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Memorious Speaks: Jennifer Tseng Reads “I never read one word Toni Morrison wrote.”

Welcome to “Memorious Speaks,” a new corner of the blog, which features authors performing poetry and prose published in Memorious. In this edition, Jennifer Tseng reads “I never read one word Toni Morrison wrote.,” her stunning poem from Memorious 27.

Read the full text of “I never read one word Toni Morrison wrote.” here.
 

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Lloyd Schwartz

Acclaimed poet Lloyd Schwartz’s long-awaited fourth full collection of poems, Little Kisses, has recently been released by the University of Chicago Press. From the opening title poem, he again proves himself to be, as the New York Times has praised him, “the master of the poetic one-liner.” The journey of Little Kisses is a constant discovery of the lost and found: conversations between the poet and his mother, who no longer recognizes her own son; the study of a forgotten family history through the inspection of a photograph; the loss and near return of a favorite object; the recollection of puzzling dreams (or of a dream within a dream); questions demanding more bewildering questions; the reprieve of unexpected jokes. Schwartz’s poems are as unsentimental as they are heartbreaking—and with an ample amount of serious humor interwoven throughout. Little Kisses also includes a section of translations: a meditative and timely selection of poems by Brazilian poet Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna. (Another selection can be found in Memorious 5.)

Lloyd Schwartz’s previous poetry books are Cairo Traffic (2000), Goodnight, Gracie (1992), and These People (1981). An esteemed Elizabeth Bishop scholar, he is the editor of Prose: Elizabeth Bishop (2011) and coeditor of the Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) and Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art (1983). His many honors include a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, and Classical Music Critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.

We’ve been waiting a long time for Little Kisses, your new collection of poetry—this book has been about 17 years in the making. You’ve been known to edit and revise a poem for years, so this wait makes sense. How did you realize the poems you’d been writing over such a long period of time had come together to form Little Kisses?

Unlike some poets I admire, I never know what shape my books are going to take—how the poems are going to come together—until I’ve written most of them. I started writing the poems in Little Kisses before my previous book was published, so a few of the poems are actually older than 17 years. “City of Dreams” started in the early 1990s as three separate poems that I put together under the title “Three Dreams” (published in AGNI). But when I was putting my book Cairo Traffic together, it didn’t feel right. I still needed to do something that would make the parts come together, have more resonance, and fit into the whole. It was a poem I liked to read aloud (I love to read poems aloud), but even then I could tell it wasn’t working quite right. In 2010, when George Kovach, a former student of mine, was beginning his new magazine, Consequence, he invited me to contribute something, and I didn’t have anything new. This became my chance to re-work the three dreams. The most crucial new addition was the quotation at the end from Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song”— the poem Mahler set to music in his Third Symphony: “The world / is deep—deeper than Day had thought. // I was asleep. I’ve awakened / from a deep dream. // I have to tell you my dream.”  I think it’s now one of the main connecting links between all the poems in Little Kisses.

I’m a slow writer to begin with, and there was one long poem I was working on for years that I felt I had to finish before I had a book. This was the poem ultimately called “Unexpected Oracles,” and it was mostly a compilation of things I overheard or stumbled upon, many of them hilarious, some of them heartbreaking. For me it seemed it was going to be a symbol of the whole book, a tonally complex compendium of interweaving “little kisses.” It was eventually published in the Kenyon Review—my first publication in the journal where Robert Lowell published his first poem. Finishing this poem really allowed me to see all the poems I’d written since my last book and was extremely important in helping me find a shape for the whole manuscript. As things turned out, I eventually cut the poem from the final version of Little Kisses! I hope it will be in my next book.

One other explanation for the long delay between my last two books. During this time, I was also editing two collections of work by Elizabeth Bishop: the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (which took eight years to put together), and Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s centennial edition of Bishop’s prose. Aside from my love for her work, these projects were in large part labors of love and gratitude for Bishop’s kindness to me in the years I knew her. But it turns out it’s really hard to write new poems while you’re working on Elizabeth Bishop.

In your last book, Cairo Traffic, your mother is ever present. “The Dream During My Mother’s Recuperation” is a poem that documents snippets of her dialogue and written notes, such as: “Well, your mother came back.” And your mother comes back in Little Kisses, in the title poem on the first page. This time, she can’t recognize that she’s speaking to her son until the poem is about to end—the precise moment in which she also remembers the song “Little Kisses” and that she’ll soon forget all of this all over again. Will you tell us a little bit about Little Kisses and “Little Kisses”—the book, the poem, and the song to which they refer?

