community feature: CavanKerry Press

the_waiting_room_reader_vol_I_This particular community feature post is inspired by a recent development: I’m happy to share that I’ve been named as a member of the Board of Governors for CavanKerry Press! I’m excited to join as a new board member, along with Cornelius Eady, and help develop the already dynamic CavanKerry Press community.  Special thanks to Gabriel Cleveland and Dimitri Reyes for their enthusiasm and support in bringing me on board!

In a phone conversation with Joan Cusack Handler, publisher and senior editor of CavanKerry Press, I learned about the different ways in which the press is creating community, including sharing some of their anthologies for free online during the month of April. Both volumes of The Waiting Room Reader as well as the Words to Keep You Company anthology are being made available as free PDFs on the CavanKerry website. Writers in these anthologies include Ross Gay, PaulA Neves, Maxine Kumin, Tina Kelley, Kevin Carey, Vincent Toro, and Linda Pastan among others.

the_waiting_room_reader_vol_II_Below, I share a sample poem from The Waiting Room Reader II, “The Inheritance” by Myra Shapiro. What moves me most about this poem is how it enters into an elegiac conversation in an unexpected way. The first four lines present the logic of grapefruit-as-talking-baby doll, and then builds from there back into the reality of the moment. This quick invocation of the mother in four lines sets up the rest of the poem in which human presence is acknowledged as being available to us in the actions and habits we learn from our parents. The short lines and images allow the meditation to develop in a way that continues to be surprising precisely by not trying to be. The facts of the speaker’s experience are laid out clearly, and what makes them surprising is the juxtaposition of phrase and image. The speaker moves from the hypothetical “Mama” of the opening lines, to her own mother, to being a mother herself. Here, we see the generations pass, each different yet similar, and each evoking the next in the poem. One returns to the title’s idea of “inheritance” and sees it expanded beyond the material meaning, the speaker realizing their own inheritance in the patterns of everyday life.

Myra Shapiro

The Inheritance

Just a grapefruit
but it never fails
to make the word Mama
when I cut it,
store the half uneaten
flat against the plate,
pink meat down
so that tomorrow
when I eat it it’s as juicy
as today. Washing fruit
she taught us but never this.
She just did it. Saved
the fruit against the plate.
As I do. As I saw it done
in my daughter’s house this morning.

*

Check out more from these anthologies and learn more about CavanKerry Press here.

new publication: Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy

dear-america-529x800Just a quick post to share about the release of a new anthology: Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield and published by Trinity University Press. My own poem, “American Studies” is included along with work by Jericho Brown, Victoria Chang, Camille T. Dungy, Tarfia Faizullah, Blas Falconer, Kimiko Hahn, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, Linda Hogan, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Naomi Shihab Nye, Elena Passarello, Gary Soto, Pete Souza, Arthur Sze, and Kim Stafford among others. I am grateful to the editors for the work put into not only this anthology, but also the work they have been doing through their editorship over at Terrain.org where some of these pieces were originally published.

More on this anthology:

“Dear America reflects the evolution of a moral panic that has emerged in the nation. More importantly, it is a timely congress of the personal and the political, a clarion call to find common ground and conflict resolution, all with a particular focus on the environment, social justice, and climate change. The diverse collection features personal essays, narrative journalism, poetry, and visual art from more than 130 contributors–many pieces never before published–all literary reactions to the times we live in, with a focus on civic action and social change as we approach future elections.”

To celebrate the release of this anthology, Terrain.org has organized a Dear America Virtual Town Hall event series—the first to be conducted on Earth Day. Find out more about this event here.

My poem “American Studies” (below) was written shortly after the 2016 election. I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio at the time, in my last year of a PhD. I would go on to defend my dissertation on Trump’s inauguration day and walk out of said defense to find a pro-Trump rally happening on the university campus, complete with “Build the Wall” signs and a man (not a student) walking around armed with semi-automatic weapons. I share these details to provide context for the charged air that the poem was created in. An air of fear and despair, an air of survival. As a person from a marginalized community, I’ve been in survival mode all of my life, so it wasn’t that any of what I felt was new. What was new and dismaying was how overt intolerance had become, on campus, across the country, and also how shocked non-marginalized people were at the time. My hope is that through works like this anthology we continue to give voice and archive what it is like to survive.

