Call and Response: The Gifts of Women Poets (Part 2)
[Editor's Note: Part 1 of "Call and Response: The Gifts of Women Poets" can be found here.]
Carolyn Kizer was my poetry mentor, great friend and goddess.
Here is an anecdote that says everything about her: an admirer wrote her a letter, but did not have her current address, so simply wrote on the envelope: The White Goddess; Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The letter was delivered to Carolyn.
She was one of the first feminist poets (with a sense of humor!) in America.
She wrote sublime mythological poems. Have you read “Semele Recycled"?
Many of her poems, such as “The Great Blue Heron,” weave nature, human relationship and spirit.
She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her collection of poems, “Yin.”
We now live in what was once her Paris apartment, surrounded by many of her poetry books, favorite novels, and books of French history. Surrounded, in fact, by her spirit, which I imagine to be that of a Great Blue Heron, that elegant, that beautiful.
On Maxine Kumin
During my MFA studies at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire from 2006-2008, Maxine Kumin was Poet in Residence. I was initially drawn to Maxine because of her history with Anne Sexton, and because she and I share a Jewish heritage. We had the pleasure of listening to her lecture on her friendship with Sexton, and she would meet with the graduating students each residency. I had also heard her read locally in Shelburne Falls, MA and a few other places in New England. It was finally my class’s turn, so during our final residency, we had the honor of going to her home in the country about an hour from NEC for a workshop. We walked past the small pond with a swimmer’s dock, about which she wrote “I took the lake between my legs” and the stable for the horses she rescued, and into the simple wood-trimmed dining room, where she welcomed us. Her husband Victor was there. He wasn’t a poet himself, but would always drive her to her readings. I was a little nervous because Maxine had a reputation of (at least once) making a student cry after being brutally honest about her poems. Happily (and perhaps because we were at the end of our program) she had positive and very meaningful critique to offer us. One thing she said was, if you have something difficult to write about, you should pound it into form. Having to work in form allows the mind to focus on the craft of the poem and makes it easier to deal with complex or emotional subject matter. She considered herself a formalist, even though much of her work is a delightful mix of form and free verse, peppered with humor and deep pathos. The poems also reflect her love for nature and for animals. Her strongest work is when she celebrates images close to home, of science and nature. After the workshop she gave us a tour of the farm. We walked by the pond, and could sense her poems splashing there along with her little dog Rosie. I think of the end of that poem, “Morning Swim” where she writes, “My bones drank water; water fell / through all my doors. I was the well / that fed the lake that met my sea / in which I sang ‘Abide with Me.’” On the way out, we saw her beloved horses rolling in the dust.
For over thirty years, since I was 30 and she 40, I have been a friend and great admirer of MacArthur-winning poet Ann Lauterbach, with whom I associate the word "virtue." Ann takes seriously the role of poet as deep observer and seer: her visions are for an ethics of poetry wedded to a stringent aesthetics of necessity and originality. Some poets write out of other motives more rooted essentially in pleasure or game. Ann's poems are an imperative, a vessel for wisdom of the deepest variety and exhibit the pains, vicissitudes, and joys of using language with responsibility and grace. Of course Ann can be funny and as a person lights up with appreciation at good conversation, at the concerns and lives of friends and students whom she has taught first at CUNY Graduate Center and then at Bard for decades. She is extremely close and remains a lifetime ally and guardian: when Stacy Doris was dying, Ann wrote many beautiful and touching words on her behalf. In one she spoke of Stacy as someone in the process of "self-invention," which took "wit and will and intelligence" and "a kind of radical intransigence." These are the same qualities Ann possesses, which lead to a life of freedom in poetry, and small brilliant dares to the reader to follow each line of her poems. Ann is not the product of writing programs: she is self-made but a lifelong conversant with the language and humanity that comprise her gorgeous, important work.
"Narration and rupture" are her tools, but the poems are far more than that: they are a negotiation between complexities that try to include the enormous sense of mystery we encounter in life and live in language. Virtuosity and generousness are the product: we leave the table feeling blessed. "I wanted the gaps to show," Ann said of poems written after the death of her sister: such poems allow us to fill in the interstices with our own canny versions of living in language that her process invites.
I am always learning from Laux’s poems, and from her movement in the world—she’s a necessary member of my pantheon, straight up, fairy-godmother stuff. She lives with the same humor and thoughtfulness you’ll find in her poetry, which makes her an excellent instructor, both in model and in her contributions to the teaching of craft. I met Dorianne at the Tin House Writers Workshop in 2011, when I attended one of her lectures about the music of the line being such a magical force in poetry. This music is often the key to establishing the rhythmic voice of a poem, but it also rules the bodily expression of the art, where patterns aid memorization, where stresses command performance, where the teeth and diaphragm are also co-conspirators in the writing and the memory. She demonstrated by reciting (beautifully) Thomas Lux’s “Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy,” and I’ll never forget her voice’s urgency in each syllable of “semi-tropical,” nor the way Laux reads her own rhythms and arpeggios so powerfully and also gently. I memorize poems because in Dorianne’s words, that is the surest way to learn how their music works. There is such perfect and complex music in Laux’s poetry and its observations, and, there is also empathy, and generosity, which makes me return to her poems often, as human seeking companionship when my heart has been cracked open or needs to be cracked open. While writers are perhaps thought of as unflinching in process, Dorianne beckons us each to flinch, to allow the world to wound us, and react. That while perhaps poets could be accused of contriving a false reality, perhaps it is only the ideal reality we construct, the one in which everybody flinches, is wounded, by what should wound us, and where we’re all seeking to make sense of it, to question it, to heal it, or to shape it anew.
