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Anna Maria Hong
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For my final post, I’d like to talk briefly about my favorite poetic form, the sonnet, which I played around with for eight years, and which I continue to love for its rigor and ductility, its ability to hold and propel contra-diction, bad puns, good-for-nothings, great sentiment, and terrible occasion. You can read more about my approaches to invoking the form in this article and in this blog post for the versatile literary journal Drunken Boat, but in short, the form spoke to me in a way that no other received one does. I consider myself a weird sonneteer, not a formalist. I do have a fondness for poems in form by poets who take a similarly experimental approach, letting the constraints push and pull the language, as in this sonnet by the poet, scholar, and translator Douglas Basford, which appeared first in Diagram: * Bore Call it a bore, if you like, or a boor, but sound has a way of coercing sense into bottlenecks worse than your parents find late in the day driving to the Eastern Shore. You'll hear about it later. You can be sure images your mother half-absorbed--goldfinches, drab bramble, wafer sun--will come. Clairaudience of your eye, let's call it, keeps your eye turned out the car window when the traffic's stock-still, with nothing much to hear, no road noise, essence of life distilled down to siblings squabbling in a backseat ahead, to a few drunks stumbling out past the shoulder and back. Something pinches after you and misses. Reasons to speak dwindle. * This poem is from Doug’s work-in-progress, Very Memory, which he describes as “a Baltimore-centric series of sonnets exploring gentrification, race and class relations, turn-of-the-millennium courtship, and workplace bullying, among other things.” Along with the poets Ida Stewart and Jason Gray, Doug edits the ever-spritely Unsplendid: An Online Journal of Poetry in Received and Nonce Forms. I was particularly happy to read the resplendent Women and Form issue that the journal published in July of 2014. And speaking of great literary journals and their ardent editors, I’d like to mention my friend Liz Powell, the editor of Green Mountains Review and an amazing poet with a new book coming out. Her collection Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances just won the Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry. The subtitle comes Sanford Meisner of the famed acting technique, and the book employs method acting to process the poems’ information, resulting in a provocative mix of verse, essay, drama, and meta-forms in which alternate personas converse as a way to find truth out of erasure. I’ve had the privilege of reading an early draft, which is like nothing I’ve read in the best possible way. Here is the title poem: * WILLY LOMAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER: A Story in Couplets Prologue: Willy Loman’s reckless daughter flies quietly, fluttering like a silk-moth behind me blocking my life, my scenes in whichever stage direction she wants. Sometimes at night I can feel her dialing... Continue reading
Posted Nov 20, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
“Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.” The above quotation is from Ted Chiang’s meditative and melancholic science fiction short story “Exhalation” in which an argon-breathing person made of aluminum and gold narrates the tale of its planet’s demise and how it examined (literally) the workings of its own mind. A beautiful story, and one that I recently taught in my science fiction writing class at Ursinus College, where I’m the Visiting Creative Writer. This course has been a thorough pleasure to teach because of my delightful students and because of the readings, which are almost always surprisingly trans- and progressive. Imagining alternate realities and near or far futures can be good for the soul as well as the mind. And although I’ve worked mostly in poetry for the last decade and more, in the last couple years I’ve returned to writing fiction. (I started as a prose writer, then embraced poetry and fiction in graduate school with the intention of returning to prose and found I couldn’t stop writing the poems.) I’ve written both hybrid-genre and more straightforward stuff, but almost always with a fantastical emphasis. I also regularly teach a course on retelling myth and fairy tale, another genre I love and work in. I say all this in order to bring you the following writing exercise, which I think works just as well for poetry as it does for short fiction. I asked my students, who have drafted two sf short stories by now and read many others from H.G. Wells to Octavia Butler to Robert Heinlein to Ursula LeGuin to Samuel Delany to Eileen Gunn, to draft some possible first sentences to sf short stories. The lines might indicate something about the novums of the invented world—or not. They didn’t have much time, only a few minutes that day (Tuesday), and I had them write the sentences on small pieces of paper (cut up from last year’s The Onion desk calendar). By now they know the drill: if I have them write on these little papers, I will collect them and then redistribute them randomly to the class. The experiment harnesses chance as a collaborator in the creative process, a la the Surrealists and the Oulipians and others. Anticipating the social component of the exercise, the students also will amuse and goad each other. Their task was to draft a first paragraph to a sf short story using the sentence they received. Here are the sentences they came up with: Three bleeding suns split open the cold night. (Dorinda Ma) “We specialize in the wholly impossible,” said the fading billboard. (Henry Willshire) Once upon a time, there was an elephant with a bionic left tusk. (Collin Takita) She woke up... Continue reading
Posted Nov 19, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you, DL!
