Many people in the literary world has had a strange past week, where the waves of news have included the seeming implosion of an independent press, the exposure of a fraudulent agent, the revelation of a serial manipulator in our midst, and the publication of an offensively lousy poem in a prominent forum. Then we discovered water seeping through the floor of our living room. The universe, it seems, is trying every which way to keep me from taking pleasure in poetry.
But I'm going to stay my course, in part because I'm so determined to finish my manuscript by the end of the summer. Even on the days otherwise unproductive I've tried for a bit of revising, tinkering, fussing with order. For the first time in my adult life, I've invested in plants, pots, and dirt--and belief that I can cultivate and sustain with my time, that I can grow things. And I'm thinking a lot about what makes a poem a worthwhile endeavor, why we do what we do.
Allison Titus is a writer I've been following and appreciating for a while now, and in a recent interview with Bennington Review she says this:
When I get excited about a poem, it’s always the same way, that I respond most to poets/poems that arrest me and startle me back to attention (to the world, to life, to living) all over again, in some strange or intense manner: I’m always mostly desperate to be staggered/astonished/undone (by the world and thus by language). I just really all the time want to be rearranged; Robert Creeley is really good at doing this to me (“I heard words / and words full / of holes / aching. Speech / is a mouth.”). When I’m working on my own poems, I like most to be surprised by something that develops/materializes in the way that feels as “true” as it feels wild, crucial, off-kilter.
This captures something really right to me, something essential. One of the things I've emphasized recently, in teaching and editing as well as my own work, is the importance of making space for the wild unknown. We often use the rhetoric of a poem's "landscape," but in this context the cartography is both science and art--we need to admit and honor elements that surprise us, that don't fit on first glance. This feels especially important as I work on a fourth collection, and gently resist my natural inclination to plot and plan as a way of easing anxiety over how little control I have over where and how this book lands.
Our Writer's Center workshop is called "The Poem Comes Alive," which is an excellent excuse to emphasize what Titus refers to as "poems that arrest me and startle [us] back to attention." With that in mind I gave the students "Homecoming Cistern Alien Vessel," by Gabrielle Calvocoressi. To start, we considered the mainstream tropes associated with "alien" exchanges, whether entreaty to a new world or return to a "home"; this turned out to be something folks in the room were quite thoughtful about, thanks in part to the manifestation of these themes in cinema.
`Much of what Calvocoressi does is employ the power of simple dislocations of language, such as in the description: "No more // need to make the shape of a machete / with my mouth. Pushing up up up the tired / sides that want to drop below my teeth."...which on one hand engages a familiar idea of forcing a smile, but on the other hand is so much more estranged. Or a few stanzas later, there's a quick twist from the threat of overt sentimentality to something more wry and cynical, via the enjambed sentence "And my arms open and my life / coming in and out of the “ATM."" Life, it seems, is an expensive commodity.
All of this is ramps up to core concerns: the limitations of body as vessel; the peril of a self-congratulatory identity that wants to be liberal and generous, yet is inextricable to mechanisms of consumption and oppression; the question of how to love or welcome the self, once that admission is made: "My pink skin / a sail full of indignation. My eyes pitching // across the feed. It is so good to be home / and yet. I have a ship inside. How can / the organ welcome me? I’m not a sow // on her worst day. Which would be what? / Breaking from the barn? Eating all the acorns / and rolling in the mud? No. // Her worst would be at my hands / and on my plate for supper."
Lordy, an electric poem. If the reader juxtaposes it with another recent one, "Mayflower Cistern I Feel My Pilgrim Worry," a sense emerges of a poet wrestling with inheritance and privilege. These are not novel themes, but Calvocoressi approaches with a wonderment of language and image that is really remarkable.
***An aside: If you're looking for an online class and you read this before August 6, I'd urge you to sign up for Calvocoressi's "Fantastic Worlds In The Realest Poems: How Fantasy Fiction Might Help Our Hardest Realities Bloom" (the class runs 8/6 though 8/31). I've never regretted sending a student in the direction of 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown's virtual learning space.
***Another aside: Allison Titus has a new, letter-press chapbook with the folks at Barrelhouse called Sob Story: The History of Crying, and though I haven't ordered my copy yet, I'm betting money ($10, to be exact) that it's worth your time.
Other poems I've read or re-read this past week, ones that "rearranged" me and come to life on the page:
- Allison Titus - "Call to Action"
- Ross Gay - "A Small Needful Fact"
- Jennifer Givhan - "Chicken-Hearted"
- Jericho Brown - "Foreday in the Morning"
- Amorak Huey - "A Primer"
- Kyle Dargan - "The Economy of Swallowed Knives"
- Tafisha A. Edwards - "Everywhere in the World They Hurt Little Black Girls"
- Erica Dawson - from When Rap Spoke to God
- Erika Meitner - "A Brief Ontological Investigation"
- Troy Jollimore - "When You Lift the Avocado to Your Mouth"