The following interview of Elena Karina Byrne by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).
Biographical Information—Elena Karina Byrne
Elena Karina Byrne, the author of Squander (Omnidawn 2016), MASQUE (Tupelo Press, 2008), and The Flammable Bird , (Zoo Press 2002), was the former 12 year Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America, Executive Director of AVK Arts, one of the recent final judges for the Kate/Kingsley Tufts Awards in Poetry until 2018. She was also part of the West Hollywood Book Fair’s Planning Committee for many years and worked with Red Car studios editing several documentary film projects including, The Big Read, Muse of Fire and Why Shakespeare? Elena is a freelance professor, editor, the Poetry Consultant & Moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and Literary Programs Director for The Ruskin Art Club. She also works on poetry programs with the Craft & Folk Art Museum and sits on the advisory board for What Books Press.
Elena received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from Beyond Baroque’s Literary Arts Center. Her book reviews and poetry publications, among many others, include the Pushcart Prize XXXIII, Best American Poetry, Poetry, Yale Review, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Slate, Verse, Ploughshares, The Dublin Review, OmniVerse, Diode, Black Renaissance Noire, Volt, the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Persea Book’s The Eloquent Poem and BOMB. Elena just completed a new manuscript A Game of Violence and a collection of essays entitled, Voyeur Hour: Meditations on Poetry, Art & Desire.
That court gives rank for autumn and winter, after my
milk bath, in front of a mosquito’s net, musical motif, when
the advent-end of the 17th century pulls back the bow. When
you first costume, when you come home, story-making. Black
wings of hair, binsashi bone pins, women come now servant
the Tama river, washing courtesan brocade, multi-coloured on
a screen, its new lovers kneeling. I too turn cinnabar-red
paint, vertical to horizontal, lost memory sheets showing
What pattern singing from this color page reaches you in
No one sees ahead, eyes, half-closed, not looking up when
Butterfly halo above trees. Kimono sleeves open: my tiny
down a carried landscape, and beneath the obi fold, the clit
hidden like a dinner bell underwater, like the impermanence
hello or farewell, like violence rhythmed in the mind after war…
Poet David Whyte grew up with a strong, imaginative influence from his Irish mother among the hills and valleys of his father’s Yorkshire. He now makes his home in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
The author of nine books of poetry and four books of prose, David Whyte holds a degree in Marine Zoology, honorary degrees from Neumann College and Royal Roads University, and has traveled extensively, including living and working as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, Amazon and Himalaya. He brings this wealth of experience to his poetry, lectures and workshops.
His life as a poet has created a readership and listenership in three normally mutually exclusive areas: the literate world of readings that most poets inhabit, the psychological and theological worlds of philosophical enquiry and the world of vocation, work and organizational leadership.
An Associate Fellow at Said Business School at the University of Oxford, he is one of the few poets to take his perspectives on creativity into the field of organizational development, where he works with many European, American and international companies.
In organizational settings, using poetry and thoughtful commentary, he illustrates how we can foster qualities of courage and engagement; qualities needed if we are to respond to today’s call for increased creativity and adaptability in the workplace. He brings a unique and important contribution to our understanding of the nature of individual and organizational change, particularly through his unique perspectives on Conversational Leadership.
The Bell and the Blackbird
of a bell
or a blackbird
from a corner
into this life
or inviting you
to one that waits.
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all,
wants you to walk
to the place
where you find
you already know
how to give
every last thing
that is also
the meeting itself,
you have always
carried with you
as you walk
by every corner
of the world
Lois P. Jones: From the studios of KPFK Los Angeles Pacifica Radio, this is host Lois P. Jones. Welcome to Poets Café. Internationally acclaimed poet, David Whyte, makes his home in the Pacific Northwest where rain and changeable skies remind him of the other more distant homes from which he comes, Yorkshire, Wales, and Ireland. He travels and lectures throughout the world, bringing his own and other’s poetry to large audiences. David holds a degree in marine zoology, honorary degrees from Newman University in Pennsylvania and Royal Roads University in Victoria British Columbia and is an Associate Fellow of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. He is the author of eight volumes of poetry and four books of prose as well as a collection of audio recordings. Welcome, David Whyte.
David Whyte: [RECITES “THE BELL AND THE BLACKBIRD”.]
Lois P. Jones: Thank you, David. Beautiful. This is the title poem from your latest book, The Bell and the Blackbird and I’ve been thinking about the duality of the bell and the blackbird being myself in a situation where I have to make a major decision. And I love this idea that both ways are possible and both ways take courage. And that you don’t really have necessarily a wrong path …
David Whyte: Yes.
Lois P. Jones: … as you go. Choices often involve leaving things behind that are very comfortable to you. You’ve said that the only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. And so, for me, that ties into the split path of the bell and the blackbird and how you can go one way or the other and that you just need to be vulnerable and willing to experience that.
David Whyte: Yes. It’s an evocation of a meme in Irish poetry actually of a monk standing on the edge of the monastic precinct and hearing the call to prayer, the bell calling. And of course, this is a very ancient human dynamic to go deeper. But at the same time he hears the call of the blackbird from outside of the monastic walls and he says to himself and that’s also the most beautiful sound in the world. And you’re left there with this image of this monk in the old Irish church, the pre-Catholic Irish church, listening to both at the same time. And I was writing at my writing desk, actually, and my wife came behind me and rang a bell for who knows what reason. Perhaps trying to get my attention while I was writing.
Lois P. Jones: Right, dinner time.
David Whyte: But at the same time I heard the red winged blackbird outside in the garden. It was Easter time and springtime. And the red winged blackbird is the harbinger of spring in the Pacific Northwest. And I immediately was in those monastic shoes from that image and that’s how I wrote the poem. And of course, the real choice is what in the Zen tradition is called the middle way, the Buddhist way. Which sounds really bland actually. It’s an unpoetic description of a very fiery kind of conversational identity that you occupy. Because the dynamic that every human being finds themselves in, the dilemma we all find ourselves in is should I go deeper? Should I broaden myself? Should I educate myself more? Should I practice? Should I rehearse? Should I learn another language? Should I wait until I seek –
Lois P. Jones: Should I get married? Should I move? All of these major decisions that sometimes take you out of …
David Whyte: and that’s the call to depth. It’s the … I mean looking at it most generously it’s the call to depth that every human being feels yes. But at the same time you have this call from the outside of the precinct which is the blackbird announcing the world just as it is, yes. Just as you are and just as it is. And the understanding in this poem and in the inherited image out of the Irish tradition is that we don’t get to choose actually. We’re at our most courageous when we’re the conversation between not being ready and being ready. We’re never fully ready and you have to be ready at the same time. So yes, you have to educate yourself. Yes, you have to deepen your understanding and you’re called by the world right now and you don’t get to choose between the two. So it’s what I would call a more conversational identity.
David Whyte: And I do think that we’re constantly trying to choose too early in most maturing sets of circumstances. That we don’t let things mature enough or grow enough until the solution announces itself. We’re constantly saying no, I’m going for black instead of white. No, I’m going left instead of right.
Lois P. Jones: That’s very real to me.
David Whyte: And we actually have to take that radical path that holds both together. Yes.
Lois P. Jones: And we’re so distracted by all of these things which don’t allow them to come into fruition sometimes in normal life. And so, you can’t really have that undercurrent to process those big decisions.
David Whyte: The poetry is one way of stepping down onto that ground, onto that foundation.
Lois P. Jones: Yes.
David Whyte: To start close in, very close in the physical body. I mean, poetry is written in and from the breath in the body on the ground, yes. And it’s an invitation to actually what’s called in the old theological traditions to incarnate in this world. And one of the reasons we don’t incarnate is because this world is mediated through conversations one half of which are through loss and disappearance. Half of any real conversation is mediated through loss and disappearance. And so we say please God, there must be another alternative life. I don’t want loss. I don’t want disappearance. I don’t want hurt. I don’t want vulnerability. So we’re constantly abstracting ourselves, our bodies, and our language in order to create an ersatz second life, you know?
Lois P. Jones: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
David Whyte: And so I do feel poetry is the invitation back into the body, back into the conversation with something other than yourself also.
Lois P. Jones: Yes.
David Whyte: That body in conversation with the body of the world or with another person.
Lois P. Jones: There’s another aspect of the poem which seemed part of the Zen tradition to me. The idea of the kind of nothing that goes in either direction. So it’s the spirit in their essence. So they will go whichever choice they make, the ideal is to be who they truly are in that journey.
David Whyte: Yes, it’s a tricky understanding in the Zen tradition. That nothing is actually the real something.
Lois P. Jones: Right.
David Whyte: I remember being in a horse manger at 10,000 feet in an obscure part of the Himalayas once dying from amoebic dysentery and I was three days in this horse manger because the family didn’t know where to put me, covered in straw, hallucinating. But I had this incredible experience on the third day of actually feeling that I was about to die. And I could feel my whole physical system atomizing and parting and starting to flow on. I was sure I was going to go. And I had this astonishing experience of being a part of the whole moving tidal ecosystem of water around me. Like the clouds up in the Himalayan sky, the snow falling on the mountains, on Annapurna and Dhawalagiri above me. The glaciers, the tributaries into the river, and then the river itself. And then, the river going off into the Ganges below. And then the sea beyond. And I was the whole cycle. And I realized that this name, this David Whyte, was really just like the name that we’d given to the river. It was the Marshyangdi River in that valley. But you’re looking at something that’s already gone past in a way.
