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Veronica Golos
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This is my final blog, (and just when I’ve gotten used to it!). I’d like to thank Molly Peacock for suggesting me to Stacey Harwood, Managing Editor of Best American Poetry blog, and for allowing me the space to write some of my thoughts. To come full circle, I have been thinking about the uses of Persona poems. Persona poems are an invitation to speak in the voice of an imagined other, like acting, you enter the character, but it is the YOU the poet/actor who enters, and takes on or adds the persona. It is a possession of sorts. The persona was the mask worn by an actor in Greek drama. The actor is the god, and conscribed by the story, but through the ask may reveal a deeper view. Masquerades carnivals employ a similar masking—a place where one can be free to be one’s self – without the use of the “I.” The use of the term “persona” (as distinct from “author”) stresses that the speaker is part of the fictional creation, invented for the author’s particular purposes in a given literary work.(1) I think that teaching the persona poem to emerging fiction writers, as well as to poets, would do service to both in developing “character” – that is, a character in a story, as well as our own “character”, as it gives us an exercise in empathy and analysis – it offers an opportunity to enter the “other.” In my first book, A Bell Buried Deep, (Story Line Press), the original framework was the biblical story of Sarah and Hagar, brought through American slavery as Sara and Harriet, following the framework of the slave native by Harriet Jacobs; and in the Coda, I place the two women in the mythic present in Coney Island, NY, as Sadie and Hattie. Using a “frame” that is, an already-told /or known story, gave me license, paradoxically enough, to enter more deeply into the characters, my imaging of them. I think the “frame” also gives the writer a chance to contradict or deepen the stories that everyone thinks they know. Telling the story from a different slant. Upending people’s assumptions. And, our own. It is a practice too of compassion, empathy, imaginative impulse. Another reason a writer might choose to use a mask, or persona, in her poetry is the issue of power and politics. A writer might choose to use a persona for the subversive remaking of narratives. To end, I would like to list a number of persona poetry books that I think are outstanding, just off the cuff (there are SO many more) and in no particular order: Patricia Smith’s, Blood Dazzler, Coffee House Press. In the voice of Hurricane Katrina. Cornelius Eady, Brutal Imagination, Putnam. Narrated by the Black kidnapper invented by Susan Smith to cover up the killing of her two small sons. Anna Rabinowtiz, The Wanton Sublime, Tupelo Press. Narrative of the Annunciation. A Van Jordan, Macnolia, Norton. In the voices of MacNolia Cox... Continue reading
Posted Jun 14, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
“It is not the soil that is occupied…colonialism has settled itself in the very center of the…individual, and has undertaken a sustained work of cleanup, of expulsion of self…there is not occupation of territory on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of a final destruction. Under these conditions, the individual’s breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing.” Iraq? Afghanistan? Palestine? No. But it could be. This is Frantz Fanon writing about the French in Algeria, in his book, A Dying Colonialism, 1965. So, someone reading this might say, what does this have to do with Best American Poetry? With poetry at all? Fannon knew what he was speaking about. His books are still read for the clarity of his understanding of colonialism, occupiers and the occupied. Poetry can be a rebellion, a refusal to allow occupation of the soul. Rebellion to the occupiers themselves. When I wrote Vocabulary of Silence, (Red Hen Press, 2011) it was from the stance of a witness-from-afar to the continued US war against Iraq and Afghanistan. I tried to examine in myself how that felt, what it meant to be living in the country that conducted, and took photos of, torture in Abu Ghraib, for instance. Many of poems from Vocabulary of Silence have been translated into Arabic by poet and translator Nizar Sartawi, and have appeared in journals and newspapers throughout the Arab world, an honor to be sure. One must write what one must write. For myself, I couldn’t bear what was going on without “doing” something. Poetry and politics. Political poetry. What seems to be questionable in this country, that is, there seems to always be a challenge to those who write what is termed “political poetry,” in my limited experience of reading poets from the Arab world, particularly Iraq and Palestine, the division isn’t there. The assumption is, I believe, that the poets are the speakers for the people, (and for themselves as individuals) what happens to their country and the world, is matter for their poems -- and the poets are highly revered. Of course, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish comes to mind. His poems, “Identity Card” and “State of Seige” propelled him to international fame, and he was considered the voice of the Palestinians for most of his writing career. He exemplifies too, a theme, that for me, runs through so much of modern Arab poetry: the theme of exile. Here are some excerpts from Who Am I, without Exile? Stranger on the river bank, like the river, water binds me to your name. Nothing brings me back from this distance to the oasis: neither war nor peace. Nothing grants me entry into the gospels. Nothing. Nothing shines from the shores of ebb and flow between the Tigris and the Nile…. What shall I do? What shall I do without exile and... Continue reading
