My new work schedule has me more or less staying on top of things, with the odd exception of making time for blogposts. Been meaning to hop on here and share a bit, so here goes:
First, I’m excited to share my book review of Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst is available to be read on The Cincinnati Review site. Check it out here. My review and experience of Lubrin’s work was influenced by the art of Tan Zi Xi, specifically her art installation “Plastic Ocean.” Thank you to Managing Editor Lisa Ampleman for the opportunity to share my thoughts on Lubrin’s dynamic book! Be sure to check out other excerpts from the issue available on the CR site.
Also, last night was the Salamander issue 52 virtual reading with featured readers Ananda Lima, Andy Smart, and Stephanie Burt. We were able to record the reading–check it out here. Thank you to the readers and for everybody who came out to celebrate the issue–excerpts of which can be read here.
Lastly, last month I was able to virtually participate as part of the Boog City Arts Festival. For this event, I recorded myself reading my poetic sequence “The Wall” in full–something which I’ve never had the opportunity to do. This poem is featured in my collection, Until We Are Level Again. Thank you to Dimitri Reyes and everyone at Boog City for the opportunity to connect and for creating such a great community! Check out this reading here.
I have a few more things in the works for blogposts, a few reviews and such, in the coming month. For now, I hope y’all are surviving the best you can in this chaotic world. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Just a quick post to share that Salamander is hosting a virtual reading on Thursday, October 21st from 6-7 PM EST, featuring readings from three contributors from Issue #52: Andy Smart, Stephanie Burt, and Ananda Lima.
This event is free and open to the public; registration is required. Register here, and after registering, you will receive a confirmation email allowing you to join the reading.
In the meantime, I encourage y’all to spend time with Ananda Lima’s poem “Rapunzel” as well as other excerpts from our current issue.
We look forward to seeing you next Thursday and celebrating the remarkable work from this issue!
Reading through The Book of Mirrors (Winner of the Twenty-Sixth White Pine Press Poetry Prize, 2021) by Yun Wang, I find myself marveling again and again at her facility with the poetic image. Across poems ranging in theme from feminism, dreams, literary figures, motherhood, and the universe, Wang’s use of the image is nothing short of illuminating while also being instructive. Note how even in this one line from “Sapphire” creates a whole world:
White swans in flight dissolve into a dark sea punctured by stars.
This inversion of color in the move from “white swans” to “dark sea” is masterful and moves imagery beyond mere description. Across the collection’s four sections, Wang incorporates images to suggest, provoke, interrogate, narrate, and elegize the experiences of living in a world where one only has what they can sense and intuit to guide them forward. A good example can be seen in the short lyric “Regret”:
If I were a tree I would never have shed all my leaves for the caress of sunset
and stepped naked into that moonless starless night
A trap embraced me I had no voice
Here, the logic and mutability implied by the word “If” is pursued through descriptions of tree life, a move that juxtaposes the experiences of tree and being human. Through this proximity, tree and human are seen in stark contrast while also embodying distinct vulnerabilities. The poem implies that while the fixed and voiceless tree would naturally be thought of as the more vulnerable of the two, it is the human decisions made by the speaker that have left her, ultimately, “trapped” with “no voice” despite having one. One feels distinctly the weight of the title and how much of it stems from conscious human awareness and human error.
A similar interrogative use of image and binaries can be seen at work in “The Mirror’s Edge.” In this poem, the reader is presented with the narrative of a woman who:
slept with a bear to relieve herself of the burden of purity to travel the world alone with only a backpack.
The poem develops its narrative, one where the woman is subjugated, and as it does the bear/lover is described more and more in terms of a human man, until the final stanza where we’re told:
Bearsdo not turn into handsome princes. He turned into a half bald man with a leather bound journal, in which he noted her various imperfections.
The poem’s opening logic of a woman sleeping with a bear already implies a sense of transition, and because the poem alternates between couplets and single imagistic lines (lines such as “White petals were trampled into mud” which precedes the above closing stanza) the idea of transition is already in our minds. This layered sense of transition, then, sets us up for this final transition of bear to man, and of human desire to scrutiny and emotional abuse.
