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Selections from Bluets

13. At a job interview at a university, three men sitting
across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am cur-
rently working on a book about the color blue. I have been
saying this for years without writing a word. It is, per-
haps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather
than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the
men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I
never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what
or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to
choose.

35. Does the world look bluer from blue eyes? Probably
not, but I choose to think so (self-aggrandizement).

65. The instructions printed on the blue junk’s wrapper:
Wrap Blue in cloth. Stir while squeezing the Blue in the last
rinsing water. Dip articles separately for a short time; keep
them moving
. I liked these instructions. I like blues that
keep moving.

71. I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity
in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.

75. Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sad-
ness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.

81. What I know: when I met you, a blue rush began. I
want you to know, I no longer hold you responsible.

135. Of course one can have “the blues” and stay alive, at
least for a time. “Productive,” even (the perennial conso-
lation!). See, for example, “Lady Sings the Blues”: “She’s
got them bad / She feels so sad / Wants the world to know
/ Just what her blues is all about.” Nonetheless, as Billie
Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in
deeper and deeper saturation is eventually to move to-
ward darkness.

185. Perhaps this is why writing all day, even when the
work feels arduous, never feels to me like “a hard day’s
work.” Often it feels more like balancing two sides of an
equation—occasionally quite satisfying, but essentially a
hard and passing rain. It, too, kills the time.

238. I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a
time when I would rather have had you by my side than
any one of these words; I would rather have had you by
my side than all the blue in the world.

Maggie Nelson, from Bluets (Wave Books, 2009)

I have been wanting to write about this collection for quite some time now, but I couldn’t figure out a good way to approach it. The collection is a series of short prose poems, many of which incorporate historical facts, mythological references, literary references an quotes, as well as many other bits of researched information. However, the collection is also extremely personal and the research and references work as a vehicle for the personal elements; they make the focus of the poems even sharper.

Last night, a fellow writer asked a question about a certain type of poem, addresses, and what makes them successful. My response was that the form itself calls for the writer to be more specific. As I thought about this even more, I realized it all comes down to one thing: modality. This collection covers a vast array of very personal issues, including love, depression, and writing. Each prose poem is a very intricate examination of these things, and even though the separate numbered item spirals into being from the one before it, each stands on its own as a snapshot. Every individual poem captures a very specific moment and emotion.

This form works well for these topics because it allows both distance and intimacy. With each prose poem, we zoom in on specific images like blue eyes and ash falling from a cigarette, but then at the same time, we’re learning to cope with darkness, loneliness, and finding balance. The variation creates movement in the poem and draws us in deeper, but the running thread of blue throughout the collection makes the reader even more connected to the poems, the images, and the emotions.

I love this collection because it takes me on a journey that winds and twists back on itself, and addresses familiar topics and feelings in a way that is new and refreshingly honest.

-S

Clean

It took a parceling out of pills
issued governmentally
just to get you off pills
and stabilized mentally—

just as it took, from your stool and lacquered table,
a cavalry of bouncers
to haul you off—your stable
shot glass towers of half-ouncers

leaning a bit, as the Leaning Tower of Pisa,
refusing to topple, though structurally unsound—
as you leaned into the squad car with a “please,” a
girlish “thank you kindly, sirs,” and found

yourself holed up in a cell for the night. Your cell warden
found you, if not repentant, at least
inclined to chatter; by morning the “lord” in
your “lordy lord” turned mildly reverent. Released

to the gently prodding hands of St. Luke’s
Community Health—the interns’ hands that held you down
through sweat and the shaky-shakes,
a rag to the forehead and straps at the knees, till at last you found

your way, yea verily, into “the golden-rodded vale”
with a stunning volte-face that shocked the nuns,
held out your tongue to the viaticum, who once
held intently the metal lip of your metal vomit pail,

and nightly, took in The Treasured Vulgate
rendered in animé,
a six-part videodisc they screened
down in Recovery B. The weight

of your life got weightier the more
they cleaned you out,
weightier than your
shuffleboard pucks of meat,

but there at St. Luke’s was a system of valves
and seamless counter valves,
round, little blowholes for letting out steam
that gradually brought you round, as gradually round again you came

to visit. We, who’d seen you clean off
a dance floor with your famously lewd
gyrations—and times aplenty who’d
cleaned you off

with a bar rag and spot of seltzer—crude,

corrupt, you came back clean,
if notably less witty,
no more drama from the drama queen,
if less pretty.