Lois P. Jones: Yes.
David Whyte: And I was just like that river. I was this set of elements that had come together and they were about to go out into the great Ganges and the great ocean and separate. And I just suddenly had this amazing moment of hilarity about this whole David Whyte project, that took enormous amounts of energy of keeping this show on the road and actually that you are part of this astonishing coming together and then parting again. I sat up and let out this gunshot of a laugh, a kind of temporary moment of enlightenment. And the whole family ran out of the house to see what was going on. And there I was raving and laughing covered in straw.
Lois P. Jones: Yes.
David Whyte: But Murphy’s Law, that was the moment I started to get better again.
Lois P. Jones: And here you are.
David Whyte: And I took on the whole David Whyte project again.
Lois P. Jones: That reminds me. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not but there’s a beautiful poem on Ars Poetica by Borges where he talks about how our faces become water, how we disappear again.
David Whyte: Gorgeous.
Lois P. Jones: Oh, it’s just beautiful. I’ll send it to you. But I love this idea of being present in the world and then the desire to not be in the world in some ways. And that comes up also in your collection. There’s a particular poem called Cleave if you’d like to read that.
David Whyte: Yes I do. I feel that one of the invitations into the body, into this life, is into every part of it including the parts that we normally look at in negative and pejorative of ways such as we’re constantly disliking our fears and our reluctances and yet, we’re half reluctance, you know? And this poem looks at the way we don’t want to have the conversation because it’s actually part of our birthright experience. When a child is first born, it’s an absolute trauma for it to breath. Until it came out into the air, it was taken care of fully by its mother.
Lois P. Jones: Yes.
David Whyte: It was given shelter. It was given warmth. It was given oxygen through being absolutely connected to the mother. So birth is an absolute trauma for the child. And was for every one of us. So this looks at the way that that is actually part of our birthright experience and that self knowledge is not only finding out what your powers and virtues are in the world but also where you don’t want to have the conversation.
Lois P. Jones: Lovely.
David Whyte: Where you’re afraid of it all. Yes.
David Whyte: Cleave. Oh, and the word cleave, I’ve always loved because it means both to split apart and to bring together in the old medieval Christian marriage ceremony in England, the couple was said to cleave together.
David Whyte: [RECITES “CLEAVE”.]
Lois P. Jones: Gorgeous. If you’ve just tuned in, you’re listening to Poets Café. We’re with our esteemed guest, David Whyte. So happy to have him in the café. And we’re talking about his beautiful book, The Bell and the Blackbird. That’s David Whyte, W-H-Y-T-E.
Lois P. Jones: Your life is so rich through your interactions with people all over the world. You bring your knowledge, your poetry, your understanding to others in the corporate world and also just the idea that you can be a poet in the world is a phenomenal thing for all the poets that are listening. It’s hard to commit to that and say this is my life and this is my purpose. Of course, Rilke did it. And there’s very few that have and can and make the kind of impact you have on the world.
David Whyte: Yes although we’re all made so differently. I’m sure there’s many a poet now writing in a garret somewhere who none of us have heard of who centuries from now will be one of the iconic figures of our age. And there are some poets who are shy of social interaction. I just happened to be made and it’s probably my Yorkshire practical, down to earth, inheritance combined with the lyricism of my Irish mother. And I grew up in Yorkshire of an Irish mother with two linguistic rivers joining together, tributaries joining in that house in the hills of Yorkshire. And they were completely different linguistic inheritances and completely different ways of looking at the world. But I remember quite early on thinking that I wasn’t supposed to choose between them. And that I was supposed to hold both. I’m made to travel. My physical body recovers really quickly. I’m made to speak. I have a voice with which I can speak. Not all poets have a good reading voice. Some poets, it’s better if other people read them. You know? So I don’t know if this life is one that every poet should try to have. But certainly there’s more possibility than most poets know in taking your work into the world. If you can build and deepen the narrative around your poetry. For me, it’s really illustrating the conversational thresholds that people stand on on a daily basis. My poetry, in a way, when I’m in the organizational world, I’m looking at the way you deepen the narrative around working together. When I’m in the theological world, I’m looking at the way you deepen the narrative with the mystery of the divine, what lies over the horizon and what lies inside you at the same time.
When I’m in the literal world, if I’m at a poetry festival in Wales or in Oxford, then I’m looking at our inheritance. The inheritance of poetry. I love literary biography. I love the lives of poets. I have lots of other poets memorized from times past.
Lois P. Jones: That’s fantastic. What do you think about committing that to memory? Is is something that takes on its own life once it’s in you? It’s different when it’s something you’re reading on the page.
David Whyte: Yes, so when you’re looking people in the eyes on stage or in a gathering, it makes all the difference. And you’re more keyed into exactly where you should repeat a line. And I do believe in repetition because that’s how we actually read poetry on the page especially the first time. You never read a poem first time from top to bottom. You always circle and say oh my God, what was that? If it’s a good poem that is. If it’s a bad poem, you just go straight to the bottom and say thank you very much. But a good poem, you say I didn’t quite understand that and you go back and you say oh my God. And then, you’re ready to take a step deeper.
David Whyte: But it’s just a microcosm of the way that we actually speak when we’re on our emotional edge with others. If you’re delivering poignant news to someone, the news of someone of a close friend’s death or a loved one’s death, you always repeat yourself. You always say the same things in three different ways. You always leave silence. And you wait to see if the other person has heard you. That’s the silence, really. And only then do you say the next thing. So this is all facilitated by memorization.
Lois P. Jones: I want to speak a moment to silence because one of the wonderful moments of the experience at your event was how you held silence. You could recite a poem or talk about a particular subject and then you’d be quiet. And everybody in the audience was with you in that silence. It felt very rich. And I just appreciate that you can navigate that silence and feel comfortable with it.
David Whyte: Yes. And I would put a lot more silence into the reading here on air except everyone driving along would switch off the radio. So it doesn’t quite work on air. But no, that’s where I feel everything is happening really in the room.
Lois P. Jones: Everything is happening.
David Whyte: Because I work extemporaneously. It’s where the audience is actually inviting you to go next where the silence is deepest, that’s where you follow.
Lois P. Jones: Perfect.
David Whyte: It’s what people are saying.
Lois P. Jones: It’s one of the central draws that I had to you, that is the ways in which you perceive and take take things in and that is also your connection with Rilke. And there’s a particular poem that I found you’d translated which speaks to this interstices, this place between the light and this other darkness which isn’t a bad darkness. We’re drawn to it somehow. So it’s the one you darkness from which I come.
David Whyte: Du Dunkelheit, aus der ich stamme, ich liebe dich mehr als die Flamme.
Lois P. Jones: Yes, yes.
David Whyte: The rhythm is just incredible. It’s this invitational rhythm inviting you into the darkness. And Rilke, in that poem, is saying you know, you can be out in the wilderness on a moonless night when it’s completely pitch black looking at this immensity but if there’s even one pinpoint of light, you will take the reference of the whole sky from that single pinpoint. So Rilke invites you into this beautiful question. What would it be like if you didn’t take your reference from that point of light, from that star or from that campfire? What if you actually took your reference from this immensity of darkness around you and you, darkness from which I come, I love you more than all the fires that fence out the world.
Lois P. Jones: For the fire makes a circle for everyone so that no one sees you anymore. Yes.
David Whyte: Yes. And then it’s really powerful that the darkness holds it all. The fire and the flame and the images of animals and everything. And then, the German is really difficult to translate because in German he says Und es kann sein: eine große Kraft rührt sich in meiner Nachbarschaft. Ich glaube an Nächte. He says, and it could be that a great power is breaking into my neighborhood, is the German. And that just doesn’t translate. But it’s … What he’s looking at is this fiercely physical sense of community, in German communities, where everyone is looking at what everyone’s doing and everyone’s following the rules.
Lois P. Jones: Oh wow, oh interesting.
David Whyte: So it’s this body. This physical body. I was in Germany for a while and you do feel a part of the physical body of the neighborhood. And everyone is policing everyone else in a very subtle way. So this breaking into the neighborhood is like someone is breaking into the immune system of your body.
Lois P. Jones: No wonder why he wanted to be alone.
David Whyte: And so, I translated that as literally as and it is possible that a great power is breaking into my body. I have faith in the night.
Lois P. Jones: Yes.
David Whyte: Yes. But the German is very, very powerful and almost impossible to translate at the end, what he says, Und es kann sein: eine große Kraft rührt sich in meiner Nachbarschaft. Ich glaube an Nächte. And I believe in nights. Yes, I believe in nights.
Lois P. Jones: And I think that navigating the night is something that we can be drawn to as spiritual beings. I find myself at night looking at the silhouette of the mountain or the filigree of the trees or birds against the darkness, and there’s some part of me that lives there too.