Denise Levertov is one of those rare poets I can call a “prophet” without a trace of irony. She is a figure difficult to place in a contemporary lineage, a woman who often seems to live outside of everyday time. In terms of direct influences, she comes as much from the Anglican saint Dame Julian as from Williams and Eliot. Few can rival her for sheer reverence, for naked faith and pregnant silences... and she seems to have been aware of her gifts her whole life long. It's “Too Easy: To Write of Miracles,” as an early poem claims. Another echoes that “Silence / surrounds the facts.” Yet this tongue-tied mysticism was to break open over the decades; her shifts of intention and approach are nothing less than tectonic in scale. Eavan Boland, in her introduction to the breathtaking 1,000+ page Collected Poems (New Directions, 2013), usefully divides her massive body of work into three phases. In my own words, these are the inward-looking lyricist (1946-67), the outward-looking interventionist (1968-82), and the integrated faithkeeper (1983-99). Her early fugues explode into literal and figurative riots (as in her cri de coeur To Stay Alive ), then stabilize in the person of an elder. Her later poems achieve a breadth of vision where any plant at all can number among the “Flowers of Sophia,” and any one among us can embody the All.
—Allan Andre Markman
And then one morning we wake up / embracing on the bare floor of a large cage. Robin Coste Lewis’s voice illuminates the lengthening shadows of our cages: slavery; Jim Crow; war; family; the human body, which she renders real: miraculous, hungry, finite. Somehow, she writes narratives simultaneously numinous as Blake or Marilynne Robinson’s and bittersweet with truth.
He'd eaten them raw everyday
but had only touched a real oyster once.
Her name was Clotilde. He was sweet
on her—both seventeen—both attending
the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
School for Indians and Coloreds.
One day, hem up, elastic stretched,
his boyish hand rumbling through her
bloomers, the rough and soft of it, Cloë
and her oyster liqueur:
the wettest, strongest, alive, unreal heaven
yielding: soaked and throbbing on his finger tips.
[from The Previous Sea, Beauty’s Nest]
I’m waiting eagerly for the launch of Voyage of the Sable Venus and so should you.
On Audre Lorde
I was a teenager when I first read Audre Lorde’s poetry. This was in the late nineties, just a few years after she died, and I encountered her work with unabashed enthusiasm. I had a crush on my high school librarian that was only made more intense once she ordered all of Lorde’s books of poetry and her automythobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name for me. Reading Audre, I knew that it was possible to be a child of Caribbean parents and queer, a writer, sensual, contrary, impolite, all things I previously thought were taboo. A few years ago, just as I was starting at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I found myself adrift, trying to make sense of the decision I’d made to leave Brooklyn for Iowa City. I watched the film about Lorde’s life, Litany for Survival, and listened to an old recording of Toni Morrison’s first reading at the Workshop in the 1980s. Keeping the company of these women gave me solace as I tried to adjust to my new circumstances. Her poem, “Stations,” has resonated with me at every stage of my life since I first encountered these lines more than twenty years ago: “Some women wait for something/To change and nothing/Does change/So they change/Themselves.” I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the provocative, generative influence of Audre Lorde.
I wanted to say a few words about Elynia Ruth Mabanglo, as a poet whose work has really changed me. But first, a confession. I have only read Mabanglo’s poetry in translation; she writes in Tagalog, and I am barely fluent in my native language. You must understand that writing in Tagalog in itself is already a critical statement about colonial mentality and the primary value of English over native languages among Filipinos. Mabanglo has written a phenomenal collection called Anyaya ng Imperyalista, or Invitation of the Imperialist (University of the Philippines Press, 1999), which is mostly comprised of persona poems, from the point of view of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), as well as the “comfort women,” the wartime sex slaves of the Japanese. These poems hurt so much to read, as Mabanglo holds nothing back of the everyday violence, the endless violations, of being raped and ripped, and intimidated into silence. Some of these poems are written in epistolary form, and this is important, because you must also consider the institutional erasures which OFWs and “comfort women” have endured. In the case of the “comfort women,” half a century of silence, of never telling your children, your grandchildren of being 11, 12 years old, abducted and raped by dozens of soldiers, for days, weeks, impregnated, aborted, diseased. Half a fucking century of silence. Without Elynia Ruth Mabanglo, I wouldn’t be able to write about the continuum of colonial and gendered brutality I write about. I wouldn’t know how to. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
My first experience with Bernadette Mayer's work runs like this: I read Midwinter Day in a tiny hotel room in Calcutta while red and blue fireworks blasted outside, hailing the arrival of holidays. Mayer told me her truths for a week while Mother Teresa's tomb bustled with nuns several blocks down the street. Maybe this surreal Catholic carnival arrived appropriately: what I love about Mayer are her domestic confessions that knock like jokes and appear like sonnets, prose blocks, free verse columns, translations from Catullus. In an interview with Adam Fitzgerald, she mentions her dying mother’s last request: “Join the convent, Bernadette! They’ll take care of your teeth for free.”
Bernadette is the High Priestess of everyday strangeness. She is the poet who reminds you that even when you’re facing the hereafter / you should still come equipped with Listerine. As she writes in The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters: “How am I supposed to fit in to this life where children eat so much expensive fruit?” Who else but Bernadette would seek out all of the women named Helen living in Troy, NY? She is the sun of the twenty-second of December weaving “the random cloth of life together.” She lists, she journals, she tapes up, she makes an index. She asks you to write a perfect poem. She asks you to look into mirrors and write without using the pronoun “I.” She goes after an attempt to write a poem that will change the world. And one of the words she uses most often is “dream.”
One a.m.. Can’t sleep. Soon- to-be-ex husband snoring in the other room. Filled with anxiety and fear, I’m wondering how the six months I agreed to spend setting up his medical office has turned into 25 years. For comfort, I open Hinge and Sign and am disappointed that there’s only one page left to read. The poem, “From 20,000 Feet,” starts by describing how clouds resemble rock formations—the opposite of what they actually are—and the speaker then goes from observing the universe to observing the very personal and specific. And then these words: “…The foetus/ expert at attachment,/ didn’t dream that/ cramped canal would open/ into sound and light and love—/ it clung. It didn’t care. The future/ looked like death to it, from there.” I fall asleep clutching that book to my chest. The next day, I enroll in Sarah Lawrence, which proves to be the end of the marriage and the beginning of everything else (as I knew it would). I am forever indebted to Heather for those amazing words that gave me the courage to leave the security of a dark place for the uncertainty but definite possibility of a brighter future and life itself.