—David J. Daniels, from Clean (Four Way Books, 2014)

I come from a long line of alcoholics. My father is an alcoholic who’s started drinking in the morning, according to reports; my grandfather drank a half-pint of cheap corn whiskey in the morning and another fifth in the evening, and died of cirrhosis of the liver about a decade before I was born; my great uncle Tad was an alcoholic who taught my father how to drive when he was 12 or 13 years old because he had so many DUIs, it was safer to pay a fine if my father got caught; a great grandfather went to jail during Prohibition for running a still on a mountainside; another great grandfather hid his whiskey in the smokehouse. Those are the stories my father told me about his family, and yet he still drinks more and more every year, staking his claim on the word alcoholic. Those are the stories I know about my DNA, and yet I still drink. I can dry out for a while, months or years even, and then it takes no time to start drinking all the time if I am not very careful. I haven’t ever been an alcoholic, but I worry each year that my ability to resist what feels like an inevitability fades. And I worry who I’d be if I did nothing at all, never even touched a bottle. Who would I be at a bar? How would I socialize? How would I blow off steam? How could I forget those things I just want to forget? It is terrifying.

So my god, how I understand this poem. Hidden among a lot of really cool repetitions (“pills” in the first stanza, “lord” and “lordy lord” in the third stanza, “shaky-shakes” in the fifth, etc.) and rhymes so good that you don’t notice them (“governmentally” and “mentally,” “bouncers” and “half-ouncers,” “least” and “released,” “Vulgate" and "weight," "lewd" and "crude," etc.) is a story of a washing clean. The man who had a "stable / shot glass tower of half-ouncers / leaning a bit, as the Leaning Tower of Pisa" and who did "famously lewd /gyrations" is now clean. And it hasn’t been fun—"The weight / of your life got weightier the more / they cleaned you out,"—and he hasn’t been as fun—"you came back clean, / if notably less witty, / no more drama for the drama queen, / if less pretty." Which is to say he’s not himself. And I appreciate that this poem, among a sea of poems about the viciousness of HIV and AIDS in the gay community in David J. Daniels’ new collection, Clean, doesn’t make everything all clean in the way we think. The man who drank and popped pills to forget his problems now has to address them. And clean means something different now, and it’s not tidy and it never will be.

-R

Domestic Arts

When Pap started to roam, family legend goes,
Mam—my mama’s mama—sawed nearly through the metal braces
under his galluses, his shoe strings the same;
only a scant stitch basted on his sleeves and buttons.
After a nip of shine, Pap cut loose a buck and wing,
flew apart on the dance floor, near naked,
buttons bounded to every corner, became
a local legend. He never mentioned it,
nor did she.

Mam trained Mama in the domestic arts.
She hacked apart Daddy’s leisure suit, basted
that polyester nightmare top and bottom,
unscrewed the acrylic platform shoe heels
that once held live goldfish and replaced them
with cockroaches. First time he hustled some honey,
he molted, buttons flew, disco ball glinting
off his sweaty chest and chains, his split pants
open to the world. He never mentioned it,
nor did she.

Stay close, beloved.
I inherited Mam’s sewing box,
handed down by a family of women
big on tradition.

—Jane Hicks, from Driving with the Dead (University of Kentucky Press, 2014)

I’ve heard Jane Hicks read this poem several times, usually to an audience of poets and writers, as well as “civilians,” people who listen for story, perhaps unaware of the technical expertise of the writer, which is considerable. Hicks says the most important element of poetry is “sound, and the physiological effects of sound,” not surprising since two of her main influences are Seamus Heaney and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The repeated “s” in the lines “sawed nearly through the metal braces / under his galluses, his shoe strings the same,” mimic the sound of sawing. In the second stanza midrange vowels and rhythm bring to life the disco floor, “First time he hustled some honey, / he molted, buttons flew, disco ball glinting,” the perfect venue for a man wearing the “polyester nightmare.” The high tension and rhythm of “acrylic platform shoes,” creates images of clacking on the dance floor. Hicks knows what she’s doing.

This poem is fiction, the first stanza based on a story Hicks heard as a child; she says she extrapolated the same idea into the disco age. She creates a sense of time and place through clothing and dance venues. Pap, “cut loose a buck and wing” in barn dances and “takes a nip of shine.” A later generation epitomizes the silliness of the seventies when Mama, “hacked apart Daddy’s leisure suit.” The disco ball glinting off Daddy’s “sweaty chest and chains” expose him as surely as the split in his pants.