Today I’d like to feature writing by nine contemporary American poets whom I like. I’ve known most of them for a while, although I’ve made the acquaintance of some recently through their work. I asked each of them to send me one piece of new writing from a work-in-progress, recently published collection, or forthcoming book. All are wonderful poets, so naturally, most sent poems. One sent an excerpt from his new (poetic) novel. All are persons whom I esteem for their thoughtfulness and resolve, in addition to their incisive insight and verbal verve. All are poets who give generously to other poets and to their communities inside and outside of writing. I feel lucky to know them and their work. The first poem is by poet and translator Rosa Alcalá from her forthcoming collection M(y)OtherTongue (Futurepoem, 2016), her third poetry collection. Rosa’s book Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013) was short-listed for the PEN Translation Award. * Visitor’s Log As if the memory of burning hairs from hooves or soaking tripe in vinegar might an enclosure make, traction from the present leads us back and not to the other side of the curtain where a woman wails to pry open a lid. We casually break off pieces of crackers and wipe on cheap napkins oil and anisette, until the middle child crosses the threshold, unafraid. We have failed in the most basic rule, to never turn from offal in favor of quiet or self-care or need, as if the ugliness and flavor of it would make unpronounceable our names. When we knew the secrets of transformation, of the long simmer, the cure, the careful pluck. Still, we fail every moment we turn our slippery grammars against us and let our children be adopted into perfect homes. We stood there, my brothers and I, ladling the honeycombed stomach into your dish, the last holders of something funny, yet never told again, as a cowlick fixed moments before the bulb flashes. We laughed that we knew the joke and were the joke, but would fail the test of translation. For which our children groan, and push away a dish, and throw open the curtains, their sunshine so big and so original. What do you call it, when in a mind and in a language the sun goes down? When you float from floor to floor or let your sister braid your hair an afternoon before the war? “I leave and they don’t know. To find a bed that is my own.” * David Groff is a poet, writer, independent book editor, literary scout, and teacher. His most recent poetry collection, Clay, was chosen by Michael Waters as winner of the Louise Bogan Award for Artistic Merit and Excellence (Trio House, 2013). The following poem is from his collection Bloodwood, a work-in-progress. * A Boy’s Own Jesus The older brother I never had, the one who knew the way to the bathroom in the dark. Okay with... Continue reading
Posted Nov 18, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Over the last few days, I have been thinking about poetry as a source of consolation in the face of devastating circumstances, thinking again of our friends, loved ones, and fellow poets in France—and of an earlier generation of French poets, the Surrealists, who knew a great deal about mass violence, displacement, and senseless suffering, having lived through the First and Second World Wars in Europe. I love the Surrealists for many reasons including their emphasis on collaborative processes of making poetry and art, gathering together nightly in Paris to play verbal and visual games of chance that often yielded startling rich results, and for their attempt to achieve states of mind in which “life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions,” as their leonine poet-manifestoist André Breton, declared. I like that the movement was founded and led by a poet but encompassed many painters and sculptors, and that it was international. Most of all, I like the language of Surrealist works, which fluidly incorporates strangeness into the everyday in a way that makes sense to me. I like the bleak humor and wit and the defiant activation of levity to puncture despair. There is much to loathe as well about the Surrealists with their embracing of violence, casual sexism, Eurocentrism, and misogyny, but when I read the poems, what I like is the working from and toward a place where destruction, sorrow, and fear can become something manageable, with the pain of experience still foregrounded. Everyone who turns to poetry for consolation has a different