Saturday, December 02, 2006


Blogger: Lisa Bowden
Co-founder and Artistic Director, Kore Press

Autumnal is a collection of contemporary elegies by 15 poets and a violinist I compiled this fall during what the Chinese call the season of grief. When faced with great loss, many artists search for remnants of memory and try to make meaning by stitching something new out of what is gone. It is Persephone's, or a Shaman’s, desire: the deep, dark silence and the urge to make something out of it. Transubstantiate remembering into an organized, aesthetic fact and you shape the no-thing back into a thing again. What the living do, if we are to follow Marie Howe’s edict, is to make music and poetry and begin to touch, and be touched by, the emotional landscape of grief. This is territory beyond language, and here reconstructed with language—an attempt to speak the unspeakable.

Why audio? Sound, Olga Broumas says, is the “ear of heart.” Hearing is the last sense that goes in the dying process, while making sound is the way we come into the world—with a cry. The first hard truth I realized shortly after my mother died was that I would never hear her voice again. I thought of a message she had left on my voicemail. When I found it was no longer there, I called her answering machine and listened to her outgoing message. I strained my ear to hear every drop of her in that old cassette recording. It was the same few words over and over and me wringing each phrase dry with listening every time I dialed.

I began collecting these aural works at that time. It started out as a search for my mother in the voices of others and then became an effort to leave behind traces for others’ loved ones, from “ear to heart.” The pieces came from 18 different sources collected in a few short weeks. Everyone had poems, the experience of some loss on the tip of the tongue. A hand-held digital Olympus recorder went to Mexico City and back to gather Tedi Lopez Mills’ deep and throaty voice. The same recorder collected poems on a back porch after work, at the dining room table, in the Kore Press office and backyard, Niki's floor on her lunch hour. Some sound was digitized from The Poetry Center recordings in the 90s; many came over e-mail as MP3 files from poets speaking right into their own computers on the East and West coasts. The violin music of Vicki Brown, from her CD Winter Garden, is a piece I played for my mother in the hospital during her last days. It is called "Take Flight," and while it was written to celebrate the artist’s return to the world of music from science, it became my mother’s swan song, her own final flight away. The music has such a sad, beautiful, sound.

Autumnal presents a chorus of mourning songs, an homage to those lost, especially this fall—mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, friends, brothers, lovers, and soldiers.

Autumnal was funded in part by a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A Day Without Art

In commemoration of World AIDS Day, our regularly scheduled blog entry will appear tomorrow, December 2nd.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Room of One's Own

Blogger: Sandra Lim
First Book Award Winner
for Loveliest Grotesque

I recently returned from a weeklong poetry residency at Soul Mountain Retreat in East Haddam, CT. Graciously hosted by poet Marilyn Nelson and her assistant Tonya Hegamin, it is a true writer’s haven where one can think, read, write, and be part of a supportive writing community. If you looked at the experience from the outside, it wouldn’t have seemed that so much was going on: most days I would get up and perhaps go for a walk, come back, putter around the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and breakfast, and then go to my room to face (with equal parts joy and terror) the blank page.

But mostly there was joy. Often, I feel that being a poet, or committing oneself to making open and artful the scent and nature of your mind, is a strange, often unbearable, and mostly solitary activity. Having to be responsible to one’s own imagination: how frightening and yet full of possibility! At Soul Mountain, it was both the room of one’s own and the quiet hum of other writers going about their work that reminded me of the great sense of fulfillment just wrapped up in the making of artwork, the simple trying and doing that can gather up one’s being in a way that few other things can.

I spent one afternoon somewhat idly imagining Amy, Tonya, Pam, and Marilyn going about their projects in their rooms. What were they doing? Maybe someone was looking over their creamy new notebook, with its thick and chewy pages; someone was sniffing out her way to a form; someone was describing light passing over the trees outside; someone was reading up on the mystics; someone was inevitably going to make more coffee. I suppose I imagined that we were, in a sense, preparing ourselves, in our own idiosyncratic ways, to be used by our poems, when they decided to come. But whatever lonely galaxies we were roaming around in, we had to practice, we had to be ready.

There aren’t that many things these days that slow us down, that invite us to move ourselves through an activity of real thinking and feeling, to confront emptiness, to pay attention to the phenomenal moment. Sometimes it’s just a start of recognition that a poem gives me, and that is decent enough. And it need not be relentlessly heavy. It didn’t escape me that I was in Wallace Stevens country at Soul Mountain. Though unexpectedly, it was thinking of him, the great poet of magisterial, meditative inwardness, that got me from surface to depths back to the charms (and humor!) of the surface again. As I gazed outside my window one morning, which looked out onto Peanut Pond and the endless trees burning their gorgeous colors, I thought of how Stevens can so lightly go straight to the heart of the matter: “Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.” And: “One reads poetry with one’s nerves.”

