Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Plum Woman

Jane Miller is the author of eight collections of poetry, including A Palace of Pearls, from Copper Canyon Press. She is currently writing a book of prose poems, Midnights, in collaboration with the painter Beverly Pepper for publication by Saturnalia Press in 2008.

Persephone Speaks, the name of this site, calls to mind Louise Glück’s new collection, Averno, in which there are two acute poems with the title, “Persephone the Wanderer.” In the first incarnation, Ms. Glück iterates one of her familiar realizations:

… the goddess of the earth

punishes the earth – this is

consistent with what we know of human behavior,

that human beings take profound satisfaction

in doing harm, particularly

unconscious harm:…

In the second poem, Ms. Glück, a woman of fierce intelligence – fierce, from the Latin, ferus, wild, savage – writes:

Winter will end, spring will return.

The small pestering breezes

that I so loved, the idiot yellow flowers –

Spring will return, a dream

based on a falsehood:

that the dead return.

When two people run into each other after a long silence, and one says, “How are you?” the world, according to a dear friend of mine, is then divided into those who say, “I am shopping for ripe plums,” and those who will tell you, or begin to tell you, an entire life story from your last meeting until this chance moment. Who of the two is Louise Glück?

(Can one say? Why ask?) I believe the speaker of the poems in Averno is avid about her circumstance, her day (her moment, actually), but she is not the “plum woman”; rather, is impatient, anxious, maybe with some prior hurt on her mind, angry, in another realm of persistence. It is in this other realm where Ms. Glück is able to see context and legend, history and mythology, together, uncomfortably, but together.

The “plum” moment in a novel, for example, say, Mrs. Dalloway picking out her flowers, is Virginia Woolf’s having it both ways, the moment and the backdrop of the drama. The character is in the lilies, and the novel inhabits history. Glück, not a novelist, has elected her perspective. Our greatest poet of psychic, analytical work gives emotion intellectual context. She robs the moment of its romance. She does not have an erotic, but rather a tragic, relation to the moment.

If, on the other hand, I am the plum person, I am alone; the event is a beautiful, defeated ripe plum, and then it is over. I am harmless, although nothing is harmless; at this moment, I perhaps should be speaking of raising funds to fight cancer – while seemingly harmless, I am at least not entirely without reason, and with good reason, there is some truth to be gotten from the moment. The open market. The heavy sun, already fading.

What one sacrifices, as the plum woman, is history. I mean to say (but I should be listening to a philosopher or therapist about the past, and not speaking as though I get it) I mean to say that the past has its boundaries, and it is good, it is noble to remember it. But if one relives it for the sake of the self alone, one loses the season of the sunlight, one loses the great winds burdening the awnings of the stalls. Perhaps only poets of the ecstatic or the diurnal have the novelist’s opportunity to have it both ways? I understand that Ms. Glück is listening to the lament of the soul, not of the self. Hers is terrifically clarifying language.

My other teacher in graduate school, who, bless his soul, died recently, Jon Anderson, always gave us what he termed (and wrote a poem titled) “Permission to Speak.” Meaning (I think now) to listen. But there is such chatter, such dread, such “pestering breezes.” Does participating in the immediacy of the world develop a soul? Ms. Gluck, typically, brutally clear:

My soul in love was sad

and the moon on my left side

trailed me without hope.

To such endless impressions

we poets give ourselves absolutely,

making, in silence, omen of mere event,

until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.

--from “Omens,” after Pushkin

Her noun “silence” signifies an exemplary space worth surrendering to, especially for those of us who love words.

Here’s Jon, speaking from his backyard, his familiar ampersand carrying his voice, his silliness, his self. Though his romance with “every living thing” may risk sounding sentimental, his philosophical intelligence achieves a consciousness beyond self-lacerating comedy or irony. Jon: now ashes landing on Flagstaff’s mountains.

Now that it's quiet in my house I can't really think

without thinking & I can't really talk without meaning

something else, so I shut up. Some days I wish I was

back at the factory, moving heavy objects & grunting.

They start out looking for a handout, then they get used to it,

the birds. What's weird is I think they don't know why

they come anymore, now that I've stopped feeding them.

Frankly, they tend to be undifferentiated & cutely stupid.

Once, when one fell off the wall, I thought I had something,

it was so embarrassed, lying there like a ruffled pompom

with a black tack for a head. Turned out it was dead.

I was so alienated I mailed it back without a stamp, but

I said this prayer for it: Bless every living thing...

…When you're alone every damn word you say has got

to be how you feel, & then you've got to live with it.

I think I'll entertain myself by not experiencing anything.

Word on the mountain is that the wabi of consciousness

is all your living minus all your accumulated experience…

-- from “Exiled on Mountain, Bewail Fate & Praise Autumn”

Jane Miller

Tucson, Arizona

November 2007

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Losing the Mental Note

Anne Landsman ( ) is the author of The Rowing Lesson, forthcoming next month from Soho Press.

The family dog's on prednisone because she has allergies that make her gnaw at her paws. I know how this drug has to be administered – a half a tablet twice a day for five days, then half a table once a day, then half a table eve
ry other day. It's not good to take a dog off steroids suddenly. My son (who is almost ten) has a loose tooth and the dentist mentioned that he should wiggle it, help it to fall out. If it doesn't fall out soon, it should be pulled. I make a mental note that reads, "See if Adam's wiggling his tooth. If not, make a dentist appointment." Then I lose the mental note. Tooth stays in, at least for the time being. My daughter, Tess, who is twelve, wears a night brace to bed. It makes her mouth hurt, so the orthodontist recommends Motrin which she has been taking for the last three nights. Tonight Tess says she thinks she doesn't need it because she might be getting used to the night brace. If it bothers her, she will call for me. Another mental note: Teach Tess to take the Motrin by herself. A mother in another part of the city has e-mailed about inviting Adam to a Halloween party at her loft. An entertainer is coming and it's going to be fabulous. Adam says yes, and then he says no. He wants to trick-or-treat in our neighborhood with his old friend, Simon. I call up to politely demur and she is reading Harry Potter to her son and they're two chapters away from the end of the seventh book. We haven't even begun. Harry Potter isn't really Adam's thing. Should it be?