David Whyte: Yes. And the invitation is also into your fears of the dark. We have natural inherited evolutionary needs to be afraid of the dark. So when we love the dark, we actually have to admit all the ways that we’re afraid of it at the same time. And so, I think Rilke’s looking at the night as a way that brings you fully into your body because vulnerability is not a choice for any human being whether you’re only awake in the daylight hours or not.
Lois P. Jones: Right.
David Whyte: Vulnerability is not a choice. We’re open to the world in ways that we find quite disturbing and quite difficult. Caring for a child who’s sick. Caring for your parent who’s dying. Caring for your friends who are exhibiting behaviors which are self destructive which you can do nothing about. So these are constant vulnerabilities that we have. And you’re healthy until the day you’re not no matter how healthy you are. So to live fully and to see vulnerability not as a weakness but as actually a faculty for understanding what’s about to happen and who you’re about to become.
Lois P. Jones: And that’s well conveyed in your book, The Bell and the Blackbird. If you’ve just tuned in, we’re listening to our wonderful guest, David Whyte. I’m host, Lois P. Jones, and we’re on Poets Café. And there’s a lot here that makes me want to be courageous. Yes. And to be decisive too in some ways even though sometimes that’s difficult. I think that people need more courage now than ever because the world can feel oppressive. You’re giving people tools through poetry. And poetry has a permeating power for change as well.
Lois P. Jones: David, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on the show. I wonder if you would take us out with Stone.
David Whyte: Stone. This is about a carved face on a mountainside in County Clare overlooking Galway Bay. A face I had a conversation with for many, many years which was an invitation into vulnerability in a way.
David Whyte: Stone. It’s an ancient carved face. A woman’s face. [RECITES “STONE”.]
Lois P. Jones: Beautiful. This is host, Lois P. Jones and our guest has been David Whyte. The music you hear is “The Bell and the Blackbird” by Owen & Moley Ó Súilleabháin from their CD Fields of Grace. Thanks to our producer, Marlena Bond. Look for us on the Poets Café fan page on Facebook. You’ve been listening to Poets Café on Pacifica Radio for all of Southern California and beyond.
Margo Berdeshevsky, born in New York city, often writes and lives in Paris. Before The Drought, her newest collection of poems, is from Glass Lyre Press, September 2017. (In an early version, it was finalist for the National Poetry Series.) Berdeshevsky is author as well of Between Soul & Stone, and But a Passage in Wilderness, (Sheep Meadow Press.) Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, received the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award for Fiction Collective Two (University of Alabama Press.) Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, a portfolio of her poems in the Aeolian Harp Anthology #1 (Glass Lyre Press,) the & Now Anthology of the Best of Innovative Writing, and numerous Pushcart Prize nominations. Her works appear in the American journals: Poetry International, New Letters, Kenyon Review, Plume, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Southern Humanities Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, The American Journal of Poetry, Jacar Press—One, among many others. In Europe her works have been seen in The Poetry Review (UK) The Wolf, Europe, Siècle 21, & Confluences Poétiques. A multi genre novel, Vagrant, and a hybrid of poems, Square Black Key, wait at the gate. She may be found reading from her books in London, Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, or somewhere new in the world. Her Letters from Paris may be found in Poetry International, here. For more info kindly see margoberdeshevsky.com
It Is Still Beautiful to Hear the Heart Beat*
It’s 3 AM. The crows on one leg or none are already starving for infant nests. A few leaves hang on still. A prayer of godwits enters the dream from the upper left quadrant. No, I tell the dream-maker,
no, make it a lamentation of swans. The times demand it. Instead, I’m given an affliction of starlings tearing the leaves that remain as they fly, and the dream is ruined. What’s real is in bed with me,
mounts me, slides in like a husband entering with the unquestioned privilege of his sexual entitlement. Drowsy, I open my thighs to him, to it, to the day. To my habit of saying “Accept it, I’ll
die tonight,” each night when I pull the quilts for sleep, so that I can practice belief. The next day is new. Always. Fair or fetid, bring with me only what I dare to remember. Opening new eyes, there is
the baby in her crib, her shape nothing I wanted. Waking is waking. What’s real is the child with her badly sculpted brain, her damaged possibility of dream. What’s real is our day in a diseased year and
the baby has come out wrong. Blame it on the chemicals. Blame it on the sting of the genus Aedes aegypti, white stripes on her legs, a marking in the form of a lyre on her upper thorax. Say that she
comes at dawn. What’s real is I was another one of the harmed, the infant, more so, but less harmed than the worse harmed than we.
Awake, it is still beautiful to hear the heart beat, I repeat. A prayer of godwits hovers at my door.
I am so deeply awake.
Yun Wang is the author of two poetry books (The Book of Totality, Salmon Poetry Press, 2015, and The Book of Jade, Winner of the 15th Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, Story Line Press, 2002), two poetry chapbooks (Horse by the Mountain Stream, Word Palace Press, 2016; The Carp, Bull Thistle Press, 1994), and a book of poetry translations (Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po, White Pine Press, forthcoming 2019). Her poems have been published in numerous literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, Salamander Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and International Quarterly. Her translations of classical Chinese poetry have been published in The Kenyon Review Online, Salamander Magazine, Poetry Canada Review, Willow Springs, Connotation Press, and elsewhere.
Wang grew up in rural southwest China and began writing poetry when she was 12. Her father was a political dissident who was brutally persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. He convinced her to become a scientist to escape political persecution. Wang majored in physics at Tsinghua University when she was 16. She came to the U.S. for graduate school in physics in 1985, and got a Ph.D. in physics from Carnegie Mellon University in 1991. She was a professor of physics and astronomy at University of Oklahoma from 2000 to 2017. She is currently a Senior Research Scientist at California Institute of Technology. She is the author of the cosmology graduate textbook, Dark Energy (Wiley-VCH, 2010). Her research focuses on exploring the nature of dark energy, the mysterious cause for the accelerated expansion of our universe. She was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2012.
My father was the school principal. The day I was born, he caught a twenty pound carp. He gave it to the school kitchen. All the teachers and boarding students tasted it.
Waves of mountains surrounded us. I grew up yearning for the ocean. Smoke arose from green mountains to form clouds each morning. My father named me Cloud.
When a son was born to Confucius, the king of Lu sent over a carp as present. Confucius named his son Carp.
The wise say a carp leaping over the dragon gate is a very lucky sign. My father says he named me Cloud because I was born in the year of the dragon: there are always clouds following a dragon. Confucius’ son died an early death. My father has only three daughters.
When I was three, I wandered all over the campus. A stray cat in a haunted town. My mother says I passed the room where my father was imprisoned. He whispered to me, hid a message in my little pocket. It was his will that I should grow up a strong woman, and find justice for him.
They caught me. My father was beaten to near death. Some of them were students, whose parents were peasants. Some of them were teachers, who used to be his best friends. They had tasted the carp.
It has been recorded that Confucius could not tell the difference between millet and wheat, and was thus mocked by a peasant. This peasant became a big hero, representing the wisdom of the people, thousands of years after Confucius’ death.
My father still goes fishing, the only thing that seems to calm him. The mountains are sleeping waves. My father catches very small fish. My mother eats them. My friends laugh at me, when I tell them that once upon a time, my father caught a carp weighing twenty pounds.
—from The Book of Jade (Storyline Press, 2002) by Yun Wang
Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana. He received a BA in creative writing from Arizona State University and a MFA from Butler University where he was the managing editor of Booth: A Journal. He is currently a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California where he is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing. He has served as the poetry editor of Gold Line Press as well as was one of the managing editors of Ricochet Editions. His work is featured on Poetry Foundation’s website and has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, Rhino, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, New Orleans Review, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. His first full length collection of poems, Testify, was released by Red Hen Press in the spring of 2017.
“In his breathtaking debut, Testify, Douglas Manuel charts the raw emotional complexities and the impossible daily reckonings that confront a young black man coming of age today in America. Faced at every turn with condescending, fixed assumptions about his ‘proper’ role in his community and culture, the speaker faces each indictment with a stunning and searing intelligence. Each powerful testimony in this collection stands as evidence of an eloquent and dramatic new voice in American poetry.”
—David St. John
“In Douglas Manuel’s Testify the act of witnessing is by turns burdensome and bittersweet, narrative and lyrical, ecstatic and irreverent. Here the holy words are the ones that offer no easy epiphanies yet grant us dazzling, off-kilter compassion and a strange, surprising grace. These potent poems testify to those ambivalent moments that might rend or right us, as when an interracial couple drive past a truck with a Confederate flag painted on its back windshield and from which a little boy turns to smile and wave: his ‘blond hair // split down the middle like a Bible / left open to the Book of Psalms.'”
—Anna Journey, author of The Atheist Wore Goat Silk
I swear on the melody of trumpet vines,
ants feasting through animal crackers, Burt’s Bees,
Tyler Perry movies, my daddy’s .38 slug, footie-socks
inside high-top Jordans, disidentification, drag
queens, blond dreadlocks, headstones
salt-and-peppering the grass, vanilla wafers
in banana pudding, Zeus-swan chasing,
blunt-guts, sharp thumbnails, keloid scars,
cash-only bars, R&B songs, on what the pot
called the kettle. I put that on my mama’s good
hair, on playing solitaire with a phantom
limb, the white woman I go home to,
my auntie’s face when she says: You know he always loved them pink toes. I put that on
everything, on the signifiers I gobble up,
candlesticks blown out by whistling lips.
