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Poetry: NewsHour with Jim Lehrer - PBS Podcast by Jim Lehrer

Poetry: NewsHour with Jim Lehrer - PBS Podcast

by Jim Lehrer

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A special NewsHour series that couples profiles of contempory poets with reports on news and trends in the world of poetry.

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Poet Bill Berkson reads ‘The One God’

Mon, Apr 06, 2015

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/199522119″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]Listen to Bill Berkson read “The One God” from his new collection “Expect Delays.” More from Berkson and his conversation with Art Beat in January.

The One God

Once heaven was just a boy and a girl
And a path to the beach.
That was before the rooms were gutted and you learned

How to exhibit bereavement
Would earn your weight in brimming
Moon lagers.

Literally, “the bee’s knees.”
The shoulders of Roland de Smoke
Cuddle two abreast on a tray.

While air lasts, cities also die, old gasbags
With quilted manners, prepuce because the English
Taste in pictures slackened.

Then again, despite the poison crumbs,
The two just walk on tiptoes out of doors,
Pressing along the keen incline.

What will happen, what to say
If and when the first door opens, the wings
Flutter in turn as nights subside?

Photo by Nathaniel Dorsky

Photo by Nathaniel Dorsky

A poet, critic and teacher, Bill Berkson has written some twenty poetry collections and has been active in the art and literary worlds since his early twenties. His books of poetry include “Gloria,” a portfolio of poems with etchings by Alex Katz, “Our Friends Will Pass Among You Silently” and “Portrait and Dream,” which won the Balcones Prize for Best Book of Poetry in 2010. “Expect Delays” is his most recent book. He is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, the Briarcombe Foundation, the Fund for Poetry and the Poets Foundation. He is professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute, where, between 1984 and 2008, he taught art history, art writing and poetry and he divides his time between San Francisco and Manhattan.

“The One God” from “Expect Delays” by Bill Berkson, courtesy of Coffee House Press.

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Poet writes unflinchingly about self-inflicted violence and women

Mon, Mar 30, 2015

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/198469610″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Sarah Rose Nordgren reads “The Performance” from her debut collection, “Best Bones.” When she wrote the poem, she was thinking about self-inflicted violence and women. “One of the things I was thinking about in a number of the poems in the book was this sort of inward direction,” Nordgren told Art Beat in December. “This is a massive generalization, but this sort of inward-directed violence that seems to be more female as opposed to an outwardly-directed violence that’s more masculine. ‘The Performance’ is definitely about the self inflicted female violence.”

The Performance

It’s not right that she should do this
to her body as she speaks,

but it’s the only way we can understand her.
We who weren’t raised on sand

and cherry-pits. Whose stepfathers
held their tempers.

The South is a mean place
we forget about. The windows

boarded up all over town. She says,
dogs chased her down the tar-

soaked road like devils. Each dog with three
heads, three tails. She says,

we might’ve mocked her story,
but never now. First, she strikes nails

against her chest like matches.
Then, when we think we can’t

take more from her, she eats
her own hands. Who are we now

to say that art should not destroy us?

Sarah Rose Nordgren“Best Bones” is Sarah Rose Nordgren‘s debut book of poetry and is the winner of the 2013 Agnes Lunch Starrett Poetry Prize. Nordgren’s poems have also been published in a range of publications, including Plougshares, The Iowa Review, Pleiades, The Harvard Review, The Literary Review and the Best New Poets anthology. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Confernce and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. Nordgren earned a masters in fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Cincinnati and teaches in the English Department at Miami University of Ohio.

“The Performance” from “Best Bones,” by Sarah Rose Nordgren, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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A poet looks to his own family to understand forgiveness

Mon, Mar 16, 2015

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/196160287″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]Listen to Thomas Dooley read “Aunt Peggy” from his debut collection, “Trespass.” When Dooley was writing this poem, he was preoccupied with understanding forgiveness. “What is a therapeutic response to something? It’s such a personal thing,” Dooley told Art Beat in December. The poem is “trying to figure out, how does one go on when something has happened? And maybe a way to go on is to not go on with a certain person. Maybe that is how you can save your life.”

Aunt Peggy

Afternoon sun on metals, hubcaps
flash on Second Avenue, I’ve been
seesawing my feet on the edge of the curb
for almost an hour on the phone
with my mother, It just doesn’t make
, the subject always comes up,
I mean she’s had years
of therapy
, she says years with such
exhalation her breath gets
reedy, I pick threads from my scarf,
Why can’t Peggy forgive your father? The city is
bright, winter is quiet, a pause
on motion, Mom, look at all she’s been through, Pop
then Dad, I mean, good god
, her voice
tenders, But Tom, she ticks her throat,
don’t you think after all that therapy
she would be able to forgive?
I can feel
a draft in my sleeve, it hits
the sweat at the bend of my arm, Maybe this is
her therapy. Treat Dad like he’s dead.

There is a shallow dent in the chrome
fender of an old car my image runs over
and warps, my mother is quiet,
I’ve handed her something new, she might
stand for a while in her kitchen and wait
for the dishwasher to end its cycle.

Thomas Dooley“Trespass” is Thomas Dooley‘s debut collection of poetry. The book was selected by poet and novelist Charlie Smith for the 2013 National Poetry Series. Dooley is the founder and artistic director of Emotive Fruition, an experimental theater collective where actors and poets work together to perform written poetry. He earned an MFA from New York University, has received fellowships from New York University and the Jentel and Starlight Foundations, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

From the book Trespass: Poems by Thomas Dooley. Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Dooley. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Poet Saskia Hamilton on vinyl records and the ‘warmth of the scratches’

Mon, Jan 26, 2015

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/188003515″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Listen to Saskia Hamilton read her poem “Once” from her new collection, “Corridor.”