The theme of lovers continues throughout the second section of the collection, imagery playing a role in engaging with figures such as Romeo and Juliet, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The collection moves into its third section engaged further with the blurred lines of history and storytelling, as evident in “The Visitation”:
The doctor said it was nerve disorder that caused noises in the ears Schumann listened and went mad
The voices chose him because of his music A thousand fairies dancing in shoes of flame
It created a riot in their world They wanted him to stop
They came through the piano’s black and white doors They stitched his mind into a maze
Here, we see image as a fabulistic engine. Through the choice of fantastical imagery, Wang is able to juxtapose the history of Schumann with the story and world implied by his music. Yet another binary, it is one that startles and presents a human experience beyond fact. There is also the moving “Children’s Game in Baghdad,” inspired by a news story:
A small boy jumped off corpses for fun. He explained to his mother that they were nothing. Dogs ate them. She told him that every dead man had a mother waiting for him to come home. He fell asleep in her arms.
The sun bled into charred gum trees.
She brought him to work. Photographed the green zone for a newspaper. A bomb sprayed them with shrapnel. She couldn’t stop shaking. He said it’s OK, not his first bomb. His school was shelled the week before.
Once upon a time rose petals rained down.
She couldn’t stop thinking of his lack of feelings. He whispered that all his friends jumped off dead bodies. In her dream, her husband handed her the Sumerian tablet he died protecting. The cuneiforms shifted into a pair of wings.
Here, one can see the use of image doing the work of empathy and reconciliation in the face of recent history’s irreconcilable atrocities. Housed in prose, this poem’s formal shape is that of information, of narrative, no line breaks to interrupt or fancify the narrative. The human content of the story, a mother trying to understand her son, is also straightforward. The inhuman content–war and its human damages–stands between what would be a straightforward act of empathy. The mother and son speak across the distance of different interpretations of the same experiences and facts. Image comes into play not to close the distance to shine light on it. The way, for example, the bomb exploding in the third stanza is followed by the standalone image “Once upon a time rose petals rained down” evokes a stunning image parallel to the shrapnel from the bomb while striking an emotional chord of loss and grief, feelings that both characters in the poem are unable to express. The image here is showing us the limits of the human capacity to reconcile everything the world shows us, while at the same time serving as a space where this limitation can be honored. That the closing image of a tablet whose “cuneiforms shifted into a pair of wings” happens in a dream is telling; even in dreams, another space where one’s capacity for reconciliation and understanding is tested, the only answer–and here I mean answer not as solution but more response to a call–is image.
In the collection’s final section, the speaker of these poems engages the theme of family. It is here where Wang’s use of imagery is put to, perhaps, its most reaffirming purpose, hope. In a series of poems about her son, Wang gifts us with the part spell, part prayer of “Supermoon”:
Pearl eye of the cloud dragon kindles pink lanterns on the orchid tree
My son’s arms around me In a beam of liquid light
We are immortals to mayflies Let this be enough
In these six lines lies the pulse of this collection. The opening couplet’s vivid imagery is active, the image of one line “kindles” the image of the next. Then the second couplet brings together human and nature, binds them in image. Then the voice of the final couplet strides forth to the brink of what can be expressed–that while our life feels fleeting to us, to other creatures we may appear “immortals”–before expressing that “this be enough.” In the rich worlds presented in The Book of Mirrors, this final conviction of hope is more than enough.
Question:How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?
Yun Wang: This collection reflects my idea of poetry as a unique way of perceiving reality and interacting with the world. It’s a mode of existence so essential to me that I would find life meaningless without it.
I grew up breathing poetry — my father recited ancient Chinese poems to me to calm me when I cried as a baby. We were poor, and my father was a persecuted political dissident who was banished and seldom came home. Fortunately, however, our humble home was located in a breathtakingly beautiful place, surrounded by blue mountains, on a rural plain green with crops and a crystal river running across it.
When I was a child, I went running on a path by the river each dawn. One morning, I was mesmerized by the clouds blooming from the mountains, the mist rising from the river, and the open green field shimmering with early light. I composed my very first poem in my head, in the ancient style. I was twelve. I think I became me that moment. A lot has happened since then, but I remain that child who connected with nature, and nature made her a poet, changing her forever.
Question:There seems to be a distinct conversation happening through your engagement with the image. What would you say is your relationship with the image?