José Angel Araguz

American Studies

November 22, 2016

My wife tells me of reading the Dear
America
 books as a child, those stories told
via the diaries of young women who lived

during difficult times in American history. In these
stories filled with suffering were the facts behind
the suffering. Her favorite involved the RMS Titanic,

the unsinkable ship that sank. I ask if
trying to imagine what it looked like was
what captivated, and she says no, says only

one book led to another, until she realized
she could never see it nor accept it.

                          ~

After the election, my friend explains he feels
he could manage here, but not his children.
He explains he spoke to their school director,

who comforted by talking about police presence. But
if there’s police, he asks, before anything happens,
what will happen when something does? American algebra:

Everything is x until proven y. Dear America,
if x represents what my friend feels thinking
about the police, what language do you imagine

he worries his children speaking publicly, and what
language are we speaking now? Show your work.

                          ~

Another friend writes: Here’s a verse I think
about a lot: And maybe the mirror of
the world will clear once again*. 
She shares

she’s been sick since the election, as I’ve
been. I imagine our voices trying to commiserate
between coughs. In physics, energy can neither be

created nor destroyed. What American physics happens here
as I read and hear her voice behind
the verse she sent? Are you, dear America,

afraid as I am that our faces will
no longer be there when the mirror clears?

* Faiz Ahmed Faiz


Copies of Dear America can be purchased here.

new publication: The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext!

LatiNEXT Final

Just a quick post to share the release of the latest BreakBeat Poets anthology, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext edited by Felicia Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo and published by Haymarket Books. Super-excited to share news of this release – in part because my own poem “La Llorona Watches the Movie Troy” is featured in its pages alongside the work of a phenomenal community of poets including Sara Borjas, Javier Zamora, Denice Frohman, Peggy Robles Alvarado, John Murillo, Janel Pineda, Juan J. Morales, Benjamin Garcia, Jasminne Mendez, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Yesenia Montilla among so many stellar writers.

I’m also excited and grateful to the editors for creating a space representative and celebratory of Latinx poetry in its multitudes. In these pages are the stories and aesthetics of “an array of nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles, staking a claim to our cultural and civic space.” I am proud to be a part of this event and look forward to the anthology’s success and impact.

In the spirit of celebration, I am sharing mine own contribution, “La Llorona Watches the Movie Troy” below. I spoke with a friend recently about what this specific poem being included means to me. This poem was one of the last ones revised in time to make it into my second full length collection, Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). So close it was to the then deadline that I never got a chance to send it out. One of four poems about La Llorona in that book, this poem had me exploring what it would be like to have her speak. The first draft was written the summer of 2004 when I lived in a house without electricity in Corpus Christi. Because it was summer in South Texas, I tried to stay out at the dollar movies for as long as I could. I ended up watching a lot movies on repeat, in particular Troy and Spiderman 2 (my book Everything We Think We Hear has the piece born from watching Spidey a bunch).

The first draft was very much heavy-handed and primarily focused as a statement against George W. Bush’s presidency and invasion of Iraq. That draft lived dated and lost for a good number of years. When it came time to work on Small Fires and its tetralogy of Llorona poems, this one came back to mind as being in conversation with that book’s statements of identity and conflicted nationalities. Letting La Llorona speak and harangue America via the actors of the movie still feels right. That the editors of this anthology saw fit to include this poem in an anthology full of similar conversations also feels right.