                  In the night, the bed was as long
as the hours, the hours were as long as the road
or the future, the past was not our destiny,
the foreboding or foretelling was left
on the shelves to the longplaying records
we’d switch on for the warmth of the scratches
that pocked the music like rain, as the needle
wandered all that black circumference—

Meg Tyler

Photo by Meg Tyler

Saskia Hamilton has published four collections of poetry, including “Divide These” and “As for Dream.” “Corridor” is her most recent collection. She also coedited “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell” with Thomas Travisano, and edited “The Letters of Robert Lowell.” Hamilton is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliff Institute of Advanced Study. She is an editor for the journal Literary Imagination and has taught at Barnard College, Kenyon College and Stonehill College.

All poems copyright © 2014 by Saskia Hamilton, from Corridor. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.

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Be like poet Bill Berkson and start kissing anyone you can find

Mon, Jan 12, 2015

Photo by Nathaniel Dorsky

Bill Berkson is a poet, critic and professor emeritus at San Francisco Art Institute. His previous collection, “Portrait and Dream,” won the Balcones Prize for Best Poetry Book of 2010. “Expect Delays” is his 18th book of poetry. Photo by Nathaniel Dorsky

A few years ago, poet Bill Berkson was at a friend’s dinner party where the conversation steered towards romantic movies. The poet began musing about the climactic kiss in Hollywood films and the concept of happily ever after. When he went home that night, he wrote his thoughts down in a poem called “Reprise,” which appears in his collection “Expect Delays,” published in November.

“Just as I’m happy to sit down and quote other people, you take your lines and poems wherever you can get them,” Berkson told Art Beat.

Berkson’s poetry isn’t known for one particular style, and “Expect Delays” captures that variety. He describes it as a “sense of scatter.” The collection showcases different approaches and writing styles, varying between abstract and concrete, related experiences and unrelated.

It’s his first book since his 2009 “Portrait and Dream,” which collected 50 years of work. Through the process of editing that collection, Berkson pored over five decades of his poetry and began to see the full range of his writing. For the first time, he says he let himself take pleasure in it.

“I used to worry about not having a signature style or central subject matter or a fixed character of poetry and at some point the worry ceased,” he said. “I gave myself permission to do what I’ve been doing all along without worrying about it. In one way, I’m too old to worry — I’ve been doing this for nearly 60 years — and so it’s really that I learned to enjoy that I could write pretty much anything that came my way, that I would be given to write or inclined to write.”

Listen to Bill Berkson read “Reprise” from his new collection “Expect Delays.”
[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/185710554″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]


“Happily ever after”—you don’t know that feeling? After many difficulties
the two stars are kissing with their eyes closed, and the music swells.
The screen says THE END in big block letters. Happy ending: you’re
set for life. In the seats everyone is choked up, crying for the happiness
such prolonged kissing promises. Meanwhile, kissing itself is amazing.
I got completely lost in it. I went out and started kissing anyone I could find.
Who? I always had good taste in women.

For Paul & Isabelle, January 13, 2012
at Mary Valledor & Carlos Villa’s

“Expect Delays” is divided into four sections. One section includes acrostic poems Berkson wrote for friends’ birthdays and weddings, and for his wife on Valentine ’s Day. He debated whether to include this section in the book. “Most of them would come under the heading of light verse and very occasional and person-to-person,” he said. “In one way would they be taken seriously and, in another, they were too private, but then I thought, not at all…. It gives a wider sense of what I do as a poet.”

Another section offers three “arrangements” that vary from prose to poetry to stray lines and aphorisms. Berkson wrote these starting in 2005 in one long document on the computer.

“As I was adding things to it, I began to see that some of these things are connected, but not necessarily one after the other in chronological order. Not like a diary, not like a journal or daybook, but I began collaging them, really.”

Berkson thanks his “good editorial imagination” for his ability to organize his work. It’s the same skill, he says, that helps him strengthen poems that give him trouble.

Berkson recalls another poet’s musing on the art form as a way “to keep the language from going insane.”

“I think that is something very useful for poets to keep in mind these days,” he said. “There’s also that little insanity in poetry that does everybody some good.”

“Reprise” from “Expect Delays” by Bill Berkson, courtesy of Coffee House Press.

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Poet Ellen Bass says ‘Relax’ — you’ll lose your keys, hair and memory but you can still savor sweet fruit

Mon, Jan 05, 2015


Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the dryer.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat—
the one you never really liked—will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair, and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up—drug money.
The Buddha tells a story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice—one white, one black—scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles in a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh, taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

Photo by Irene Young

Photo by Irene Young

Like a Beggar” is the most recent poetry collection from Ellen Bass. Her previous books of poetry include “The Human Line” and “Mules of Love,” which won the Lambda Literacy Award. Bass also co-edited the feminist poetry anthology “No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women.” Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares and The Sun. She was awarded the Elliston Book Award for Poetry from the University of Cincinnati, Nimrod/Hardman’s Pablo Neruda Prize, The Missouri Review’s Larry Levis Award, the Greensboro Poetry Prize, the New Letters Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Poetry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship from the California Arts Council and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Bass has also written several works of nonfiction, including “Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth,” “I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse” and “The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.”

“Relax” from “Like a Beggar” by Ellen Bass. Published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Used by permission Copper Canyon Press.

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Weekly Poem: Thomas Dooley dramatizes family pain passed through generations

Mon, Dec 29, 2014

Thomas Dooley

In addition to writing his own poetry, Thomas Dooley is the artistic director of Emotive Fruition, a New York theater collective that brings new poetry to the stage through collaborations between actors and poets.

Thomas Dooley’s debut collection of poems, “Trespass,” published in September, deals with the duality of vulnerability and forgiveness.

“I think that sometimes going into a very vulnerable place, or a place where the unsayable is trying to be said, that is really what felt like an exciting moment of creation,” Dooley told Art Beat. “That’s where I wanted my poems to live: in that space of possible danger, possible confusion.”