idea of what a comforting poem looks like, and naturally what one seeks depends on the situation, but since the oughts, I have often turned to poems in this mode for a little pick-me-up, that feeling of nicely startled recognition as in oh, yes, of course, that’s how it is. Why didn’t I see that before? My favorite of the French Surrealist poets is Max Jacob, who grew up in Quimper in Celtic Brittany and died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. His life story is nearly unbearably sad, though his prose poems will always make me smile. Here are two poems by Jacob, the first translated by Andrei Codrescu and the second translated by Armand Schwerner. The Wallpaper of Mr. R.K. The ceiling of hell was fastened with thick gold nails. Up above was the earth. Hell is all fountains, big, luminous and twisted. For the earth there is a little slope: a field of wheat cut smoothly and a small sky in onion rinds through which passes a cavalcade of mad dwarves. On each side there is a pine forest and an aloe forest. You are now appearing, Miss Suzanne, before a revolutionary court for having found a white hair among your many black ones. Miracles Real Miracles Nice, old priest! After he’d left us we saw him fly over the lake,... Continue reading
Posted Nov 17, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Hi! I’m very excited to be guest blogging for The Best American Poetry this week, as I’ve been an admirer of the series for a long time and am a fan of the persons editing the series and this blog. I love that writers here have the leeway to talk about anything, and if I do this again I may write about ‘70s divas, the perfect Manhattan, and what my dog would say if he could talk, but for this, my first run, I will keep my posts poetry-centric, writing today about three Korean American feminist poetry panels that I’m participating in or have recently produced. The first of these panels took place last March at the Thinking Its Presence: Race, Creative Writing, and Literary Study Conference at the University of Montana, Missoula, an invigorating new forum produced by the poets Prageeta Sharma and Joanna Klink, who founded the conference in 2014 to “examine innovative creative writing and scholarship that re-thinks the complex and inseparable links between literary forms and the racialized thinking, processes, and histories that have shaped this country since its founding.” The conference takes its title from scholar Dorothy Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2013), which in turn takes the phrase "thinking its presence" from Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's poem "Chinese Space" from her collection Empathy. As Adrienne Rich said, one never knows what the life of a poem will be. Featured readers at this year’s conference included the keynote speaker Claudia Rankine who delivered a mind-rousing reading from Citizen, John Keene who read a terrific story from his new fiction collection Counternarratives, William S. YellowRobe who read from his strange play Native American Paranormal Society, and the irrepressible Marilyn Chin. Panel topics encompassed technoshamanism, how translation fractals race, tributes and responses to Amiri Baraka’s work, and the personal essay, among other lively subjects. I produced and moderated a panel titled Why KA? FP with the poets Youna Kwak, Hannah Sanghee Park, and Franny Choi. (The “F” stands for feminist. I like the idea of Feminist Poetry as the answer to most questions.) I wanted to enact this panel to feature the writing of these talented and forthright writers, to discuss phenomena we address as KAF poets, and to draw attention to these experiences through our very presence. Small though our numbers were, this was one of the largest gatherings of KAF poets we’d known, and certainly so including the audience. Gathering together in person affords the opportunity to have a fluid conversation, so after reading new work, we discussed a few questions including the following: Where did you see yourself in children's stories when you were children or young writers? What is an enjoyable racialized poetic moment that you've experienced lately? What is the most annoying question that you're frequently asked? What is a question that you would like to be asked? How do you write good poems? Then we opened up the discussion to the... Continue reading
Posted Nov 16, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Nov 13, 2015