In order to write, I have to fight my way out of a dense thicket woven out of my own anxieties. I have to stop worrying about whether my children get enough iron and calcium in their diet, what they're learning (or not learning), whether my older one is spending too much time on the internet, whether my younger one, who is dyslexic, will ever be able to IM his friends. I have to guard my "flexible" schedule because if I give my time to the bake sale, to the Book Fair, I won't write.

I think jealously of Proust, who sat in bed and took care of no one. I hiss at Eugene O'Neill whose wife had a room designed for him that gave him an inspiring view of the sea. I rail against all the male writers who didn't wait for loose teeth to fall out, or notice the dog chewing its paws, or hear the cry of a child with an aching mouth in the middle of the night. I curse them for their obliviousness and their focus. I envy their singlemindedness, their myopic immersion in the life on the page, and only the page.

Luckily Emily Dickinson shows up in these moments, flashing her poems on the back of recipes. I summon up Jane Austen too, sitting in a drawing room full of people. Nobody notices what's she doing, as she fills her mind with sentences, as she remembers everything.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Word Problem

Blogger: Wendy Burk

Poet Wendy Burk translated While Light is Built by Tedi Lopez-Mills (Kore Press, 2004) and contributed to the audio CD Autumnal (Kore Press, 2006).

The math seems excruciatingly easy. Take two women; add one Honda Insight; one winding country road; one dark night; one moose, towering symbol of the Maine countryside. Add them all together and what have you got? Can’t be pretty, the mind answers.

Still, the figures don’t tell you that much. Let’s look closer. The women: New England born and bred, sweethearts since college, married just over eight years. Kate’s a theater buff, Erica’s a bookmaker; both writers, singers, horse lovers. The Insight: tiny little hybrid with two seats and a top-secret jet pack concealed in the back. Always gets smiles and waves from strangers on the road. At the moment of our equation, speeding happily along in Aroostook County for a visit to Kate’s parents—Aroostook County in the Maine North Woods, “where moose outnumber people.” The winding country road: trees glinting briefly in headlights from both sides, and the feel of eternal descent, even when the road begins to climb. The dark night: dark. So dark, in fact, that when the headlights shatter it’s impossible to see what’s been hit, by whom. The moose: how big is a moose? About seven feet tall, ten feet long, weighs half a ton or more. When car and moose collide, something’s bound to break; perhaps, we fear, to die.

But don’t be afraid. This story is a little sad, but not too sad. Kate was bruised and jostled; Erica had whiplash; both were shaken and sore. The Insight valiantly gave its life for its human cargo: just what you’d hope and expect a hybrid car to do, right? The moose (as you may have guessed, this is the sad part) was killed. There was fur all over the road, they said.

So take a deep breath; it didn’t add up like you feared. And this is just the start. Now add something new to the equation: books, lots of them, read during recovery at the parents’ house in New Sweden, Maine. Books like Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe County, chronicle of a journey through southern Ontario with a big blue van and a nursing baby daughter. Books like William Least Heat Moon’s PrairieErth and River Horse, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. Add, also, once the insurance payments come in, a considerably larger, but not too gas-greedy, Subaru. And slowly, add a question and a decision in the eyes of our two heroes.

There: it’s decided, and as suddenly as we began to add, it’s time to subtract. Take away one house, one dog, two fluffy cats, a lively social circle; pack up the piano and the books themselves. Take away two jobs and health insurance; subtract COBRA for Erica (courtesy Defense of Marriage Act) and income of any sort. Take away all that’s familiar and safe, and what we have left is two women, a Subaru, and one great idea.

What are they doing? They’re pointing the Subaru west, of course. They’re taking off, heading out. They’re driving away the moose, as they put it, lest the ghost of the moose start driving them away. They’re going to drive, and see, and write about it. How far? Well, all the way here, and all the way back, at a bare minimum. How long? No idea—how many years have they got?

What I love about this is that they wrote their own ticket. They didn’t wait for their grant, their sabbatical, their reprieve, their at-last-the-time-is-right. They have health stuff to deal with, money worries; they miss their pets (responsibly domiciled in New Sweden with the folks, be it said). They’re not being particularly practical; they don’t have a book deal; they don’t know where this will end. They just added it all up for themselves and said, well, your car could be hit by a moose (or, depending on your perspective, your moose could be hit by a car) at any time; you might as well travel with the one you love and leave a written record.

So, as my mom would say, it’s not a word problem, it’s a word opportunity. And what does it add up to for you? Maybe you’re one of those who could leave it all behind tomorrow, like Erica and Kate. Maybe you’re not. But what’s been flickering in your mind while you read these words: any hopes, any regrets, any ideas?

Two women, one Honda Insight, one road, one dark night, one moose, my words, this story, and you—what answer did you get?

To follow Kate and Erica’s epic journey West (and back), visit

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

My Superhero Secret

Blogger: Tiphanie Yanique

Tiphanie Yanique is an assistant professor of creative writing at Drew University. A former Fulbright Scholar, she has received the Mary Grant Charles Award for fiction, the Academy of American Poets Prize and the Tufts University Africana Prize for Creativity. She is the recipient of a 2008 Pushcart Prize, the 2006 Boston Review Fiction Prize, and was the Parks Fellow/Writer-in-Residence at Rice University. Her short story "The Saving Work" was chosen by Margot Livesey for the 2007 Kore Press Short Fiction Award.