The first section of the poem “Little Kisses” was originally the first section of a longer poem called (not the subtlest title) “Grief.” I knew I hadn’t said everything I needed to say about my mother’s sad decline. Her caretakers in the nursing home where she lived were sure she’d reach a state of blissful forgetfulness, as many people with dementia often do. But she never did. She was always aware that there was something missing, that she wasn’t who she was. One of the most devastating moments in my life was the first time she didn’t know who I was. I was her only child—she had devoted herself to making me happy. Then suddenly, she didn’t know me. But every so often, she would have some uncanny illumination—things would come back to her in some moment of recognition. And often through music. “Gimme a Little Kiss” was a song she would sing to me when I was a child. A song she taught me. When I returned to this poem, I knew instantly what I would call it, and knew that it would also be the title poem of my next book. Maybe “little kisses” is the best any of us can hope for—“the little of our earthly trust,” as Elizabeth Bishop writes in “Poem”—“not much.” Aren’t all our poems “little kisses”? Some sudden gift or blessing from the past? So there’s my mother on the cover, in the late Ralph Hamilton’s wonderful portrait of her, giving us her benediction.

“My Other Grandmother,” the second poem in Little Kisses, explores, through a photograph of your paternal grandmother “pasted to a piece of cardboard,” an image of the other half of your family history—one mostly unknown to your readers. Meticulous observations and questions replace the interactive dialogue that makes up so many of your poems. Will you tell us how this poem came to form?

That photograph of my father’s mother had always been a mystery to me. I didn’t have a good relationship with my father (this is an understatement!). We never—ever—had a conversation about his early life, his family, his parents. I think he ran away from Romania to escape being drafted, or to escape pogroms. No one from his side of the family ever talked about their “origins,” as opposed to the vivid family history on my mother’s side of the family. That mysterious photo had always remained a mystery. So if poetry is some attempt to explore mysteries, here was a perfect subject. Maybe there are more questions in Little Kisses than answers (as in what I think is my saddest poem, “To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like a Death”), and here was another subject that I had no answers to. My father’s three siblings were so different from one another. One aunt was even nastier and meaner than my father, one aunt was the salt of the earth. How could they be from the same family? What key did that photo of my mysterious grandmother hold? So there’s now this poem…with no answers.

Speaking of forming poems, some of the poems in your new collection are form poems. “Is Light Enough” is a golden shovel, “New Name” is a sonnet, and the end words of “La Valse” come from a sentence in a Jean Genet novel. The forms you use range from traditional to contemporary and invented. What I find particularly striking about your form poems is that they read as if they’re naturally formless. How did you navigate form in the writing of Little Kisses?

I’m an English lit teacher. I’m fascinated by form and love thinking about the form of the poems I love. One of my favorite courses to teach is Poetry and Poetics, which is all about form and meter and what happens when poets make certain formal choices and why they make them. I don’t think of myself as someone who can write poems on demand, but over the past few years some interesting formal challenges have come my way that have captivated me. I think the first one was from The Paris Review, challenging poets to write a new poem reusing an old title. One of the titles was “Howl,” and I couldn’t resist writing my own poem with that title.

David Trinidad, a poet I love, had a “bouts rimé” challenge, and “New Name” was my answer to his list of 14 rhyming words. Everyone who participated had to come up with a sonnet with the same rhyme words and it was amazing how different each poem was. I particularly relished the challenge of having the name Garbo in the poem and that became the excuse to get my favorite movie hero, Buster Keaton, into a poem. I think The Playhouse is his greatest short film, and in it he actually plays all the characters, including every member of the orchestra and everyone in the audience—even both the snooty husband and wife in a box seat. My real challenge for this poem was to get Keaton into it.

When the Golden Shovel challenge came up, I wanted to participate because I admire Gwendolyn Brooks so much (I got to meet her twice—once when she read at Radcliffe’s Hilles Library and she was introduced by Elizabeth Bishop; once when we invited her to read at UMass Boston). And since I seem to have a particular penchant for sonnets, I chose a 14-word line from her poem “garbageman” for my end words.

“La Valse” was a “commission” to write a poem about “Liberation” for an anthology published by the Terezin Foundation celebrating the liberation of the concentration camps. I was stymied for a while, and then I remembered a line from Genet’s The Lady of the Flowers that was the title of a poem I tried to write years ago, when I was still in school. Suddenly this poem came together. Some of the imagery comes from George Balanchine’s scary choreography to Ravel’s famous score, and the plumes at the hip come from another movie, Preston Sturges’s hilarious dark comedy Unfaithfully Yours.

