In this edition of the video reading series, some of the best poets today reading their most innovative work, accompanied by some thoughts about why their wrote their new poetry books and what their poetic process is. Enjoy!
1. Claudia Keelan reads from Truth of My Songs: Poems of the Trobairitz(Omnidawn)
I was living in Denver rather suddenly, after having met and married Donald Revell. One of his students, Carol Nappholz, was just finishing her dissertation "Anonymous Women: The Female Voice in the poetry of the Troubadours." Like most people, even now, I'd read the troubadours, but hadn't even heard about the trobairitz. Carol's book focused on poems in the troubadours' oeuvre that spoke in women's voices. Scholars were debating--and continue to debate--how many of the anonymously written poems could be unqualifiedly attributed to women writers, as so much of what we know about the trobairitz is found only in the vidas--or biographies--of the troubadours. Meg Bogin's 1976 translation of the trobairitz was the first book in English that introduced the twenty-something women who are indisputably trobairitz. Carol gave me the manuscript and said "make this into poetry."
Twenty years later, I translated a sirventes, a debate, or protest poem in one voice. Called "I Grew Coarse" in my translation, the poem protests the sumptuary laws controlling women's clothing. I was a visitor at the University of Alabama at the time, living again in the south, where social relations still seem strictly prescribed by evangelical Christianity, even while date rape is rampant. So it was somehow inevitable that I'd start with the protest poem, even though they are rare in the Trobairitz' corpus--there are two, and both are anonymous. Most of the poems are tensos, a poem in two voices that argues about various things, but mostly love, the fin'amor of the troubadour tradition, the so called fine or pure love invented by the troubadours, to woo his lady, who is the feudal lord's wife, and a trobairitz.
The methods I've developed as a poet, and the attention I've given to what you call "our human enterprise" has been to put the gaze on the one and the many, and their intersections. The longer I listened to the poems of the trobairitz, the more I could hear that same dynamic at play. The trobairitz, the lady of the troubadour's attention, didn't particularly enjoy the categorization that fin'amor placed on her own self, and on her life. Marriage in itself is viewed with anger, resignation, sorrow, rarely, if never, with joy, in their poems. Centuries before the women's movement called attention to the commodification of women, and the dual cooption of feminine authority imposed by marriage and children, the trobairitz were arguing, lamenting, resisting, these same things.
Once I really heard that, all I had to do was transfer it into contemporary language, which wasn't too hard, since the kind of human unhappiness they experienced is what comprises the unhappiness of the status quo, or what in our country was once called the middle or upper middle, class, whose material wealth didn't translate to personal happiness. (Adapted from an interview with Rusty Morrison)
2. Susan Lewis reads from This Visit (BlazeVOX [books])
I conceived This Visit as an elegy to "this visit" of the living to our own existence. The poems in this book recognize death as the negative space that wraps our lives, the absence that frames our presence--and makes it precious (as Wallace Stevens observed).
The relatively sparse and visually rangy poems in this book emerged while I was also writing a collection of prose poems. I found it incredibly liberating to have these dissimilar modalities psychologically "available" to structure and develop my impulses and ideas. Whereas my prose poems squat on the page in short, solid, text blocs, the verse couplets in This Visit investigate the tensile potential of the line. And while my prose blocs plant themselves almost in defiance against the white space of the page, the negative space in This Visit is intertwined with the line, insinuating itself into its existence, shaping and defining it. My prose poems strive for density, compression, and closure, while the poems in this book explore openwork, lacunae, interruptions, and inconclusive, sometimes quiet, sometimes abrupt, endings. Of course, all of these formal characteristics emerged organically from the book's thematic concerns
Not surprisingly, these poems also have a lot in common with my others. Dialectical duality, for instance, seems to inform everything I write. In This Visit, the text/silence duality mirrors the death/life duality, but other paired oppositions are embedded in this collection as well, such as lyricism and distantiation, fluidity and disequilibrium, contemplation and engagement, emotion and irony, self and other. The poems in This Visit also display aesthetic and stylistic features common to my prose poetry, like wordplay, multiple entendre, sonic effects, and intertextuality.
3. Kathleen Ossip reads from The Do-Over (Sarabande Books)
The Do-Over centers around a theme--maybe the universal poetic theme-- death. At least it's the theme that simmers underneath almost every poem. In this book, I wanted to make a concentrated, sustained, and overt exploration. This was not an intellectual or aesthetic task. I needed to understand. What I needed to understand became The Do-Over's narrative spine: the death of a woman referred to as A. in the book. She was my stepmother-in-law, and a beloved friend.
The first poems I wrote for the book told the story of A.'s illness, her death, and the emotional aftermath. As I wrote them, I realized they didn't and couldn't tell the whole story, nor bring me to anything like a complete understanding, because her death occurred in the context of our death-drenched, death-obsessed, death-horrified, death-denying culture. So I began to add other poems, other kinds of poems: elegies for celebrities who died, political poems, poems that explicitly tied the speaker's (my) personal experience to violent deaths that were occurring all over the world.