The story in “Domestic Arts,” is certainly humorous, but there is also a darker side to the poem, for it reminds us all of the darkness in marriages and the ways women of a certain generation coped with their burdens. The wives in this poem use wit and sewing baskets to literally and figuratively expose philandering men, their sins, “open to the world.”

The structure of the final four lines, focus on the inheritance of the sewing box and deliver a warning for the narrator’s “beloved,” holding promise for unwritten history. It is the things unsaid that make any poem more powerful, leaving readers to participate fully.

-Sylvia Woods

*Sylvia Woods is a prize-winning poet and retired educator. She was born in Double Creek, Kentucky, but has lived in Tennessee since Nixon was president. Her work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including Southern Poetry Anthology Volumes III and V.

——

On the first Sunday of every month, Structure and Style features a guest post by a fantastic writer. This is our twelfth month with a guest post.

Structure and Style Interviews Kim Addonizio

As part of Structure and Style’s third birthday celebration (we like to make our parties last), we asked a few of our favorite poets if they would be willing to talk to us about poetry. We were tickled pink when Kim Addonizio agreed to answer S’s questions via email.

Structure and Style: The first thing that struck me about your poetry, and it is one of the things that has made me such a fan, is how deeply observant your poems are. What role does observation play in a poet’s life? Does there need to be a balance between observation and experience, and how does one balance the two? Do you have any suggestions as to ways poets can aspire to become more observant in their own lives?

Kim Addonizio: In my book Ordinary Genius, I have a writing exercise about observation: Just notice three things in your environment. I’m actually very unobservant in general. I tend to tune out my surroundings, so it’s helpful for me to do this exercise myself. Notice, notice, notice: That’s my mantra, and I have to continually remind myself of it. It’s useful for every kind of writing.

S&S: One thing both of us at Structure and Style admire about you and your poetry is your commitment to feminism and a strong female voice. We perceive a lot of your poems as being very empowering. What does feminism mean to you? How has it shaped your poems and your experiences? How has the poetry community evolved in terms of female equality in the last 20 years? In what ways does the community and publishing world still need to improve?

KA: I grew up during the “Second Wave” of feminism, and from about the age of thirteen started to realize what it meant to be a female in a male-dominated world. My early poetry was informed by the groundbreaking anthology No More Masks—that’s where I discovered a lot of women writers. As for female equality, obviously it’s not yet a reality, even in the more developed countries. VIDA is doing good work, it seems, to keep track of certain inequalities, but that’s a small piece of the whole. You can’t talk about sexism without looking at race and class, as well. I appreciate the people who are having that conversation and trying to raise some awareness around it all.

S&S: One of the things that resonates with my Structure and Style co-creator in your poems is how powerful a word or phrase—“fuck,” “I,” or “I I I,” “good girl”—can be in shaping our self-identities. Do you consciously set out to explore specific words and phrases as related to identity, or does it happen somewhere in the writing and revising of a poem?

KA: Well, with the poem “Fuck” I did set out to explore peoples’ responses to that word. But it’s not like it wasn’t already part of my lexicon. I had a student recently who used “motherfucker” in a poem and found it liberating. That was kind of shocking to me; I can’t imagine that word being a breakthrough for anyone, but that’s the case for some people. People inhabit so many different worlds—cultural, linguistic, political—that are totally separate from each other. I can’t say I ever set out to explore identity per se, though. I’m just trying to say something interesting and true, which is enough of a challenge.

S&S: A lot of your poems are very adult—complex feelings, paradoxes, heaviness, sex, love, breakups, starting over, etc.—with no easy endings or solutions. How do you resist the urge to solve a problem or close it off?

KA: I’d love to solve the problems of being an adult and living a mortal life on earth. Unfortunately, it’s just as you’ve described: complex, difficult, and not really solvable.

S&S: One thing that is often hard to overcome is the notion of self-censorship. It’s hard for a writer not to be concerned with the way their work will be perceived and the kinds of conclusions people will make based on something he or she has written. A lot of your poems are very confessional, personal, and honest. Have you received criticism for being such an open writer? If so, how have you dealt with those criticisms? Do you have any advice or comments about ways to overcome self-censorship? How can we overcome the fear of repercussions from being true to ourselves or even true to our voices, characters, and observations?