There are some machines that don’t tick with precision but flow as though in a state of perpetual motion. I thought a lot about Moore’s poetry on my drive from Brooklyn, the adopted home of both Marianne and myself, to Lubbock, Texas, which by the way, the road to Lubbock is not littered with mistakes but armadillos. The first time I read Moore, I was intrigued. The diction, the syntax, the knowing pose of the speaker, the transitions between ideas, the ideas, the images that contain larger concepts, the apparent effortlessness, all of the poetics Moore utilizes in her work, worked for me immediately. These features of Marianne Moore’s poetry are the most commonly noted in her work, but for me, what I really learned from Marianne, if I can be so bold, is how a person outside of the dominate perspective can effectively comment on society’s quiddity through speakers in poems, through a voice compiled over a career. Moore traversed a milieu (all milieus) when women (consider how many women must have been writing versus how many women have been canonized during the high Modern era) were pigeon-holed into a certain sector of society and were assumed to have specific mental gifts and gender-appropriate vocations and goals. By adopting a matriarchal tone, a tone of knowledge tinged with slight guilt that slightly turns the knife with each idea, Moore was able to transcend the restraints of her time. Isn’t that a goal of everyone? Whether you are overtly oppressed by the laws and prejudices of society or just oppressed by the amount of genetically modified organisms (which we all are) entering your body with every pump for your favorite flavored latte, we wish to transcend the barriers, to move timelessly without the hiccups of ticks.
Marilyn Nelson and I live not far from each other in the CT river valley. Over the years, I’ve heard her read her work many times. She has a distinctly mellifluous voice which, when she says her poems, bursts like song from her upturned face. To be a listener in the room when Marilyn speaks her poems about Prudence Crandall, Emmett Till, the freed blacks who thrived in Seneca Village in Manhattan until it was razed, is an exercise weighing beauty with suffering, injustice with acceptance. I did a long interview with Marilyn in 2008 (published in The Writer’s Chronicle in 2009) and arrived at her home, Soul Mountain Retreat, ready to skim through her poetry collections. Well-known for her young adult novels in verse, I’d thought it’d be a quiet afternoon of thumbing through picture books, but there on the table in her sitting room were stacks of books, many of which bore gold and silver stickers announcing the awards they’d won. Marilyn was almost apologetic at their number—twenty-four—as she added an unpublished manuscript to the pile. When I asked in the interview how she could write the story of Emmett Till--such sadness and injustice in one hand, and a pen in the other, she answered, “The research I did for that book was extremely disturbing. But life is suffering. African American history is full of individual stories of contradiction, irony, suffering, sadness, injustice-and triumph. It's a privilege to try to give voice to some of those individuals who could not speak for themselves when they were living.” Marilyn’s books were the beginning of my very late education about the lives of African Americans during and after slavery. Marilyn’s friendship—her honesty, humility, humor (and a work ethic I still can’t wrap my head around) has been a model for me for what it means to live a conscious life as a poet.
Akilah and I met back when I was an undergrad at Naropa in the early 2000s. She was my teacher, from the moment I met her all the way through our exchanges in the weeks before she left us, and especially now as I return often to her words and her work. She was the only one of my teachers I ever saw naked. One of her performances with the Sacred Naked Nature Girls was projected larger than life on the wall Performing Arts Center during my first semester. I thought it was one of the bravest acts I had ever seen, her work with the Girls, such fearless embodiment, and to share that as an introduction to your students. Then, as now, I struggled with my own sense of disembodiment and chattering insecurities. But Akilah was fearless. Not just fearless but unafraid to be afraid. To let herself feel those heaviest and most difficult emotions, the ones we are most tempted daily to press down. She was naked before us physically and throughout her body of poetry and performance. Everything is laid bare in her poems, raw emotions felt deep in the bones. The full spectrum of experience of love of hurt of loss of strength, of breaking down and standing back up again. The borderless page where words extend to and wrap around the body, born there and to return there, and to extend as well to your body, dear reader lover comrade.
The focus of her work became the study of the poetics of loss and mourning, the necessary ritual and embodiment of mourning, how one celebrates a life lived within this space. This work was of course fueled by the unnecessary loss of her son Oluchi, when he was just a young man, uninsured and neglected by those whose charge it was to care for him (had Oluchi been diagnosed probably, surgery could have saved his life). How one feels such a loss, the loss of a child, deep within their bones, how it weaves itself into every day thereafter. We discuss these ideas and more when I share her work now with my own students. I am so thankful we can still hear audio of her voice. “An Arriving Guard of Angels, Thusly Coming to Greet,” is impactful on the page; Akilah utilizes the entire plane, the poem moves, as if space/time were themselves collaborators rather than something to be conquered. But her voice. Just this past semester, after we listened to a recording of Akilah reading “An Arriving Guard of Angels,” the room fell silent. Her voice hung in the air so tangibly, it was as though no one dared speak that the presence might leave us. Finally a young man raised his hand and, deeply affected, asked “How can she do that? How?” What he meant was, how could she be so fearless, so honest about the loss of her son and the pain she felt; how could she share that with us mingled with the everyday business of living? How could she speak so powerfully of all the things from which so many of us spend our lives running? How could she be so beautiful? At the end of the semester, tucked in the back of her portfolio within her self-reflection, a fabulous student named Mariama had this to say of Akilah’s work: “You don't even understand how many times I've told my sisters, ‘You have to hear the different ways Akilah Oliver says, days of ahhhhhhh.’ I've tried to explain that her sighing ahhhhhhh breaks my heart and makes me want to stay in bed for months, but when she exhales ahhhhhhh, I am so hopeful and I understand that pain doesn't necessarily have to be conquered permanently, but conquering it for one second is a triumph." Akilah Oliver’s work is a triumph of healing of body of womanhood of motherhood of ritual of mourning of joy of perseverance of love over darkness of love sharing a toast with hurt and the two learning to understand one another. We are all invited into the house, this house that is our bodies without boundaries. She left us far too soon. Akilah was my friend. Hold the space.