The sestina “Six Words” was also the result of a challenge. This time from my students. I like to assign a challenging form to my poetry students, one that I hope will stretch their capacities and get them to see how much writing in a form can be a release rather than a prison. Whenever I suggested a sestina, someone would always ask me back if I had ever written one myself. I finally had to write one to avoid further embarrassment. So “Six Words” (which I also ended up translating into five other languages) was my response to that challenge. I wish more sestinas were this short. A few years ago, The New Yorker published a one-word-per-line sestina by someone who said in an interview that she had been inspired to write it because she so thoroughly disliked “Six Words.”

I like having all these poems that play around with form in their own section. They’re my own “little kisses.”

The fourth section of Little Kisses is comprised of translations: a selection of poems by Brazilian poet Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna and an adaptation of a translation of a poem by Ukranian poet Viktor Neborak. Why these poems by these poets?

I think translation is not just a literary act but a moral act, so I always want to include translations. Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna is an important and distinguished Brazilian poet and journalist whom I met on my first trip to Brazil in 1990. He’s a prolific writer and a cultural hero in Brazil. I’ve translated a bunch of his poems (several have appeared in Memorious), and he seems to like my translations. He sent me some new poems just after he returned from visiting Iran during the uprising. I was blown away by them. Just as I’ve been deeply moved by his more personal poems. For a long time, I had a long collage-like poem about 9/11 that I included in Little Kisses, and I thought these eye-witness poems about the Iran uprising would fit in perfectly with my own poem. I wanted something that looked farther out into the world than my own poems usually do. Then I dropped my own poem, which I hope will also be in my next book.

Back in 1996, the late Ed Hogan was editing an anthology of contemporary Ukrainian poetry. A bunch of American poets, who didn’t necessarily know any Ukrainian, were each invited to choose a Ukrainian poem from a group of literal translations and turn them into “real” poems. I picked Viktor Neborak’s grim poem partly because it inspired me to write one line that really tickled me: “No fish is an island.” (Humor is so crucial to serious poems—Ukrainian poets know that.) So how could I not include that in my book?

In a recent interview for Breakwater Review, you were in conversation with poet and longtime friend Gail Mazur. About writing poetry, you said something so memorable: “There isn’t anything you’d rather be doing, even when there is anything else you’d rather be doing.” You and I have talked many times about how we can’t not write our poems—even when we don’t want to write them. So, now that you’ve completed Little Kisses, what can’t you not write at the moment?

It’s true—I have the bad work habit of resisting the ideas for poems that come to me. Then when I can’t resist them anymore, that’s when I start to write. A long time ago, before my first book was published, I was writing mainly poems about myself and my frustrating personal life. Eventually, the question occurred to me: Why should anyone be interested in reading about me? When I started writing the dramatic monologues and dialogues that became my first book, These People, I thought I found an answer. I needed to write poems, but my poems didn’t have to be about myself (although as the artist says in one of these poems, “Every painting is a self-portrait”). Since then, I’ve been trying to use the techniques of narrative and “drama” I was discovering in These People in my more recent poems, hopefully in a more sophisticated and surprising way. (I have no desire whatsoever to write short stories, novels, or plays, but I’m fascinated by how poems can employ the devices of fiction and drama—the way Chaucer, Browning, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell did.)

I’m scared to talk about poems I’m still working on. But lately, I’ve been writing poems about some of my favorite paintings—images that I can’t get out of my head. There were two sets of “ekphrastic” poems in my second book, Goodnight, Gracie—one series about Vermeer and, more sonnets, a series called “Fourteen People”—sonnet-like poems about Ralph Hamilton’s series of fourteen life-size portraits of friends and family, including some poets (Gail Mazur, Frank Bidart, Joyce Peseroff, Robert Pinsky, Margo Lockwood). These paintings gave me an excuse to write about friends I would have been too inhibited to write about more directly. When that book came out, the word “ekphrastic” was so new to poetry, the publisher “corrected” the spelling of it on the back cover to “ecphrastic.” So the poems I couldn’t not write lately are about two Vermeer paintings that have recently come to the US and Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, one of the great tragic paintings and one of the great paintings about the suffering that goes into the creation of art.

Interviewer Tara Skurtu is a Boston-based poet and translator currently living in Romania. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University and a double degree in English and Spanish from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a two-time Fulbright grantee, and she has received two Academy of American Poets prizes, a Marcia Keach Poetry Prize, and a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. Her poems are published and translated internationally, and recent work appears in The Kenyon ReviewPlumePoetry Review, and Poetry Wales. Tara is the author of the chapbook Skurtu, Romania (Eyewear Publishing, 2016) and the full poetry collection The Amoeba Game (Eyewear, 2017).