KA: If a writer is too concerned with how her work will be perceived, she’s not going to be much of a writer. The point is to tell the truth as you see it. I don’t much care how people perceive me, frankly. I care more about making good work and connecting to a reader. Maybe that’s a paradox. I don’t know. As for self-censorship, my advice is to do your best to get over it. Do you want to have everybody like you, or do you want to see what you have to say? My own fears around writing have to do with whether I can do it well enough. Right now I’m afraid of a play I wrote a draft of about a year ago. I’m afraid I can’t fix its problems and make it work. That’s common to a lot of writers, too. In either case, you just need to do it. Who was it who said, “The only way out is through?”

S&S: Leslie Jamison recently wrote in The Guardian that confessional writing “incites” others to share their stories after reading hers, and she listed examples of people who’d stopped her to relate personal stories after reading The Empathy Exams. Has this happened to you after readings? (My co-creator confesses that she might not be able to resist sharing the impact of “Good Girl” on her life, should you ever meet at AWP or elsewhere and have drinks.) How far removed do you feel from confessional writing after it has been written down, or even published?

KA: I get the question and sympathize (or maybe empathize). There are certain writers I’ve felt compelled to email and tell them what their work meant to me. As it happens, I’m reading The Empathy Exams right now and liking it very much. But for me as a reader, it’s mostly about the writing. And the worldview. Do I have a big desire to be best friends with the person who wrote the book, or share my own story? Not really. And when I write something I pretty much put it out there and don’t think about it after that. I’m on to the next thing. That said, I’d certainly be happy to have a drink with your co-creator. I love hearing that my work has mattered to someone.

And I’m not so sure about the term “confessional.” Is the work of photographers Cindy Sherman or Francesca Woodman “confessional”? Is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther? How about Marguerite Duras’s The Lover? I’ve just been rereading Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. How closely does the narrator resemble the actual Jean Rhys who lived, apparently, poor and depressed and alcoholic for many years? And does it matter whether or not the actual circumstances of her life corresponded to what she wrote? I’m interested in what gets made and the sensibility that makes it, but not in whether it happened on a physical, literal level.

S&S: When I discuss poetry with other people and with my students, I often run into the idea that poetry has to incorporate end rhyme and that it’s usually vague or “deep.” I work very hard to teach my students about all of the techniques poetry can incorporate (variations in sound, image, the function of the link, rhythm) as a way to broaden their understanding of poetry, but a lot of times I find a poem beautiful without being able to explain exactly why right away. I sometimes wonder if I’ve been reading, writing, and studying poetry so long that some skills have become “automatic” or “natural” in a sense. What is the best way to begin to understand a poem? Where should a poet or aspiring poet begin in terms of studying specific poetic techniques?

KA: I guess my general idea is that you just try to be open, to listen. If something seems interesting or mysterious or appealing, you try to get at why that is. If you hate something or feel angry at it, you try to explore that feeling. Then, maybe, you start to approach something important about the poem. I think of it like getting to know a person: A lot of times, you don’t know right away why you’re attracted (or repelled). You just are. Well, usually it’s a lot clearer why you don’t like someone. But if you are drawn to a person, or a poem, there’s a mystery there. You don’t know what it is, but you want to know more. So you hang out with the person, or the poem, and you begin to understand a few things. of course, if you’ve been hanging out with poetry a long time, you know a lot more about it. The point is to have some curiosity and excitement about something that might be at first foreign. When you go to a country where you don’t speak the language or know the customs, there’s a certain amount of anxiety, sure, but there’s also the pleasure in getting shaken loose from what you’re used to. Maybe it’s helpful for students to approach poetry like backpacking through Europe or Central America.

S&S: You also write and publish fiction. Does writing fiction influence the way you write or approach poetry and vice versa? Are there any fiction works or authors you would recommend to poets or people who love poetry?

KA: I’ve just published a book of stories, The Palace of Illusions. It’s been great to be back in the world of narrative fiction, but I can’t say it has a lot to do with the way I write poetry. Poetry often feels more satisfying because I can jump in, get a draft in a day, and feel I’ve gotten to something compelling.

There are a lot of fiction writers I love because they are, like poets, concerned with all of the possibilities and nuances of language. Laura Kasischke is a poet and novelist, and you can tell. Denis Johnson writes brilliant sentences (and is, or was, also a poet). Lorrie Moore is a metaphorical wizard. Many of Lydia Davis’s shorter stories seem like prose poems. The best prose has a lot of poetry in it.

S&S: Which poets should we be on the lookout for?