Coming from a theater background, Dooley was intrigued by the drama of family. The story of “Trespass” plays out in three acts. The first third sets the scene: the narrator’s father was abused by a priest as a child; then as a teenager, the father abuses his niece. The final act reckons with the repercussions of those moments in the family’s history.

Sandwiched within the broader family story is a narrative of the protagonist’s first love — specifically, the end of that love. Using that structure, Dooley presents multiple levels of separation: between the narrator and his lover, between personal narrative and family narrative and between reality and desire.

The poems in the collection draw on episodes from Dooley’s life, but he shies away from forming a definitive line between fiction and reality. While some experiences may be reflected in the poems, he is more interested in the nature of memory itself. The collection explores how different members of the family perceive their shared history through their own unique lenses, what he calls the “polyvocal quality of family.”

“I think memory is such an interesting part of this story,” he said. “It allows for this real/unreal, said/unsaid, seen/unseen quality of our lives.”

Playing with those dichotomies, the poem “Maybe In An Atlas” explores minute hypotheticals that could have prevented the father from being abused and becoming an abuser.

Listen to Thomas Dooley read “Maybe In An Atlas” from his debut collection “Trespass.”
[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/183614036″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Maybe In An Atlas

Maybe another New Jersey
somewhere. Linden wood
as cash cow. And a way out. If my father grew
taller that year, sudden. Reached
the high altar wicks, a Moses
in Egypt. Bigger than the priests. What if deus
ex machina. Or a catcher.
No rye. Rye watered
down. Rocks to mean rocks. Not
glacial. Not a cold hand
anywhere. A siren sounds
on skin. Maybe a pie
in the window. Adults made big gestures
with giant hands. He wasn’t soft.
Boney, but not folded
like egg whites, hankies.
In his yearbook: “Aspiration: farmer.”
Tall as corn, as noon sun. Only if he grew
taller, sudden, he wouldn’t be
lightweight linden, maybe a hundred
proof. She was proof. Girls
were softer. Maybe his hand
looked giant. And she lay down
softly. Like he was made to, maybe.

When the collection was selected as a winner in the 2013 National Poetry Series competition, “Maybe In An Atlas” wasn’t in it. Dooley was suddenly struck by the missing voice of “what if” in his collection, and he wrote the poem to fill that void.

“The idea of ‘maybe’ is very powerful to me,” he said, “because it’s full of doubt, it’s full of consequence. Maybe if the consequence, or maybe if the situation was different, the actual events would have changed.”

To write the poems, Dooley allowed himself to be vulnerable to the different voices wanting to heard as part of the story.

In the case of the opening poem, “Cherry Tree,” that voice comes from the titular character, a tree. As the surrounding lawn is mowed, the tree becomes vulnerable and exposed, themes that continue to play out for the human characters across the collection.

Listen to Thomas Dooley read “Cherry Tree” from his debut collection “Trespass.”
[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/183615620″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Cherry Tree

My father
mows tight squares
around her, she

rains pink on him
a rock

cracks inside the blades
she beats down

I’ve grown
too lush

don’t leave me
with him

From the book Trespass: Poems by Thomas Dooley. Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Dooley. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Editor’s note: This article originally stated that the father in “Trespass” abuses his niece as an adult, not a teenager. It was updated on Dec. 30, 2014.

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Weekly Poem: Sarah Rose Nordgren finds inspiration in her fantastical childhood

Mon, Dec 22, 2014

Sarah Rose Nordgren has published poems in a variety of outlets, including in Agni, Ploughshares, the Iowa Review, the Harvard Review, the Literary Review, the Best New Poets anthology. She received of the 2011-2012 Fine Arts Work Center Poetry Fellowship and the 2014 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.

Sarah Rose Nordgren has published poems in a variety of outlets, including Agni, Ploughshares, the Iowa Review, the Harvard Review, the Literary Review and the Best New Poets anthology. She received of the 2011-2012 Fine Arts Work Center Poetry Fellowship and the 2014 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.

When Sarah Rose Nordgren looks back at her childhood, she calls it “distinctive,” filled with myth and fable.

“I’ve always been interested in things like myth and fable because I’ve always been interested in childhood and I had a very distinctive childhood that was very full of those things,” Nordgren told Art Beat. “Very full of fantasy worlds, very full of living in the woods with no supervision. I shouldn’t say no supervision, little supervision, less supervision than I think a lot of people have these days.”

The poet grew up in North Carolina and the experience of what she describes as her fantastical childhood, and her interest in stories and dreams, permeates how she approaches her poetry. Nordgren, whose debut collection “Best Bones” was published at the end of September, has often been talked about for her surrealistic storytelling style, but she doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m not trying to write something fantastical, I’m not trying to write something surreal. I’m actually trying to get at something very, very real and very, very grounded in the world, and that is the best way that I know how to do that, sometimes through strangeness because of the intensity of the experience.”

Through dramatic monologue and persona poetry, Nordgren contemplates identity, family and relationships. Sometimes that identity is being stripped away, like in her poem “Sisters” about sisters and the “very raw and almost violent teenage girl relationship,” and in “1917,” where the narrator wants to travel back in time and take away her mother’s identity to save her from the pain she will experience in her life.

Other poems deal with the construction of relationships and the identity of an individual versus that of the group to which they belong. “Best Bones,” the titular poem, explores this theme by examining an individual’s feeling of loneliness within a tight, loving family unit.

When you finally reach the penultimate poem of the book, “When You’re Dead,” you start to redefine all these elements that the book has set out to understand.

“It attempts to dismantle the idea of identity and the idea of life after working through those issues through the entirety of the book,” said Nordgren. “It tries to take them back apart again and get back to something much more basic or more primal.”