On Grace Paley
What do I, a thirty-two year old Korean American dude raised among the yellow plains and blue-so-blue-you-swear-it’s-a-desktop skies of the panhandle state, have in common with Grace Paley? Very little. But Grace had a voice. A compassionate voice. An everyday-voice-so-precise-and-cutting-that-it’s-a-new-voice voice. A funny voice. A feminist voice. A protest voice. No doubt, her voice was shushed, ignored, tut-tutted for years. History tells us that. But she continued to speak even when it meant facing jail time. Or possibly harming a decades-old friendship, like when Grace and her longtime friend, Donald Barthelme, disagreed on Grace’s position at a PEN conference. Or when she was told to quit writing stories and poems and go for the holy grail of the novel. Being a Korean American male, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman (especially a woman born during the first half of the twentieth century), but I know what it’s like to be told to be quiet, to be silenced, to be passed over. Grace gave me the strength to use my own voice. When I went to graduate school in Boston, I co-organized a Grace Paley reading and scholarship with the help of the university and my fellow MFA student, Abby Machson-Carter. After a celebrity-studded reading and reception, we went out to a four-star dinner with a who’s who of New England literary lions. I was lucky enough to sit next to Nora Paley, Grace’s daughter, and Bob, her husband, who was still alive at the time. Nora and I mostly talked about her mother, but also about life and writing. She told me to come up to the family farm in Vermont sometime. It was such a kind, enormous gesture. I was familiar with farms. I spoke up. I said yes.
Rumor has it, Alejandra Pizarnik once shut herself in for seven days to trip on hallucinogens and listen to Janis Joplin. At her best, she was unmoored. At her worst, suicidal. And while societal convention was a nuisance some poets worked up the nerve to swat away, she downright slapped it dead. As a woman, a southern woman, a woman brought up in the well-mannered suburbs, I was captivated—life for me had been a struggle to break free of the various contracts I’d never signed but to which I felt bound. I felt that Pizarnik snuck me over to the courthouse at night, and we smashed the locks off the doors, and we broke the windows, and I tore up all the contracts I’d never signed. Her imagery—rough, feral juxtapositions—ignited and annihilated me at the same time (“A gust of light in my bones when I write the word earth. A word or presence, followed by perfumed animals—as sad as itself, as beautiful as suicide—and it soars over me like a dynasty of suns“). It released me from the horrible obligations to be beautiful, to be pleasant, to be acceptable (“a glimpse from the gutter / can become a complete worldview”). And, it taught me the glorious, harmonious potential of contradiction (“I remember my childhood / when I was an old woman / Flowers would die in my hands / because the wild dance of happiness / destroyed their hearts”). As I read more of Pizarnik’s work, I came to realize I didn’t share her dim views or dark obsessions, but that never minimized the freedoms her work granted me. On the contrary—it set me free once again by leading me, as all good mentorship does, from her work back to my own.
On Marie Ponsot
Besides ornithological parallels, Marie Ponsot, herself, often made reference to us, her students and protégé poets, as explorers. Indeed, Marie is a dedicated teacher who has tirelessly led others in inductive expeditions. Helping others in their expeditions of the nature of the truest self is not an enterprise for the faint of heart. Her own poems are often encounters of the poet, not only with others in the world, but with the limit of her own expression. Whether face to face with the muse, facing the bloody wall of a neighbor's suicide, the broth of the ocean, the mythic message of an ancient Greek serving dish, a Parisian icon, language's elementalisms, walking the circumference of new property, the small demands of a life, or romance routinely met... "explorers cry out unheard." Perspectives and proportions can be slippery business. That is not to say that one cannot learn to stride with an even gait…even from a woman whose own faintly antalgic gait is marked by polio and a bad cough.
(Forgotten) rumor has it that a famous poet once referred to me as Claudia Rankine’s “tail.” I think it was meant to be an insult. As an undergraduate at Barnard, I had taken all her classes, then worked for her, then lost her when I went to Iowa, then followed her to Georgia, then almost followed her again to Houston, but didn’t, then lost her again, then found her again among the cheering crowds. She is my poet mother. All I ever wanted was to be close enough to her to hear everything she ever said. When I met her “I was still in the very beginning of being human” (Jorie Graham). When I saw her last January for a quick tea (almost 20 years after we first met), we hugged, and out of her purse she started pulling gifts for my two sons: a periscope and a superhero and a tiny police car. Impossible not to read each of these toys as a metaphor for what her poetry is after. About the value of critique, she once said to our workshop, if the whole room is looking in one direction it’s probably a good idea to look at what they’re looking at. You don’t have to believe in it, or care. But it’s probably worth your time to turn your head, to know what has caught everybody else’s attention. After I visited her class at Pomona, she told me I look up at the ceiling too often when I speak publicly. I do. I’m probably searching for a heaven above, or Claudia, or some other inconceivably vast thing. As our tea date was drawing to a close, she looked at me with a gravitas I know only Claudia to possess, and very slowly, and very deeply asked, “how do you spell woohoo?” And with the same precision I forced on myself when I spoke to her as an undergraduate about Paul Celan or Toni Morrison or J.M. Coetzee or Aimé Césaire or Gertrude Stein, I spelled the word the only way I knew how: w-o-o-h-o-o. That night she gave the most magnificent poetry reading I have ever attended. She moved the whole gigantic audience to tears. She read from Citizen, a collection that breathes in the sadness of the world, and breathes it out as poetry. At one moment, before she read one of her anecdotes-gone-poem, she confessed to changing the “real” ending to make it a happier ending. “I believe,” she said “in repair.” Me too, Claudia. Me too. I worship her. She has plugged American poetry into its socket. The lights are back on.