KA: Well, first I’d say to read some of the poets who have earned a place in the canon for good reason: Herbert, Donne, Blake, Keats, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson. Bishop and Larkin. Those are some who come immediately to mind. As for contemporary poets: A student of mine, Tracey Knapp, is coming out with a first book called Mouth that’s very good. Deviants by Peter Kline, another first book, is both formally accomplished and emotionally complex. Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, which came out a handful of years ago, is a beautiful book. Anthologies are really helpful if someone’s looking to see whose voice speaks to them. Or new poets can do what I did: Go to the bookstore (assuming you can find one), browse the shelves, and pick books whose covers interest you. That’s how I started, and I found some terrific poets that way, before Google came along. Just dive in. The water’s fine.

We want to thank Kim Addonizio for being so good and taking the time to answer our questions.

The Future Therapist Asks About Rape

This morning, I watched a woman shatter
the thin ice on the pavement. I made the bed,
tucked in the sheets, and in the window,
I saw reflected my mother’s face.

Men in my life walked in and out of the rooms,
tramping snow. My mother shushed me,
and my father with his powder keg hands
pulled up a pair of clean black socks.

It isn’t what you think.
My father was a soldier.
He taught me nothing about men.

They are an empty barrel.
You’re not supposed to look into
a gun you dismantle

to try and see its parts.

Cathy Linh Che, from Split (Alice James Books, 2014)

I’ve been thinking a lot about revision lately and how to determine what makes a poem work. How do we know when we’ve fiddled with it for too long? How do we know exactly what it needs for all of the pieces to click into place? This poem helps me to understand the importance of image and subtlety.

The poem isn’t very long, but there’s a lot going on. The tone is set by the title. We know this is a serious poem, a painful and probably even violent poem. But we don’t know how explicit it will be, how precise. We might even wonder if we want to read a rape poem. But Che turns our expectations upside down because we don’t expect the images she gives us: thin ice, making the bed, a father pulling on his socks. We begin with an image of violence that’s juxtaposed with an image that makes us feel safe (a woman shattering on ice and a woman making the bed, then powder keg hands and the pulling up of clean socks). This juxtaposition tears down our expectations without losing the pain or sense of violence. It’s painful to think of a woman shattering or hands like powder kegs. At the same time, it’s familiar to think of making a bed and watching our fathers put on their socks.

The images are subtle contrasts that draw us further into the poem. They also function to create the turn in the poem. Even though we’ve been given images that we weren’t really expecting, we’re surprised even more when we come to the line “It isn’t what you think. / My father was a soldier. / He taught me nothing about men.” We read about the powder keg hands and think we’ve figured it out: her father raped her. But that is not the case. This turn pushes us into the last four jarring lines:

They are an empty barrel.
You’re not supposed to look into
a gun you dismantle

to try and see its parts.

Wait. Are we still talking about the rape? Or is this the author addressing the therapist? It’s both, isn’t it? The violence of the image of what could happen if we look into a dismantled gun (we get shot), is juxtaposed with the feeling that we’re being told all of our assumptions are wrong. This makes me wonder, is the poem really about rape or is it about the way we treat victims of rape?

The questions and subtle imagery in this poem have helped me to rethink some of my own work and Che’s poems have inspired me to approach my poems and revisions in a new way.

-S

Holding Pattern, Lifted

No language but our own shabby
inventory—your childhood mattress,
2 chipped mugs, 4 predawn sex acts.

No audience but the anorexic air
of Mexico City. Your neighbor
with the incontinent bulldog was there

on the landing. And the other,
the willowy hairdresser you must’ve
been fucking, was there on the stoop

appraising my bad bottle job.
Imposter queen becalmed in her
rented coronation barge, I flaunted

what we were like a liability.
Those scandalous four-inch sandals
tore a smile of blisters across my ankles

until I wanted to be carried home
past the construction on Condesa, to let
the jackhammer’s throes rattle my jaw.

Cones changed the flow of traffic.
Flight attendants took the newspapers
away before the flight landed.

If I’d known then, husband, that you’d fly
due north to find me gloveless in this
ordinary Midwest of hunting rifles and English,

I might’ve ambled through the loudest plazas
in earthquake weather, or kissed the hairdresser
with a mouthful of wax and sympathy.

I might’ve climbed to the rim of the black
volcano and offered the fear I nursed
like a chubby baby to the fire

that will swallow us all, eventually.