I put that on dervishing records scratched
on down-beats, empty beehives,
fresh-fade head-slaps, hand claps, bamboo shoots,
liminality, mestizos, the purple-black crook
of my arm, split sternums, on You can’t save him now. I put that on skinny jeans, get rich
quick schemes—Gotta get that C.R.E.A.M. Know what I mean?—freckled black faces, leafless trees
throwing up gang signs, phlegm hocked
onto streets. I swear I catch more stones
than catfish. I lose more collard greens than sleep. I think
nothing is here but us darkies, high yellows, red bones,
cocoa butters. Someone, no, everyone has jungle fever. Don’t touch my forehead. Blond
as moonshine, mute trombone choking.
I put that on Instagram. Post me to the endless chain
of signifiers. Strawberry gashes on kneecaps, Let me get some dap, Newports, Kool’s, and folding
chairs instead of barstools, that white drool
caked on your face. Mommy please wipe away the veil. I thought I was passing into the eye of the streetlamp. I swear. I promise on frondless
palm trees, long pinkie nails, sixteen years, serve eight,
and Miss Addie’s red beans and rice, Ol’ Dirty Bastard
and the brother on the Cream of Wheat box. It don’t mean
a thing if it don’t buckle your knees. Open your hands.
I’ll give you a song, give you the Holy Ghost
from a preacher’s greasy palm—When he hit me, I didn’t
fall, felt eyes jabbing me, tagging me. Oh no he didn’t!—
give you the om from the small of her back.
I put that on double consciousness, multiple jeopardy,
and performativity. Please make sure my fetters and manacles are tight. Yea baby, I like bottomless bullet chambers. I swear on the creation of Uncle Tom—
some white woman’s gospel. She got blue eyes? I love me some—on Josiah Henson, the real Uncle Tom, on us still
believing in Uncle Tom. Lord, have mercy!
Put that on the black man standing on my shoulders holding
his balls. Put that on the black man I am—I am not—on
the black man I wish I was.
Lois P. Jones: From the studios of KPFK Los Angeles, Pacifica Radio. Welcome to Poets Café. Douglas Manuel is a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California, where he is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing. He has served as the Poetry Editor for Goldline Press, as well as one of the Managing Editors of Ricochet Editions. His poems are featured on Poetry Foundation’s website, and have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, the LA Review, Rhino, North American Review, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. His first full-length collection of poems, Testify, was recently released by Red Hen Press. Welcome!
Douglas Manuel: Well, I’m happy to be here.
Lois P. Jones: Yeah.
Douglas Manuel: Thank you very much.
Lois P. Jones: Your book Testify really got me looking in a lot of different directions. It’s such an interesting combination of conflicts and religion versus non religion, or non-belief, responsibility, neglect, black, white, culture, culture vs. culture, and I was thinking in particular, because this is sort of a melting pot of so much in this opening poem, Testify, that the whole book is really a testimony in its way. I started thinking about Josiah Henson.
Douglas Manuel: Oh, yeah.
Lois P. Jones: The story of Josiah Henson, Uncle Tom was based on him as a character, it was based on a true hero. He escaped to Canada and started a settlement for former slaves who fled from the US and I wonder how do we view the past in this context? Do we look to him as somebody who had a life of integrity and honor? Or is his name forever stigmatized because of the way, in theatre for example, they took the plays and they changed this character into sort of subservient, disparaging-
Douglas Manuel: No, to say the least. That’s all 100% true, and I think this poem in a way is me trying to reclaim not only him and give him agency in his own kind of self-determination, as well as reclaim the term Uncle Tom. For a long time, I attempted to write a poem called, Confessions of an Uncle Tom. And I think it’s one of the many burdens that I wear of not feeling black enough. I think authenticity means so much, like the turn of phrase, “To keep it real,” happens so often in the black community. And one of those things, you know, kind of the worst thing that you can level against somebody isat least from around the way where I’m from, is to call them Uncle Tom.
And so to kind of do the little research and see you know, where this whole kind of idea of an Uncle Tom came from, from you know, the notion of that great novel and too, the kind of, the way that we’ve used it in a contemporary context. It’s something that I wear and that I buck against. I worry about not being the kind of black man that is part of the narrative of the early 90s, coming-of-age multiculturalism movements of the strong black man who’s so pro-black, you know, who ain’t going to take no stuff from no white man, no cops, no nobody. And that kind of racial imagination, like, so many ways I fall below that kind of standard of black male-ness, which many of my mentors from pop culture and in my family, adhere to so much.
So in a lot of ways, the titular poem is dealing with that, and I think that’s kind of the whole book’s agenda, is trying to carve out and speak for a space of black-ness that maybe does not align with all the kind of received notions, at least what I receive.
Lois P. Jones: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Douglas Manuel: Like, my notions of the kind of black male that I exist as is legible and does exist. But as far as what I was shown growing up, there wasn’t that many exemplars of how to be that kind of black man, so I found myself aligning myself with people who like my family, kind of the conversations around would be looking down upon saying, “XYZ person, you know he an Uncle Tom. He think he’s white. You know, he talk proper. He forget where he from.” All these kind of ideas, and you know, being a Catholic school kid and having a lot of white friends, my god parents played integral role in my upbringing, all those kind of narratives all kind of have their nexus in me.
Douglas Manuel: And so it made me very conflicted growing up about which way to go. The Midwest is so binary with race, at least at the time I was growing up, that it felt like they’re like, “You’re black or you’re white,” and that was it. So it’s just me searching for another way to be, I guess. And problematizing all of the ways I’m shown to be.
Lois P. Jones: And, not only speaking to your weight or responsibility as a black man in society, but also thinking about how you can be pigeon-holed by your own culture.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: And stereotyped by your own culture.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: To be a certain way. I think all cultures are guilty of that to some extent. And how we’re hindered from embracing other aspects. It’s almost like the other voices that are in us, and we all have them.
Douglas Manuel: Right.
Lois P. Jones: Are muted, because of identity, because of a fear of losing identity.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: But I know that’s not the only part of it. I know that because the black community has been oppressed for so long, there’s also the need and the continual need to stand in that space of being present for one’s own race, or one’s own legacy.
Douglas Manuel: And therein lies the guilt, right?
Lois P. Jones: Right.
Douglas Manuel: Therein lies my heavy laden guilt, because I mean, I know that people lost their lives from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean and the Middle Passage, people lost their lives for me to be able to kind of live the life that I live, and speak, and write the way that I want to write. And to feel as though my lifestyle or anything that I do disrespects those kind of notions is something that I wear with me, similar to my Catholic guilt from my Catholic upbringing. Morally I think, my race guilt from the Afro-centristic notions I received from family members and pop culture during my maturation process I think, or just my obsessions, you know? They say writers return over and over again to obsessions.
And I would definitely say my ma’s passing, my relationship with my father, my relationship to the black man that I wish I was, as I say in this poem, versus the black man that I am. And my relationship toward what’s sacred, I think are the obsessions of Testify and continue to be my obsessions to this day.
Lois P. Jones: And speak to it so eloquently, I think embracing all of those aspects, I’d like to get in our next poem, that talks about your dad. If you’re just tuning in, this is host Lois P. Jones, I’m here with our guest Douglas Manuel. And we’re talking about his new book out on Red Hen Press, a fabulous collection called Testify. Do you want to talk about this poem, or do you just want to read it?
Douglas Manuel: I guess all you need to know for this is my father’s on dialysis. So that’s quite the process. It’s one of those things that I intellectually understood, but actually to see it happening is quite the ordeal. I think all people understand that you know, it’s taking the blood out the body and cleaning it and then returning it, but it’s just quite the thing to see all the tubes and how one looks when that process is happening to them.
Lois P. Jones: Right.
Douglas Manuel: It’s a lot and that coupled with the relationship I have with my father, he’s in prison a lot of my life, and I was raised by other family members, so it’s always been complicated. So this is me, a kind of reckoning with all that. And I think that’s all you need to know with this poem. It’s entitled, The First Time I See My Father’s Blood Cleaned [reads poem].
Lois P. Jones: Such a beautiful poem of presence and the struggle. I think when you read all of the poems, you start to see the poet who has all these identities, and has these relationships, and specifically with your mom and your dad, and that conversation and that dialectic. There’s always this opposing side, one that’s the loving son toward the father, and the bond. And the other side that’s maybe really torn by the type of father he’s been, or not been. And there you are. You’re in the hospital and he’s vulnerable and maybe something you hadn’t observed about him before.
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, my father’s a big man. I’m only like 5’9″, he’s significantly larger than me, and I just remember as a child holding on to his arms and him lifting me up and such. So his physicality means so much and meant so much to him, so to see him, you know, without his legs, to see him “old,” is you know, like with anybody that’s a lot. But especially with him, it matters. So my dad, as with other poems, like Little Fires Left by Travelers, my dad, I’ve made him a myth in my head. Made him bigger than life, because he always is. And his role in our community was the same way. There was a social media meme on Facebook before I retired from Facebook, that was like, “I’m so Anderson.” And so the users would say, “They’re so Anderson,” because they remember certain details of Anderson, Indiana. And one of the, “I’m so Anderson,” quotes was remembering my dad being a drug dealer in the community and such. “I’m so Anderson, I remember when Big Doug did X.” From back in the day, and that’s how woven he is in the community. So to see a man who has that kind of stature be in a bed getting his blood cleaned like that, that vulnerable, is a lot. And you know, Toni Morrison talks about tough love and how good art can help you to participate and fall to tough love and that’s how I think my relationship with my father is, tough love. The kind of love that you keep on working with, and I guess all love is like a process. So it’s a process that I do, and that I have to work on and attend to.