*

José Angel Araguz

La Llorona Watches the movie ‘Troy’

 

She watches Brad Pitt leap, then land a stab
like a hammer blow down, spends time taking in
the bronze skin of the actors, the way the say ‘grass’

like ‘toss,’ ¡Todo British! She snags popcorn
by the handful watching the gods
be shrugged off by warriors. During the scene

where the Greeks scurry from the Trojan horse,
their shadows fingers pulling at string
and unraveling the night, her breath is sand

and crackling flame. When they run towards fire
in the desert, towards collapsing roofs
and digitized screaming, the montage

of faces, of bodies pushing against each other
has her whispering to no one in particular:
¡Mira Baghdad, mira Juarez! And no one

in particular hears her over the Dolby
of swords being unsheathed. She begins to hum,
letting her voice hit the same notes

as the opera singer overlaid during the carnage.
Should anyone look over, they’d see
the silhouette of a woman in the third row

treating the forty-foot screen like an altar.
When, after seeing the toppling of statues
and the scavenging through offerings

to Apollo, sun god, the one who sees everything,
the aged and fallen king staggers in defeat
and cries out: Have you no honor!

Have you no honor!, she gasps and nods,
as if watching a telenovela unfold
according to how she would want it. Truth is,

she has seen this all before, has drowned
the brown bodies, has plucked gold coins
from river water before any boatman

could make his way to her. She knows
the blonde and blue-eyed have arrived
to play both hero and love interest again,

that though Helen here is a vagabond Marilyn,
she used to have un poquito de chile
in her blood, y un puñado de lodo

 in her heart. That’s why it’s a woman
who says: If killing is your only talent,
then it is your curse, and says it

like one slapping their hand against the river,
a sting in their hands for a while. Truth is,
there will always be a Brad to leap, and hit hard,

the thud through the speakers like a heartbeat.

*

Copies of The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext can be purchased from Haymarket Books.

 

microreview: Slingshot by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

review by José Angel Araguz

SLINGSHOT

There’s a moment toward the end of the sequence “a machine of mahogany and bronze I” in Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s debut poetry collection Slingshot (Nightboat Books) where, in the aftermath of a protest demonstration broken up by police brutality, the speaker is asked “You heard about the storm comin’?” which prompts them to meditate on:

The same storm slicing
through every inch of armor
my binder becoming more unbearable as the sun sets.

Yes. I knew about the storm coming.

This admission coming when it does at a moment of reflection and recovery is charged with an awareness that the literal storm of the poem runs parallel to the metaphorical storm of the political moment they are living in. The articulation of this awareness, here and elsewhere, is tinged not with resignation but resolve. This mix of awareness and resolve runs through this collection in stunning and complicated ways.

Whether awareness and resolve play out in expressions of self-presence, as in “false sonnet embroidered w/ four loko empties” which opens the collection and whose ending states: “I’m a full grown / whatever-the-fuck, and I will devour any / attempt to subdue me with monstrous animality,” or in poems troubling current staples of pop culture (as in the poems “a review of Hamilton: An American Musical” and “chewbacca was the blackest part of The Force Awakens“), Johnson enacts a lyric presence that engages through juxtaposition of tone and phrasing. In “chewbacca,” for example, the speaker riffs on the Star Wars mythos, braiding in commentary about race like “When we colonize the stars, everyone will be beige, / white folks sometimes say, or orange” and placing them next to others like “Chewbacca was the blackest part of The Force / Awakens. Always moaning & never understood. Always hunted & never going home.” This braiding makes the speculative nature of science fiction all the more human while also interrogating the implications of George Lucas’ vision. The projection of blackness onto the Chewbacca narrative, which is one of survival, parallels that of the speaker who shares at the end, “…I am just too tired. Too vengeful to go anywhere anymore.” This statement’s honesty is a surprise as it comes at the end of a poem that strips away much of the fiction of the film in order to get at the deeper implications for the speaker.

Awareness and resolve in the service of self-revelation, ultimately, is where Slingshot lives. My sense, though, is that Johnson would have readers be mindful of the difference between self-revelation and traditional ideas of confession in poetry. While the poems evoke the trials and tribulations of sex work and the intersections of being black, disabled, femme, and genderqueer, these poems work toward a visceral clarity. Rather than hold the reader’s hand and explain the complexities of the world they’re drawn from, these poems present themselves on their own terms and trust the reader to keep up. It is in this aspect that the poems point back to the title, in a way, each one a stone shot out to strike at the consciousness who hears it.