I knew what I was looking for but I wasn’t prepared for what I found. When I came across Dahlia Ravikovitch I was startled. It was a reawakening. I wanted to know what kind of writing we could be producing while living in a world of turmoil. Ravikovitch might be a household name in Israel but for me she was brand new yet her style felt terribly familiar to me as a writer. Her poetry blends a certain element of disaffection with sentimentality. She had an acute understanding of distance along with language and culture. She used the Torah, especially the psalms, in secular pieces as a place to bring the reader to and then push them away. This same separation was used in describing herself and women as seen in “Clockwork Doll.” It was said that she was a feminist before there was a more explicit and organized debate in Israel. Her work was an activism before activism found other methods. Later, she took distance with her in writing about and against the military and government. She is quoted as saying, “I want to be able to say I did all I could to prevent bloodshed.” And so, she entered into the word/idea/image of “hover” meaning in Hebrew slang to be politically and emotionally detached. This hovering is then used by her to discuss the turning away of people from violence. She explored escape and fantasy but refuses to disassociate from the state of her world. She wanted us to be within and apart of never apart from. “And she clenched her fists and said: I’m going off to war -/Then dozed off in bed.” She kept a close eye and made sure that readers would too. The distance once so important to her is turned in on itself. It loses its power and becomes the subject of criticism. Distance was at one time a shield for her and by the end she is attacking it.
—Kenyatta Jean-Paul Garcia
I had already read some of Adrienne Rich’s work when I was an undergraduate. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” “Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law,” “Planetarium,” “Diving Into the Wreck,” “Power.” I took them all in. Feminist writing was protest, so I thought of Rich as kin, since I was learning to write about race. By the time she arrived at the University of Houston to give a reading, I had read four of her books: The Will To Change, Diving Into the Wreck, An Atlas of the Difficult World, and Dark Fields of the Republic. I was a graduate student, studying fiction, but before Adrienne’s reading the poet Robert Phillips sent me down the hallway to rescue her from an office, to spare her from someone on staff who had been telling everyone far too much about his recent divorce. Adrienne smiled at my interruption. She used a cane, but retreating with me through the doorway she also grasped my hand. I immediately noticed how small and frail her hand felt—I could feel the thinness of the bones of her fingers as our hands met—and as if we were a couple, or as if it was simply understood that the gesture of supporting her was a natural and expected human behavior, we held hands walking all the way down the hallway, and as we descended a flight of stairs together. Now I really took her poems in, all the poems I’d been reading, because she was such a tiny physical presence, but her words were so strong and confident, so why should I, athletic, fit, at the peak of my own health, ever hold back?
My first experience with Muriel Rukeyser was brought about by my enthrallment with Jane Cooper, whose nephew I just so happened to “meet” through an online poetry forum I had been a member of since I was sixteen years old. At twenty-two, I was ready, with his encouragement, to pursue my dream of an MFA in poetry at none-other than Jane Cooper’s school, where she taught for thirty-something years. Against my family’s wishes, I quit my job and moved to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College. Because Jane Cooper, who, at the time, had recently passed away, had such an influence on my monumental decision, I decided to read a book that she had written the forward to, knowing that she was very close to the author. That book, The Life of Poetry, is based on a collection of lectures Rukeyser gave at Vassar College in 1940 and at The California Labor School and Columbia University in 1945, 1946, and 1948, all during a wartime consciousness. In one of her poems, titled, “Poem,” Rukeyser writes: "I lived in the first century of world wars. / Most mornings I would be more or less insane…" and in her poem, “The Fourth Elegy. The Refugees,” she writes, "And the child sitting alone planning her hope: / I want to write for my race. But what race will you speak, / being American? I want to write for the living." Not only did she write for the living, but she fought for them, too, gaining a track record of jail time for protests in 1930’s Alabama at the trial of the “Scottsboro Boys” and making protest poetry-documentaries for the tunnel workers dying of silicosis in West Virginia, along with reporting back from the Spanish War during her time in Barcelona. While reading the lectures and poetry of Rukeyser, I grew into the realization that no longer was my Southern young-adult struggle all that relevant, if I did not allow the outer-world in and open my eyes—that the path of poetry carried a much more sacred vocation outside my self. Reading The Life of Poetry changed the goal of poetry for me, where she writes: "What is the fear of poetry?...it is a fear produced by a mask, by the protective structure society builds around each conflict. … it is a conflict upheld by the great part of organized society. The fear is a fear of disclosure, … disclosure to oneself of areas within the individual, areas with which he is not trained to deal, and which will only bring him into hostile relationship with his complacent neighbor, whose approval he wants." Rukeyser showed me how poetry is meant to break us out of ourselves and into relation with the bigger picture. "The fear of poetry is that we are cut of from our own reality." What place is there for poetry, Rukeyser asks, and then, she says, finally, she believes herself.
—Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
On Natasha Sajé
I discovered Natasha Sajé’s work by accident—she was giving a reading at the Parents Gallery at the University of Maryland’s Student Union and I was walking past. I hadn’t known about the reading, but I saw a friend of mind in the audience, so I went in and sat next to him. Sajé read from her Agnes Lynch Starrett winning collection Red Under the Skin, and I was floored. On my friend’s advice (he was her student), I sent her an e-mail with a poem that I had been working on, and she responded in a beautifully idiosyncratic way—she neither praised nor critiqued the poem, but rather told me the image system the poem suggested to her. My e-mail had been sent to an account she no longer checked, so her response came months after I had sent it, and we were both on our way out of Maryland. I was lucky to find strong mentorship at Maryland, so I wasn’t looking for Sajé to take me on as a protege—but in her response I felt a sense of recognition. I didn’t have the word for it then, but her letter was collegial. Yes, she seemed to say, like me, you’re a poet.
Red Under the Skin opens with a poem that compares reading Henry James to having sex in bondage, and while I hadn’t tried either (as an undergraduate), I saw in that poem a way to address sex that was serious and sensual. Sajé’s approach to sex maintained a level of decorum that I needed, without losing the joys or difficulties of negotiating sexual relationships, and while recognizing the linkage between the erotic and literary. Readers have always had intense and erotic relationships to the long dead, and those readers who become writers imagine (hope for) those same relationships for themselves far in the future. Sajé’s work did something I had long wanted to do, and relieved me of having to do it myself. But the poem is also an ars poetica, ending “…and you begin / to extricate yourself, / reaching past his fleshy white fingers/ for a pen of your own.” Right there, in the very first poem of her very first book is a reminder to every writer: you have to keep reaching past everything for a pen of your own.