Listen to Sarah Rose Nordgren read “Sisters” from her debut collection, “Best Bones.”
[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/182718905″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]


the duckling in the shoebox dying fluttering fast
its leaves and twigs I am green
transparent sister told my sister her legs are not
gorgeous crawling to the bathroom
said you both like that anorexic look but not me
on TV a wrestling match the mean
woman in leather tore up the drawing from that retard
who loved her once I pissed my pants
laughed too hard sat in the driveway for an hour
on the bus the drunk girl cried
I’ve just been through hell I’m supposed to be
a bridesmaid where is my dress
I’ve lost the two people the African Grey in summer
flew up into the trees my father’s
shoulder where are the two people that I love?

Originally, the collection was titled “The Only House in the Neighborhood,” the title of another poem in the book. Over the years it took to put the book together, Nordgren began to think of it as a house.

“(The book) contains all these different voices of the mother, voices of a father, voices of children, voices of old men, voices of servants. They are speaking out of a desire for some kind of feeling of unification, that they all want to know who they are, but they all want to be whole people and that these roles are usefully defining, but they are also extremely limiting to the psyche,” said Nordgren. “It’s almost like they are calling out to each other over some great expanse even though they are sitting right next to each other at the dinner table.”

That wholeness is what the book finally aims to achieve. The image of the house and the family, Nordgren seeks to have everyone be individual, functioning parts of a working whole.

“The house is like a bed that everybody gets tucked inside and put to sleep.”

“Sisters” from “Best Bones,” by Sarah Rose Nordgren, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Weekly Poem: Alison Powell reads ‘The Fields’

Mon, Dec 15, 2014

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/181671230″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]Listen to Alison Powell read her poem “The Fields” from her new collection, “On the Desire to Levitate.”

The Fields

A boy is raised up in the fields.
He knows his hard feet in the husks.
He knows his mother, her bottles and naps.

Knows his brother’s war dreams, is afraid
to sleep next to him. His father has a way
with the jitterbug and a whipping switch.

There are kindnesses: the giblet-
thick dressing of his grandmother,
the pictures of Venice in his schoolbook—

the gilded water. How the fathers
look in their Sunday best and the prayers,
like milk, around him.

One spring day the great god of his dreams
descends and, exploding, fills
the new tar streets with rainwater.

He inches out from under the table
where he has been reading for weeks;
he pushes out into the storm.

All around him are the old lives of leaves.
Oak tree sticks make lean-tos
without being asked, school is nowhere in sight.

Though there’s water-weight to his knees,
he pokes one toe into the gutter. Here
he knows there is desperation, devotion, hard

loss. He opens his arms to the yelping sky
and cries back Oh! Great harbor, I am
your tin ship!
before his mother, weak

in her yellow slip, yanks him inside.

Alison Powell

On the Desire to Levitate,” published in March 2014, is Alison Powell‘s debut collection of poetry. Powell’s poetry has also appeared in Boston Review, Guernica, AGNI and Crazyhorse and in Best New Poets 2006 and The Hecht Prize Anthology, 2005-2009. Powell completed her doctorate in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2014 and received her MFA in Poetry from Indiana University in 2005. She is an assistant professor of poetry at Oakland University in Michigan.

“The Fields” was excerpted from the book “On the Desire to Levitate” by Alison Powell. Copyright © 2014 by Alison Powell. Reprinted courtesy Ohio University Press.

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Weekly Poem: J. Allyn Rosser finds deeper meaning through humor

Mon, Dec 08, 2014

J. Allyn Rosser has published four books of poetry, including "Foiled Again," "Bright Moves," and her most recent, "Mimi's Trapeze."

J. Allyn Rosser has published four books of poetry, including “Foiled Again,” “Bright Moves” and her most recent, “Mimi’s Trapeze.”

“Mimi’s Trapeze,” a new book by J. Allyn Rosser, starts with a quote by Balzac in the original French. The poet translates it roughly as, “Being human — what an appalling condition! in which every happy moment depends on an ignorance of some sort.” Or in other words, ignorance is bliss.

“This is an awful thing to say and such a true thing to say,” Rosser told Art Beat.

“You think about elation over getting a promotion, or winning an award, or someone you love tells you they love you back. Well, what if the promotion was some political fluke, the award had nothing to do with our deserving it because of skill or effort and that this person you love is secretly seeing or longing for someone else. These things happen every day and yet our happiness depends on them.”

That perspective may be bleak, but Rosser hears humor in it, and that humor is essential to the way she tackles serious subjects.

“Humor is my version of when Emily Dickinson said, ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.'” Humor has a way of sidestepping reader resistance, she says.

It’s a tactic Rosser wants to employ, especially when she’s writing on a topic she’s obsessed with, like global warming.

In “Children’s Children Speech,” the poet had to find a way to speak about the subject without her readers “putting their guards up,” to approach the topic obliquely and “avoid that groan from the reader.”

Listen to J. Allyn Rosser read “Children’s Children Speech” from her new collection, “Mimi’s Trapeze.”
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Children’s Children Speech
What would we want our luckless heirs to say,
Now that we too globally see it will end —
The bees, the buds, the mercurial sea, the air
All spoiled — that we made waste of miracles?

Now that we’re so globally sure it will end,
We should prepare a speech defending all
The spoils we’ve made so much of. Miracles
Are merely things we think we don’t deserve.

We may as well prepare it now, the speech
That would explain the things we had to have
Were merely things we thought we would deserve
In a heaven we had stopped believing in.

That would explain some things. We had to have
Whatever made us feel above the land,
So that the heaven we’d stopped believing in
Could be had here, by plane or satellite.

We craved what made us feel above the land
Whose laws were fixed to leave us in the dirt.
What could be seen by plane or satellite
Was fast depleting: ice floe, forest, meadow,

Whose dirty laws were fixed, made by that god
Who’d also made our minds that made whatever
Fast depleted ice floe, forest, meadow.
Any speech we have a mind to write

Our mind’s made up to stand behind, whatever
We may do to bees, or seas, or air
Empowering speech. We have a mind to write
Our luckless heirs, but what’s the use? They’ll call us

They. “They did this. We’re weren’t even there.”