To return to the sequence “a machine of mahogany and bronze I”: The line “we will hold the line as a practice of freedom” is said by the speaker mid-protest. This collection shows Johnson holding the poetic line in a myriad of ways that open up the nuances of awareness and resolve. In the poem below, “jersey fems in the philly zoo,” this work is done through image and imagination, each surrealistic turn interrupted by a harsh reality. By the end, it’s clear that fear is one of the many things Johnson holds the line against.

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
jersey fems in the philly zoo

a flamingo knows,
even without pink lipstick,
fem is a feeling.

black boots. Raritan
tap water memories flow.
murderous brown geese

fly from Johnson Park,
arrive, then turn up their beaks
‘fuck dis sposta be?’

they inquire. I
find cover in the leopard
print fem next to me

because here, always
someone’s looking, someone’s stares
caught in plexiglass

refracting the light
in your life. no. it’s not you.
they look to consume.

especially spring,
and when the ice cream melts
before it’s lapped up.

Philadelphia
is lilac and lightning strike
before a great storm.

electric strangers
cuff biceps unexpected
back draws straight — horror.

they look to consume.
they desire to control.
predatory birds;

eagles, owls, all.
swooping down with catching claws,
no glass to hide you.

I want my armor
an exoskeleton, tough
hewn of crushed velvet

bristling with defense
a kevlar of tenderness
enveloping me.

this is what happens
when the tree blooms: the axeman
runs to chop it down.

this is what happens
when creatures meant for the deep
somehow crawl ashore:

they will be lapped up
by the hot eyes of the sea
pulled tight by strange hands

knives licking their necks
the scent of wisteria
fireworks: flash/bang.

flash fire, roll flame
clip wings from those who maim us
declaw them all, bare.

maybe they will burn
corralled, while lights dance in sky.
steaming macho ash.

and if they must live
then make me invisible.
hide me. erase me.

*

To learn more about Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s work, visit their site.
To read an interview with Johnson where they discuss the poem above and Slingshot in general, go here.
Copies of Slingshot can be purchased from Nightboat Books.

José & the unintended hiatus + interview

First and foremost, apologies for the radio silence. Totally unintended. A lot of life has happened, good and bad. It has been strange not being here in this space. I look forward to doing a bit more now that I’m getting life in order. I’ve got a few reviews in the works as well as some posts.

For now, please check out this interview at Mass Poetry where I talk about my latest collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness, as well as disclose my love for Netflix’s The Witcher.

Más soon!

José

writer feature: Yahia Lababidi & Laura Kaminski

This week’s poem was drawn from the feature submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

*

Happy to be sharing a collaborative poem this week by two poet friends: Yahia Lababidi and Laura Kaminski. Collaborative poems create such singular reading experiences, the meeting of two sensibilities creating another sensibility performed through the poem. Because of the idiosyncratic nature of this creative undertaking, I asked Yahia and Laura to share some thoughts on their process, the results of which are featured below after the poem.

PITCHERI was excited when I first read the poem, intrigued by its pacing and lyric turns right away. What I most enjoy about this poem is how its meditation on sin and the body is approached in references and images that redefine both as they accumulate. The first stanza, for example, sets up a logic around guilt that is quickly subverted in the second. Then at the end of the second stanza there is a reference to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, “Guilt is never to be doubted.” This line on its own is one of those faux truisms that denies itself the moment after it’s read or uttered. The silence after the line break makes you immediately doubt this statement on doubt. These moves early in the poem have the effect of a bottle rocking unsteadily on its base and then settling into stillness via the Kafka line. This stillness is the perfect lead into the following stanza’s “Walk softly then” direction.

Similarly, the body is described in house terms and images, all of which create a different conversation about interiority and the self than usually encountered in poems. An image like the water pitcher one in stanza six, for example, is effective for what it evokes through the directive tone and leaves unsaid. By the poem’s end, gratitude for the “holy mess” of who we are works as a physical and active thing through the refrain of breathing.