I have a small wooden egg that is painted with a picture of little cars driving on grass under a yellow sun. The image references the opening lines of them poem “Agoraphobia”: “Without even trying I can think of a half dozen women / afraid to drive, including my mother.” It’s a talisman that has never failed me (the poem, not the egg). Full disclosure: I didn’t learn to drive until I was 27, and I had never seen a poem about not driving. The poem moves from the personal to the cultural, ending with a story about Marlene Dietrich. It’s like the poem was written for me. So much of Sajé’s work has given me this intense sense of recognition—that I had a kindred spirit in the writing world, but outside of my circle of friends and mentors. I’m not a fast writer, but whenever I have needed to write, reading Red Under the Skin has opened up the space I need. I’ve lost track of how many copies of that book I have purchased for myself or to give away—I taught it and taught it and taught it in the hopes that it would finally reveal its secrets to me, but mercifully, the mystery is always there. Sometimes now, I’ll forget. I think, for heavens sake, why can’t I write? And then I remember what to read.
I studied with Leslie at Bard, she was the reason I had decided to go there. I was introduced to her work much earlier, however, through Defoe, a book of fiction, how wild. It was like reading the news. Events from across the world, from within one’s mind to what one sees were as if laid out in swatches. Then reading her first book, of which I can never get enough. True poetry. Each new reading exposes something new. I made it my mission to read her entire oeuvre. Strips of thought reappear across, a rainbow. In the indigo night. Her trips to India. There was no genre. It’s a mind’s actions that end up as “thought-shapes” and “sound-forms.” The killings. Utter physical pain and personal arguments co-exist with the War in Iraq, comic strips and pornography. The sexual and the spiritual. Backwards, we travelled to Buddhism, the mind seeing, non-thinking. “the world is all that is the case.” The future was mind science. Something you could make, but never make up. Life is fictionalising and the self, a guinea pig. You must get an MFA. But I don’t have an undergraduate degree. Then finding Bard. She taught there. Had been for sixteen years. Drinking in my kitchen with my friends from the diner—RaeAnn—and reading Scalapino out loud. Oiling down Vodka (her phrase) with cranberry juice and a dash of lime—Miriam named it Scalapino. A drink in your honor. Doom! Doom! she screamed. A detective novel. Demonstration as commentary. Also, Dee Goda. Henna Man. How to keep you alive in my own work? With everything happening at once, in the horizontal, writing, always. At the diner, I brought her books and urged my friends/coworkers to read a few pages, later writing “you know how one might want to roll on it.” (from one of her poems) on the wall. Leaving the books at end of the counter for curious customers to pick up in the early morning. He picked it up and made my horoscope come true. An autobiography always exceeds its pages. Soul-scientist. An umbrella and a pillow she carried with her. I took notes on guest checks. Still waiting for them to cohere. Like the beauty of the visual world or sounds leading you to a different story. The senses, a sort of paradise & you in it.
"i'm fixin you up good/ fixin you up good & colored /," the spirit-worker Lou says, in Ntozake Shange's 1979 choreopoem Spell #7, "& you gonna be colored all yr life / & you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life/ colored & love it / love it/ bein colored. SPELL #7." My deep and sustained encounters with Shange's work while in college, after earlier exposure in my adolescence, transformed my sense of what you could and might do with the languages you had at hand and in mind. Cast spells, as she does--of resistance, remembrance, commitment, connection, truth-telling, love and more. This is what Shange succeeds in demonstrating throughout her work, from her most famous choreopoem and motherpiece, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, through subsequent works for the stage and page, including her books of poetry and fiction. Writing from the space of a Black American woman who reclaims and remakes English as she sees fit, her ear gathering up the speech around her family's kitchen table, the many tongues of the streets, classrooms and collectives, and the discourse of history books and sacred African religious texts, with song and dream and dance and the spirit as crucial building blocks, Shange's expansive poetics show how representation itself must and can meet the challenges of the contemporary world. She casts fresh light on the past while illuminating paths for the future. "where there is woman there is magic," Shange writes at the beginning of her novel Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, speaking not only of her characters but of her herself and other women. Where there is magic, which is to say, art, anything is possible. spell #7: geechee jibara quik magic trance manual for technologically stressed third world people shows my St. Louis sista Shange adroitly wielding her imaginative and political charms. For me this choreopoem, like Shange's work in general, will always be an aesthetic primer and a political spur, opening a door into a community of self-determination and love. Its music of flows like a river through all of my work. Shange's pride in being a woman, being black, being a creative person, being fearless, offer an invaluable model to follow. "i haveta fix my tool to my needs/," Shange has written, "i have to take it apart to the bone/ so that the malignancies/ fall away/ leaving us a space to literally create our own image." Hers, and ours.
Every poet, maybe every creative alive, questions what they do. Because I don't do anything small, for me that doubt can be crushing and all-encompassing. For some reason, I fall on the karmic landscape in such a way that Patricia Smith shows up precisely when that doubt is at its highest. Our conversations are too brief, and the time between them is too great, but they never fail to right me. I have seen her poems on slam stages, on television, in Prudential Hall in Newark, at Harlem Stage, in books, in graduate reading lists, in classrooms. I've been her student and I've taught alongside her. At a difficult time in my life, I walked a corridor with her in Boston, at AWP, at this unwieldy beast of a writers' conference in which everyone has some manner of institutional affiliation, and she did nothing less than bring me back to life by treating me as a colleague. I was a mere baby poet when Patricia showed up at Bar 13 in Manhattan, and she showed me for the first time that a poem in the right throat is both a bomb and a healer. Since then, I've watched her take her rightful place in the center of American letters. But as she ascended and accomplished and hushed hecklers and built an amazing life for herself and her family, she never let me forget that I belong here, too. I carry her mentorship with me daily, even though she may not have known, even though I sometimes forget.