Posted Jun 13, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Help me understand something. For the past dozen years or so, many students, particularly undergraduates, and throughout the country, have challenged me for writing in sympathy or portraying the plight of others not myself, particularly Native Hawaiians, Chinese detainees on Angel Island, Arab detainees in Guantanamo, African American blues and jazz artists. What is there in the current zeitgeist that proscribes literary acts of intellectual, imaginative, and emotional sympathy and solidarity? It seems mis-appropriation is a concern, as it is strongly implied in all the questioning I've received. Or, other times, I've heard my work faulted for its concentration on depicting the history of Japanese Americans and NOT taking up portrayals and sympathies with those more overtly oppressed. Is it that concern over a political and territorial area of contestation here has taken primacy over personal claims of compassion? What is up? Wilco-Tango-Foxtrot? -- Garrett Hongo == ttps:// The paragraph above was a post on Facebook, a few weeks ago by poet Garrett Hongo. My first thought was that this questioning by “young” people of a professor of color, of Japanese descent, was ignorance…I could only guess that the students who challenged poet Hongo were white…of course, he doesn’t say, and I don’t know. Was the question one of poetics? Does the topic of poems determine their validity, their grace or achievement? Or, as Hongo asks, is the criticism about imaginative and emotional sympathy with others not “like” oneself? Perhaps students need to read more widely? Take for example Patricia Smith’s poem, Skinhead. Here, a mature poet, African American woman, speaks in the voice of a white, male, Skinhead: They call me skinhead, and I got my own beauty. It is knife-scrawled across my back in sore, jagged letters, it’s in the way my eyes snap away from the obvious. I sit in my dim matchbox, on the edge of a bed tousled with my ragged smell, slide razors across my hair, count how many ways I can bring blood closer to the surface of my skin. These are the duties of the righteous, the ways of the anointed. Of course, when writing about “the other” appropriation is a concern. As Felecia Canton Garcia said in answer to Garret’s question, …” many people are (rightly) wary of anything that recalls minstrelsy. The history of appropriating and exploiting for profit is so deeply entrenched, I think that we are right to be aware of the subtlety of its operations as well. The problem seems to come when people fail to account for the extreme messiness and complexity of individual identity and the difference between caricature and character.” (my emphasis). Certainly, if Hongo’s students read his work, its subtlety and language, its developed “character” they would be assured that “mis-appropriateion” was not a problem. for example, in The Ledgend: In Chicago, it is snowing softly and a man has just done his wash for the week. He steps into the twilight of early evening, carrying a wrinkled shopping bag full of neatly... Continue reading
Posted Jun 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
“The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner I have just had the pleasure of writing an introduction to poet Eleanor Swanson’s Trembling in the Bones, to be re-issued by 3: A Taos Press. Swanson utilizes documentary evidence of the Ludlow Mine Massacre of 1914 for her poems. I raise this because as a poet, I am haunted by history. In particular, the history of America. According to Joseph Harrington in Docupoetry and Archive Desire, “we are in the midst of something of a flourishing of documentary literary forms.” Frankly, I hope this is the case. If we look at second-term Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, for example, the second section of the book relates, in a kind of fierce lyric, the history of a Black regiment during the Civil War. Her long poem, Native Guard, is divided by dates in history, in crown sonnets no less, in the voice of a former slave now in the Native Guard. The section is lit with a quote from Frederick Douglas: If this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember? I think Douglas’s thought is relevant for us today. And Trethewey’s book reminds us again and again…”every lost limb, and what remains…beneath battlefields, green again,/the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone/we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told.” I guess what I’m getting at is what poetry can do. And what I hope to do in Root Work, the manuscript I’m working on. Using the epistolary and persona poetry forms, as well as fragment, collage and other forms, I hope to “save history” and to reexamine both the historical figure of John Brown, but perhaps equally pressing, the imaged voice of his wife, Mary Day Brown. I am attempting to use these poems to speak about slavery, race, class and gender through the voices of the Browns, but also inside “ghost codes” and the taken-down voices of runaways. As Swanson does with miners and theirs wives, and Threthewey does with the voices of Black soldiers, that is, a re imagine them as individuals, based on documented history and fact, I am trying to bring to life, again, John and Mary Brown. I think we need them. Docupoetry and archive desire by Joseph Harrington, Jacket 2: Continue reading
Posted Jun 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
First I'd like to thank Molly Peacock for introducing me to Stacey Harwood. This is a wonderful opportunity. I'm originally from New York, born and raised, and came to Taos in 2005 when I had a fellowship to the Wurlitzer Foundation. In my three -month stay, I fell in love with the place, its landscape, its horizontalness! Taos' wide gold and green mesas seem to push open your ribs. There are artists of all kinds here: visual, musical, writers, dancers. The entire town is like an artist's residence, and 2012 was the year of "The Remarkable Women of Taos." That April, myself and another woman organized Remarkable Women Writers of Taos, a two-day, all day event. As a poet, I have had two books published: A Bell Buried Deep, winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize (Story Line Press), soon to be reissued by Tupelo Press; and Vocabulary of Silence (Red Hen Press), winner of the New Mexico Poetry Prize. In addition, I have two chapbooks, No Ordinary Women and 3 Poets for Peace. I am also co-editor of the Taos Journal of Poetry & Art along with poet Cathy Strisik; and Acquistions Editor for 3: A Taos Press, founded by poet Andrea Watson. Okay, let me say a few words about my current book project: Root Work. The Lost Writings of John Brown and Mary Day Brown. I am a poet interested in history, U.S. history in particular, and within that the burning issues of race and class and gender. So much has been written about John Brown, but so little about his second wife, mother of 13 children, Mary Day Brown. What choices did they make? What was the depth of their relationship to each other? How did Mary Day Brown feel about herself, the world in which she lived? I'm fascinated by the complexity of these two people, both white Abolishionists, who lived surrounded by slavery and who worked with the Underground Railroad, leading enslaved Africans to Canada. In the epistolary poems I'm working on, I reimagine Mary and John, and cast them alongside Ghost Codes and Runaways. More on this tomorrow. Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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May 19, 2013