A new poem usually begins as an image to me, an image so compelling that it haunts me, drawing me into it, in which I find an irresistible narrative, or even an entire lifetime unimagined before. The image sometimes comes from nature, as an epiphany when everything snaps into focus, and I can suddenly see beyond the confines of space and time. Sometimes it’s a mental image, which somehow has occupied my mind, and refuses to go away until I address it by writing the poem, which excavates its hidden emotions and makes sense of its larger meaning.
I am also a dreamer who has very vivid dreams, some of which have ended up in my poems. I interpret my dreams based on my own intuition, trying to explain them somehow. This may have something to do with my training as a scientist. I like searching for answers, and finding solutions to seemly impossible problems. In poetry, this makes me adventurous in exploring an alternative level of existence, one that transcends life, yet is a mirror of it.
Perhaps I see an image as a mirror, in which there is always something new and even exhilarating, if I dare to look, and keep on looking until it makes sense. I insist that my poems make sense, at least on some level. This again has to do with my dual identity as poet and scientist.
Special thanks to Yun Wang for participating! To keep up with Yun’s work, check out her Author Central page. Copies of The Book of Mirrors can be purchased from Amazon.
Yun Wang is the author of poetry books The Book of Mirrors (Winner of the Twenty-Sixth White Pine Press Poetry Prize, 2021), The Book of Totality (Salmon Poetry Press, 2015), The Book of Jade (Winner of the 15th Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, Story Line Press, 2002), and the book of poetry translations, Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po (White Pine Press, 2019). Wang’s poems have been published in numerous literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Salamander Magazine, Cimarron Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Green Mountains Review, and International Quarterly. Wang is an astrophysicist at California Institute of Technology, currently focusing on developing NASA space missions to explore the Universe.
In a recent interview, poet and essayist Erica Hunt shared the following in response to a question about the best writing advice she’d ever received:
From Rachel Blau DuPlessis in “Statement on Poetics”—paraphrasing now: A poem is “bottomless,” “intricate,” and “tangible” in detail. I like thinking this is true regardless of “school” or length. Here is what it has helped me to appreciate: A poem is a work made through language that bears rereading, to discover that difficulty is never without love.
Erica Hunt, interview
I’ve come to realize that these latter two concepts, rereading and difficulty, have become integral to my poetic practice. I have long considered rereading central to poetic experience. Rereading implies dwelling, lingering, becoming engrossed in the matter at hand. That we may read and reread a poem, each time coming away with more, with something different–that is poetry’s lifegiving gift. If nothing else, we reread because one can’t catch everything all at once. We look words up, try phrases aloud, wonder: Who talks like this? Life’s a cacophony we sense music out of; why shouldn’t art be similar?
The other concept, difficulty, is something that I have been slower to embrace. On one level, this reluctance seems natural. There is, for one, the early difficulty of the classroom, the way poetry is traditionally taught to be a kind of puzzle, a use of language shrouded in mystery, the poet a wizard behind a curtain, knowing more than you and deigning to obfuscate the ordinary for you to luck upon. And there are definitely poems that live up to this tradition; and this type of poetry remains teachable but not graspable, or, to use a word Hunt quotes above, tangible.
This occurrence of a poem being out of a reader’s grasp brings with it a number of connotations. On the one hand there is gaslighting; we have had whole generations believing that they are at fault for not understanding “great” poetry, which often leads people to give up on poetry altogether. This brings to mind the implication of the literal “grasp,” that there are certain people whose touch and presence around poetry would sully it. I try to dispel this kind of thinking in my own teaching practices by showing that linguistic difficulty should be embraced in good faith, that we can engage with a poem and allow it to teach us how to read it, but also that we should trust our reactions as readers as well. This good faith is a human trait, a way of endeavoring and persevering.
Finding ways of endeavoring and persevering is central to the body of work gathered in Hunt’sJump the Clock: New & Selected Poems (Nightboat Books). Across Hunt’s lively body of work, one comes in contact with a voice able to interrogate while remaining attuned to language’s vulnerable and raw personal nature. When reading Hunt’s poems, one feels attuned to language’s plasticity at the service of connecting and not intellectual indulgence. To put it another way, her poems meet a reader half way and allow the reader space to work out meaning as well as a meaningful experience.