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Memorious Speaks: Nicky Beer Reads “Cathy Dies”

Welcome to “Memorious Speaks,” a new corner of the blog, which features authors performing poetry and prose published in Memorious. First up, Nikky Beer reads “Cathy Dies,” her stunning poem from Memorious 27.

Read the full text of “Cathy Dies” here.
 

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poem: Michael Bazzett, “Icarus”

For Father’s Day, we bring you this new poem from contributor Michael Bazzett:

 

ICARUS

The wings were indeed a cunning invention,

not bird-like

as most supposed but sweeping and feather-light

with a clear

understanding of lift and drag.

Daedalus knew what was up.

There would be no white legs

          disappearing into green water

this time.

No, he would use woven hair

instead of wax and let

the lad get singed, if need be.

   Nothing like the acrid scent

of burning hair to pull the body of a boy

     back into himself.

Daedalus said the myth

would still prove useful.

           A bit more laconic, perhaps. Its heavy

hands now softened inside gloves.

              The two of them

would live

 

long enough to sit quietly through the evenings,

     watching swallows

looping manic over the pond

while they sipped their whiskey, without a word.

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Literary Ventures: Acre Books

For our latest installment of Literary Ventures, our new column that highlights new presses, magazines, literary organizations, and other literary adventures,  we spoke with Nicola Mason, editor of the new press, Acre Books, born out of The Cincinnati Review.

Tell us about Acre Books.

Acre Books is the newly established book-publishing arm of The Cincinnati Review. We plan to fill our lists with high-caliber poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and hybrid forms. The brilliant Danielle Cadena Deulen is our poetry and nonfiction editor, I’m the fiction editor, and we have a designer nonpareil in Barbara Neely Bourgoyne.

What inspired you to move from managing Cincinnati Review to creating a small press?

It seemed like a logical leap. CR has only been around since 2003, but despite its youth, we’ve developed a reputation for being a magazine that is well and truly read. Over the years, our subscription and submission numbers just kept mounting. Not only were pieces from CR’s pages getting regularly tapped for inclusion in prize anthologies (including Best American Poetry, Best American Short Stories, the Pushcart Anthology), the authors of those pieces–many of them young writers with no “names” to speak of–were winning first-book prizes. Agents began subscribing to CR and asking us to put them in touch with various contributors. I started thinking that we should capitalize on our own strengths, publish not only single pieces by the wonderful writers we were discovering through our submission pool, but their books as well. In other words, that we should rely on our reputation and further develop the relationships we struck up with these undeniable talents—people the editors of Southern Review used to call (when I started out there years ago) “comers.”

What can we expect from Acre in its first year?

Our premiere publication is out now! It’s a themed anthology titled A Very Angry Baby. The work included—from twenty contributors—runs the gamut in form, setting, tone, and angry-baby-induced trauma. Not all the babies are young, not all are small, not all are real, not all are human. But there’s an emotional center there, in the idea. An angry baby really can’t be ignored. Well, it can . . . but there are consequences. I rustled up some truly inspiring work both from writers who are well established and from those who have yet to crash the scene. Contributors include Julianna Baggott, Brock Clarke, Rebecca Hazelton, Andrew Hudgins, Erin McGraw, Jamie Quatro, and Josh Russell. All the pieces but one are unpublished, and a number of them were written specifically for the anthology. Though the volume is rather thin—130 pages—the content feels really full. Rich. Not to mention . . . fun. We even created a trailer for our YouTube channel. Check it out here.

The anthology will be Acre’s only spring offering, but we plan to bring out three or four books for the fall season. Our hope is to release one title per month starting in August.

Where can our readers find out more about you?

Our website is acre-books.com. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Writers of every stripe should feel free to send book-length work via the website. Submissions are wide open—and free!

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Derrick Harriell

Derrick Harriell’s third collection of poetry, Stripper in Wonderland, dances. Recently released from LSU Press, Harriell’s collection explores music, religion, and racism while continuously twirling readers through past, present, and future spaces. Influenced by Funk and Funk culture, his poems grip us with their musicality, an undercurrent that keeps us hungry for the next moment, the next image, the next tune. This collection threads a narrative that cannot merely be read, it must be felt. From the first statement that there is “not enough to hold all this     wonder” to the brief images of the hauntingly beautiful final poem, Harriell captures our pulse. Worlds combine, brush against the edges of each other and we are carried along in a world full of wonder that keeps shifting as we move.

In addition to Stripper in Wonderland, Memorious contributor Derrick Harriell is the author of Ropes (Aquarius Press-Willow Books 2013) and Cotton (Aquarius Press-Willow Books 2010). Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Harriell directs the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Mississippi, where he is also assistant professor of English and African American studies. A two-time Pushcart Nominee, his poems have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. Harriell also received the 2014 Poetry Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

Throughout the collection you play with form and space in interesting ways. In the opening poem, “17 Floors,” the internal spacing within lines adds a rhythmic, musical element, and then there are poems such as the final poem, “Ascension,” which use / within lines instead of spaces. How do you see internal space working in your poetry versus the / ?