The English Teacher: Sixth Grade
The teacher gave me a "C" on my book report, claiming I’d plagiarized. I hadn’t. I had read the unabridged version of Robin Hood, which had more details and better language than the knockoff we were reading in class. The teacher was American, new to our island. She didn’t want to show weakness, so even after my mother and grandmother protested, the C remained. What could my vexation do? I was eleven. The teacher was an adult. It was a Catholic school, where even parents had little say. So I settled on feeling something else: flattered. I was smarter than the teacher thought. I’d tricked her!

The President of the Honor Society: Eleventh Grade
In high school there were privileges handed out for achievement or commendable behavior. Senior girls didn’t have to wear socks, which were a part of the uniform for everyone else. A particularly coveted privilege was being allowed to go to the head of the lunch line. The food was gross, so this was a privilege only because you didn’t have to lean against the wall, stuck in the line that ribboned through the cafeteria, and because the others watched you with envy. We were practicing for VIP lines at exclusive nightclubs.

When the football team won the championship, Mr. Carillo summoned the whole team and the cheerleaders to the front of the auditorium. When the National Honor Society had induction, officers and new members were also called to the front. I walked up.

The president of the Society, an American kid whose mother taught in the school, wanted to know what I was doing up there.

“They called up the inductees,” I responded.

“You’re an inductee? I didn’t know you were smart.”

I was also a cheerleader and had been called up the day before.

My Freshman Year Roommate: College
She was from the northeast and accustomed to the cold. I was from an island in the Caribbean and had only seen snow twice. But we had other things in common. On the first day we presented pictures of our boyfriends to each other. She was white and had a black boyfriend. I was black and had a white boyfriend. She and I were both going to be psychology majors and we were in the same weed-out psych lecture class. All this assured me that we were going to be friends. After the first quarter we both received the same Dean’s List announcement.

She wasn’t even shy about her disbelief: “How did you get on the Dean’s list? How could you and I both be on the Dean’s list? This isn’t fair.”

I laughed.

“But I’m serious!” She was hysterical with tears.

I went to MIT for the parties and poetry readings. I slept late into the day.


The fact that I am you telling you about this means: a) I am bragging, which feels dangerous, thrilling and narcissistic—especially in print, and b) I am communicating to you what I could not to my teacher, to the president of the National Honor Society, to my freshman roommate and to others I haven’t mentioned.

Joyce Carol Oates writes in her essay “They All Just Went Away,” that she has long wondered about the wellspring of female masochism. She wonders if it’s something learned or something biological that predates culture. But what, she asks, is the evolutionary or cultural advantage of self-hurt in women?

I would like to suggest that it’s a kind of back-up strength. It’s about being able to protect your own incredibleness when it seems others can’t accept it. It’s a private joke. It’s a quiet knowledge to hold above people when you feel they’ve kept you down.

I don’t recommend this kind of strength. It’s a kind of trick power. Isn’t this how women have failed themselves, each other and even men, again and again? We like to play dumb; even us black girls dye our hair blond. We fall in love with men who mistreat us…and we stay with them and say it’s for their own good. We wear shoes we’re more likely to fall down in—and somehow feel more powerful in them. Are women writers any different? I own those shoes. I’ve fallen in love with that man.

Perhaps being Vice President of the National Honor Society or being the snob who read the wrong version of the book wasn’t who I really was. My roommate didn’t know that I stayed up late, studying my brains out in the hallway after the whole dorm had gone to sleep. I wasn’t so sure I deserved the Dean’s List either after her face turned red over it. Hélène Cixous says our writing is like sex. I think it’s the body I was given. Perhaps it doesn’t match my brain. Perhaps all women feel this way.

Of course, it’s no different if you’re a writer.

It’s like this: more women read fiction in America. It’s believed that there are more women literary agents and editors. Yet men still dominate the bookshelves and the bestseller lists and cut the big deals.

It’s like this: the men speak more than the women in writing workshops. And if they’re white men and the women are of color it turns into preacher and congregation. The women might write better, but still they cry or throw up after class.

It’s like this: If you get the job or you get the book contract or you win the prize, it’s a shock. It’s unfair, they say. Perhaps you won because you’re a woman, they say…and if you’re a woman of color then it’s definitely true, and if you’re a woman of color who is from a small island that should only produce beaches and daiquiris (not writers, not intelligent things) then even the other women believe it’s unfair, and even the man you love doesn’t think it’s much to celebrate.

It’s like this: an editor says “we already have (insert the black Caribbean writer you know). We can’t have another.”

And it’s like this: I’m secretly a talented novelist. This cheerleading uniform is only a disguise. I’ve got superhero powers. I can even make myself disappear.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I Aspire To Be Song

Blogger: Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo's books of poetry include How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (2002); A Map to the Next World: Poems (2000); The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (1994), which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; In Mad Love and War (1990), which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award; Secrets from the Center of the World (1989); She Had Some Horses (1983); and What Moon Drove Me to This? (1979). She lives in Hawaii.

Rain. This morning I carried mangoes into the house blessed by a sprinkling of rain. These fruits are evidence that someone loves us…or maybe not. Maybe this ebb and flow is not personal at all, maybe everything just is... For now, I will live in mango heaven for a season. And these are Piri mangoes, considered the best in texture and taste. They are similar to ripe, perfect peaches with a little more body, not as stiff as nectarines. Last night when I headed out the door to the stationary bike under the house, I found another mango near the steps, glistening from late afternoon rains. I breathed mango. When I breathe mango I breathe rain, sun, earth, birds and sex.