Rosser moves between traditional form and free verse and in this poem, she was guided by the form of the pantoum, which uses the second and fourth line of a stanza for the first and third lines of the following stanza. “Children’s Children Speech,” however, doesn’t repeat full lines.

“I cheat just enough so it doesn’t sound unnatural. Most forms do sound unnatural and I am one of those poets who wants the natural feeling of a poem,” said Rosser. “I think it’s important to violate forms. When you give a poem a form, it’s a resistance against what you want to say and that’s helpful sometimes, but then you have to resist the form to make the form come back alive. Let the poem rebel, but then keep the form more or less intact.”

While Rosser moves in and out of traditional form, she holds strong to absurdity — a kinship that she feels with one of her primary inspirations, Samuel Beckett.

“He gives you the most awful conditions, really tragic conditions, but he makes them funny, ultimately, because he gets through to the other side of it. Alternatively, he’ll start funny and you’ll wind up realizing that this guy is saying something that is the most important thing for me to learn. This is wisdom, but it’s funny, funny as hell.”

Whether it’s a work by Samuel Beckett or the Balzac epitaph at the beginning of “Mimi’s Trapeze,” the poet is attracted to moving through all the cruelty and disappointment to find a “profound truth.”

“Any book of poetry that has no humor in it, I’m a little distrustful of it because that’s not the whole of it,” said Rosser. “The facts are what they are, but how the mind transforms them is our spiritual life and our sublimity and that’s what poetry tries to capture — our access to the sublime.”

“Children’s Children Speech” from “Mimi’s Trapeze,” by J. Allyn Rosser, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Dec. 8 to clarify Rosser’s translation of her epigraph.

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Weekly Poem: Hoa Nguyen links globalization and goddesses

Tue, Nov 18, 2014

Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Hoa Nguyen is the author of three books of poetry, including "As Long As Trees Last," "Hecate Lochia" and "Your Ancient See Through." Nguyen founded a small journal of poetry, Skanky Possum, with poet Dale Smith and has published contemporary poets such as Amiri Baraka, Alice Notley and Linh Dinh.

Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Hoa Nguyen is the author of three books of poetry, including “As Long As Trees Last,” “Hecate Lochia” and “Your Ancient See Through.”

The ancient Greek goddess Hecate was extremely powerful. So much so that Zeus, father of the gods, gave the goddess a special position, says poet Hoa Nguyen, referencing Hesiod’s epic poem “The Theogeny.”

“He honored her and ‘allowed’ her to have dominion over earth, sea, sky,” Nguyen said in an interview with three Advanced Placement poetry students at Malden High School in Malden, Massachusetts. back in January 2011.

But, Nguyen, whose newest book “Red Juice” came out in September, says that Hecate later morphed from this prestigious, “mysterious and very old goddess” into something darker.

“Even by Shakespeare’s time, she’s made into the crone, she’s evil,” she told Art Beat.

It’s a fate that the poet doesn’t agree with, so in her book, Nguyen aims to “steal (her) back from patriarchy, from being vilified.” And Hecate isn’t the only one; others, like Mena, the Roman goddess of menstruation, make appearances.

“The book is very interested in re-positioning the feminine in its appropriate and proper place of power.”

“Red Juice” is really a re-issuing of her first two books, “Your Ancient See Through” and “Hecate Lochia,” combined with previously uncollected poems. All of the poems were composed before 2008, during a 10-year period in which Nguyen gave birth to her two sons. That experience plays heavily into themes in the book.

“When you bring children into the world or you are around children, you realize ‘oh,’ now there’s a certain responsibility that one starts to feel,” she said.

Many of the poems in “Red Juice” deal with a concern for globalization and sustainability.

“You can see that progression in the book, that there is more and more urgency around the concern about financial collapse, concern about environmental collapse, concerns about disaster and surviving,” said the poet.

Listen to Hoa Nguyen read “They Sell You What Disappears” from her collection “Red Juice.”
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They Sell You What Disappears
They sell you what disappears       it’s a vague “they”
maybe capital T               who are they and mostly
poorly paid in China

Why does this garlic come from China?
It’s vague to me               shipping bulbous netted bulbs
Cargo doused with fungicide and growth inhibitor

What disappears is vague           I can’t trade for much
I can cook           teach you cooking         ferment
bread or poetry                 I can sell my plasma

They are paid poorly in Florida
picking tomatoes for tacos
Some CEO is surely a demon
in this poem

Need capital to buy                        need to buy or else
you are always paying rent         one month away
from “the street”
3 neighbors asked for money this week
                                 We are guilty
bringing in sacks of food                              bought on credit

Trademark this poem                 mark this poem with a scan code
on the front and digitally store it somewhere
not to be memorized “by heart”

For Nguyen, concepts of sustainability, globalism and womanhood are linked. She points to outsourcing, saying that when production is removed from the local community, that community is not as strong and self-reliant.

“But, if you have a resilient community, things reside right there. You are moving with the seasons and you are sharing resources in a way that makes sense. Here’s a river, let’s mill with water power from the grain that we grew over there and let’s collect pecans at this time. That to me is the old matrilineal.”

“They Sell You What Disappears” from Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008. Copyright 2015 by Hoa Nguyen. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.

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Weekly Poem: David Roderick ponders the strangeness of the suburbs

Mon, Oct 27, 2014

A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a recipient of the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, David Roderick has published two books of poetry. "Blue Colonial," his debut collection," won the APR Honickman Prize. Poems from is newest collection, "The Americans," won Shenandoah's James Boatwright III Prize and the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize.

A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a recipient of the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, David Roderick has published two books of poetry. “Blue Colonial,” his debut collection,” won the APR Honickman Prize. Poems from his newest collection, “The Americans,” won Shenandoah’s James Boatwright III Prize and the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize.