Holy Mess
by Yahia Lababidi & Laura Kaminski

Overnight, your once blessed existence
might reverse course
become an alien thing
and you stand accused
of unspeakable crimes

Never mind, you are innocent
of these base horrors—
as Kafka says, in his Trial,
‘Guilt is never to be doubted’

Walk softly then, in sock-feet
across the floor that’s in your mind
until you reach the alcove
between the two open windows
that serve as sockets for your eyes

inhale through the nose
exhale through the nose

Be grateful, then
there are still dreadful sins
in our fallen world
of which you are blameless

Then move to the left window
lift the pitcher full of water
just beneath it to the sill
and pour it out

inhale through the nose
exhale through the mouth

Cross over to the other window
and look out, cross your arms over
your chest and clasp your shoulders

Now, tell me, how will this crucible
change you? Then show how this
unasked-for crisis is
blessing, allow it to assist
the birth of your longed-for self

inhale through the mouth
exhale through the nose

Slowly, return to descend
the spiral staircase of your spine
until you reach the landing
level with the Heart —

Thank God, for this Holy Mess —
Open the window, air it out

inhale through the mouth
exhale through the mouth

*

Yahia: Poetry is an expression of the intolerable. Through it, one can confess in code and attempt to articulate what is unutterable.  Recently, undergoing a particularly difficult spiritual trial, I turned to poetry for solace, as a form of prayer, to overhear my higher self.

But, in this trying instance, I found that my voice and vision were not enough; I needed another poetic soul to unburden myself to, who could talk back to the intimacies that I shared and walk me through them.

So, I submitted the partial poem that I had composed to a poet and friend I admire, Laura Kaminski, and the result is this fuller work of (he)art — a steadying call and response and a kind of breathing meditation.

Laura: I carried the partial poem with me through the remainder of that day and into the night, and what came was this: when a part of our body is in pain, it screams out along the nerves, and it becomes difficult not to slip into that pain as an identity: *I am the torn ligaments in my foot* and such, where the injury and pain of it supersede any other perceptions of the body, become defining. When I hurt, pain hijacks my identity. I cannot see my self beyond the injury.

How much the same is true when what is injured is one of our inner selves, part of our psyche rather than physical body, but superseding identity in the same way: our “I am” is lost beneath the “I am the falsely accused.” How to return to the wider, more comprehensive perspective, to gently invite the injured voice inside to subside, to return to being part of a larger, uninjured whole? Then came the words of walking across the floor within the mind, and it struck me how once those words are thought, the imaginative-identity, like Alice, resizes its self to fit, and opens us to wonderland again.

*

Yahia Lababidi, Egyptian-American, is the author of seven books of poetry and prose, most recently the collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere.

Laura M Kaminski (Halima Ayuba) is the author of several poetry collections and chapbooks. She serves on the editorial teams at Praxis Magazine Online and Right Hand Pointing. For more information on her work, check out her site.

one more from Lynn Otto

PhotoEditor_20190608_141411093In my recent microreview & interview of Lynn Otto’s Real Daughter (Unicorn Press, 2019), I noted some of the ways in which Otto’s poetic sensibility is able to take readers into the liminal space in which words make their meanings as well as gesture toward other imaginative possibilities. Within the traditions of lyric poetry — traditions whose materials are memory, personal insight, and emotional as well as conceptual depth — being able to simultaneously point to what is and what could be/have been is necessary as it is this poetic simultaneity that most aptly reflects human experience.

While a number of poems in Real Daughter deal directly with family narratives to delve into emotional insights, “After the Flood” (below) approaches similar insights in an indirect manner. Taking the flood of the title as narrative context, the poem begins by juxtaposing the images of “mud-bloated cattle” and “fattened crows discussing the landscape” with the following questions:

what will fill our mouths
besides our bitter tongues. Bowls
of foul air? Should we not have
prayed for rain?