On Ruth Stone
Ruth Stone taught at Indiana University only briefly, in the mid-1970s, where I was marooned as an undergrad studying poetry-and-nothing-but-poetry, in a BA program I'd written myself. I'd cut classes in nearly every course merely a liberal arts requirement. "There was no loneliness like," as they say, but then Ruth and a seminar opened to me; she opened her apartment to her students and the circles of local writers, singers, artists; and her daughter Abigail joined us--she called herself Blue Jay in those days--and never again in my life was there no community, no center. Legacies are so much more invisible than our books; the Ruth Stone Foundation carries her house in Goshen, Vermont, into the future, with Abigail's daughter Bianca at its helm, building community as Ruth did, surrounded by friends and families, all keeping each other good company while pursuing this solitary art.
On Cole Swensen
Cole Swensen’s Noon was the first book of poems I bought. To my surprise, the poems were shaped as paragraphs. Coming from another language, I hadn’t read too much prose back then. How strange the world seemed from the lens of that Noon light, its beauty arranged into neat blocks (it was a Sun and Moon book). A hidden geometry, new relations between light and what is seen. From the names written in the back of the book began my education in poetry. Then I saw her read at Prairie Lights, the local independent bookstore in Iowa City, “stars fall sometimes/and there you are/up to your knees/in light.” She was standing under a singular bulb in an otherwise dark room, her silver bracelet shining as she uttered those words. History mixed with coincidence. Such Rich Hour (the book she was reading from). The words “go dancing.” At times of utter distress in my life, she pointed out: “life is not a personal thing” begins her book Goest, a quote from Deleuze, one of the many writers we shared a love for. Under that influence I began to see the science behind the poetic surface, Deleuzian blocks and minor becomings; we drank wine over fractals. Poets she mentioned over dinner became required reading material. Her work taught me to create spaces with/between words, a life is a thing that creates history like that space could create a meaning. “There is a novel way of life.” hope for the lost. A place you come back to. Cole’s house. A beautiful aquarium my friends and me drunkenly peeked into as it lay dark and unoccupied on snowy nights on our way back home from the bars—no one had lived in it for a good while. We thought how lucky it would be to live there. She buys it. I stay there. Housesitting. Reading the books she had me arrange once, each spine triggers a will to find that new way. Anew. Dedicated to you will be a life’s work, if you can complete it. A poem is a small object, a palpable influence. Many of them make room, another home, always larger than the one you live in.
In 2003, I found myself reluctantly writing persona poetry, finding it somehow empowering but feeling sneaky and escapist about it--wasn't I supposed to be plumbing my own emotional depths for brutal truths? Nobody had told me to do that, and, thankfully, Ed Brunner introduced me to "Bellocq's Ophelia," my first experience of Natasha Trethewey's work, and of persona poems that had and have a power that goes beyond, contains, interrogates and touches the personal, showing its roots in history, technology, and categories both adopted by choice and forced by circumstance. It gave me a terrific sense of permission that has expanded as I've explored more of her work--to let the poem form the speaker, sometimes through stricture and sometimes through freedom, finding that interplay of image and theme where I escape old expectations into newer truths, and a wider world.
Cecilia Vicuña came to me in a dream; that is to say, she came to me in a memory; that is to say, she came to me as a ghost; that is to say, she came to me from the sea; that is to say, she came to me as a fish; that is to say, she came to me from the depths; that is to say, she came to me from the middle place.
To watch Cecilia perform is to enter a trance; we are supposed to strain to listen; relearn to truly listen; amid the noise, and the data, and the bustle, and the talk, and the notifications, there is a deeper silence;
A language buried in the earth; a language as present and as deep as the sea; the language in the gaze of the animals;
Lines long and breathed like strings of blood; lines long and breathed like strings of menstrual blood; lines long and breathed like blood from an ancient wound; lines long and breathed like echoes on the wind; lines long and breathed as dry as thirst; lines familiar as ancestral memory; lines we can’t help but know we’ve heard before—
The performance opens the site, the scar; the performance as physical poem; the poem as atmosphere; the line as physical thread in warp;
The poem as instinct; the poem as thread from the ancient throat; the poem as intestinal tribal song; the poem as earthblessing; the poem as the tallest wave; the poem as tooth; the poem as watching death with a child’s eye; the poem as family member: bebito, hermanito, mamita, abuela, bisabuela, those now made dust
When I mention Diane Wakoski to other poets, even poets who are well-schooled in some of the more forgotten writers of the mid-to-later 20th century, there is often a lack of recognition. Of course there is no predicting who will have a lasting impact or readership, but it's not a stretch to notice that women get written out of the canon pretty regularly, and, I would imagine, ornery, brave women, women who refuse to soften or get cuddly with age, don't stand much of a chance. Before I discovered Wakoski, on a bookshelf at a thrift store in Hollywood in the late 1980s, completely at random, I hadn't thought about whether contemporary women wrote poems but I had pretty much internalized the idea that men were poets and women were muses. Elsewhere I explore in depth Wakoski’s work, influence and unfortunate neglect in the poetry scene, but here I'll say that discovering "Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch" changed my life, had me reading the whole book through at once right there on the too-bright sidewalk, and rereading often in the many years since. The way Wakoski's poems took on certain subjects like sex and love, self-loathing and survival (not to mention California)—I hadn't known a poet could write like that, and certainly not with such forthrightness. The rhythms of Wakoski's words made sense in my ear. "...but now I’ve crawled out of the ground where you stomped me / and I gradually stand taller and taller each / day. / I have learned to sing new songs, / and as I sing, / I’m going to dance on your grave / because you are / dead / dead / dead..." Here's my plea to what I'm hoping is a sympathetic audience: read Diane Wakoski. You deserve it and she deserves it.