David Roderick spent a year traveling abroad, in search of poetic inspiration. In Japan, he wrote prose poems, a form he hadn’t previously explored. In Ireland, he became “enamored” with composing ballads, and in Italy, he used art as inspiration for his verse.

The recipient of the 2007-2008 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship wasn’t allowed to return stateside until the year was completed, stretching his comfort zone.

“I was trying to live more at the ends of my nerves and trying to experience the sensations of different flavors and textures and rhythms of traffic and customs,” Roderick told Art Beat.

His adventures — both geographical and compositional — laid the groundwork for his new collection, “The Americans,” even though much of his work from that time didn’t make it into the book.

It turned out that traveling around the world helped hone his perception of more familiar territory: the suburbs.

“They didn’t seem humdrum or dull any more, they seemed more strange, and even on the one hand, almost magical, because they are so calm and peaceful and beautiful and green,” said Roderick. “And on the other hand, a little strangely dull or almost sleepy, like there wasn’t enough action, there wasn’t enough life for me.”

Roderick grew up in the suburbs, but left for college and then moved to San Francisco. His later transition back to suburban life as an adult “sparked memories of my own personal past, but it’s also stimulated new feelings about my sense of self, my sense of neighborhood and community, my sense of the country, too.”

It also inspired his latest book, which meditates on some of those dichotomies: urban and suburban, being American but trying to view it from the outside.

The title comes from another famous creative journey that benefited from an outsider’s perspective. Swiss photographer Robert Frank traveled across the United States with his family for two years in the late 1950s. He distilled 28,000 photographs into an 83-image exhibition and subsequent book called “The Americans.”

Roderick features other outsiders who have tried to define American culture, like Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political scientist known for his text, “Democracy in America.” He also writes about significant, recent American events, like the 2008 and 2012 political campaigns, as well as national political gridlock. In particular, Roderick contemplates repercussions of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

“Probably like a lot of us, I’m still sort of in a daze about the last 14 years and where that event has taken us…For me, a lot of what happens in this book comes out of 9/11 and certainly a poem like “Build Your Dream Home Here” is trying to speak to that historical moment and the aftermath in a fairly compressed amount of space.”

Listen to David Roderick read “Build Your Dream Home Here” from his newest book, “The Americans.”
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Build Your Dream Home Here

                                       First the towers
fell, then the Dow. A few years later,
while she was still recovering
from the blind fumbling accounts
of people crushed to dust—
her nights chocked with emergencies,
smoke, the newsfeed, the taped
and sniffed envelopes, the falling—
that’s when they’d built the place,
a roomy number bricked back
from the corner. A bank offered
low interest, veterans no down.
In every closet they’d make love.
They’d space out bushes, lay toast
and coffee on the porch.
                                                   It worked
for a while, their screened-in story,
where a half-deflated soccer ball
wedged the door. Drunk on lilac,
they cheered whenever a bee seemed
to veer off course.
                                       Now boxes packed
with their belongings cover the lawn.
She checks the buttons on her blouse
and worries about her husband’s
smoking. Will the lilacs survive?
Will their mild, wilting odor still lure
the bees? In some parts of the world,
the wood of the lilac is carved
into knife handles or flutes. Līlek
from the Arabic, meaning “slightly blue.”

The poem connects an idyllic vision of the American dream to a real global tragedy. He says when you are in the suburbs, “it’s hard to feel connected to events that are happening halfway across the country or halfway across the world.” But trying to feel connected while he was abroad gave him the distance to write new clarity.

“Growing up here inside of it, you tend to take it for granted and assume circumstances are similar elsewhere. So the travel is important to shake yourself out of that certainty, especially or an artist or a writer.”

“Build Your Dream Home Here” from “The Americans,” by David Roderick, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Weekly Poem: Laura Kasischke points to the lingering past

Mon, Oct 20, 2014

The InfinitesimalsLingering connections and phantom remembrances are echoes within Laura Kasischke’s new collection, “The Infinitesimals.”

“I take the material from memory and things that have been lost and people who are gone and the past, but I’m trying to give it life again,” said Kasischke.

Kasischke bases many of her poems on real objects or experiences in her life, but says that writing is an outlet for her to untangle more elusive issues.

“The act of initially sitting down to write the poem is where I’m figuring out something about the world that isn’t tangible or rational or right in front of me.”

“I guess for me the origins of the poem [“The Common Cold”] was pretty sensory, just this idea being biological and viral and physical and the experience of having a bit of a fever and being in a crowd,” Said Kasischke. “In that moment, I felt connected to motherhood and athleticism and being with other parents and this sense of time passing.”

Listen to Laura Kasischke read “The Common Cold” from her new collection “The Infinitesimals.”
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The Common Cold

To me she arrives this morning
dressed in some
man’s homely, soft, cast-off
lover’s shawl, and some
woman’s memory of a third-
grade teacher
who loved her students a little too much.
(Those warm hugs that went
on and on and on.)

She puts her hand to my head and says,
“Laura, you should go back to bed.”

But I have lunches to pack, socks
on the floor, while
the dust settles on
the I’ve got to clean this pigsty up.
(Rain at a bus stop.
Laundry in a closet.)

And tonight, I’m
the Athletic Booster mother
whether I feel like it or not, weakly

taking your dollar
from inside my concession stand:

I offer you your caramel corn. ( Birdsong
in a terrarium. Some wavering distant
planet reflected in a puddle.)

And, as your dollar
passes between us, perhaps
you will recall
how, years ago, we
flirted over some impossible
Cub Scout project.

and saws, and seven
small boys tossing
humid marshmallows
at one another. And now

those sons, taller
and faster than we are, see
how they are poised on a line, ready
to run at the firing of a gun?