Spacing in this collection was extremely important to me. “17 Floors” ironically was the first poem I’d written for the collection. I wanted to push the musicality in my writing, as well as push the way I presented ideas, images, impressions. While I choose to mostly write narrative, I wanted to complicate my presentation of the narrative. Right. So, when I think about the way our minds work and how in our daily lives we consider our day-to-day narratives (e.g. taking out the trash, going to work, going for a run, having a glass of wine), rarely are the images of these narratives as neat and perfect as we might present them in writing. For example, rarely do I think “I’m going to take out the trash and then make breakfast.” Rather I think, “The trash is full, there’s a woman I used to know, is there food I can make for breakfast?” It’s this internal dialogue and the messiness of it that I wanted to convey in Stripper. Ideally, I wanted to create an imperfect kaleidoscope of images, narrative, and song to leave a more immediate impression on the reader. To this end, I saw the use of the caesura and the virgule as most effective options. How I decided which one to use was a real spontaneous part of the process; meaning, the poem just naturally moved into its form.

The poems overall are very musical with a wide range of sonic devices from consonance to repetition to form. The musicality hums like a ghostly undercurrent and adds emotional depth to the poems that clings to a reader even after the words have faded. Jumping off the poem, “Rapping with Ghosts,” could you discuss the role of music in poetry? Were there any musical influences, or ghosts, you found yourself going back to as you worked on the collection, and if so, who?

What a musically delivered question. Music has always been important in my life and in my writing. For many years when asked about my first poetic influences, I often mentioned Black canonical writers because I thought that I should. And while so many Black literary giants did have a huge influence on my writing, I was equally influenced by the poetry of the emcees (Tupac, Nas, The Roots, No Limit, etc.). In fact, I spent about four or five years in a very successful hip hop group, Black Elephant. To this end, I’ve always been fascinated by the delivery of our great emcees and their ability to manipulate language and to play with consonance, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, etc. For this ability always added an additional layer to the poem (the emcee’s poem that is). For me, good writing is all about delivering layers and creating depth. I see the musicality of language as a tool by which we can do this as writers. This stated, I’d never felt more free to explore my fascination with sound in any of my books. Writing Stripper was the most freeing experience I’ve had writing a book because it’s the first collection I wrote for me. My first collection I attempted to demonstrate my influences. My second collection I wanted to write a book on historic Black boxers. This book was in many ways self-indulgent. I wanted to only write a book I wanted to read and use every writing talent I’ve garnered in all my years of writing. So I intentionally pushed the music. Furthermore, I wanted to play with the idea of Funk culture and Funk poetry. For most of my early career I’d be labeled a Blues poet because I wrote Blues poems. I started to imagine what a Funk poem might look like: what a Funk poem might sound like. Essentially, I wanted to write a Funk collection. And we all know that music is at the center of Funk and Funk culture.

You give us surprising imagery in the collection which shakes up the known world and places us in a wonderland. For example, in “Lifetime of Lap Dances,” you have these beautifully odd images and descriptions such as “I’m burying / a shadow in your collarbone” and “drunken fairy like // you look down,” and yet the language stays down to earth. Could you discuss your use of language in the poems? What is gained when poetry keeps closer to an everyday language?

I find the way we use language so fascinating; and even more so, at what moments do we decide to employ which aspects of the language resting in our language toolbox. Embarking on this collection, I found myself interested in my own everyday language and how I talk. Again, in my previous collection, I’d spent years trying to mimic the language of Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson and hadn’t played with “my” own language in quite some time. For Stripper, I wanted to pursue a language that mirrored my everyday language but pushed, or on steroids. I mean, I wanted to incorporate my own everyday lingo but not abandon the imaginative impulse associated with art. This is how I pursued the idea of a wonderland. I hoped that my reader would feel both stable and unstable. I hoped that my reader would feel undermined any time she tried predicating what’ll come in the next line, hell, which word might come next. And this is how I’ve grown to speak naturally. As a graduate student, I didn’t appreciate the nuances of my everyday language, the language of inner-city Milwaukee, and did a lot of code-switching in my writing. Now, I still wrote Black stories about Black people but my language felt more standardized. In Stripper, I wanted to embrace the diction of Black Milwaukee while embracing all of the nerd artistic aspects of my language toolbox, and now, even some of the southern vernacular that’s starting to be added. I wanted these poems to be an amalgam of all this. I wanted the authenticity of my everyday speaking life: one minute I’m open to discussing Foucault using theoretical terminology and the next minute I’m on the phone with an old friend using Milwaukee hood terminology that you wouldn’t understand if you not from there. And sometimes I’m doing both in the same conversation. This is the complicated nature of my own language I was interested in pursuing.