—Kara Candito, from Spectator (The University of Utah Press 2014)

When I was unemployed in Chicago, I used to feel such guilt wandering around the city when I should be applying for jobs, and when I was applying for jobs in a safe little coffee shop in my neighborhood, I felt guilty for not exploring this great city of the big shoulders or visiting the beach along Lake Michigan. I said to my father (because I was still talking to him), “If I just knew for sure that I’d find a job, I could enjoy my unemployment a little more.”

There wasn’t a job for me in Chicago, not in the dozens of jobs I applied for in the six months I lived there, except a short-lived retail job, and after moving home to Kentucky for a year and a half, I am just now settling into my condo in Lafayette, Louisiana as a soon-to-be PhD student. But this poem, as descriptive and specific as it is—“2 chipped mugs, 4 predawn sex acts,” “Your neighbor / with the incontinent bulldog,” and my favorite, “Those scandalous four-inch sandals / tore a smile of blisters across my ankles”—is universal. “If I’d known then,” the speaker writes, which is probably how we all feel. If I’d known then, I would’ve been a little bit more scandalous. I wouldn’t have been so tame. The speaker has an ending to her uncertainty: “husband.” I still don’t know if this is my ending or another open-ended period, but I do know “that fire will swallow us all, eventually.” No time for tameness.

-R

Structure and Style Interviews Carmen Giménez Smith

When we started brainstorming for Structure and Style’s third birthday on July 22, we wondered what else we could do differently. And then S had a great idea: let’s talk to some of our favorite poets! (If they’d let us.) Carmen Giménez Smith was the first to graciously accept our request for an interview via email. Here, she responds to R’s questions, especially regarding Milk & Filth.

Structure and Style: I noticed allusions and references to older poets and poems while reading several of your poems: “Lady Lazarus” (you explicitly mention Sylvia Plath in “Parts of an Autobiography,” too), “The Road Not Taken,” “Diving into the Wreck,” and Sharon Olds. How much of your time is spent reading classic/canon poets versus your contemporaries? Which “master poets” do you recommend every aspiring poet study?

Carmen Giménez Smith: When I first started working on this book, I thought of how influential those poets you mentioned were, and I also wanted to acknowledge how important the canonical feminist anthology No More Masks was to my feminism and my aesthetic, so I spent a lot of time thinking about poets who were formative for me. I actually do read a lot more contemporary poetry than canonical poetry, although when I need to return to a specific comfort or influence I’ll read the poets that shaped me. The poets you mentioned are very important, and so are Gillian Conoley, Emily Dickinson, Louise Glück, Mina Loy, Stéphane Mallarmé, Alice Notley, Alicia Ostricker, Wallace Stevens, Cesar Vallejo, and James Wright. I return to again and again: Rosa Alcalá, Daniel Borzutsky, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Julie Carr, Eduardo Chirinos, Shane McCrae, Danielle Pafunda, Claudia Rankine, Denise Riley, Sarah Vap, C.D. Wright.

S&S: What is your writing process for each poem? Do you start with a line, an image, a theme, or an idea? And does it vary from poem to poem?

CGS: I start with sound, with words. The words fall into syntactical slots that also offer me music, and then I try to find how to move ideas and images forward. I’m often at work on a couple of books at a time. It keeps me from stalling, and because each book is its own empire of language, the books stay more or less really different from one another.

Some poems happen because I have a question, like a divination, and so I try and write whatever’s in my head then push it towards some structure.

S&S: Do you revise as you write or do you try to get an entire first draft of a poem on the page and then revise as a whole?

CGS: I try to get what I think is a whole draft, a piece of writing that has some type of rhetorical arc, and I work on it as a completely provisional space, a place to push past the surface of a poem.

S&S: How do you determine the form a poem will take?

CGS: I’m lineating a poem right now that started as a prose poem. I changed it to free verse stanzas of nine because the poem has a pattern that lasts about that long. I needed the tension of an end stop to work as a transition in a couple of places. Because the sentences are variations of one another, I’m looking at ending mostly on end-stopped lines to comment on that music. I don’t know if any of these decisions will stick, but that really is how I work these things out: little micro-changes that create effects on the language.

S&S: In reading “Parts of an Autobiography,” I was struck by how much your poem resembled creative nonfiction (thus the “autobiography” in the title). How did you decide to make this a 111-part list poem instead of, say, an extended essay like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets? (Or would you consider this a hybrid of genres?) How long did this poem take to write and revise?