Here, the physical reckoning implied in the animal images is led into the speaker’s conceptual reckoning through the word “discussing” which is attached to crows. This projection of human qualities onto animals is a standard move in literature, but the stakes are raised by the emotional charge of the speaker’s questions. Rather than “discuss,” a word that here seems casual and natural in contrast to the tone of the questions, the speaker’s words are strained; “bitter,” “foul,” and “prayed” are words that speak to an inability to adapt as quickly as the crows.

The spiritual meditation born out of this perceived split between human and animal drives the poem. One stand-out moment occurs across the break between stanzas two and three:

Surely we believed our prayers

are sifted, that right requests
would settle on God’s ear like specks of gold
in a miner’s pan, all worthless bits
washed out.

Having the phrase “Surely we believed our prayers” be the end of stanza two lets the speaker’s bewilderment and overwhelm ring through clearly. Note, too, that this line is the second reference to prayer (the first  being in the previous stanza), and both come at the end of their respective stanzas. This parallel invites one to look into the endings of the other two stanzas of the poem. A quick scan shows the word “balance” at the end of stanza three and the image of “all the beetles still clinging to the bark” at the end of the poem. In a way, this four stanza poem can be read as a narrative of spiritual imbalance on the front-end and one of attempting to right that imbalance in the second half.

Now, what I’m terming as “righting” occurs across the break between stanzas two and three, specifically through the continuation of the sentence. The “sifting” of prayers described by the speaker evokes a sifting of sense and doubt. The poem, then, becomes a space where an act like a flood is seen clearly for the physical and spiritual mess it leaves. Yet, this speaker refuses to tie up things too neatly. By ending on the image of “all the beetles still clinging to the bark,” the poem closes not on human argument but on human perception, which is imperfect. The phrasing of “still clinging,” then, is apt and suggestive of the hope and perseverance this speaker wants to believe in.

After the Flood – Lynn Otto

Among the mud-bloated cattle,
among the fattened crows discussing the landscape,
what will fill our mouths
besides our bitter tongues. Bowls
of foul air? Should we not have
prayed for rain?

Warped doors give way to rubbled rooms.
Where windows were,
stained curtains luff lakeward.
Let us kneel to consider the limits of algorithms
and whether God is good.
Surely we believed our prayers

are sifted, that right requests
would settle on God’s ear like specks of gold
in a miner’s pan, all worthless bits
washed out. No doubt
the sun was wanted elsewhere. Maybe
there’s a balance to maintain,

a see-saw system of losses and gains.
Of course a crow
is laughing in the sycamores —
it doesn’t care the foliage droops all sodden and forgetful.
And look at the ants, the competing spiders,
all the beetles still clinging to the bark.

*

To learn more about Lynn Otto’s work, visit her site.

microreview & interview: Real Daughter by Lynn Otto

review by José Angel Araguz

PhotoEditor_20190608_141411093

It seems simple to say that what words can point to and hold is a constant source of meditation for me and other poets. Yet, this type of meditation is a high stakes one as it is in contemplating what words can hold that one also necessarily reckons with what cannot be held in words. Reading through Lynn Otto’s Real Daughter (Unicorn Press, 2019), one encounters poems that make use of this meditative space to engage with human conflict.

One can see this in “Marcescence,” which opens the collection with a reckoning salvo:

The beeches’ light brown leaves in horizontal layers
like my mother’s tiered serving trays
artfully placed in the winter forest and here we are,
in another stupid tree poem, this one
about the difficulty of letting go of something already dead.

In these lines, Otto’s speaker braids the direct meaning of the its title — a word meaning “the retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed”* — with family narrative. The first three lines evoke the way memory blurs present moment experience as well as suggests the natural way one understands the world through story. The second line’s simile deftly places nature and family side by side, a juxtaposition further complicated by the return to nature imagery in the third line. The last two lines of this stanza add a further depth to the meditation so far with its metanarrative nod towards the tradition of nature poems. Aware that she finds herself “in another stupid tree poem,” the speaker meets the sentimentality risked in the first three lines with awareness. This awareness furthers the veracity of the poem, allowing the double-meaning of the fifth line’s phrasing “the difficulty of letting go of something already dead” to hit with a compelling lyrical conviction. This conviction is furthered in the second stanza through a listing of words:

Such a fancy word for it when it comes to trees:
marcescence. You could name a daughter that.
Unlike fury. Unlike grief.