I wonder if anyone else out there is ever overwhelmed by multiplicity and depth? Within each raindrop are millions of possibilities, equations, the story of water, of flight, of storms, of the emotional tenor of a city, of plants, of humans, of a thousand years ago, of infinity, of now, of increments of now. Each word bears similar flyways or labyrinths. Each culture defines a slant. Each individual within a culture is yet another angle of memory, of perception. Where does the song start?

Any traces of procrastination I carry comes from an overwhelm of the dissolve into multiplicity. Where do I start?

Yesterday I followed along watching myself for several hours. What is stranger is watching yourself, watching yourself.

My friends Pam Uschuk and Bill Root returned this last week from Nepal. One village they visited the people live as they have always lived, without interference of the money-culture. They sing the sun up, they sing to the clouds, they sing to their animals, they sing to the plants. They move about the day singing and when they go to sleep they are singing. I aspire to be song, as they are.

The spirit of my voice, of my poetry has boundaries and rules. (This is the voice of poetry, lyrics, singing, saxophone-ing.) This voice sets me free yet freedom has strictures. It demands care and honor, even as it takes care. I am warned when I cross over and offend the gift. Yesterday when the barbs of the edge cut into my back, I had to stop and pay attention. A detractor has been attacking me in the comments section of my blog. I have control, can either post or delete the comments. Twice he’s written and each time my li’li’i (small, in Hawaiian) self has responded. Then I delete his nasty note and my response. I delete because I have been using words: the breath behind them, the spirit, in a wasteful manner. My breath, which carries life, essentially, is then being given over to someone who wants to only to hurt me. (And his breath is being given over to something that will conversely hurt him.) Yes, it’s important to speak up for oneself, for justice. The feminist edict of the seventies from Audre Lorde remains planted in my gut: “Your silence will not protect you.” No, it will not. Yet there’s more to this: you must use your words wisely, as a warrior, so they contain power. I wasn’t using my words wisely here, my spirit warned me. I was giving over my power to someone who has made a choice to harass. So I used the delete button, on the screen and within.

I wrestle with this: if all is God/Omnipresence/Breath, then that includes any opposition in this realm. I prefer to turn in the direction of compassion, no matter the arrows and keep moving however imperfectly I move.

My question: why would someone focus energy on destruction? There's too much to do here.

Is it a symptom of the age that words are casual? Do blogs imply casual intimacy?

Early on I was asked to review another native woman’s chapbook of poetry. I honestly reviewed the book, emphasized strengths, and did not labor the weaknesses. After the review came out, in a small magazine, I was attending a large, first-of-its kind gathering of “Third World” writers in California. A voice found me from the crowd at the reception:

"_______ wants to meet you.” There's no mistaking the wisdom of the stomach. It rocked and rolled. Then there she was, the poet, all six feet of her, a big woman, arms folded across her chest. "I wanted to kill you." I made quick note that I wouldn’t stand a chance in a free-for-all, instead, I maneuvered coffee in a nearby restaurant. She began calling me for advice, often the calls turned to accusation of crimes by others. Ten years after our meeting we attended a dinner of native and black women writers in a restaurant in Montreal. Audre and I sat across from each other. See, this is what we dreamed: Native and black women eating and speaking together. The poet kept drinking, then stood up and made a speech denouncing me. She said I wrote the only bad review ever of her writing. Then she kept going, against others. Recently I reread the review. I was surprised to note it was actually generous; there were no barbs. I have not seen the poet in years. She has a huge gift, and she is haunted.

I did begin to question the intent of many reviews, and why many aggressive reviewers feel that it is their place to protect the field from mediocrity with their astute and often nasty observations. I say, acknowledge that which moves and accomplishes. Don’t speak of anything that doesn’t. I don’t review. I am better at the saxophone than reviewing. Yet, we need reviewers. How many books of poetry were published last year? How many of those worthy of review were reviewed?

Aggressive and punitive reviewers play to an audience more than to the text. Many audiences get a hit off of vicious and sensationalistic behavior, in print or performance. Cheap thrills are easy, but not so cheap. I walked out of a Hunter S. Thompson performance. He was late and terribly drunk when he finally made it to the stage. The packed house of Midwestern college students grew rowdier as we waited. When he finally staggered on stage, crowd members taunted him for a reaction; he bit. It was ugly. I left.

I’ve always admired the poetry of Charles Bukowski. No, this isn’t a PC revelation. Bukowski was/is irreverent and his observations were often misogynistic. His work is uneven, tends to maudlin indulgence, yet through his intimate supplications, he knew absolutely that he depended on the power of women. I responded to his form of questioning God. And I tend to give slack more easily if a voice is genuine. Much poetry published these days is shining tight with technique, but rings empty. I never saw Bukowski perform, but have seen footage. The audience howled back and encouraged his drunken act.

Both Bukowski and Thompson were taken over by the alcohol spirit. That spirit is attractive, will dance with you, give you confidence, will help you fly. It is similar to being taken over by vision, by words, by the muse of poetry. We do not create on our own. And then what happens when the mask is off, when the sun comes up and all your companions have left? Poetry must stand on its own two feet, between worlds. It wasn’t Bukowski or Thompson starring in their performances, it was the alcohol spirit.

I’m reading everything the Maori writer, Patricia Grace has written. Here’s a passage from Tu, her novel about war:

“Off I ran, out of the iron gates and away to war.”

“And it was the thousand eyes that made the color of his skin a shame, that made him catch his breath before going into the greengrocers or getting on a bus, that made him unable to go into a shop without buying something. It was the thousand eyes and the thoughts that went behind him that halted him."