One troubling aspect of privileging language as the primary site to torque new meaning and possibility is that it is severed from the political question of for whom new meaning is produced. The ideal reader is an endangered species, the committed reader has an ideological agenda both open and closed, flawed and acute, that we do not address directly. On one level the lack of address is a problem of the dispersed character of the social movements in this country at present; on another level it is the general difficulty of looking squarely at the roles we play as writers in forming social consciousness
Erica Hunt, “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics”
There is an instructive empathy in these words as well as in Hunt’s poems. That a poem can and perhaps should endeavor to connect but not persuade, to persevere beyond difficulty not stunt with it. In the poem “Verse” (below) one can see some of these ideas at play.
The “you” addressed here is intimate. The line breaks and phrasing trouble expectations in a way that brings a reader closer to the page. The break, for example, across the two lines “When pushed to the wall / paper our habits seem trivial” offer up a jolt of reckoning. The first line takes a common phrase “pushed to the wall” and refreshes it by enjambing into “paper.” Doing so makes the phrasing hold a noun and action in the word “paper” (that it is “wall-paper” we are pushed against; that we “paper our habits”). In light of this jolt one can feel the earnestness of the question just before these lines: “Can you see?” Hunt risks linguistic difficulty for the sake of others to “see.”
Seeing, which is to say connecting, ultimately, is at the heart of Hunt’s poetic endeavors. One sees this in the travel of the last stanza from the line “Light is composed by experience” to the line “The / light in the brain is you,” which closes the poem. This travel from statement to inward declaration holds an invitation and reaffirmation to the reader. That this act of reading and engaging with a poem is in fact within our grasps. Hunt here, and elsewhere, presents difficulty with love, and our lives are richer for it.
It’s all in profile what the shadows cast on the floor. Can you see? When pushed to the wall paper our habits seem trivial, a record of the body’s lost accidents.
We found that we could not be strangers anymore, nor could we pose randomly in our affection ducking behind a turn of mood. Instead we carried ourselves
unrehearsed into the arms of the unexpected Continuity, using our sense to head where we are going. Every story has its campaign to win. Missing numbers, interfering digits. We work from the beginning to the back end tracing where the author left her prints on the text, her surplus
divinity. And when the right word appears out of nowhere it leads back here. What word were we looking for? Fire. In this light we appear
To be doing what we want, waving the baton with the mind. If you want to move your feet find something there over the bridge of your nose to attract you. Choose your own words to hear yourself speak.
Light is composed by experience. Without correction it stands still and is almost invisible collecting dust. Without it, we tend to see lumps, and not the landscape the voices of people fall out of. The light in the brain is you.
This week I’m excited to feature the work of friend and dynamic poet, Dimitri Reyes. His recent collection, Every First & Fifteenth (Digging Press), came out earlier this month and is connecting with people on a variety of levels. I have long admired the presence in his work, a presence of honesty and clarity.
This honesty and clarity can be seen in “3rd Generation,” featured below along with a statement from the poet. This poem incorporates presence in terms of naming and switching between languages, in both cases using the necessary words to say what’s needed. Along with that, there is the clarity of experience. When the speaker of this poem states “Our countries are our minds,” it is a clear if heavy truth.
Anybody whose family has a history of immigration and marginalization can attest to the trauma and weight of navigating on a number of planes: the physical, the mental, the emotional, all as much as the linguistic. This navigating means being always switching and performing, questioning one’s self and one’s validity, trying always to figure out who we need to be to fit into a given moment. Much like the title of his collection and its allusion to living check to check, the marginalized experience is one of negotiating what space one finds one’s self in and what one needs to survive. This constant motion wears on a person.