Douglas Manuel: Just like anything else. And so I think this poem is me becoming more willing and giving and open toward giving that kind of attention.
Lois P. Jones: Right. I wanted to put this more in context, also by bringing in this other poem as well, and we can talk a little bit more about it. But the one called, I’ll Leave Your Ass Here?
Douglas Manuel: [Reads I’ll Leave Your Ass Here.]
Lois P. Jones: If you just tuned in, this is host Lois P. Jones. We’re at Poets Café, and I’m here with our guest, Douglas Manuel. We’re talking about his wonderful book Testify, out on Red Hen Press. This poem moved me so much, because I thought about the layers of lying. And how as a boy, do we believe that? Do we know it’s a lie. How does that seem later? When he says that you’re the only person mattering in the world, that’s a beautiful line, by the way. You know, “Daddy, why does the moon keep following me?” I ask, rushing to catch up. “Because you’re the only person who matters in the world.”
Wow, is that a truth? And can you keep that truth, you know?
Douglas Manuel: I think that’s truth for him. I think that’s a truth that I hope to believe.
Lois P. Jones: Yeah, I mean, because of his past history and his dealings with drugs, and so one has to separate the parent somehow, from these actions that are not really the true self, if that makes sense.
Douglas Manuel: I think it’s a truth that both of us need to believe.
Lois P. Jones: Okay.
Douglas Manuel: So, and I think that’s the way big meta-narratives go, right? Like, I think this is beyond fact and object kind of truth. I think this has to be a story that him and I can tell each other, so that we can work in the process of tough love. You know? But it’s just something I remember often, walking with him. And we took many night strolls, and many strolls in general. Things that I remember from my youth, and some of the beautiful times. And he would always say those kinds of things. I think the biggest reasons that I’m a poet is because of his love for language and the kind of ways that his turns of phrases, I think often throughout the text, I use his words directly. He just has so many turns of phrases that always shock and surprise. And so, I think in a way you know, he opened me up to the possibilities of language. And that’s something I’ll be in debt to him forever for, as well.
Lois P. Jones: And did he come to appreciate your writing, or?
Douglas Manuel: Oh, yeah. No. My dad loves this book.
Lois P. Jones: Oh!
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s one of my biggest fears about the project in general. I think I’ve written an essay about that before, is the people that think we have like this awful relationship, or he doesn’t read the work. But no, he’s my biggest fan and cheerleader. He tells everybody very quickly-
Lois P. Jones: That’s great.
Douglas Manuel: About what I do and stuff. Again, it’s a work in progress. We fight a lot, and you know, we have a more platonic kind of relationship, instead of the usual power dynamics of a father and son.
Lois P. Jones: Sure.
Douglas Manuel: But that’s just from his absence and such. We work at it.
Lois P. Jones: Your mom died when you were just eight.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: And so that was obviously a huge loss in your life, and then you had a father struggling with his issues, then. And yet, you came out of this focusing on your doctorate now, how were you able to move beyond you know, your history?
Douglas Manuel: Luck and love. I don’t think anybody, “makes it,” what everyone wants to define that to be. I guess, achieve some kind of level social mobility from where they are from, without you know, some love and some backing, you know, my auntie, my Aunt Bet, as I say in the gratitude page of the back, really made my life to where I didn’t know how little we were doing so much with. From a whole choir of aunties in the community, to my god parents as well. Like I say in the book, calling them you know, my Fairy White God Parents, they also helped a lot with things. And that’s what leads me to these ideas of doubleness, as far as embracing both black and white side, because there’s no way I can turn my back on that, you know, the boy says something about, soul of black folk, the African-American says it can’t turn their back on their American-ness or European-ness as well.
Douglas Manuel: So I think all that comes into play with me as well. Because of feeling in debt, because of how big of a role. You know, me being in Catholic school saved me a lot too. You know, so many elementary school teachers. Like I remember Mrs. Hummel, and Miss Welding, and Mrs. Wetmore and so many people who would work with me with reading, who showed me poems, you know, early on, just so many things like that. I think everybody who pays attention to children and education and all those people did a lot, and sports as well. Like many black men, sports keeps you out of trouble, you know?
You ain’t in the streets if you’re playing basketball somewhere, or if you’re at a track meet or something. So between strong academics from good old Saint Mary’s to playing sports all the time, and a lot of love and luck.
Lois P. Jones: Are you actually teaching now? Do you have students?
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, I have two sections for Introduction to Poetry class, at USC. So I have two sections of them.
Lois P. Jones: Okay, so I was reading something on the Butler MFA site, that you’d written, you said, “I care about talking to you, I care about talking to me. I care about words.”
Douglas Manuel: Oh, whoa, yeah.
Lois P. Jones: Et cetera, yeah. “No matter how imprecise they are, when it comes to clothing our thoughts and feelings, that’s why I try and I want you to care too. So I keep trying, hoping that something I write means something to you. Hoping to meet you somewhere, shake your hand and see that look in your eyes that only connection gives. Hoping that you hear my prayers, and that hopefully they were never mine at all, but instead they were yours too. That they were ours.”
What a fantastic and all-encompassing mission for poetry to have. I like it so much, because it allows for different types of voices, it is not focused on a particular type of pedigree or voice. I read an interesting article recently about a woman who was speaking, but feeling that she had to teach poetry to a white audience, rather than being able to take in all the aspects of her and herself and her culture, that her MFA was geared toward that voice. And how that statement to me just, is more of a direct response to what we want to feel in poetry.
Douglas Manuel: One of my big things is just, for my own sanity and just for a mode of how to exist in the world is thinking of this, that’s there’s enough room for all of us.
Lois P. Jones: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Douglas Manuel: I think the thing that’s so incredible about American poetry, you know, there’s all these debates about, can poetry matter? And poetry doesn’t matter, and it’s this, you know, isolated academic endeavor. Or we only see its manifestation in song writing and hip hop. All those kind of arguments, and I think my world view is not to get caught up in those kind of things at all. I think life necessitates poetry. I think poetry matters always because our subjective inner feelings and workings and reactions and the stories we tell ourselves will always matter. I think that people will always be trying to express those subjective feelings, and I think each sliver of those expressions matter. And I’m paraphrasing lots of things that people way smarter than me have said, but I feel though you know, the world is hardly ever worse off because somebody put a new poem into the world.
Lois P. Jones: Let’s hope not, yeah.
Douglas Manuel: Again, hardly ever. Again, you know, I’m very sure that I can make an argument about some kind of racist, fascist, xenophobic, homophobic poem that’s created that’s problematic, but for the most part, you know, and then maybe even that wouldn’t be problematic. It started a dialogue that we react or resist against, a narrative that we can talk to. So all that’s to say is you know, I care about our utterances, and how we utter them to each other. And I think that poetry, to me the best way that you can walk it up to a person metaphorically and be able to be like, “Oh, let me take a look inside there to see how it’s going on for you. I know how it’s going on for me over here,” but I think it’s still the best vehicle for that.
Douglas Manuel: It’s why I still go back to the Confessional Poet, writers who are just willing to give themselves. I think people will always care about that. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a poet of indeterminacy or a poet who’s not trying to you know, mean anything and is more interested in the velocity of thought and the sense of sound, and other kinds of post-modern notions like that, or just the way language fails us. It doesn’t matter. I think there’s enough for all those utterances. There’s enough. I don’t have to write that way. I don’t have to teach those poems. And people don’t have to teach poems that I write or that I read.
But all this is still part of this kind of song that is America, you know? If we’re going to yoke it all the way back to Whitman, I suppose, or even yoke it back to all the poems that have ever been written. It’s all a drop of water into that big ocean, so.
Lois P. Jones: What do you think about being allowed to express those different voices, within ourselves? As a body of work.
Douglas Manuel: I think it’s just different approaches towards a telling or towards forming the sound, or forming, or kind of orchestrating the poem. And so I use whatever works. I don’t like to you know, say I’m post-confessional-
Lois P. Jones: Right.
Douglas Manuel: Or say that you know, I’m a language poet or say that I’m a this, or say that. I’m for doing whatever I need to make that poem work. And I think each poem demands its own craft and its own kind of scaffolding. And so I’m willing to embrace all of them. That’s the really awesome thing about the PhD program, is you get exposed to so many different ways to make a poem enact meaning, or not enact meaning I suppose. Both are available. And so you know, with more and more exposure. I wanted to try different things, you know?
A lot is seeing that after you write so many narrative poems, or after you write so many tight lyrics, or you do a list poem, you want to see what else you can do as well. You know? And I think that’s also one of the challenges of what being an artist is. What else am I capable of? And what do I need to make this poem get close to the emotional tenor that I’m trying to color? And that takes lots of approaches. And I, I try to read as widely as possible, so I can know all the ways to make, you know what I mean?