And from a short story in the collection, The Sky People:

“It was instinct that caused Earth to tuck these bright things away. Neither she nor Sky realised at the time that their children could become their enemies, or they themselves could be enslaved…But later they began to ask themselves where they’d gone wrong. Was it because of their separation that these children had become so grasping, so out of control? Had Sky been too distant? Had Earth been too over-compensating? What could they have done about it anyway? Was it all a question of light?”

And there’s more... She is an exquisite storyteller. The stories always depart and return to the intimacy of home, of family, though the characters, and space might travel the multiplicity of time.

We always return home, even if we are in constant motion away from home. I am in the middle of studying Mvskoke tribal music forms, the blues and jazz and trying to figure out a crossroads. I am, just as my people are, a crossroads of these forms. America is a crossroads of these forms. What makes a challenge in creating new songs is that in the Mvskoke traditional (non-Christian) song forms women don’t sing. So I remake the form so it’s mine. Isn’t this what Adrienne Rich did when she left the harbor of the patriarchy of form and rhyme? And I am indebted Danny Lopez, the Tohono O’odham writer who made his own song forms. The traditional ones come with their rules, for their own protection as well as for the protection of the listener.

Here’s a song, from the poem, “Morning Song” translated into Mvksoke, with the help of Ted Isham and Rosemary McCombs Maxey:

Morning Song

© Joy Harjo

e-kv-nv em-mv-he-ri-ces

e-kv-nv em-mv-he-ri-ces

Hvt-hv-yvt-kat te-lv-cet v-cum-kes.
He-ru-sat mvo e-to-ho-cet.

'Po-fvn-kv 'ra-fun' we-cah-lē sa-cum-kvt-os.

The red dawn is now is rearranging the earth
Thought by thought
Beauty by beauty

Each sunrise a link on the ladder

Thought by thought
Beauty by beauty

The ladder the backbone of shimmering deity
Thought by thought
Beauty by beauty

Child stirring in the web of your mother
Don’t be afraid
Old man turning to walk through the door

Don’t be afraid
Do not be afraid.

e-kv-nv em-mv-he-ri-ces
He-ru-sat mvo e-to-ho-cet.

Hvt-hv-yvt-kat te-lv-cet

Joy Harjo June 6, 2007 Honolulu

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Political Poetry: Who We Engage

Blogger: Spring Ulmer, Kore Press First Book Award Winner for 2007 for her manuscript Benjamin's Spectacles, selected by Sonia Sanchez and due for publication this summer

I want to address the subject of political poetry today by responding to David Wojahn’s essay “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry,” featured in this month’s The Writer’s Chronicle. I was struck, reading Wojahn’s essay, by his overwhelming focus on male poets. And no, I am not here to rewrite a Virginia Woolf essay and debate whether women or men are more peaceful, but I do think that to approach political poetry as Wojahn does in this essay is limiting -- not only to the art of poetry and the diversity of its practitioners, but to the possibilities of its ability to act as a social catalyst.

I believe I understand where Wojahn is coming from, as I grew up under the tutelage of parents who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, actively protested the Vietnam War, and then poured themselves into a carving out a largely self-sufficient, back-to-the-land lifestyle for themselves. It makes sense, to me, in other words, that Wojahn begins his essay with Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” a refashioned old folk tune. I, too, trace my radical roots back to the land and its songs and speeches inciting and commemorating struggles against the imperialist, capitalist system.

Yet, I am left undeniably cold when Wojahn then compares Dylan’s artistic melding of
the personal with the political to W. S. Merwin, Robert Duncan, George Oppen, Robert Lowell, Hayden Carruth and other male poets of the 1960s, while simultaneously dismissing women writers Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, and Rita Dove. Wojahn accuses these women (and Robert Bly) of being unable to “blend a desire for personal mythmaking with social consciousness” and claims that their protest poetry is just “decidedly bad.” And I grow progressively colder as Wojahn professes the dated quality of Carolyn Forché’s writing (her poetry has, he argues, “passed into oblivion”) and then applauds the work of Milosz, Herbert, Hikmet, Ko Un, Vallejo -- some of whose voices Wojahn forgets to acknowledge Forché helped bring to North American and English-speaking readers. Can it really be that Adrienne Rich is the only woman (and Komunyaka the one North American male of color) Wojahn salvages from the wreck of what he calls “bad” political poetry? What, too, does it signify when Wojahn thereafter completely disregards all confessional poetry and language poetry? I smell something aslant.

Let me say now that I hope not to fall into the trap of an attack. I am not trying to destroy the Left or to debase what Wojahn sets out to say -- which is that good political poetry isn’t to be found in poems on the Poets Against the War website, marinated as these poems are, Wojahn insists, in North American culture that kills poetry’s complexity, stuffing it, instead, full of predetermined accepted definitions of the social and the personal. Rather, I am interested in pushing this dialogue to a more complex emotional and intellectual space.

What I would like to do is to illuminate the politics inherent to being a non-white-male poet in North America -- a politics which is synonymous with the struggle against the erasure, whitewashing or marking and romanticizing of writings by silenced populations, including migrant farm-workers: today’s sharecroppers. Perhaps, it occurs to me, our voices aren’t being heard because so many white men are still too busy arguing about what good and bad writing is and providing recipes for the crafting of such writing, rather than listening to and providing openings for the voices of those who cannot afford time enough to write.

This summer I went to Rwanda in an effort to throw aside my cynicism. There, I helped build a vocational school for children who are unable to attend an academic school because of the enormous educational fees. (Some of these students asked me, personally, to help find them sponsorships. Click here for more information.)

