D.A. Powell reads two poems
Don Share: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of May 28th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On The Poetry Magazine Podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: D.A. Powell is a prolific writer and no stranger to long time readers of Poetry Magazine. In 2004, he left Harvard and is currently teaching at the University of San Fransisco.
Lindsay Garbutt: Powell says he enjoys teaching, and likes to mix things up intellectually and instrumentally. To get his students to think beyond the page, he has challenged them to write on toilet paper rolls or candle sticks.
D.A. Powell: And I thought, I just wanted to get back to that simplicity, when you’re not thinking about who’s going to read it or where it’s going to go in the world, and all that capitalist stuff that we end up assuming about poetry like it has some sort of purpose. This is what John Cage would call purposeful purposelessness.
Don Share: In our May issue, we feature 9 of these mostly short poems. They’re from a manuscript Powell’s calling “Raw Papers”.
Lindsay Garbutt: One of the poems is called “Tatt That”. Powell said it was inspired by the movie Night of the Hunter, the 1960s Thriller. Robert Mitchum’s character has the word “love” tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, and “hate” tattooed on the other. This got Powell and his students thinking about unusual forms.
D.A. Powell: Love and hate as sort of the world’s shortest sonnet. Then we started thinking about other things you could put in that position, to make sort of a unity of opposites.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here’s D.A. Powell, reading his poem “Tatt That”.
D.A. Powell: kiss
Christina Pugh: Yeah, so this is an extremely skinny poem down the page. Every line is one word, so it is extremely incremental if you’re reading it on the page. Doing all of this great internal rhyming and playing, calling upon the reader to put it all together because it’s also unpunctuated. It’s really doing that opposition of this and that, that love / hate. These are in extremely exiguous couplets. So it seems like, I don’t know, maybe this one could be on the toilet paper roll. Or maybe something thinner than a toilet paper roll.
Lindsay Garbutt: (LAUGHING) We’ll leave that to your imagination. Yeah, I thought this poem was wonderfully simple and yet mysterious. I had a lot of trouble trying to pin down the “they” of the poem, before realizing it probably wasn’t necessary. But what I love is the title, “Tatt That”, as if these were tattooed little phrases, which is pretty common these days that people tattoo lines of poems these days on their bodies, but then it ends with —
D.A. Powell:… “your / fist / over / love”
Lindsay Garbutt: — It almost seems like a game, but also sort of a violent implication. There’s a lot happening with that ending and I keep thinking about it over and over again in a wonderful way.
Don Share: Well, it’s a two fisted poem. You hear one hand and then the other, so they alternate. There’s a lot of alternation going on there. I was struck too a little bit, this is pretty tangential though, but the way Gwendolyn Brooks reads “We Real Cool” is not the way most people read it. So what I like here is that same rhythm. It’s sort of a distant cousin I think of the Brooks rhythm, because it’s got a muscularity to it that’s surprising. It sort of fights with what’s on the page, which I think brings it off the page.
D.A. Powell:… “kiss / upon / kiss / they / grow / into / this / they”
Don Share: I mean, it’s got push and pull in it which is something strangely rare in poetry, that push and pull. You’d think there’d be that alternative rhythm in poetry, but not too many people seem to wrestle with it.
Christina Pugh: It seems as if the constraint of the one word line is really making that happen. The syntax works, as you heard in that reading, so when you’re encountering it for the first time in print, it’s really up to you to figure out how do these one word lines, how do they follow? Which to put together with which to make syntax happen? And of course some of them, it seems to me, can be interpreted syntactically in different ways. That’s also part of the mobility of it. When you think about the two hands, the two hands would be mobile and moving, so it might be inspired by that.
Don Share: A fun aspect of that mobility is how fast things move. The rapidity of this poem is very striking. You don’t have a lot of time to think about the syntax, which sort of has great paradox in it which is that you would think a long poem with long lines that goes on for pages and pages would be really hard to work through, and you have to really work at this because you don’t have a lot of time between one stressed word and the next to intuit what is happening. That’s a lot of fun, actually. Let’s listen to another poem, a very short one, by Doug Powell. It’s called “Slut”. Powell says he wrote it and others on the same topic in response to slut shaming.
D.A. Powell: You know, there’s this cultural tendency to make people feel bad about being sexually promiscuous.
Lindsay Garbutt: He also told us that the blue jays are in the poem for a specific reading.
D.A. Powell: Blue Jays are not the birds you really want. They’re the invasive, obnoxious birds. So if you’re putting your seeds out everywhere I guess what you end up with is the worst of the crowd that you might be trying to attract.
Don Share: Here’s the poem. Listen up, because it happens fast.
D.A. Powell: spread millet in this neighborhood
all you get is bluejays
bluejay may be cooked three
Don Share: Anybody who’s ever seen those blue jays at work knows what’s going on in the poem. All of these poems in the sequence, and there are more of these poems in the issue, are so delightfully funny but so true. It’s never joking stuff, it’s really keenly apt here the little glancing gloat to Stevens; we don’t have time in this poem for thirteen ways of looking at this kind of bird! But also, “blue jay may be cooked three ways”, there’s an awful lot there but it is kind of an illuminating flash too for people who notice what blue jays are up to, and how attractive they are even though they’re scoundrels, really. Must be something of the secret of life in there.
Christina Pugh: I was just thinking also, Stevens has three minds in the Blackbird poem. I really felt for me, especially listening to it, I realized for me a lot of humor is in the migration - no pun intended - from bluejays plural to bluejay singular. It’s almost like it’s the voice of the master chef; “bluejay may be cooked three ways”, with that sort of mock authority. It’s really amazing in these very very short poems how much, I was going to say depends on something like the transition from bluejays plural to bluejay singular, and how that can completely change the poem in something this short.
Lindsay Garbutt: Every word does so much, and then the fact that it’s two stanzas and that shift happens in the space between the two stanzas. For me, reading the first one, you’re thinking oh, I really don’t want to attract all these bluejays with my millet. And then you get to the second stanza and it’s like, well actually I have a use for all these bluejays! I found it very funny and also surprising in such a very short space.
Don Share: Great sounds too. “Slut” almost rhyming with “millet”. And “bluejays”, as Christina mentioned “bluejay”, but “bluejays” rhyming with “ways”, which occupies the whole line: “ways”. To me that just opens everything up. You can read “Tatt That” and “Slut” by D.A. Powell in the May 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all four May episodes all at once on the full length episode on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenelosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this poem comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.