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Mari L'Esperance
poet, writer, editor
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My sincere thanks to Stacey Harwood and BAP for inviting me to be a guest blogger this week. It’s been a process and an adventure to give focused consideration to each of my posts, revisit themes that are important to me as a person and a writer, and share them with BAP’s readers. I welcome hearing from you if you have comments or questions and look forward to continuing the exchange. Thank you for reading—for paying attention. —ML • "Sometimes life presents us with large, painful, unanswerable ... Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
The following is adapted from Betwixt and Between: Embracing the Borderlands of My Mixed Heritage, a piece I wrote for Discover Nikkei in January 2013. • “I wish to work perpetually on the borders—to me, it is a place of potent unresolve—untainted by one culture (camp) or another, a limbo in which I am free to create my own citizenship and, hopefully, my own gods.” —Ocean Vuong The symbolic and psychological meanings of “borderlands”—both internal and external—have been my preoccupation for years, as a poet, writer, and woman of mixed Japanese ancestry. It’s a preoccupation that comes with the territory. I am the daughter of a Japanese mother from an upper middle-class family and a New Englander father of French Canadian heritage who grew up in a working class, bilingual family. My parents raised my brother and me with both cultures in various locations in California, Micronesia, and Japan. This last is why I also consider myself an adult Third Culture Kid—a person who’s been raised in places and cultures other than her parents’ passport country/countries. TCKs internalize aspects of all the cultures in which they’ve been immersed while not having full ownership in any. Consequently, I’m adaptable, curious, restless, and can live pretty much anywhere. My least favorite question is “Where are you from?” because it is impossible to answer. I’m from everywhere and nowhere. If I were to use a food metaphor to describe my internal experience, Asian hot pot (or nabemono in Japanese) probably comes closest. Although I mostly felt “other” as a younger person, and not in an affirming sense, in midlife I’ve finally learned to settle into and appreciate my unique background and have mostly let go of struggling to “fit in”. I’ve come to learn that I prefer the in-between. In late 2012 I relocated to the Los Angeles area after more than two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. L.A.’s a good place for in-between-ers. In this sprawling metropolis with no center, a place that’s in a perpetual state of transience and flux and whose population represents every culture and continent, I can finally enjoy a sense of internal and external spaciousness. L.A., like Hawai’i, is a place where I can blend in and feel like myself—all of my selves. When I’m not in Japan—a country that I consider my spiritual home and love to visit when I can—my primary contact with Japanese culture has been via my excursions to Japantowns in the Bay Area (San Francisco and San Jose) and now Los Angeles (Little Tokyo, Sawtelle, and Gardena). I don’t think of myself as Japanese American because that’s an identity, a community’s history, that my mother’s family doesn’t share. To me, the Japanese American experience seems to be intrinsically tied to the internment on U.S. soil of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. That said, there is something deeply nourishing about spending time in J-town, an urban borderland that’s not America and not Japan,... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
American poet Malinda Markham was just 44 years old when she died in September 2012. I didn’t know Malinda intimately, but she and her intense, quiet poems made a deep impression on me. Possessing a singular voice and style, she struggled with debilitating depression for much of her life. We can only wonder what she’d have gone on to create had she lived. Malinda was not one to self-promote, but those who knew her work championed it. “A breathtaking debut, Malinda Markham’s poems bring with them an exquisite poise and restrained—yet sensual—elegance that is truly remarkable,” wrote David St. John about her first book Ninety-five Nights of Listening, which Carol Muske-Dukes selected for Bread Loaf’s Bakeless Prize and that was published in 2002 by Houghton-Mifflin. Bin Ramke wrote of her second book Having Cut the Sparrow’s Heart (2010 New Issues, winner of the Green Rose Prize): “No one else writes poems anywhere near these in felt intelligence, in glorious sensual detail.” I met Malinda in 2005 in a Bay Area poetry group. She was bringing new poems for the group to discuss, several of which she included in her second collection. Although I didn’t connect with everything of hers that we read, I recognized her gift and creative ambition. Malinda had previously lived in Japan for several years, teaching and translating the work of contemporary