On Alice Walker
My introduction to Alice Walker was through her fiction, The Temple of My Familiar. After devouring it in one sitting, I ran to the library to check out everything else by her and discovered her poetry. Like her fiction, Walker's poetry speaks on intense themes, but unlike her fiction, the poetry is not otherworldly—it's quite down to earth. Many of her poems seem simple, and she uses a variety of forms. To read (and in my head, I hear them read in her voice) Walker's poems is to feel a connection to ancestors and to life. Although I have written poetry my whole life, I never once considered myself a poet, that my poems were valid, until after reading Walker. I did not know that a poet's voice did not require fancy words and that poetry could be fairly straightforward. So much of what we read in school felt like words strung together with special effort towards obscurity. Too often white poets tell us we are too ignorant to understand their work. When others speak of poets they admire, I do not relate to half of what they say as they seem to compete to sound appropriately "poetic," even in prose. Through Walker's work I found poetry that spoke to my own feelings and circumstances, gave my voice and experience validity. Walker's work also helped politicize me. And through Walker's work I realized I can lay claim to the title even if I am concerned with making work that makes sense to the average reader. The other lasting influence Walker has made on me is that she names her own influences and I tracked down work by them as well, so I have an ever growing opportunity to learn from and enjoy more poets.
“The Maybe Years”
In my mind, I am always under ten, sitting and reading. It is always hot. Just down the street, Watts is in ashes. My parents are both giddy with new adulthood, but deeply disoriented by assimilation––by loss, by gain, by that odd feeling of ones entire family—aunts, cousins, uncles, grandparents, nieces, nephews, children, mothers and fathers—picking up from one place, New Orleans, and settling together in another, Los Angeles. The streets are tar-hot every day. It is clear no one anywhere but the people we have left, and the people we are becoming, care about our well-being. The police prowl our streets, sometimes shooting at us for sport. Our teachers call us hideous things to our face, insisting we will never amount to anything worthy of Time. Our books are extended myths (fairytales, projections, desires), but we are instructed to call it history. Nevertheless, perhaps inexplicably, I have fallen in love with reading. For quiet, and to keep cool, I lock myself in my parents’ bathroom, daily, sprawling out along the friendly pink tiles, to read all day, while my brothers and sister play outside. It was that kind of existential year, when a child slowly begins to understand that the world is completely burning, and that her family, her neighbors, her town, and towns that look just like hers, everywhere, for some inexplicable reason is playing fodder to that fire. Bees, palm trees, the Pacific Ocean, crabs, Birds of Paradise—and hatred as common as air. Then one day, on the bathroom floor, because my parents supplemented our school reading with books that did not contain the ever-printed image of a cotton field or a rope, I opened a book to a poem which contained the line, “For my people lending their strength to the years, to the/ gone years and the now years and the maybe years…” The writer was Margaret Walker (1915-1998), and the poem was her iconic, “For My People.” Nowhere in any textbook at school, in any song, or in any scripture had I encountered such literary affection for the black body. I was stunned. Here was a lyrical litany that both mourned and praised black labor within the context of American racism. I simply did not know—indeed, it was impossible for me to have known—that one could ever read anything about black people that was pierced through with such beauty. Of course, this being the early 70s, my home was filled with gorgeousness, our neighborhood too, just elegant expressions of humanity everywhere you looked—the good, the bad, and the ugly. But “For My People” was that beauty printed on a page—who knew a sheet of paper could contain such a gesture? This poem, perhaps more than any other, began for me an enduring desire for a kind of cadence in language, a particular pleasure in meter. Of course, the African American poetic tradition was centuries old, but I didn’t know that as a child because in school we weren’t even taught that black writers existed. So “For My People” was the first poem to show me how, within a black context, form and content could hold hands perfectly, both in service of the other. Most importantly, Walker showed me how a black writer could entice English to bend—and bow—to its own notions of powerlessness, in a kind of reformed humility.
- Heather McHugh
- MacArthur Foundation
- Claudia Rankine
- Will Alexander
- Muriel Rukeyser
- Leslie Scalapino
- Granary Books
- Marianne Moore
- Theodore Roethke
- Marie Ponsot
- Bernadette Mayer
- Howard Dodson
- Barbara Jane Reyes
- Andrew Motion
- Leslie McGrath
- Cecilia Vicuña
- Samuel Menashe
- Natasha Trethewey
- Bob Cobbing
- Akilah Oliver
- Guild Complex
- Ann Lauterbach
- Barney Rosset
- Adrienne Rich
- Iowa Writer's Workshop
- Patricia Smith
- John Keene
- Jon Woodward
- Carolyn Kizer
- Philip Larkin
- Denise Levertov
- Marie-Louise Chapelle
- Scott Hightower
- Dina Hardy
- Sabrina Orah Mark
- Sophia Le Fraga
- Audre Lorde
- Will Schutt
- Cole Swensen
- Rebecca Lowry
- Diane Wakoski
- Marilyn Nelson
- Grace Paley
- Ruth Stone
- Michael Dumanis
- David Tomas Martinez
- Nancy Joyce Peters
- Ntozake Shange
- Dead Poets (I Would Fuck) Society
- Margaret Walker
- Andrés Ajens
- Alejandra Pizarnik
- Maxine Chernoff
- Fani Papageorgiou
- Jason Schneiderman
- Jeremy Irons
- Maxine Kumin
- Cheryl Quimba
- Biswamit Dwibedy
- Mark Medley
- John Rufo
- Los Angeles Public Library
- Melissa Studdard
- William Jay Smith
- Allan Andre Markman
- Kaaren Kitchell
- Lori Desrosiers
- Dorianne Laux
- Kenzie Allen
- Naomi Jackson
- Elynia Ruth Mabanglo
- Susan Berlin
- Jessica Rogers
- Gene Kwak
- Dahlia Ravikovitch
- Kenyatta Jean-Paul Garcia
- Allen Gee
- PANK Magazine
- Natasha Sajé
- Rich Villar
- Rosanne Wasserman
- Vanessa Angelica Villarreal
- Aaminah Shakur
- Robin Coste Lewis
- Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
- Marina Weiss
- Charles Tomlinson
- University of Bristol
- Lyon & Turnbull
- Chase Berggrun
- Sonya Vatomsky
- Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
- Sara June Woods
- Sarah Xerta
- Kate Gale
- Entropy Magazine
- Marcia Nardi
- Erik Kennedy
Raised in Baltimore and Georgia, Amy King earned a BS in English and women’s studies from Towson University, an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College, and an MA in poetics from SUNY Buffalo. Her writing, which shows elements of Language poetry, has been influenced by her work with Charles Bernstein...