And yet, in the face of this exhaustion, and often because of it, one scratches together a sense of clarity. Our survival is earned not in some vague notion of “earning” associated with bootstraps, but in actual effort and perseverance. Because what is presence if not a kind of perseverance? When the poet states that “Our countries are our minds,” they are acknowledging the multiplicity of existence. Reyes’ ability to articulate and speak to that multiplicity is a gift, one that I am glad to be able to share with you here.
after Marina Carreira’s poem, “First Generation”
We are grass cracked cement. Dollar store chalk breaking on rough sidewalk. Dust kissing our jeans when children cross streets watching out for buses code switching between careful, bus is turning and cuidado, autobús están virando. We are empanadas for breakfast and white rice for dinner. We are C&C sodas and sunflower seeds tucked into our Chucks, New Balances, SB Dunks, or Retro 4’s. Our countries are our minds. The megapixels of palms, grass, and sands seen on the walls of barbershops and bodegas come in 4K. We are change the channel on our IO Triple Play. We don’t know how to respond to its-your-heritage month because every month should be our month. Someone says for what? Our forehead wrinkles in repeat. For what. What. Qué. For. What. For. Qué? We is 4K and our last names leave us naked. We know there are more of us, never think there are too many of us. In America, we’re included if we see us in America until they don’t see us in America. We are raised by our grandparents (here or not) while our parents figure it out. They are still figuring it out. We are a part of the same gene pool until a different one is uncovered. We are the equivalent of standing in the wrong line at the DMV understanding English faster than we forget Spanish and that still doesn’t license us star spangled freedom. We are at-the-friend’s-house-with-the-clear-enough-pool and say damn, if only we can live in weather like this year round where that friend reaches across 4 generations to say you wildin’… we’re not on the island… I don’t even like the heat.
Short Statement, Dimitri Reyes: 3rd generation means a lot to Every First & Fifteenth because it is a celebratory poem that recognizes the arbitrariness of both the familiar threads of “La Isla” and the learned experiences of “American” English-speaking culture. The intersectionality of these two spaces is where this third “in-between” space (hence, “3rd Generation”) is discovered and explored where the speaker savors language and the different interactions amongst several generations. This poem is the urbanite’s need to learn through community engagement. Though the poem is a mouthpiece of a generation, the individual is aware of the optics of those around him, and therefore has permission to view and express different parts of his landscape with the help of others inhabiting the same space.
Dimitri Reyes is a Puerto Rican multidisciplinary artist, content creator, organizer, and educator from Newark, NJ. He has organized poetry events such as #PoetsforPuertoRico and has read at The Dodge Poetry Festival, Split This Rock, and the American Poetry Museum. His forthcoming book, Every First and Fifteenth won the Digging Press 2020 Chapbook Award. Some of his work is published in Vinyl, Kweli, Entropy, Cosmonauts, Obsidian, & Acentos. He is the Marketing & Communications Director at CavanKerry Press and an Artist-in-Residence with NJPAC.
This week I’m taking a moment to highlight a current opportunity for Boston area poets and photographers of color via a project called Through These Realities. Check out the details, links, and posters below.
Also, speaking of collaborative work, here’s a link to “Our Lady of Sorrow” by Brenda Cárdenas, a stunning ekphrasis poem inspired by the work of Ana Mendieta. This poem is part of the dynamicPINTURA : PALABRA portfolio which continues to inspire me.
On to the call!
The project, called Through These Realities, centers around racial social justice, poetry, and photography. For this project, local photographers of color will create a series of images inspired by new, prompt-guided poetry from local poets of color (preference is given to Somerville affiliated poets and photographers).
Just a quick post to share some recent happenings as well as information on an upcoming event:
First, I’m excited to share that I was recently interviewed as part of Frontier Poetry’s “In Class” series of profiles of creative writing professors. Check out the interview here. Many thanks to Jose Hernandez Diaz for the invite and for the folks at Frontier Poetry for having me share my thoughts on teaching!
Lastly, I am ecstatic to share that I will be participating as a poetry reader alongside Elizabeth Dodd and Kim Stafford as part of Terrain.org’s online reading series on July 26th at 8pm ET. The reading will feature a Q+A and will be moderated by Terrain.org assistant poetry editor Anne Haven McDonnell and held in collaboration with the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) biennial conference: Emergence/y, with Zoom hosting provided by the University of Arizona. Registration for this virtual event is required and can be accessed here along with info on the event.
Summer teaching started for me this week. Excited to start new conversations and encourage young writers to engage with articulating their authentic selves while navigating the rules of different spaces. Am exhausted, won’t lie, but that’s also the life.