When I think of these children, I remember their dreams and how they sang and how one boy crafted paper decorations that transformed the ceiling of his windowless one room home into a fluttering sanctuary of poetry. When I listen to Wojahn’s need for “good” political poetry, I want to tell him that this poetry is around us and inside us. It doesn’t have to do with crafting the perfect poem; it has to do with getting our hands dirty. I didn’t have to go to Rwanda to find this out; these same lessons were also presented to me as I taught English composition at the University of Arizona -- the true teaching of which occurred one-on-one as I took the time to listen to my students’ stories. The lessons were also present when I taught writing and photography to migrant farmworkers’ children -- many of whom work all day in corn fields and go to school at night. As I drove around from camp to camp, teaching on picnic tables or in other teachers’ classrooms throughout Illinois, I never wondered whether my students’ poems were good or not. And when teenage Yvonne Flores wrote about her ten-hour work day, I did not question the quality or worth of the political poetry I heard in her voice, as she penned, “The last cuadro was hard cause the machine didn’t take out any of the espigas.”

Political poetry today is at the cusp of awakening. It can be found in Illinois’ fields, in Iraqi bloggers’ websites, in music that travels through illiterate communities, as well as in discussions between impassioned students at universities. To be aware of its omnipresent gift, maybe we need to change our definition of what changes us socially, consciously, and politically.

I was writing yesterday to Lisa Bowden at Kore Press about how I had feared listening to the CD she edited, Autumnal, as my father is sick with a rare blood cancer and I didn’t want words of grief to plunge me into depression. I shouldn’t have feared. The words led me away from my fear and let me go into the word… I heard women’s voices. Jane’s flute and piano, Niki’s washing, Frances’s goldfinch. If only all loss was so commemorated, I thought. If only each of us could be so recognized. And I thought of those suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, and of those with AIDS, cancer, of survivors in Rwanda and all over the world, and of women who live through genocide, only to be rejected by their families and husbands because they have been raped.

I thanked Lisa for the CD, and confessed that before my manuscript, Benjamin’s Spectacles, was selected by Sonia Sanchez for Kore Press’s First Book Award, I had just about accepted that writing for me would be a solitary practice, as I had become convinced that the publishing world was too high-society and connection-oriented to break into. Now, with my first book inching up over the horizon, I keep thinking of all the other deserving people out there whose voices aren’t heard. Their voices keep me committed to doing the work that is grown through dialogue and action; work that publishers like Kore Press do and wholeheartedly embody.

So, to slowly weave my way back to Wojahn’s argument and his assertion of the “good” versus the “bad” political poem: I used to be aggressive and self-hating in my own need to proclaim others’ rights; I bullied and fought. Today, overlapping social locations between many genders and races, cultures, classes, abilities, and geographies, colors me. The last thing I desire now is the fascism that so often claims to be activism; real activism seems more and more contemplative and hands-on to me these days. I think of Sonia Sanchez and her challenging the Black Panthers to be more inclusive of women, and of the times in the past that I looked to separatist movements for inspiration. Now, I am seeing more of the worldly hate and invasions as separatist. The good/bad dichotomy, as I see it, doesn’t really cut it any more.

Today I see more vividly than ever the limits of academia and of my own privilege, but I feel less trapped by my ethics, which at one time offered me no way to accept myself and provided me little compassion for anyone but the absolute underdog. I am still struggling to get myself to a place of permission, so that I am better able to write, and hence, to better give. One thing that helps me is reading. Reading a multiplicity of voices, a multiplicity of poetry. Political poetry is more than what is on a page. It is real, lived. It is how we speak and how we listen and who we engage.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Galatea Rocks

Blogger: Lauren Eggert-Crowe

Office Administrator, Kore Press

Editor, Galatea's Pants

The boys down the hall had taped it to my door. The title page ripped from the cover of my new ‘zine Galatea’s Pants. Scrawled underneath the title in all capitals: SUCKS!!

It was my second semester of college. I had just completed the seventh issue of my ‘zine, a creative project I had started two years earlier. Each issue became the mirror I saw myself in or the snapshot of my life at that time; it was my own chronicle. I filled it with poetry, book reviews, essays, and collages. Shyly at first, I made the rounds of my acquaintances in the dorm, offering them a piece of literary wit in exchange for a dollar. When I reached a popular room where at least five guys at a time were always hanging out together, several hands reached into their pockets. I handed out fresh copies for each of them and went on my way.

They kept their door propped open all the time, so a friend later heard them rip the 'zine to shreds, literally and figuratively. They used the words “dyke,” “bitch” and “whiny feminist.” Then one of the guys tore off the title page, scribbled his pithy criticism below it, and taped it to my door.

The interesting thing is that two of those guys wanted to date me.

Galatea’s Pants, and my own confidence as a writer and feminist, took a hit that year. I learned to walk that tightrope between the desire to speak your heart and the desire to have people like you. For a while, I kept my feminism muted because I had met so much animosity from men in my classes and my dorm when I spoke about gender equality and women’s liberation. I was eighteen; I wanted to make friends.

But I learned that some new friendships came with stipulations. The guys thought I was attractive until the second I crossed the line. Once I wrote and publicized my own opinions, once I started criticizing their sexism, I was no longer girlfriend material. I wasn’t cute.

Zinemaking remains my passion. The space I have navigated in the last seven years is one many women artists find themselves in. We want to let our words rip out of us, but sometimes we’re too afraid. Of who we’ll alienate, of whose friendship we’ll lose, of who will cut us down. That year in the dorm, I came to understand how the personal is political. The biggest obstacle facing my growth as an artist or an activist was the need to fit in. The guys down the hall were misogynist enough to make me realize I didn’t need their approval. But what about other people who thought I should tone myself down and stop bringing women’s rights into every conversation? I am still learning how to balance my need to speak out with my need to win people over.