In the second section of the collection, “Astronauts in Mississippi,” Mississippi plays a role, not just as setting, but almost as an entity in the mystical world you’ve created. At times the repetition of Mississippi in poems such as “Space Cadet” and “Mississippi Striptease” even gives the word a mantra-esque or spell-like quality. Could you talk about how Mississippi—where you currently live—plays a part in your poetry and in this mythical world?

Yes! I don’t believe I could’ve written this book without Mississippi. What is there not to say about Mississippi? I’ve been living in Mississippi for almost five years now and if ten years ago you told me that my first child would be born in Mississippi, I would’ve called you a damn lie. I moved to Mississippi to teach at the University of Mississippi and not necessarily to live in Mississippi (see how much I’ve already repeated the word—it is a spell). I kid.

Before moving here, the only thing I’d known about Mississippi was what I saw in old Civil Rights documentaries. Mississippi was hot, backwards, and racist. This stated, Mississippi did have this mystical quality to it that I was somehow drawn to. I knew that Mississippi was the home of the Blues and that the South, as a whole, was home for Black people in this country. While I may not be able to name the country in Africa my ancestors are from, I can tell you that I have a great-this or a great-that from Alabama, and that both my wife’s mother and father were born in Mississippi. I hadn’t stepped foot in Mississippi ever until I did five years ago. And while I was initially resistant to fall in love with this place, this place immediately took a hold on me. It’s a bit hard to quantify, but there’s that ghostly past which ironically has made me feel empowered and creative. The air and the land does seem to be haunted but not in a negative sense (at least in my experience). I can’t help but feel the presence of courageous Black folk who believed that through love and perseverance, I was possible in the future. In many ways coming to the South feels like a reclamation project: that we as Black folks have unfinished business down here. As aforementioned, I think about my child being born here, and what that means for him. I walk freely around campus and think that just sixty years ago, I wouldn’t be permitted. I may be negotiating my feelings about the South and Mississippi for quite some time. I know that I’m currently enjoying the rollercoaster of experiences, both seen and unseen, of a Midwest boy from Milwaukee. Mississippi is an active character in Stripper. The question becomes, is speaker in Mississippi or is Mississippi in him?

In “Thursday,” your speaker says, “don’t ask me about futures,” but I can’t help it. The speaker often seems to be coming from combinations of past, present, and future which complicates the idea of life as a clear narrative. The final section of the collection in particular seems to merge memories with present moments and imaginings of possible futures. In poetry, is it possible for a speaker to speak from only one place and time or is the past, present, and future always there even if it’s not acknowledged? And how do you balance these three temporalities in your own work?

Damn, you really read my book, great question! I’ve been interested in the scientific ideas of quantum theory and of string theorists for quite some time. And while I don’t understand the equations and the entire scientific lingo, I’m often interested in the ideas and the dumb-downed explanations of some of these edgy hypotheses. The idea of time is one that I’ve been interested in for years after hearing so many quantum theorists propose its illegitimacy. I won’t bore you with a bunch of sloppy science talk from a writer guy, but I knew at some point I wanted to pursue this in my writing, I just didn’t know how that might look. Stripper, a collection in which I visit some aspects of my past initially, seemed like the right opportunity. Additionally, I felt it could add to the boldness of Funk and Funk culture (I’m thinking of Funk musicians like Sun Ra who claimed to be from another planet and who also questioned many of our standard universal assumptions). I knew I wanted to write about Mississippi too (which in many ways is a present rendering). I then started to play with the idea of the ever-present Now (meaning there is no past, present, and future, there is only Now and all things are happening in that Now). If this is true, I thought, then what’s happening right Now in my own “future:” perhaps my son is getting married, perhaps I’m celebrating thirty years of marriage at this very moment. Expanding on these ideas and fleshing them out further, I labored over the manuscript to ensure that every aspect was connected. And if all of these narratives exist at the same time, how are they informing and affecting one another? This is the question I complicated throughout the revision process. I labored over this question at nauseam until each poem felt, both contextually and spiritually, connected.