Lois P. Jones: Yeah, well, that’s evident in your work.
Douglas Manuel: Well, thank you. I mean, I really hope so. And I hope they keep on changing. I don’t want to write Testify again.
Lois P. Jones: Right.
Douglas Manuel: You know? I could, of course there’s the argument that all the work should just be Testify 2, Testify 3. Everybody’s writing Leaves of Grass over and over again. Oh, goodness. Whitman’s coming to my psyche to much these days.
But yeah, so that’s why I think there’s so many different approaches, and my pedagogy as well, I want to expose. Because a poem doesn’t have to do anything except make its meaning and its way of expression. That’s all I ask of a poem. And I try to meet a poem and my writing process on its own terms like that. Not saying, “I’m just going to sit down and write this poem about when my dad did this.”
Lois P. Jones: Right.
Douglas Manuel: Or, “I’m just going to sit down and have that poem where I was at the cemetery, and I saw all these little, cool birds.” It’s like, I’m not going to write that poem, you know? I try to trust the writing process, and hope that I can get something that matters.
Lois P. Jones: Yeah, I mean Rilke talks about poems having to come from need, and one feels that need within the poem, and it testifies, or speaks to its authenticity, and honesty. But then, there’s persona poems, you know?
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: And how do you inhabit those voices and make them your own? And make that need present? Those are all interesting questions that I’ve been thinking about lately.
Douglas Manuel: You know, Merwin talks about things like the act of listening is you know, like kind of the first act of a poet. That sounds like butchering of one of his quotations, but yeah, I believe in that. So like, I’ve always listened again to my dad’s turns of phrases, family members’ turns of phrases. I’m from the first generation to have hip hop their whole lives. So this whole time, I’ve been getting this dynamic, awesome rhyme schemes, metaphorical literary language thrown at me all the time from hip hop, you know?
So just taking all that in and always listening. I think two of the things, you know, there’s so many ways to be a poet or to make meaning, but two of the ways is totally, totally listening, listening, listening. And going from there. And then the other I think attention I think. One of the things poetry can do is make the world matter by paying attention to it. And so I guess I could connect those ideas by making the world matter by listening to it, and by paying attention, which are of course the same kind of things. But it seems like paying attention – the physical look, and the gaze.
So those two things of being I guess, in tune or attune to the world, and making it matter through that. So, those kind of go into my process. When it comes to a persona poem, I just want to hear it. Just how like when I come to say a, quote unquote, in quotes, “lyrical I poem,” I want to hear that I. I also want to hear the “I” of the persona poem, you know? And be loyal to that voice and so again, you’ve got to write. You’ve got to write a lot, and you’ve got to make your date with your writing time and your process, and hopefully, the muse or whatever it is that’s up there, you can grab it down a couple times, whatever magic that becomes a poem. So just keep on listening and keep on jotting down, keep on paying attention and keep on jotting down and every now and again, you know, you can grab one.
Lois P. Jones: Are you pretty disciplined as far as your own writing?
Douglas Manuel: When I’m good to myself. When I’m good to myself. I’m a slow writer, always, always. Very slow and attentive with that. But as far as carving out the time, I’m a better person when I, when I’m off—when I’m off—it’s because I’m not.
Lois P. Jones: Because those poems are percolating in there.
Douglas Manuel: Yeah.
Lois P. Jones: They’re an energy, and they need to be extracted in some way.
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, totally agree.
Lois P. Jones: Yeah, extracted sounds like a strong word, but you know what I mean.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: Filtered out. So that they have a place for expression. That paying attention is also something that I admire about your work, and there’s a particular poem that struck me, called Heading Down.
Douglas Manuel: Oh, yeah.
Lois P. Jones: Yeah. And I wondered if you’d talk about that one for a minute, and read it.
Lois P. Jones: If you just tuned in, this is host Lois P. Jones, and we’re here with our guest, Douglas Manuel, and we’re talking about Testify, and all the things that have to do with the art and the act of poetry.
Douglas Manuel: Heading Down’s become a poem that I read a lot, that’s become one of the Doug poems, if you will. Doug Manuel poems. This is the Midwest, our scars of race are still very deep, as well as they are in the South, in the Midwest. This is me kind of seeing how porous in our minds that we think those kinds of acts are restricted to the South. Malcolm X has that great quote that anywhere below Canada is the South in America.
So I think about that in the context of this poem. But at the same time it problematizes and shows how porous those kind of borders are, because you know in Indiana, you can be in southern Indiana and suddenly feel very much so like you’re in the South, out of nowhere. Or you’re feeling very much so in a city, and feeling like that you were far away from that, then very quickly you can be kind of snapped into a world that many of us forgot exists during the Obama administration. Many of us, were lulled to sleep, and felt safe and this was festering the whole time and I think what we’re seeing right now is a lot of that festering did pop over, but to many of us, you know?
Lois P. Jones: Right.
Douglas Manuel: All these things were always there. Always and already, you know?
Lois P. Jones: And just to the point of Malcolm, you know, it wasn’t until he’d done his pilgrimage, and went to Mecca-
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: That he could see that not all white men felt the way he had been treated. You know, his encounters with white men changed after that. I mean, I think that’s interesting for any race.
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, no.
Lois P. Jones: To get out of that insular aspect.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: Especially in the United States.
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, times like that, that’s why it’s so awesome, like some of the stuff that Baldwin says about him, you know? Because it’s easy to just think that one’s crazy for thinking that extreme of view, but you know, Baldwin points out that too many African-Americans at the time, they hadn’t met a white person who wasn’t, you know-
Lois P. Jones: Right.
Douglas Manuel: A draconian, racist, all kind of, whatever kind of terms we want to throw at it. So it made sense. So they get that kind of exposure and then change one’s mind. It’s one of the reasons to always respect and look up to Malcolm X, and why his death was such a tragedy in itself as well. But that’s the kind of thing, you know, Malcolm X freely called people Uncle Toms in his day.
So that’s another one of the ones, you know? James Baldwin even talks about almost kind of feeling, he doesn’t I think say Tom-ish directly, but feeling very insecure when he gave a speech in front of Malcolm X.
Lois P. Jones: Oh, interesting.
Douglas Manuel: And you know, there’s that great moment in the Fire Next Time, where Elijah Mohammed attempts to give James Baldwin his Muslim name, and James Baldwin refuses it. I actually talk about that in, Me In the Boondocks, her Southpark poem, talk about that kind of moment. But all that’s to say is this poem’s about a reminder of really how deep the wounds of race are in this country. And me, that kind of truth being thrown in my face.
Douglas Manuel: [Reads Heading Down.]
Lois P. Jones: That’s so powerful. How you brought in all the different layers, the confederate flag, the young boy who, he’s waving, I mean, he hasn’t really been inducted into that type of thinking yet.
Douglas Manuel: Right. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: I mean, maybe in subtle ways.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: Because he’s growing up around it. And then the man who’s driving is not even looking at you as you pass. And I love just the language, the way he’s described, split down the middle like a Bible, left open to the book of Psalms. Oh, this is just beautiful.
Douglas Manuel: Thank you.
Lois P. Jones: Beautiful language. And I think also of how again, we’re destroying these symbols of oppression, on the one hand, the Confederate flag symbolizes slavery, and the other, some say it’s a symbol of Southern heritage. But of course, that heritage is layered with oppression, you know? And so it’s very complicated, when I think about how we’re going to be able to, years down the road, separate out those threads, so that people can see the truth.
Douglas Manuel: It’s interesting that you used the word the truth right then, you know, thinking about alternative facts, thinking about fake news, thinking about those kind of you know, so long in our education in higher levels, we’ve been talking about trying to avoid falling towards the problems of being relativist, things still have to be true, you know? And so what I try to talk about is, that there are stories that we can have, and those matter more than what is factually true. So I think we’ve just got to learn to be able to hold the stories in our head, and then take a step forward and say that it’s okay for those stories to be aligned.
We’re having problems of trying to hierarchize what story matters more, and it is time for the attention to be paid to the other narratives, but then if you’ve been told a story that’s made your life matter over and over again, like Baldwin talks about, nobody gives up power willingly. And so to totally have to really let go of a narrative of the South rising again, or this is one of the times-
Lois P. Jones: My great-grandfather served in the war, and was a hero.
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, you know, he was fighting just for his people and his land. If one believes that, it’s hard to reckon with that. To know that you’ve built yourself based on those stories, it’s hard to walk away from that. But at the same time, I think we just have to hope that we can have conversations where people can believe that that can be one story of America, but there’s another too. And hopefully, like my position with poetry and aesthetics, as far as approaches that we can hope to know that there’s enough room for more than one narrative in America. And that we should embrace multiple ones of them.
But I think the times have gotten so dire to where we almost do have to say that certain narratives are truer than others. One of the ways is just to be really honest about these kind of things. And the honesty that this poem tries to convey is that, one can be in an interracial relationship and want to spray paint a black fist over a Confederate flag. And be mad at a person who has a Confederate flag on their car, and then also love their white partner more than anything in the world. But also, at that moment, feel almost angry at their white partner as well. All those things can just happen.