The most important thing I learned from the guys in the dorm is how to convert criticism into fuel, how to use caustic words to galvanize my art. When I first read Kore Press’s broadside of “Girls in the Jungle” by Alison Hawthorne Deming, I kept saying, “Yes! Exactly!” Deming urges women artists to use every bit of negative feedback for growth in order to survive. My ‘zine is the self-portrait she encourages us to “repaint every six months.”

I kept their sign taped to my door, because just a little bit of pen work changes sucks to ROCKS!

Lauren Eggert-Crowe is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arizona. Galatea's Pants was included in the San Jose Museum of Art's Art of Zines '04 exhibit and can be found at independent bookstores in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Portland and other cities.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Other Room

Blogger: Robin Black

So, I’m sitting with four other women in the living room of a restored eighteenth century log cabin in the middle of absolute nowhere West Virginia. It’s the last night of a four day writing retreat. There’s a fire in the pot-bellied stove, we’ve already cooked and eaten an enormous dinner, and a certain amount of liquor has been consumed. One of us suggests that before the night is over, before the trip is over, we should each say why it is that we write, and in so saying, each recommit to our work.

Why do I write?

That’s easy. It’s a question I’ve answered many times – or thought I had, anyway. I write because that’s how I process my experiences. I don’t necessarily write about my own experiences, but by writing, I come to understand the events of my life somewhat more clearly. I’ve said that countless times, and assumed I would rattle it off again when it was my turn.

But then something odd happened. I looked around the room, at these women, all close friends, all artists whom I respect and all people whom I trust – and I began to panic. I was to be the third to speak, and listening to the first two answers - sincere, generous - I started to tremble and then became very still. Because I knew that I would never, never be in a safer place than in that room, surrounded by those women; and I knew that I was either going to tell the truth, right then, or I was never going to tell the truth. When my turn rolled around, tears poured down my face as I said, haltingly, in a voice that sounded to me quite unlike my own: “I write . . . because . . .I write because. . . because I believe I have something to say that’s worth hearing.” And then I lay my head down on the table and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, while one of my friends said “I am so damned proud of you, Rob, for admitting that.”

As my nineteen year old daughter might say: What the fuck? What in the world was going on? How had I reached the age of forty-four, written dozens of stories, drafted a novel, gained an MFA in creative writing, taught scores of students, and never before been able to admit that I thought I had something to say worth hearing? Why did admitting that feel to me as though I had finally confessed my worst sin?

I have no doubt that personal pathology explains some part of that – the first work of mine ever to be published was my eulogy of my father, a fact that is not without meaning including and beyond the symbolic - but I have as little doubt that my gender explains even more. Since that evening, I have paid close attention to my colleagues and to my students as they discuss their processes and reasons for writing, and over and over and over I hear women – and not men – talk about giving themselves permission to write, about the necessity of giving themselves permission to write – as though in our natural state we are somehow bereft of that permission.

In mulling all this over, what strikes me as the most important aspect of that experience is that I was not alone. That night, in West Virginia, I did not have to give myself permission; I found the permission I needed in a room full of women whom I trusted, trusted to love me, trusted to understand me, and who I was sure could only benefit from hearing another woman – in this case an older woman – finally admit that she believes in the importance of her words.

A room of one’s own – absolutely. We all need one, we all deserve that. But then, I would suggest, we need this other room too, just as much. The room in which women support one another in affirming their right - our right - to feel entitled to express ourselves, our right to know, without question, that we are worth being heard. We need this room too, and we share a responsibility to fill it, and refill it, until it is simply obvious to us all that there is no sin in valuing your own voice.

A widely published fiction and nonfiction writer and winner of the 2005 Faulkner Wisdom Writing Competition in the Short Story category, Robin Black has a collection of short stories forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2008.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Squeamish Editors Seldom Make History

Literary Director, University of Arizona Poetry Center

Kore Press Author of Intercession, a broadside in the Kore Press Women's Voices Against War series, and of the Forward to While Light is Built by Tedi Lopez-Mills.

It seems ridiculous to be shocked, but I was last fall when I read the Kore Press manifesto, "Why We Publish Women." I did believe that the literary community was further along in the repair of gender disparity. Maybe this is because so much of the truly dynamic work that does make it through the squeeze of the printing press is written by women. Maybe it's because so many of our male colleagues are quick to say so themselves, or because our current generation's cornerstone critics are women. All this and still the disparity while we wait for our nation's most prominent editors to catch up. All I can presume, as we sit here waiting, is that they've taken to heart Sappho's fragment 84 advice, "If you are squeamish, do not prod the beach rubble."

Actually, I say that for effect, but the truth is, we're not sitting outside the editor's door waiting for our name to be called. We sit, stand, and run like mad-women getting our work done. When necessary (and no, it's not always necessary, but way too often it is) we pick up the slack of our husbands, fathers, male colleagues, and bosses, and we pick up the pace to get it all done. We do it despite the contract with people we love that we not say those things that are difficult, as Deborah Fries writes in her blog entry. Elline Lipkin writes that Philomela, when her tongue has been cut out, "lost none of her nerve," and Sandra Lim reminds us, quoting Wallace Stevens, of our responsibility to “read poetry with one's nerves."

The women of Kore Press, the women who edit literary journals and run literary organizations across the country, are leading us all into the uncharted territory of a messy canon. A canon in which there is no "the great American epic," no representation of "the American experience." A complicatedness that will make of our scholars not theorists but well-honed file-clerks trying to make sense of it all.