To answer the second part of your question: I’m not sure if we as poets or writers can simply speak from only one place. Our perspective of that one place is informed by so many other experiences that invade the space of a right Now moment. I would imagine that our articulation, both contextually and emotionally, of a specific moment is a fluid thing that shifts depending on the other parts of ourselves and our histories we find ourselves accessing in that moment. For example, I can try writing about an experience, however, since I’m not writing about the experience while having the experience, how I articulate the experience will depend on where I’m sitting and what I’ve had for breakfast at the time I try to write it. I would imagine that whatever’s happened between having the experience and writing about the experience will inform how it’s articulated and what receives emphasis. If that makes sense at all? In Stripper, I wanted to collapse time so that my reader might experience reading the book backwards or starting in the middle. While we should read most collections more than once, I hoped to create a body of work that moved my reader to keep coming back for pleasure, but also, for those subtle temporal connections that are stretching across the various “past,” “present,” and “future” moments presented here.

One more future question to end on: what are you working on now?

I’m just beginning to play with some concepts in the form of notes but I’m not writing any poems at the moment. Thank you for these well thought out questions!

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse is a PhD student in creative writing at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, New South, Sou’wester, and Bayou Magazine, among others.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Michael Bazzett

BazzettMHeadshotWithin the poems of Michael Bazzett’s new collection, Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief), you may find yourself in conversation with a man who “specialized in enslaving the wind” or watching a bison leap a fence. You might observe a woman slipping into another woman’s life—“an older version of herself”—as she tries on a coat in a second-hand store, or arrive in a paradise, where “the work week is fixed at thirty hours.” What all of these scenarios have in common is a storyteller’s wit and alertness to the surreal and mundane truths and coincidences of human interaction. The wind-enslaver falls in love with his listener because she begins “repeating back the last three words of / every phrase he uttered” (what woman doesn’t know that trick?), and the extra hours of leisure in Paradise are spent, in Beckettian fashion, waiting for a no-show God. The woman with the coat luxuriates in the “cool silk lining” of her fate, while the bison inspires awe with its leap because it seems to have momentarily “torn itself loose from the earth.” But Bazzett is advocating for connection, not departure, in his poems. His tales ask us to look intently at the many “lands” in which we live—historical, mythological, physical, imagined—and to wrap these “well-wrought layers” around ourselves as if each were a coat we could try on, catching sight of a “different” person in the mirror, to whom we say “Yes.”

Michael Bazzett is a 2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellow. His work has appeared in Issue 23 of Memorious, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares and The Iowa Review, among others. His debut collection, You Must Remember This, received the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions, and his second poetry collection, Our Lands Are Not So Different, was recently released from Horsethief Books. His third collection, The Interrogation, is forthcoming from Milkweed, as is his verse translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children.

As I read through the book, I was struck not only by the many stories contained within the poems but perhaps even more by the different types of stories you tell. Poems such as the title poem and “The Problem of Measurement” seem to present a sort of alternative reality or history, others could be fables (“The Anecdotalist,” “Hedgehog,” “Verisimilitude”), and still others present a realism that is both terrifying and deliberate (“Coming Home” and “There Is Nothing”). And, of course, you include an actual “Parable” and a retelling of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Do you consider yourself a storyteller, and can you discuss your approach to narrative in the book?

I do consider myself a storyteller. Absolutely. I think the impulse runs deep in us—as both tellers and listeners. It’s one of my pet theories that what primarily distinguishes Ourlandscoverhumans from other high-level primates is our ability to inhabit symbolic frameworks—in short, to live inside of narrative. So the words “Tell me a story” have a sort of yearning spell inside them. We’re looking to belong, to feel the invisible syntax of connection. No four-year-old ever climbed into someone’s lap and said, “Deconstruct my narrative.”

I probably read as many novelists as I do poets—I love to get lost in the dream, transported—particularly with someone like Ishiguro or Saramago, where one fantastical element is introduced, and the rest of it is played very straight. Part of the reason I gravitate toward poetry is that I can actually finish poems. Even when I’m not working in a straight narrative mode, I often idly wander, like a dog nosing the grass—it’s just my restless aesthetic at work. And I like to delight, to amuse, to be amused, to feel—stories are a good way to spur that.

Many of these poem stories, different in approach though they are, contain recurring images—wind, pianos, “hair,” to name a few. I thought of the natural world, which can be quite threatening in the “lands” of this book, and perhaps music as an attempt at organizing or playing back to that threat. Hair seems to implicate the human as animal, messy and chaotic. Do you see these recurring images as being connected to or signaling particular themes throughout the book? Are my interpretations anywhere near what you’re hoping to evoke?

You’re dead-on. And I love that observation about music serving as an ordering impulse.