Because I'm me, the poet who I am, and a reader who likes books with wildly varying textures, approaches, forms, it's an unruly book: There are acrostics, prose poems, a short story, a mini-essay, several long poems. Joy in form, and in the ways form prods us to respond in different ways, is present in all of my books.
My aspiration with this book was to create a novelistic experience. I like reading novels but since I'm a poet, I had to create that experience of an arc or sustained narrative with poems. But they had to be the kind of poems I like to write, which usually do not narrate a story in a straightforward, transparent, or what I see as unrealistically simplified way. There's a protagonist (the speaker, me) undergoing a specific journey through a specific set of dynamically changing circumstances. I wanted to cram as much life and language as I could into this novel-like experience.
So what did I learn about death from writing The Do-Over and what do I want readers to learn from reading it? If I could say it in a few words, of course, the book would be unnecessary. I hope that the book gets at the complex and shifting sensations we humans feel when we confront death--our own deaths, the loss of our loved ones, the horrors of death in our culture. And I hope that it does what poetry can do at its best: help us understand what it is to be human.
4. Janice Lee reads from Reconsolidation: Or, it's the ghosts who will answer you (Penny-Ante Editions)
Reconsolidation: Or, it's the ghosts who will answer you is an essay in fragments written after my mother's sudden death five years ago. With the distance between the self who write those fragments and the self who sits here now, it's as if shifting the focus on an absence that has shifted in this period of time.
In an essay reflecting on this distance, I wrote:
"The entire world forms along a wound. And the deeper the wound, the more intimate the relationship. Loss as a chasm that can't be closed, rendered through an inarticulable restlessness that persists and severs a person's trajectory. While she is alive, even if you are out of touch, even if you haven't spoken to her in months, you know that she is there. And the knowledge of that existence is enough to keep you complacent. In the knowing of her alive-ness, the knowing of her presence, whether or not you are sitting there with her, she is there. But when she is gone, you realize suddenly and violently that she is gone. Suddenly you have memories, memories that did not exist before because there was no reason to remember. And you try to remember those memories because you know that you won't ever be able to see her again, yet because these memories are created through a death, carefully cut holes that offer glimpses, the previous complacency becomes condemnation becomes denial becomes a forced extraction. The memories become more difficult to reach, more elusive. You want to to reach out and beckon for the ghost because you need her to affirm that your memory is still accurate and reliable, but she is reluctant. Beyond the givenness of anything, she hides from revelation, or, you are unable to decipher it."
This book is a montage and depiction of wrestling with grief when grief is both utterly similar and indescribable, an attempt to document something where an absence grips all, an attempt to wrestle with the malleability and instability of memory.
5. Hadara Bar-Nadav Reads from Fountain and Furnace (Tupelo)
Fountain and Furnace is a sensuous exploration of the inner lives of objects, which in turn reveals the inner lives of people who depend on, assign meaning to, and fetishize these things, whether a wineglass, a motel, or a thumb. We fill our days with such matter and clutter, which seem to disappear inside of their particular and often necessary functions. Do we ever really consider the bedroom door and what she has witnessed? Or the fountain with its sculpture of a naked boy standing in a city square? And what of the spine and its relentless support of our cumbersome and thankless heads?
The poems in Fountain and Furnace simultaneously feel haunted to me. That is, the objects have their own stories to tell, some of which surprised me, such as the speaker who contemplates the Holocaust in "Oven" and the erotically charged, obsessive speaker in "Nightgown."
In writing the poem "Shadow," I was challenging and rebelling against my own project. Instead of simply writing about tangible objects and body parts, I started writing about objects that were difficult to define, ineffable, even invisible, such as shadows and wind. In "Shadow" I considered the literal ("Splashing on the blue wind"--in painting, shadows are often cast in blue) and metaphoric ("One is ever haunted," "A dark sea, a season / of ghosts"). It was the line "Daughter of awnings" that became a turning point in the poem, the figure of the girl who shivers "beneath each leaf." I imagined a daughter-ghost, someone who seemed half alive, half dead, with a self-destructive impulse (who drinks "all the scotch" and "walks into walls"). In the end, this shadowy daughter is "Caught between the eyelid / and the eye," which suggests that the sleepless speaker has been overtaken by this strange and aggressive shadow that has a tangible presence and force (who "straddles the bed"). I also, however, wondered about the possibility of the daughter manifesting inside of this speaker, much the same way that other objects in this book had: they are all somehow caught between the eyelid and the eye, between the observations of objects and the speakers' various relationships to the objects being observed.
I do believe objects have a life of their own and can contain the essence of the person who owns or had owned them. I have a collection of beautiful mechanical pencils from my grandfather, who died when my mother was fourteen. When I look at them and hold them, I feel a warmth and kinship to this man I never knew, but who was a brilliant graphic artist. I also have the many, many newspaper articles my grandmother wrote (she died when I was fifteen) and occasionally I wear the heavy silver bracelet she wore daily. When my mother gave the bracelet to me, she said, "Who wears this bracelet wears the sweat of my mother."
And so, through objects, I hold my family close.