: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—
Many people are reminding us alongside the darkness there is abundant light. So be it.
Jill Pearlman, Hills, Shadowed Valleys, Squirrel Hill