But here we are again, you and I, the
two of us tangled up
and biological: I’ve

forgotten your name, and
you never knew mine, but
in the morning
you’ll find

my damp kisses all over your pillows,
my clammy flowers
blooming in you cellar,
my spring grass
dewed with mucus-

and you’ll remember me
and how, tonight, wearing my
Go Dawgs T-shirt, I

stood at the center
of this sweet clinging heat
of a concession stand
with my flushed cheeks, and

how, before we touched, I
coughed into my hand.

here we are together
in bed all day again.

Her poem “The Invisible Passenger” came from an experience of boarding a plane. Looking for her place in row 12, she noticed there was no row 13 between her and row 14.

“Was it bad luck and no one wanted to sit there? Or was it because those flying us through the air are superstitious themselves? There’s something so irrational about moving through this world and trying every day, whether by using our seat belts or not sitting in unlucky rows, to defy death again.”

Listen to Laura Kasischke read “The Invisible Passenger” from her new collection “The Infinitesimals.”
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The Invisible Passenger

Between row 12 and row 14, there
are, on this plane, no seats. This

engineering feat of
gravity and wings, which
flies on superstition, irrationality. The calm

has been printed on my ticket:

Doe and fawn
in a grove below us, her
soul crawling in an out of my clothes.

While, in a roofless theater, a magic act
is performed for children
by an invisible man.

Like the mess

of a cake that I once
baked for my father—

damp, awful, crumbling layers.
Soggy church bell on a plate.

And, my father’s dentures, lost
(all his teeth
pulled out
as a young man
by a military dentist im-
patient to send him
on his way), and

my father’s smile anyway.

The poetry in “The Infinitesimals” invites the reader to look into their own past and think for a bit on what it is to experience loss.

“I can’t see them, and they’re over, and people are gone, but they’re not zero, they’re too small to be measured or too lost and invisible to be found again, but they’re still there, because they were there.”

“The Common Cold” and “The Invisible Passenger” from The Infinitesimals by Laura Kasischke. Published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Used by permission Copper Canyon Press.

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Weekly Poem: Saskia Hamilton wants you to ‘dream over’ her work

Mon, Oct 13, 2014

Photo by Meg Tyler

The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, Saskia Hamilton is author of three books of poetry. Photo by Meg Tyler

Movement and transition resonate in Saskia Hamilton’s collection “Corridor.”

“The spirit of the book is a lot about passing through or passing by different lives and landscapes … or in and out of moments,” Hamilton told Art Beat.

One of Hamilton’s interpretations of movement is made through her translation of an Anglo-Saxon riddle — one that has never been solved.

“It’s very hard to translate a riddle that you don’t really know what the answer is,” said Hamilton. “Translating something like that was a kind of passage — through an Anglo-Saxon world view that’s so different from our own.”

Another connection to the meaning of “corridor” is a symbol of death, “like the passage of one life to another.”

“On the Ground,” a poem that Hamilton calls a pillar of the collection, was written in memoriam to a young member of her family that died.

“It was a terrible time, so it comes out of that experience.”

Listen to Saskia Hamilton read “On the Ground” from her collection “Corridor.”

On the Ground

           i.m. Joshua Shackleton

When the collie saw the child
break from the crowd,

he gave chase, and since they both
were border-crossers,

they left this world.
We were then made of—

affronted by—silence.
The train passed Poste 5, Paris,

late arrival, no luck, no
enlarging commentary

magnified in any glass.
“The ineffable

is everywhere in language,”
the speaker had said

in the huge hall where
I sat amongst coughers,

students, in the late
February of that year,

at the end of a sinuous
inquiry on sense and sound—

“and very close to the ground,” he’s said.
Like mist risen

above the feet of animals
in a far field north of here.

Hamilton says that “On the Ground” is a mediation on falling silent, a theme that pops up in other poems in the book, like in “Zwigen,” an Old Dutch word that means “falling silent.”

She says both poems are “interested in silence … what is the power of withheld speech,” said Hamilton. “Both are very different mediations on falling silent. ‘On the Ground’ is about the death of a child, so that’s a very severe and terrible silence.”

Hamilton says she was influenced also by the storytelling style of another writer.

“I also thought of Bob Dylan’s way of giving you little glimpses of lives in passing in songs, like in ‘Blood on the Tracks,’ or ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ or ‘Simple Twist of Fate,’ ‘Idiot Wind,’ any of those songs,” said Hamilton.

“One of my favorites is an outtake from that session, ‘Biograph,’ called ‘Out to Me,’ where you just get these little broken narratives. I think that there seem to me, after the fact when I was reading [my book] over, a similar kind of interest.”

After a number of years spent writing many of the poems that make up the collection — which came out in May — she sat down with a pile of her work and a friend, who “helped me see patterns in it that I would never have been able to discern in advance, shall we say. I needed to bring them all together to see their– in a way, their dream life, the things they were preoccupied with that I didn’t know they were preoccupied with.”

So how does Hamilton want people to experience the work in “Corridor?” In much the same way as the themes she is drawing out: The reader “should just dream over the poems.”

All poems copyright © 2014 by Saskia Hamilton, from Corridor. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.

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Weekly Poem: Sam Taylor struggles to speak Chinese

Mon, Sep 29, 2014

Sam Taylor

The recipient of the 2014-2015 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, Sam Taylor has published two books of poetry, “Body of the World” and “Nude Descending an Empire,” which went on sale in August.

Poet Sam Taylor thinks we’ve taken our environment for granted for centuries and now we’re at a point of “crisis.” That is the driving theme in “Nude Descending an Empire,” his recent collection published in August, that he was inspired to write during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Those years marked, “a time when we were initiating an insane war for deeply flawed and deceptive reasons, and also in a time when the urgency of our ecological situation was becoming quite clear and yet still being flouted and mocked,” Taylor told Art Beat.

“I wanted to develop a voice of a citizen poet that could speak poetically into our moment.”