Did want to share two quick things:
First, here’s another article to help navigate the ever-evolving pandemic we’re in. I worry I alienate people by coming back to the high stakes we’re living in, but then I wouldn’t be staying true to myself if I didn’t. I mean, carrying on like things can go back to “normal” alienates me, so, really, this be quid pro quo, no?
Second, here’s a poem I found while seeking out ideas for a post this week:
thank the weeds for pulling you closer to the flowers
I purposely share it with my aforementioned sense of feeling alienated and like a harbinger of doom. In my case, I’m working out the weeds of worry and survival, all of which doesn’t bring me down, not exactly. It brings me down and it makes me look up and value what we’re surviving for.
This week I’d like to highlight the recent release of the latest issue of Salamander! If I’m being honest, it’s still surreal to me be in the position of Editor-in-chief. A literary magazine is a confluence and meeting ground; it is also a lot of work, often in solitude.
I ruminate and say as much in my editor’s note, excerpted in part here:
I have lived and worked in Boston longer under the pandemic than not.
This means, I have edited more issues of Salamander under the pandemic than not. I share these details in order to give an impression of how my experience of Salamander has been framed. The emphasis on survival and perseverance that colors and shapes my personal, teaching, and writing life also has its place in the work represented by these pages. The hours of reading submissions, followed by the hours it takes to organize and order the contents of an issue, and then more hours in front of the computer working out the layout and design, these hours have happened across a wide range of moments of my life. Hours talking and writing with friends and loved ones affected by Covid-19 as well as grieving for those lost; hours of preparing lesson plans and answering emails to students navigating their own unpredictable lives; hours poring over the news for updates about vaccines—these hours all blur together and live around the work put into this issue.
The fraught nature of these hours is one of the reasons I’m excited to share the artwork of Shannon Miguela Dillon. Her piece “Begin Again” featured on our cover struck me right away for its balance of vibrancy and depth. In the colors of the flowers there is a feeling of life and hope, of flourishing. Such sentiments are currently running parallel at the moment in the U.S. as folks think of returning “back to normal.” But under the flowers are the human hands that are a stark contrast in their shades of gray and black. This contrast brings me back to the title, how the flowers feel like they represent the word “begin” and the implied promise it comes with, while the hands represent “again” which has the implication of time and effort. The word “again” reminds me that we have been here before, that life is not new but continuing. This nuance reflects further the nuance of human life. While some are eagerly removing masks and setting aside protocols, others remain vigilant and brace themselves, still living lives of compromise without the privilege of any concept of “normal.”
Dillon’s work is also a celebration of the body and the self, of presence. And really, this is what I am hoping to emphasize in these opening words. By asking that we not forget the lessons of the pandemic—a pandemic that is ongoing and which continues to affect lives in irrevocable ways—that we not forget the power and necessity of protest in the face of systemic racism and oppression, I am asking that we remember what is at stake, that we exercise the search for nuance through art so that we do not miss out on it in ourselves and each other.
Writing such things in my role as EIC, much like my time in the classroom, has me practicing what it means to speak authentically. In the face of the capitalistic framework of literary publishing, I feel it’s important to always underscore the humanity and heart behind the work done. If any of this matters, it’s because we matter–our emotions, trauma, happiness, obsessions, presence, insights–matter.
Excited to share that my next book, we say Yes way before you, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in March 2020! You can read about the project as well as two poems from it in this profile. Special thanks to Diane Goettel and the BLP crew for being so welcoming!
Been sitting on this news for a few weeks. I actually got the phone call a day or two before we moved all our belongings to a new city. I’ve been going through a difficult time specifically in terms of how I see myself as a writer. Getting this news was a win I didn’t know I needed.
Part of this new book process has me writing for permissions, something that is new to me and which this article by Jane Friedman gives invaluable advice about. Along with learning a new literacy and genre of writing, there’s the work of reconciling the metaphor in the language, the word permission itself. I often get stuck in such conceptual/metaphorical tangents while doing the “office work” type of things of a writing life. The very language of publication–submission, rejection, acceptance, etc.–is charged with (un)intentional and telling meaning.
One last thing to share: I’ve begun reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and have been floored by how much I’m connecting with the book. It helps to see someone else do work in the classroom that I have felt self-conscious about, like connecting and wanting to reflect and honor the knowledge students bring with them.