Japanese avant-garde women poets. My mother was Japanese, so we shared a love for Japan and its culture. I liked Malinda, but she was private and we rarely socialized outside of the group. A few months later, Malinda moved back to Tokyo to work as a financial translator for a Japanese securities firm. With an MFA from Iowa, a PhD from the University of Denver, and a prize winning first book, Malinda had decided early on that she didn’t want to teach in academia because it was more important to her to maintain close contact with the Japanese language. She saw translation work as a way to do this. I respected her courage and determination to carve out this new professional path while continuing to write poems when and as she could. It was not an easy path: the work was grueling and her hours were long. She was lonely in Tokyo, despite being immersed in the language and culture she loved. In the spring of 2007 I traveled to Japan to visit my family and met Malinda for dinner at a Spanish restaurant in the Tokyo neighborhood of Tsukishima, at the edge of Tokyo Bay. We talked at length over paella and Spanish red wine. Malinda seemed upbeat and laughed frequently. She mentioned her loneliness, but said work kept her busy. We barely talked about poetry. Afterward I walked her to the subway entrance, where we said our goodbyes. I thought she looked fragile and a little unsteady as she descended the stairs, although the wine might have had something to do with that. It would be the last time I’d see her. Three... Continue reading
Posted Mar 3, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
The season of renewal has begun to arrive here in our corner of Southern California. If you’re not from SoCal, you might be one of many who think we don’t have spring—or any “real” seasons, for that matter. I can tell you that we most certainly do. Since returning to this part of the world over two years ago, I’ve learned to appreciate the subtleties of seasonal emergence and transformation. If one pays attention, the signs are everywhere. The air is softer and the light takes on a different cas... Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
photo by Geoffrey Berliner A little more than two weeks after his death on Valentine’s Day from pancreatic cancer, I am still acclimating to the reality of a world without Phil Levine. In my exchanges with some of Phil’s friends and former students, for the most part we seem to agree: Phil still feels very much alive among us. This is the strange and mysterious work of grief as it makes its way through us—tricks of the mind played by denial and disbelief. I’m not one for linear stages, for I believe grief has its own circuitous path and affects each of us in different ways. My own grief has arrived in waves since learning of Phil’s illness just two weeks before he died—a moment I’ll long remember. I turn to his poems, share them with others. I read his letters, in which I can still hear Phil’s clear, singular voice coming through his spidery handwriting, scrawled in fountain pen on lined sheets of a yellow legal pad. Online I listen to his interviews and readings, laugh out loud at his humor. There’s Phil on my computer screen at a reading just last summer—alert and vigorous, keenly intelligent, wisecracking for his audience, not missing a thing. Like the grease-stained factory worker in his poem “Coming Close,” I could reach out and touch him. And then I remember: Phil is gone. As a teacher, Phil was warm, grounded, irascible, funny, opinionated, tender, confrontational… and deadly serious about the art and practice of poetry. He had little patience for foolishness or willful cleverness, in our poems and person. Phil’s no-nonsense approach to teaching, his passionate talk about poetry and his favorite poets, enlivened and inspired us, made us want to write better poems. He was tough on our work, but, in my experience, always spoke in service of the poem. Around the time he was awarded a Pulitzer for The Simple Truth, Phil said in a radio interview that in a poetry workshop there are a dozen people in a room and one of them is getting paid to tell the truth. His style didn’t endear him to everyone, but he wasn’t there to make friends. He was there to challenge us to be the best poets we could be. In a poetry climate that can often seem driven by austerity, careerism, and self-interested striving, Phil’s generosity, his willingness to be available and responsive to poets and poetry lovers from all walks of life, was a rare and precious thing. He maintained regular correspondence not only with friends and former students, but with strangers as well. For many of us who studied with him, formally and informally, Phil’s teaching and friendship, his belief in us and our poems, made all the difference in our lives. I am still learning from him. I’m grateful that Phil got to read Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine (2013 Prairie Lights Books), which I co-edited with Tomás Q. Morín, while he was well and could... Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 26, 2015