And it’s going to be that messy all the time. Real life is that messy, and I don’t know how-
Lois P. Jones: And it is that messy.
Douglas Manuel: Yeah.
Lois P. Jones: I mean-
Douglas Manuel: Yeah. But I don’t know how to teach people to be okay with that kind of, I guess to use the old term, negative capability. You know? I don’t know how to make people comfortable with that. But I think those are the kind of truths that we’re going to have to start grappling with, if we’re going to be okay with things, you know? That kind of nuance.
Lois P. Jones: I think it’s incumbent upon each generation to filter through those stories.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: And to be able to separate out that love that they have for the individual.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: And the experiential.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Because you can love your grandfather, and the fact that they fought for the family close, and still also know that slavery was one of the ugliest truths of human history. It just seems like it’s so frustrating to me that people have trouble understanding that kind of nuance, because on the other side, you know, as black people, we … I hate any kind of gesture to speak for black people. I hate that kind of even rhetoric. But I think that people of color have to rationalize and understand dominant narratives way more than people who are of the dominant class have to understand them. And I think that’s one of the –
Lois P. Jones: That’s true.
Douglas Manuel: Huge problems, is that kind of lack of awareness. Just think for a second that while your family was fighting for their land rights and their heritage, that the land that they were working was worked by somebody else and was owned by another group of people. Yeah. Can we just have those kind of moments of awareness?
Lois P. Jones: And there are all these narratives existing, I mean, just to move the subject slightly to another topic, when you look at the narrative of war.
Douglas Manuel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lois P. Jones: And how there’s so much pride, and the legacy of soldiering, and what that means to an individual.
Douglas Manuel: The oldest lie, right? The oldest lie.
Lois P. Jones: Yeah. And yet, it continues on-
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, what’s that World War I poet? That English … Duce? Decorum?
Lois P. Jones: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Douglas Manuel: Yeah, that poem. I think it’s Owens maybe? But yeah, talking about the oldest lies about the glory of war. I think he then goes on to describe them going to the front and mustard gas falling and then watching one of his comrades die in the mustard gas. And then talks about war, that it’s the sweetest thing to die for one’s own country. I can’t remember the name of that poem, exactly. But yeah, that kind of narrative, fighting that kind of narrative, that’s what you’re I think-
Lois P. Jones: Right.
Douglas Manuel: Talking about, as well. It’s … all I know is we’ve come a long way.
Lois P. Jones: Yeah.
Douglas Manuel: And I think that right now, even having moments of these kind of conversations happening are small steps, or to go all the way back, people have this kind of conversation, then go do poetry workshops. And they go, say this to you know, a little kid who is in a Catholic school who happens to be listening. And that maybe they write a book, or maybe they go to USC for a PhD later. Those kind of things are the kinds of things that keep me going, even though as we speak with the government shut down, and with the horrible narratives and such around DACA and such all happening, those are the kind of things that keep me going and keep me writing poems. I’m going to teach at some high schools, and teach at you know, USC and hopefully talk about things that shed light on narrative that are getting ignored.
Lois P. Jones: And why the conversation must continue.
Douglas Manuel: You ain’t lying one bit.
Lois P. Jones: All right.
Lois P. Jones: Our show is winding down, and I wondered if you could take us out with one of my favorite poems in the book, it’s called Lost Sight of Loss.
Douglas Manuel: I don’t read this one that often. I don’t know if I’ve read this publicly at all, actually. So, Lost Sight of Loss.
Douglas Manuel: [Reads Lost Sight of Loss.]
Lois P. Jones: This is host Lois P. Jones and our guest has been Douglas Manuel. Thanks to our inimitable chef, Marlena Bond. Look for us on the Poets Café fan page on Facebook, you’ve been listening to Poets Café on Pacifica Radio. For all of Southern California and beyond.
Loving Vincent is the world’s first fully oil painted feature film. Written & directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, produced by Poland’s BreakThru Films & UK’s Trademark Films. The film brings the paintings of Vincent van Gogh to life to tell his remarkable story. Every one of the 65,000 frames of the film is an oil-painting hand-painted by 125 professional oil-painters who traveled from all across the world to the Loving Vincent studios in Poland and Greece to be a part of the production. As remarkable as Vincent’s brilliant paintings, is his passionate and ill-fated life, and mysterious death. No other artist has attracted more legends than Vincent van Gogh. Variously labelled a martyr, a lustful satyr, a madman, a genius and a layabout, the real Vincent is at once revealed in his letters, and obscured by myth and time. Vincent himself said in his last letter: ‘We cannot speak other than by our paintings’. We take him at his word and let the paintings tell the real story of Vincent van Gogh.
Loving Vincent was first shot as a live action film with actors, and then hand-painted over frame-by-frame in oils. The final effect is an interaction of the performance of the actors playing Vincent’s famous portraits, and the performance of the painting animators, bringing these characters into the medium of paint. Loving Vincent stars famous faces to match the famous paintings they portray including Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, John Sessions, Aidan Turner and Helen McCrory,
“A one-of-a-kind work of art.”
“Hypnotic and beguiling.”
—A.O. Scott, The New York Times
“Remarkable. You will marvel at the art in this labor-intensive labor-of-love.”
—Bob Mondello, NPR All Things Considered
“A new film that tears up the rule book of animation…I’ve not experienced anything like it before.”
—Florence Waters, The Telegraph
“A jaw-droppingly beautiful film.”
—Tomris Laffly, Film Journal International
“Never has there been a film that spoke to the heart of an artist like “Loving Vincent”. Animation and fine art painting come together in this loving tribute to the work and life of a master artist.”
—Tony Bancroft, SIFF Animation Jury
Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA. His work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, London Review of Books, The Guardian, and other publications. His translations from Russian include Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). He is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016), and co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015). His website is bdralyuk.wordpress.com
Night.—Northeaster by Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)
Night.—Northeaster.—Roar of soldiers.—Roar of waves.
Wine cellars raided.—Down every street,
every gutter—a flood, a precious flood,
and in it, dancing, a moon the colour of blood.
Tall poplars stand dazed.
Birds sing all night—crazed.
A tsar’s statue—razed,
black night in its place.
Barracks and harbour drink, drink.
The world and its wine—ours!
The town stamps about like a bull,
swills from the turbid puddles.
The moon in a cloud of wine.—Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine—a couple has drowned.
Political activist and wilderness advocate, Pam Uschuk has howled out six books of poems, including Crazy Love, winner of a 2010 American Book Award, Finding Peaches in the Desert (Tucson/Pima Literaature Award), One-Legged Dancer, Scattered Risks, and Wild in the Plaza of Memory (2012). Her Without the Comfort of Stars, was published by Sampark Press in New Delhi. A new collection of poems, Blood Flower, appeared in 2015 and was a notable book on Book List.
Translated into more than a dozen languages, her work appears in over three hundred journals and anthologies worldwide, including Poetry, Ploughshares, Agni Review, Parnassus Review, etc.
Uschuk has been awarded the 2011 War Poetry Prize from Winning Writers, 2010 New Millenium Poetry Prize, 2010 Best of the Web, the Struga International Poetry Prize (for a theme poem), the Dorothy Daniels Writing Award from the National League of American PEN Women, the King’s English Poetry Prize and prizes from Ascent, Iris, and Amnesty International.
Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Editor-In-Chief of Cutthroat, Uschuk lives in Tucson, Arizona and Bayfield, Colorado. Before becoming a professor, Uschuk taught poetry to indigenous students throughout Montana and for years in Southwest Arizona through ArtsReach. She has taught at Pacific Lutheran University, Marist College, Salem College (where she was the Director of the Center for Women Writers, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Fort Lewis College, Universty of Arizona Writing Works, and given many workshops at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Often a featured writer at the Prague Summer Programs. In 2011, Uschuk was the John C. Hodges Visiting Writer at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. During January of 2017, she was a featured writer on faculty at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu. With her staff, Uschuk edited the anthology, Truth to Power: Writers Respond to the Rhetoric of Hate and Fear, and she’s finishing on a multi-genre book called The Book of Healers Healing: An Odyssey Through Ovarian Cancer.
After the Election We Watch the Super Moon Rise over the Rincon Mountains
The mountains are burning and we cannot sleep.
We light candles at the Grotto where daughters toss the dark braids of sick mothers at
Guadelupe’s feet, where fathers pin photos of the stricken for slivers of miracle, uphill from the
Mission’s dome, White Dove catching sunset’s irridescent wishes in sky biolumenescent as plankton in the Sea of Cortez.
We breathe the dust of conquistadors who must applaud these election results caught
in the tyrant’s clenched teeth calling hate from under the cracked sidewalks of the despised
poor who believe in promises thin as light disappearing at our feet.
The mountains are burning out of control, flames higher than our dreams of peace, eating pine
trees, the hearts of deer, flames higher than the orange-faced despot’s fiery rhetoric of fear.
At hill crest, we sit on concrete losing heat to stark dark taking desert in its irrevocable mouth, sit
stunned despite the stinging bites of the fire ant colony skittering up our invading calves.
Unsheltered, we cannot sleep, see the huge yellow corona crowning, the birth of our moon
closer to earth than its been since our own births more than half a century past.