Confession time: I wrote poetry for many years (my first book wasn’t published until I was 47) in the thrall of the idea of the reverential observer, cultivating this chiseled aesthetic that was part Basho, part Mary Oliver, part someone in a robe proclaiming, “We cannot see the wind, only its evidence.” As if one could just be a transparent eyeball strolling around, busting epiphanies. Tiresome stuff. But the poems kept offering these sardonic reminders that we’re not just heads floating above it all, we’re hugely destructive and implicated in this time where being alive means being at odds with nature, with our own bodies—and the work became more fraught and complex and weirdly funny as it mirrored that.

We’re imagining animals. We don’t need to transcend that. We need to own that, mine that, relax things with a little humor or absurdity, then prod a little deeper once those abdominal muscles relax. Because that’s authentic to the moment we find ourselves in—where our impoverished relationship with the natural worlds stems, at least in part, from the fact that we literally can’t imagine things otherwise.

I was struck by your focus on the human body, and in particular its potential mutilation—for example, the three poems in response to the car accident of “Coming Home,” the figurative “shrapnel” lodged in the brain in “Thought Grenade,” or the man who “unzipped himself from navel to sternum” in “The Dinner Party.” To me, these images sound a warning, reminding us of the damage humans can do to one another and to ourselves. How are you thinking about the body in these poems and throughout the book?

Slamming into a concrete divider at 70 mph is certainly instructive in teaching one about the fragility of meat and bone. The poems gained a sense of the body’s vulnerability from that moment out on the interstate, which was unfortunately an all-too-real occurrence. Yet we’re reminded everyday that our limbs can be awkward and imperfect and broken. We need to be careful with one another. As every year slips by, I value intelligence less and kindness much more. Kindness is the best way to liberate the wonderful stuff inside us without breaking the vessel open.

The title Our Lands Are Not So Different obviously has resonance in the current political climate of exclusion and division. How did you come to choose it, and how would you describe its reflection throughout the book? Has it changed at all in the months since you chose it?

I wrote that poem and chose the title nearly a decade ago, in the wake of a year where I lived with my family in central Mexico. It was a place where I spent a lot of time inside a new language and I was certainly culturally dislocated—yet I also felt inside my skin there and at home in a deep way. A lot of the work came out of the space, that straddling of home/not home, where it becomes clear that lines on a map are essentially false, arbitrary projections, yet they have utterly real consequences. We live in palpable unrealities.

Which is why in this current moment I think certain elements of our cultural mythology are in the midst of being resuscitated, interrogated and—perhaps—rewritten somewhat. It’s perhaps fitting the book’s coming out in this particular now, where for a lot of people what once felt like home has come to feel like an alternative reality or history, yet on the other hand we’re simply confronting things we should have always known about our country.

I see that you have a translation of the Mayan creation epic The Popul Vul coming out with Milkweed Editions. Did this project change your approach to your own work at all, particularly with respect to this book? If so, how?

That was a wild, wonderful, unexpected project that took me the better part of six years. I’ve always had a fondness for work in translation, the slight strangeness one can sometimes sense in the syntax or the language. Yet until I started doing it, I had no inkling of what I was getting into. I simply wanted a lucid verse translation of the myth that I could teach to my high school students. Immersing myself in it became a real joy, a slight obsession, and a total education—I ended up taking an unpaid leave from my teaching job for a semester to finish it.

One way I think the project did influence me is in how comfortable the myth is with burrowing back through time. It has no interest in being overly linear; instead it offers a sort of Russian-nesting-doll sort of structure, implying that straight-linear narrative structure is just false. Instead, you’ve got to find the beast, track it, and follow its print as it doubles back and perhaps begins stalking you…

The book ends with the poem “June,” which describes a woman trying on a coat in a second-hand shop (after first removing a stray hair belonging to the previous owner from its lapel) and imagining “an older version of herself walking through a park—.” The narrator of the poem provides a parallel description of the woman who last wore the coat before it came to the shop—“the face with the furrowed brow / that could fold and break into a lightning smile.” This seems to me to be a perfect evocation of the illusion of difference, or perhaps unacknowledged or unrealized kinship? What were your thoughts regarding ending the collection with this poem, and does the book’s ending point you toward a new project?

“…a perfect evocation of the illusion of difference, or perhaps unacknowledged or unrealized kinship.”

What an absolutely lovely reading! Slipping into a coat someone else has worn. Inhabiting it. Making it one’s own. Knowing it hasn’t always been so, knowing that it can’t be forever…

Your insight makes me feel like maybe the book has done its work. I won’t spoil the moment by saying more…

Thanks so much for these thoughtful questions!

Interviewer Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm (Anhinga Press) and the chapbooks Figuring (Bull City Press) and Hawk Weather (Finishing Line Press). She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing program at Emerson College.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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