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Story of Silence then Speaking

Blogger: Elline Lipkin
First Book Award Winner
for The Errant Thread

yes! radiant lyre speak to me
become a voice

— Sappho, fragment 118

messenger of spring
nightingale with a voice of longing
— Sappho, fragment 136

A friend once observed to me that every woman poet has a Persephone poem or a Penelope one. At the time I laughed because I had, in fact, been working on a Penelope poem myself. The statement seemed strikingly true, although my own response at the time was to say that I had just written a Philomela poem, a lesser-known character in the Greek and Roman pantheon, but one whose silenced voice, paradoxically, spoke the loudest to me.

Philomela’s tale is a grisly one: rape, mutilation, infanticide, attempted murder. Whenever I’ve borrowed her name as on-line pseudonym I invariably receive correspondence back asking why I would choose such a negative moniker. Although I see her story as one of great violence against women, my instinctive reaction has always been to understand her tale as one also of affirmation -- that women will continue to make art despite the violation they endure, and in fact, this kind of transgression can serve as a powerful spur towards writing.

When I first learned about the myth of Philomela during a graduate class, I was transfixed. Its story of silence then speaking, the literal tongue cut from a mouth then serving as an excision from language as symbolic tongue was startling. I was glad to read about how the voice of Philomela was later restored into song, the vocation of the poet, as her presence as the nightingale reappears throughout literature, a ghostly note that invokes her story, although she remains forever outside a window or a door.

Philomela’s defiance within the story has always particularly striking. She specifically tells Tereus she will speak and not be shamed by what he’s done to her. Recognition of her determination is what leads Tereus to the retaliatory act of cutting out her tongue, thereby admitting the power of her (potential) speech. Philomela’s last literal word, “father,” perhaps a plea, perhaps a symbolic severing from patriarchal language, falls from her tongue as it bounces on the ground, writhing like a severed snake. Her violated status banishes her from an acceptable role for a young woman, and in parallel, she is moved literally to the exile of a small hut in the woods. From here her exemption from conventional expectation gives rise to her artistry. Although she loses her literal voice, she finds a way to insist upon her story. Her innovation is born of necessity as she turns to the loom, a traditional tool of both utility and art.

Philomela’s tale has continued to move me on many levels. I am always struck by her resourcefulness and sheer determination, followed by her sister’s complicit understanding, then absolute loyalty, and then extreme sacrifice. The goddess’s intervention adds a happier ending to the tale, but the nightingale’s voice, part song, part plaint, as it reappears throughout the canon of literature, is an ambivalent note, evoking both beauty and melancholy. After I began to research the history of this myth, I came to view many of its essential elements as a kind of controlling metaphor for my own poetic awakening — a need to broaden, although not break, my understanding of the poetic canon as situated within a patriarchal framework linked with an active turn towards a legacy of writing by women, accompanied by vigorous thinking about issues surrounding gendered writing and speaking. While I view my education as a poet as equally informed by both male and female poets and critics, I came to realize early on that many of my concerns as a poet and a critic are deeply connected to what it means to be a woman writer. I want to examine carefully the implications of gender; to think about the ways women poets both constitute their own legacy and also compose the larger canon; what it means for me to write from experiences gendered as female; what points of contact I feel with a tradition which is still burgeoning.

Philomela’s name is often invoked, either directly or by the presence of the nightingale, throughout Western literature. Versions of her story abound from poets as far ranging as Ovid, Chaucer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, Edgar Lee Masters, Sir Philip Sidney, and T.S. Eliot. After first hearing of her weaving, I quickly wrote my own version, “Philomela’s Tongue,” a poem that, as rarely occurs, came out in virtually one sitting. In this poem I focus on Philomela’s determination as reflected in the line, “But she lost none of her nerve.” Despite her mutilation, Philomela is empowered; she transmutes her terrible loss into a gain. In an allusion to the many women poets who write about Penelope, I mention their alliance with the line “Purposed as Penelope, the weft / wept her story, the warp reinforced grief.” At the poem’s end I view her writing, hence her weaving, conflated with her voice, transforming her unheard scream into a text. In a later companion poem, “Tereus Speaks” I realized I wanted to try and consider what his motivations could have been, where his voice might be in the equation as well.