We wait, women holding tight our arms against news that darkens daily, against the crisp flap
of white sheets, the sneering narcissist chorus recounting rapes on TV. There is nothing else
to do but lean against one another’s sorrow, our disbelief.
We’ve left our candles of hope burning in the maw of the Grotto below to witness
the balm of moon rise while mountain slopes turn inferno sending contrails of smoke
to choke twilight’s last blue song.
Oh, Moon, you are so late, grinding up slow behind jagged Rincon peaks, backlit
with enough gleaming milk to feed thousands of refugee children hunted like rabbits
by our border guards. Have you heard their small bones cry sleepless in detention cells?
We watch wildfires more immense than our nightmares consume miles of ridges, burning past
our history as the super hunter’s moon blesses supplicant cacti offering thorns to heaven.
Closer we lean into our shivering until a blizzard of crushed diamond light breaks
screaming white, striking us blind, cauterizing our battered hearts, rejecting the nuclear
wasps of power and revenge hissing from the tyrant’s tongue.
The moon’s perfect snow glows sharp as an arctic blade slicing open our hopeless arms, baptizing
our faces with reflected light, and we know no tyranny can long last under such scrutiny.
Even in darkness, doves breathe, nestled in sparse mesquite leaves. We recall the canyon wren
displaced roosting in the mission’s adobe eaves with angels that have flown for centuries,
moon-dazzled, drizzled by light bouncing from solar storms translated in their genes.
Moon’s ice white chin lifts for Venus. Mica glitters each of our steps over volcanic rock past
the Grotto’s knotted prayers for compassion, past our long burning candles, navigating treacherous
gravel the color of winter fields, taking us home, beyond any terror or grief.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti chose Luis J. Rodríguez as Poet Laureate of the city in 2014. Rodríguez is Scholar-in- Residence at California State University, Northridge, and the author of fifteen books of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and nonfiction. For more than thirty-five years, he has been speaking and reading at schools, libraries, conferences, prisons, juvenile lockups, homeless shelters, migrant camps, and Native American reservations in the United States, as well as at festivals, book fairs, colleges, and universities throughout North, Central, and South America; the Caribbean; Europe; and Japan.
Rodríguez won a 2015 Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement for Poems across the Pavement: 25th Anniversary Edition. His awards also include a PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award, a Paterson Poetry Prize, a Carl Sandburg Literary Award, and fellowships from the Sundance Institute, the Lannan Foundation, the City of Los Angeles, the City of Chicago, the California Arts Council, and the Illinois Arts Council.
The 1993 memoir Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., with close to half a million copies sold, became one of L.A.’s most checked out in libraries—and one of the most stolen. His memoir It Calls You Back: An Odyssey through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.
In Chicago, where he lived from 1985 to 2000, Rodríguez was active in the poetry slam movement born there. He was cofounder of the Guild Complex Literary Center, an organizer for the Neutral Turf Poetry Festival, and a writer for the city’s poetry magazine Letter eX. In 1993, Rodríguez took part in the first Slam Poetry tour of Europe. He also founded the crosscultural small press, Tía Chucha, now publishing for more than twenty-five years.
After moving back to Los Angeles, Rodríguez, his wife Trini, and other family and community members created Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley, offering workshops in the arts, writing, dance, theater, photography, indigenous cosmology and language, and encompassing arts and literacy festivals, an art gallery, weekly open mics, performance space, and a bookstore.
Love Poem to Los Angeles (with a respectful nod to Jack Hirschman)
To say I love Los Angeles is to say
I love its shadows and nightlights,
its meandering streets,
the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.
It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,
the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,
that within a half hour of L.A.’s center
you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.
This is a multi-layered city,
unceremoniously built on hills,
Flying into Burbank airport in the day,
you observe gradations of trees and earth.
A “city” seems to be an afterthought,
skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,
guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.
Layers of history reach deep,
run red, scarring the soul of the city,
a land where Chinese were lynched,
Mexican resistance fighters hounded,
workers and immigrants exploited,
Japanese removed to concentration camps,
blacks forced from farmlands in the South,
then segregated, diminished.
Here also are blessed native lands,
where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva
bonded with nature’s gifts;
people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.
Yet for all my love
I also abhor the “poison” time,
starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,
where 80 percent of natives
who lived and worked in them died,
to the ruthless murder of Indians
during and after the Gold Rush,
the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.
From all manner of uprisings,
a city of acceptance began to emerge.
This is “riot city” after all—
more civil disturbances in Los Angeles
in the past hundred years
than any other city.
To truly love L.A. you have to see it
with different eyes,
beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.
“El Lay” is also known
for the most violent street gangs,
the largest Skid Row,
the greatest number of poor.
Yet I loved L.A.
even during heroin-induced nods
or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.
Even when I slept in abandoned cars,
alongside the “concrete” river,
and during all-night movie showings
in downtown art deco theaters.
The city beckoned as I tried to escape
the prison-like grip of its shallowness,
sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,
hiding the murderous heart
that can beat at its center.
L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,
the most magnificent lies,
the largest commercial ports,
a sound that hybridized
black, Mexican, as well as Asian
and white migrant cultures.
You wouldn’t have musicians like
Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,
Los Lobos, Charles Wright &
the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,
Hiroshima, Motley Crue, N.W.A., or Quetzal
without Los Angeles.
Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,
Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.
I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,
I love to make love in L.A.,
it’s a great city, a city without a handle,
the world’s most mixed metropolis,
of intolerance and divisions,
how I love it, how I hate it,
can’t stay away,
city of hungers, city of angers,
Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,
I’d like to kick its face in,
bone city, dried blood on walls,
wildfires, taunting dove wails,
car fumes and oil derricks,
with every industry possible
and still a “one-industry town,”
lined by those majestic palm trees
and like its people
with solid roots, supple trunks,
Joy Harjo is an internationally known performer and writer of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, the author of ten books of poetry and a memoir, Crazy Brave. A critically acclaimed poet, her many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I must keep from breaking into the story by force
for if I do I will find myself with a war club in my hand
and the smoke of grief staggering toward the sun,
your nation dead beside you.
I keep walking away though it has been an eternity
and from each drop of blood
springs up sons and daughters, trees,
a mountain of sorrows, of songs.
I tell you this from the dusk of a small city in the north
not far from the birthplace of cars and industry.
Geese are returning to mate and crocuses have
broken through the frozen earth.
Soon they will come for me and I will make my stand
before the jury of destiny. Yes, I will answer in the clatter
of the new world, I have broken my addiction to war
and desire. Yes, I will reply, I have buried the dead
and made songs of the blood, the marrow.
—from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton, 2015)
Robert Pinsky‘s new book of poems is At the Foundling Hospital (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). His Selected Poems appeared in 2011. Pinsky has described his 2013 book Singing School as a combined anthology and manifesto. His best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Prize. His other awards include the William Carlos Williams Prize, The Lenore Marshall Prize, the Korean Manhae Prize, the Italian Premio Capri and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pen American Center. As Poet Laureate of the United States, he founded the Favorite Poem Project, featuring the videos at www.favoritepoem.org and a summer Poetry Institute for K-12 Educators. He performs with pianist Laurence Hobgood on the spoken word CDs PoemJazz and House Hour, from Circumstantial Productions. Pinsky is William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Boston University and has also taught at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the only member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to have appeared on both The Colbert Report and The Simpsons.
When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.
When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.
When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had no
Mother I embraced manners.
When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.
When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.
When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.
Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.
Los Angeles poet Alexis Rhone Fancher is the author of How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and Other Heart Stab Poems (2014), State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies (2015), and Enter Here (forthcoming in 2017). She is published in Best American Poetry 2016, Rattle, Slipstream, Rust+Moth, streetcake, Hobart, Cleaver, Public Pool, H_NGM_N, Fjords Review, The MacGuffin, Poetry East, and elsewhere. Her photographs are published worldwide, including spreads in River Styx, HeArt Online and Rogue Agent, and the covers of Chiron Review, Witness, and The Mas Tequila Review. A multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of The Net nominee, Alexis is poetry editor of Cultural Weekly, where she also publishes a monthly photo essay, “The Poet’s Eye,” about her on-going love affair with Los Angeles. Find her at: www.alexisrhonefancher.com.
When my husband’s two grown daughters are in town, the three of them go to the movies, or play pool. Share dinner every night. Stay out late. I haven’t seen my stepdaughters since my son’s funeral in 2007. When people ask, I say nice things about the girls, as if we had a relationship. When people ask if I have children I change the subject. Or I lie, and say no. Or sometimes I put them on the spot and tell them yes, but he died. They look aghast and want to know what happened.Then I have to tell them about the cancer. Sometimes, when the older daughter, his favorite, is in town, and she and my husband are out together night after night, I wonder what it would be like if that was me, and my boy, if life was fair, and, rather than my husband having two children and I, none, we each had one living child. His choice which one to keep. Lately when people ask, I want to lie and say yes, my son is a basketball coach; he married a beautiful Iranian model with kind eyes, and they live in London with their twin girls who visit every summer; the same twins his girlfriend aborted with my blessing when my son was eighteen, deemed too young for fatherhood, and everyone said there would be all the time in the world.