Here, the move of braiding nature and family narratives is taken further through the act of naming. There is a telling distinction in the way this speaker considers “marcescence” fit for naming a daughter over the words “fury” and “grief.” Placing these words on separate sides and seeing one as suitable for public use implies a number of things for the other two words. That “fury” and “grief” are human emotions and, therefore, typically kept private due to societal norms; that these two emotions occur in our inner worlds, this versus the public display of marcescence in trees; that, perhaps, these two words in their charged and potent nature eschew the fanciness the speaker sees in marcescence; it is through these copious implications that the speaker’s emotional presence is evoked.

The way these lines evoke this presence is quick and powerful, true to the essence of lyric poetry. This mix of skillful phrasing, hard-earned human voice, and thoughtful imagery render and suggest worlds of meaning througout the poems of Real Daughter. As the poems move through narratives of the roles taken up in one woman’s life (that of mother, daughter, wife), there is always an urgent awareness to see and find enough words for the life lived (and potentially overlooked) outside these roles.

In “Maytag” (below), one can see a good example of Otto’s ability to create a multivalent, compelling speaker. As the poem develops around a narrative about the speaker’s father and mother disputing over a broken appliance, the details begin to color the speaker’s inner world and her handling of a dead bird. The effect of this coloring is evident in the turn in the last stanza as the speaker considers “If my daughter were here.” This speculation creates an emotional depth through its contrast with what actually is done in the poem.

The poems of Real Daughter thrive in this rich space between imaginative speculation and the “real” world of family narratives. As the speaker of “Marcescence” notes in that poem’s ending stanza:

Consider the clean white spaces
between each layer of a family tree.
It isn’t like that at all.

The move to complicate and disrupt accepted narratives implied in this last line underscores the whole of this collection. Through these poems, Otto not only makes clear that it “isn’t like that at all” but also faces what it is like while at the same time providing glimpses of what it could be like.

Maytag – Lynn Otto

It can’t be fixed, says my father
of the dryer, the Maytag of many years—most
of their marriage—and the protest
of my mother, who can’t do laundry anymore anyway,
doesn’t stop him from having it hauled away,
ordering a Kenmore.

What he means is he can’t fix it. He has fallen
and what can a man do with a broken rib?
The third bird in two days hits the window and drops,
a rose-breasted nuthatch I place in a napkin,
but they won’t touch its fine fine feathers for fear of lice.
I’m to throw it in the bay.

If my daughter were here, she would bury it in a small box,
lined with a scrap of soft cloth.
But there’s no time for dead birds.
The crabs creep out sideways to clean up,
and my mother says to call the crematorium the minute she dies.
When the Maytag goes, she cries.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Lynn Otto: It seems to me that of all types of writing, poetry leaves the most space for the reader. I like reading and writing poems that give the reader not only sonic pleasure but also the pleasure of discovery–finding connections, layers, ambiguities, and so forth. I think the poems in Real Daughter allow those things to happen. My aim is that they welcome the reader in, and then trust the reader. I think most of the poems can be enjoyed by people who don’t have much experience reading poetry, but readers who want to will enjoy discovering more. The poems don’t over-explain. Neither do they preach or lecture, which brings me to another idea I have about poetry—that is, it’s a genre that generously accommodates uncertainty. A book of poems, even one that’s thematically tied together, can certainly cast about, and Real Daughter does.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Lynn Otto: Ah, well, writing anything at all is a challenge for someone taught that it’s best to keep things to oneself, especially family matters. And the process of putting words on paper—was I writing about what I thought and felt, or were the poems deciding what I thought and felt? The chicken-egg conundrum. Since I was not in the habit of knowing my own mind, it was hard to know what was going on. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of a poem going in an entirely unexpected direction. Of course, although books of poems are classified as nonfiction, they’re certainly not all autobiographical. They are, first of all, made things. Still, at times I wondered whether the poems themselves were putting a spin on things, and were influencing my feelings, even my memories. I worried that family members would be upset. I ended up writing poems that cast doubt on other poems, in effect undermining the reliability of the main speaker of the book. Only then did I feel comfortable sending it out into the world.