Taylor started to compose the book while living as a caretaker in a remote wilderness refuge. At the time, he lacked any access to electricity, the internet or a phone line. According to Taylor, being secluded in the wild helped reinforce his belief that our natural heritage needs to be protected. Those years helped inform the title of the collection.

“There was a nakedness to that experience, being immersed in the natural world and stripped of all the dubious meanings our civilization has created, and it allowed me to see the possibility of a whole other way of being and thinking.”

Many of the poems in “Nude Descending an Empire” ask us to experience and contemplate the “crises” of our time through the focusing lens of poetry, but the book also touches on themes of interconnected-humanity and misunderstandings.

In his poem, “The Book of Poetry,” Taylor recalls his experiences travelling with a friend through Southeast Asia and how something as subtle as a mispronunciation led to the great confusion of their hosts.

Listen to Sam Taylor read “The Book of Poetry” from his new collection, “Nude Descending an Empire.”

Note: this poem contains strong language.

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The Book of Poetry (Wo Shi Shiren)

A friend, in Thailand, helping to build straw bale homes
was riding with four Buddhist monks on the back of a truck
piled high with musky bales. “I love water buffaloes,” she burst out
in broken Thai. The monks laughed. I guess that is
a strange thing to say
, she thought, but insisted.
“No, really, I really love them,” trying to unfurl herself
clearly, practicing the Zen Garden of making conversation
with only a few words. “They are so beautiful, so strong.
Don’t you love them?” But the monks just kept laughing.

Every traveler in Southeast Asia has her own story
of tonal confusion: the same syllable spoken different ways
becomes four, six, seven words. In China, Ma
means mother, but also hemp, horse, scold—depending if
it is flat, rising, dipping, or falling. Sometimes context helps,
as when ordering food: No one is likely to confuse
“I want to eat” with “I demand an ugly woman,”
unless one is dining in a brothel, and even then “I want eggplant”
though mistoned “whirlpool shake concubine twins”
is likely to produce only strips of sauce-smeared nightshade.

Everyone in China wants to know what you do.
It’s not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.
When they asked, I said first, “I write,” wo xie,
or sometimes, after I had learned the word, “I am a poet.”
Wo shi shi ren. Often, I was met by puzzlement,
strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people
glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.
Not so different really from the response in America.
“A poet” I’d repeat. Wo shi shiren. Then,
“I write poetry,” trying to make the most
of my minuscule vocabulary. “I write books of poetry.”

Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.
Wo means I; ren means person, or man.
Near the end of my travels, someone told me
shi—which is pronounced “sure” and means poetry
in the high flat tone, as well as the verb “to be”
in the falling tone—also means shit
in yet another tone. So, all along I must have been saying
I am a shit man. I write shit. And repeating it.
A shit person. I write books of shit. Understand?

To be—poetry—shit. Something fitting in how these words
were assigned the same syllable, the same address.
Later, looking the word up, I discovered for each tone, shi
was ten or twenty words, a whole apartment complex
sharing one mailbox. Corpse, loss, world, history, time, stone,
life, to begin, to be, to die, to fail, to be addicted to,
rough silk, persimmons, raincoats, swine, long-tailed marmot,
clear water—all crowded into the same syllable—sure,
sure, sure. It was also coincidentally the word for yes.
So, perhaps I had said something else entirely
I thought of all the combinations I might have said.

I am a shit person. I write life.
I am a death person. I write being. I shit history man.

I history being person. I write time. I write books of failure,
books of corpses, books of loss, books of yes.

I am a being person. I write to be.
I am addicted to being a man.

I write books of shit, books of clear water.
I am a poet.

It seemed all the world could, even should, have one word
for everything—table scales, taxis, bicycles, stones, cities,
time and history and death and life. It was all shit.
It was all poetry. As for my friend, she found out later
water buffalo was a variation of the word for penis.
So, “I love penises” she had confided to the Buddhist monks,
the truck jostling, the potholes throwing her knees
against theirs. “I really love penises,” she had insisted,
looking into their celibate eyes. “Penises are
so beautiful, so strong. Don’t you love them?”

Since the syllable for monk is also the syllable
of my name on fire in a world of loss, I will answer. Sure,
I love penises and water buffalo and the smell
of wet hay, and vaginas and sautéed eggplant and concubine twins,
and I want to tell the Buddhist monks, and the Chinese bureaucrats,
and the official from Homeland Security
who stopped me in customs to search my computer, and my mother
the Szechwan horse: I am a shit man writing books of stone
and the clear water has failed, but I am addicted
writing yes in a city of corpses and swine and persimmons,
here at the end of history, now at the beginning of time.

Taylor said his poems normally aren’t something he comes up with out of nowhere. Instead he pulls his ideas from raw “sparks and rhythms” he finds in his travels. The anecdotal “The Book of Poetry” typifies that sentiment.

“That piece was, I felt, almost given to me just by the things that happened, the coincidental meanings that I encountered or was told about. All the pieces were just there and it clearly was a poem, it just had to be mined, or harvested or built in some way.”

The poem provides humor through the misunderstanding created by a slight shift in vowels, and that the word for poetry in Chinese so closely resembles the word for a bowel movement. Taylor says that as a writer, the quirks of a language and his own comical mispronunciation made it a piece he wanted to write even more.

“It does particularly relate to a love and fascination with language that most poets and readers probably share, but beyond that it’s a fascination with the particular set of meanings that happened to be in these words, of course one of them being poetry, in the sense that poetry not only overlaps with [expletive] but every word imaginable.”

“The Book of Poetry” as it appears in “Nude Descending an Empire” required several drafts, after he left his notebook in a taxicab in China.

Taylor is in the final stages of his next work, which he says will be more experimental in form and style.

“The Book of Poetry” from “Nude Descending an Empire,” by Sam Taylor, ©2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.”

The post Weekly Poem: Sam Taylor struggles to speak Chinese appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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