As curator of the Reading Series for the University of Arizona Poetry Center, I aim to present an aesthetically and culturally diverse line-up of writers whose works represent the best of what's being written. It shouldn't come as a surprise then (but I must admit it did) that this spring our Series entirely comprises women. They span the spectrum from narrative to performative polyvocal word-sound artists. They're journalists, teachers, translators, editors, activists, ex-pats, mothers, hedonists, intellectuals, and writers of children's literature. They're all over the map and an audience that loves one of them will probably not stand for another of them. Each of them, though, is a beach rubble prodder through and through.

May we all undig our heels from wherever they’re dug and sink our toes in the sand.

Monday, January 01, 2007

On Race and Violence

Blogger: Shannon Cain
Executive Director, Kore Press

Book Review

Color of Violence: the INCITE Anthology
South End Press, 2006

This article will appear in the next issue of the Sonora Review.

How does a white woman respond to a book about violence written and edited by women of color? The day I contacted South End Press to let them know I’d like to review their 2006 book Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology, I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean for me, a reader whose race privilege puts her outside its contributors’ experiences, to offer my perspective, much less to challenge or to agree with its contents.

Who am I, was my realization somewhere around page two, to enter into this dialogue? On more than one occasion when I engaged the topic of race—when I elected to acknowledge that racial dynamics were at play in a given personal or professional situation—I ended up in a morass of anxiety and misunderstanding. Why am I surprised when the dish I cook ends up disastrous, given the primary ingredients I bring to the recipe are blundering good intentions, nervousness around the topic, and privileged ignorance?

So I feel a morose kinship with those early pioneers of the domestic violence movement, the white women whose groundbreaking work in the late seventies and early eighties sparked a massive social consciousness-raising around the issue of relationship violence and created fundamental shifts in the way law enforcement, health care and social services recognize and deal with battering. Kinship because a generation ago it was perhaps their own privileged ignorance that allowed the social justice ethic of that movement—which we are reminded in the introduction of Color of Violence had been largely authored by women of color, particularly Black lesbians—to all but disappear from the antiviolence organizations of today. We are now stuck with a “movement” that long ago lost its radical social change edge. It has transmogrified into a network of government-funded social service charities, emergency room procedures that medicalize the issue into one-size-fits all policies, and laws that often land the victim/survivor of abuse in the criminal justice system alongside her abuser.

The thematic thread that runs through Color of Violence is not so much that women of color are subject to violence in particularly cruel and complicated ways, or that we as a society have failed to see that the intersection of gender, race and violence is rigged with explosive devices. Certainly these are the elements upon which the book is based; the reason for its birth. The thread that shows up in every essay, the one its contributors tug at relentlessly, is this: the state—in the form of law enforcement, medicine, criminal justice, “national security,” and even nonprofit social services—is complicit in the continuation of violence against women of color.

It’s a daring premise, and one that the Color of Violence contributors defend in terms both academic and personal. Through intellectual discourse and gut-level anecdote, we are introduced to an imposing number of complexities. Complexity #1, for example: the nonprofit industrial complex and its rape crisis centers and shelters that seek to eradicate violence by working in cooperation with a criminal justice system that has been brutally oppressive toward people of color. Complexity #2: the expectation by communities of color that women “keep silent about sexual and domestic violence as a way to maintain a united front against racism.” Complexity #3: If you’re a Black woman in Chicago versus a Palestinian immigrant in Canada versus a maquila worker in Ciudad Juarez, violence can play out with both staggering differences and universal similarities.

While I admire the diversity of experience and viewpoints in Color of Violence, the volume’s refusal to set a rhetorical tone was difficult to take. A transcript of a woman’s wrenching oral storytelling is set side-by-side with what appears to be an excerpt from another contributor’s PhD thesis. The end result is that editorial cohesion is sacrificed; the volume has the feel of having been assembled by committee.

In an anthology of such diversity and sheer number of essays (thirty), there are bound to be a clunker or two. I was disappointed by Sylvanna Falcón’s “‘National Security’ and the Violation of Women: Militarized Border Rape at the US-Mexico Border.” While Falcón makes an incontrovertible case for the culture of racism and misogyny and the lack of accountability that allows Border Patrol and other law enforcement agents to rape women attempting to cross the border, she fails to convince me of her premise that “rape is routinely and systematically used by the state in militarization efforts.” I began her essay eager to believe, eager to see the evidence of actual state sponsorship of rape, but ultimately was left wondering how unsubstantiated claims such as Falcón’s serve the movement. I'm uncomfortably aware that the insistence on providing “proof” of what disenfranchised people know is true has been historically used as a way of invalidating their experiences, so it feels like treachery on some level to suggest the need for evidence of Falcón’s claims. Still, it would have been enough—heartbreaking and rage-inducing enough—simply to document the culture of bigotry, the premeditated nature of assaults by serial rapists wearing the Border Patrol uniform, and the malevolent results of official passive neglect.

By and large, the essays in this volume show that anecdotal evidence is plenty good enough. Most effective are those pieces that ignore expectations that women of color “prove” (to the patriarchy, no less) what they already know to be true. Dana Erekat’s “Four Generations of Resistance” is a gorgeously crafted piece of creative nonfiction framed in the second person: a “testimonial” told as “true stories intertwined into one” in which the reader is invited into the experience of an intergenerational quartet of Palestinian women, framed as a tag-team account of everyday horrors that bring into sharp focus the unrelenting struggle against violence that is their lives.

The question is whether we can hear these stories. How can a country that seems to have overlooked the obvious reality that recent schoolhouse sex abuse and murders in Amish county and in Colorado were hate crimes against girls manage to understand the layers of meaning behind the rape and beating of a Mexican migrant by a Border Patrol agent? I am beholden to the contributors of this volume for their attempts to shift a poisonous culture that debases us all. It is possible—and indeed this anthology makes one believe it is probable—that women of color will lead us through and beyond our collective ignorance.