CGS: The poem is very influenced by work like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and I actually started it to describe the poetics behind another manuscript, what I was thinking of as the radical autobiography of artists like Ana Mendieta. It really was an exercise to push into what felt confessional and shameful about my female identity. The book itself is an homage to the aesthetic experience of second wave feminism, especially when it came to writers of color. This poem took a couple of years to revise. I wrote much of the early stuff very quickly and showed a different form of it that included photos to my friend and hero Rosa Alcalá, and she gave me really wise guidance. I took out a lot of the fripperies that was holding it back. I was in the midst of the editorial process with Arizona when my sister committed suicide, so I added her to it, and I think a much a clearer vision of rage and purpose.

S&S: You seem very honest when you, as the speaker, call yourself a “Shitty Parent” in “Parts of an Autobiography,” or when you say of your daughter in “Rosy Complexion,” “She will be filthy.” (I read that line as both literal and metaphorical—messy, complex.) I was cheering you on throughout these poems. On some level, do you worry that confessional writing like this, especially because it is feminist and honest, will be held against you in jobs/job searches or with other parents? Do you ever struggle with self-censorship?

CGS: My struggle with self-censorship is primarily how to quash it. I’m trying to create political circumstances for myself that might feel like a sort of ship has sailed, that I’m on my way toward really difficult and profound work. I think I’m old enough to appreciate being an acquired taste, something that was more difficult when I was younger, and more afraid.

I was also reared on the work of artists like Ana Mendieta, Nan Goldin, Karen Finley, Francesca Goldman, and Holly Hughes, Divine and also comedians like Joan Rivers once upon a time, Phyllis Diller, and others. All of them drew power from their vulnerabilities.

S&S: What is the role you see between politics and poetry?

CGS: I think they’re inextricable. Being a writer hasn’t exempted me from the obligations that I have to my fellow citizen, in fact, I think it heightens my responsibility because I have a type of agency that fewer and fewer women have.

S&S: When I wrote about "Something New" on Structure and Style, I said that it was not overtly feminist and yet it very much fit into your feminist worldview as apparent in your other poems. Are you ever conscious of projecting this worldview, or is it so ingrained in you that it comes out naturally? Do you have any advice for someone like me, who is struggling to be true to her worldview/politics in her writing?

CGS: My intention was for this book to be overtly feminist, to summon up the spirits of the second wave, so my intention was to be very overt. It’s very difficult to be a feminist when so many people oppose it over superficial questions. I’m mother to a young girl who’s about to enter the Internet as a community. Although the Internet has been an important space for feminist discourse, it’s also the site for some out of this world misogyny that gets adapted into worldviews. I want to oppose those worldviews for my daughter and my sisters’ daughters. I think the stakes are so high for women right now. All feminist victories have been hard won and easily lost because of a sexist system that’s being actively reinforced by both the government and the private sector. I guess I would say that this is your chance to stand up against that.

S&S: My co-creator of Structure and Style is particularly interested in the function of the poetic line, and she really pays attention to where the lines are broken. She was particularly intrigued by your poem “And the Mouth Lies Open” and “Radicalization,” among many others. What, do you think, is the function of each individual line in a poem and how do you consciously work to strengthen the lines of your poems?

CGS: “And the Mouth Lies Open” was meant to evoke the line length of poets like H.D. and Mina Loy. It’s a little bit about Virginia Woolf.

S&S: In consideration of the poetic line, then what is the strongest aspect of poems that contain prose-length lines or even lists of statements (like “Epigrams for a Lady” and “Parts of an Autobiography”)? To my co-creator, it reads like each statement or numbered item could be a poem itself, but is there more to it than that?

CGS: I like the silence that those long sentences have as their own space; I love the sentence. I love the opposing force of the beginning and end of a sentence, and that epigrammatic force really brings it on. I learned how to really use it from the poet Mark Wunderlich. The numbers in “Parts of an Autobiography” are more functional as visual elements. I wanted them to summon up a treatise, but the tedium of them out loud is too much to ask of an audience. I’m still working that out.

S&S: I noticed a lot of references to pop culture in your poems—Lolita, trigger warning(s) as a title of a poem, the Black Eyed Peas (lovely lady lumps), Ana Mendieta. What’s the link between poetry and pop culture?

CGS: I was reared on pop culture. I think Buzzfeed lists are poems. It’s the landscape of my dreams, so I use it in my work. A lot of contemporary American poetry (and European poetry) through the 20th century has had a deep relationship with pop culture, so surely it’s filtered to me through Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Denise Duhamel’s Barbies, and Claudia Rankine’s screens.