I see Philomela’s tale as one of ultimate triumph, and if a troubling initiation, one that spurs her artistic creation. Separated permanently from codified expectation (virgin, chaste sister) she lives outside a space of patriarchal utility and thereby comes into her own power. I view Philomela as inhabiting an alternate space which frees her and allows both sisters access to what would otherwise be transgressive: pure anger, unabashed desire for revenge, and the steel will with which to act on their intentions.

Finding a language and a tradition which to inhabit is central to my quest in discovering my own voice as a poet. Exploration of what it means to claim words and to claim a context arises within The Errant Thread in various guises. I am interested in what it means to write as as a contemporary woman and I am interested in language itself, exploring the inventive things it can do when words lift from literal into metaphoric meaning. I see this as a place of endless possibility which I approach with recurring faith.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Alison Deming Continues the Conversation

Blogger: Alison Hawthorne Deming

Kore Press author
Anatomy of Desire
The Monarchs on Audio
Broadsides Girls in the Jungle and Rehearsal Space for War


by Alison Hawthorne Deming
(--after Patricia Barber’s “Mythologies”)

My father was the Big Guy
Energy Spill
My mother was Cereal
Matter Sink

Get real I used to tell them
Ditching their dream
That I would be
Forever daughter
Picking flowers in the meadow
While they made action movies
Out of everyone else’s life

What they wanted for me
Was never
What I wanted
So abduction is not quite the word
For what my lover did to me
For me is more like it

Oh beautiful sin in falling
Under the rhythm of his need
And finding I could answer
Stroke for stroke
Be bad and claim my loving
And find the pleasure good

How could I know
The hunger would persist
Would worsen
Once I had left
My mother’s threshing floor
My father’s distant light

Pulled into the underworld
I forgot what lay above
The soil drying seedless
The dying Earth
Unable to revive
Din of lamentation
Not even the gods could abide

My husband too is a god
He struts his ass like a jaguar
His sex is an epic poem
He loves the dead
Because they tell no lies
And yield themselves
Completely to the future

When he fed me the pomegranate
That would keep me
Coming to his dark bed
I did say thank you
My goodness married
To the limbo night inside

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What She Saw Down There

Guest Blogger: Deborah Fries
Kore Press First Book Award Winner for Various Modes of Departure

Let’s assume that when Persephone returned--older and wiser than before she was abducted by Hades--she emerged from the underworld profoundly changed by what she’d seen, things her family might never experience or understand: soft, wide veins of gold and silver, underground rivers, rotting bodies and buried evidence, the obligations of ruling a dark, secret kingdom. And now she also knew how it was to live with--even love--a bad man.

Home, safe, she might want to keep that stuff to herself. Or she might want to tell everyone every indiscreet and true detail of what she saw down there--to recreate the fusty smell of reed lamps burning in the underworld, the cold touch of the blind, white salamanders she kept for company, the self-gratifying caresses of a powerful god.

But Persephone had a good reason to self-censor her report: she was not free of Hades, after all. The deal was that she would return to him for four months every year. And it’s hard to tell the truth about Hades when you’re still bound by a contract, a sense of restraint, even love.

When Carolyn Forché selected my manuscript, Various Modes of Departure, as the winner of the 2003 Kore Press First Book Award, and said I’d written my poems with "horrific grace," I already knew that I’d broken my contract with Hades. I’d told too much. I’d written about the physical and social decline of family members, the denouement of love and shameful episodes of our lives. Some things were just too private to put out there--not for me, but for them.

My mother died six months before the book came out in September 2004, and so I never had to face her and explain how it was that I could tell the topside world that her husband had lost his mind, had gone from being a war hero to a lost soul in diapers. To me, what I saw in the hidden realms was poignant, and demanded to be told in the light of day. To my family, these revelations might seem insensitive and self-indulgent. To my southern mother, who did not air her dirty laundry for more than 80 years, my self-expression would have seemed malevolent, unholy and seditious.

These were poems ultimately meant for strangers, people who lived on the bright green surface of the earth, unfamiliar with the burrows or subterranean villages where they might actually run into any of us at the grocery store.

It’s been two years since one documentation of where I’ve been and what I’ve left was sealed into print as a small book of poems. The terrain I reported from was personal, and didn’t demand truth-telling. It was not, after all, necessary reportage from Rwanda or Darfur. And even as I work on a second book, I realize I am still under contract to the people I love.

And continually, I ask myself, What else really must be told?

Deborah Fries is Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Image: "Daughter" Original monotype (c) 2006 Deborah Fries