It’s funny that the first word of the title is a proclamation of authenticity: “Real.” But the second word is “Daughter,” a word that for me, and I think for many, signals expectations of duty to others, not to oneself. There is a tension in the title that runs throughout the book, and that was also part of my experience of writing it.

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Special thanks to Lynn Otto for participating! To keep up with Otto’s work, check out her site. Copies of Real Daughter can be purchased from Unicorn Press.

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Lynn Otto is a freelance academic copy editor and writing mentor, with an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University (Oregon). Her work has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Raleigh Review, Sequestrum, and other journals (see lynnottoinfo.wordpress.com), and her book Real Daughter, winner of Unicorn Press’s First Book Prize in 2017, was published earlier this year.

poetry feature: Chelsea Bunn

This week’s poems are drawn from the poetry feature submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

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This week I’m excited to share a poem by Chelsea Bunn. I’m always a fan of poems that are able to evoke through juxtaposition. In “Missed Connections” (below), what is being juxtaposed is the speaker’s present surroundings with the memories that the surroundings evoke. This evocation is set up first through the clear naming of things: “the downtown 6,” “5 o’clock,” “an accordion,” etc. This clear naming grounds the poem in the speaker’s experience. The poem builds momentum through its descriptions which keep the reader “looking” at things alongside the speaker while an emotional undercurrent begins to build.

The poem takes a turn at the fifth couplet with the direct introduction of the idea of time past. This turn is furthered through the line “Private in my infuriating grief — ” which pivots the poem into the speaker’s inner memory world. What happens next is another clear naming of things, similar to the opening, but one that parallels the real world with memory. The echoes and differences here deliver emotional presence through juxtaposition. The “accordion” from the second stanza, for example, is mirrored in the “ventilator” mentioned in memory.  What was handled through distance in the present is suddenly re-presented in a way that is intimate and personal.

train platformWhile this richness alone is a gift of the poem, it’s the ending that drives home the connection to human experience. This speaker caught in meditation between the present and the past is, at the end, found at a loss. All the clear naming and juxtaposition becomes all the more insistent and urgent with the final line “The things I couldn’t say.” This final line is another act of naming that points to what can’t be named, what has eluded the vision and scope of this speaker. Evoked in this manner, the two narratives of the poem show how poetry can be a place where “missed connections” can be acknowledged, honored, and felt for what they mean.

Missed Connections – Chelsea Bunn

Waiting for the downtown 6 at 5 o’clock,
my other life comes rushing back in waves.

A man straps an accordion to his chest, opens
and closes its bellows, delivering long columns

of sound into the stagnant August air.
Across the platform, pairs of schoolchildren

march in procession, arms linked as if when someone
knows who you are, you won’t get left behind.

You: two years absent, phantom that I drag around.
Me: one year sober, still locked inside myself.

Still sequestered, still on edge.
Private in my infuriating grief—

waking daily from the dream of my father in his hospital bed,
ventilator squeezing and sucking at his chest even after he is gone,

after the blonde nurse has wrapped her clean arms around me,
after the long, low moan of the monitor.

The early morning light blasting through the windows.
The things I couldn’t say.

(originally published by Maudlin House, February 2018)

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Chelsea Bunn is the author of Forgiveness (Finishing Line Press, 2019). She holds an MFA in Poetry and a BA in English from Hunter College. A two-time recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, she serves as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing for Navajo Technical University. Find out more at chelseabunn.com