S&S: There’s constant discussion about whether or not poetry matters, and as a craft, it is constantly evolving and changing. What do you think is the one most important reason everyone should read poetry? Where do you think poetry is headed in the next tend years?

CGS: Poetry is access. Poetry makes you smarter.

S&S: Which poets should we be on the lookout for?

CGS: I’m very lucky because as an editor and publisher, I get to read tons of amazing poetry and sometimes publish it.

Poets I’m obsessing over this summer: Lucas de Lima, Kim Hyesoon, Angela de Hoyos, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Krystal Languell, and Daniel Tiffany.

We want to thank Carmen Giménez Smith for being such a badass lady poet and for letting us conduct this interview through email.

My Mother as Penelope

Lemon rinds in the dried brook bed,
fireflies failing to light —

All, like me —
suffer the occasional drought.

Outside my window,
no islands of foliage

block my view to the shore,
no river noises trickle in.

Listen, after years of waiting,
I tire of the myth I’ve become.

If I am not an ocean,
I am nothing.

If I am not a world unto itself,
I need to know it.

—Shara McCallum, from This Strange Land (Alice James Books 2011)

I know plenty of myths: the ones, like this one of Odysseus and his ever patient wife, that I gathered in high school, the ones I remember from the handful of times I went to church as a child (fish to feed a hundred men, not counting, obviously, women and children), and the ones I’ve learned to tell myself (you look good in that sweater, if you don’t know, it won’t hurt you). But in this poem by Shara McCallum, the very word myth begins to feel like a knife at my throat.

For the last year, I’ve been tutoring an 11-year-old who, being too smart for his own good, spent three solid months engrossed in Greek mythology, attempting to memorize the Greek gods and heroes, fascinated mostly by the violent outbursts and adventures of these mythic characters. In trying to incorporate this fascination into my work with him, I asked him to define myth. His answer was, as you’d expect from a preteen, pretty one-dimensional: an untrue story.

Isn’t that all fiction, then? I asked him.

Fine, he responded. Maybe myths are like legends, things meant to scare us. Untrue stories that lots of people know.

In McCallum’s poem, the myth of the dutiful wife Penelope — that story lots of people know — is invoked and almost turned on its head, as Penelope is no longer a character within the myth, but the myth itself. What does it mean for a person, and more importantly, for a woman to become a myth in and of herself?

Before I’d actually read this or any of McCallum’s poems, I heard her speak at an AWP panel on female poets and mentoring. On the panel, emerging female poets sat with their mentors and discussed the benefits and necessities of female poets working together. The panel was interesting enough, but it was McCallum who really caught my attention. She insisted that there was a difference between being a woman who wrote poetry and being a female poet concerned with female experience. At the time, I was knee deep in completing my thesis and trying (and failing and failing) to define “female poetry,” a term I’d borrowed from an Adrienne Rich essay and was attempting to apply to my own work. McCallum, during the panel quoted Eaven Boland and for a second, one of those cartoon lightbulbs lit above my head: “In this new life, I had acquired a subject. But no readymade importance had been ascribed to it. I had to do that for myself […] the woman providing the experience, the poet the expression.”

Afterwards, I kept seeing McCallum everywhere: she was a few tables away at the nearby California Pizza Kitchen when I went for dinner that night, I walked right by her in the hallway on the way to an early morning panel, and finally, I saw her in the ladies’ room. It was then, as she dried her hands in the crowded bathroom, that I stopped her, mispronounced her name, and awkwardly told her how much I had appreciated her words. She was unspeakably kind, and not 15 minutes later, I went downstairs to the book fair and bought her book.

That night back at my hotel room, I read it cover to cover. “My Mother as Penelope,” even on that first read of This Strange Land, stuck out at me in neon. Here, said the flashing orange sign, is a female poem.

The first half of the poem builds up an incredible image of absence and decay: the brook is dry, the lemons fruitless, even the fireflies fail. The speaker of the poem passively — almost in hindsight, only as a weak park of the collective — compares the drought, the lifelessness to herself: “All like me / suffer the occasional drought.” This passiveness, this absence is why the fifth stanza really does take a knife to my throat. Suddenly, out of the drought, the quiet of the previous stanzas, the speaker calls on us directly to listen, commands us: “Listen, after years of waiting, / I tire of the myth I’ve become.” The endless waiting we know so well from Penelope’s story now becomes not a sacrifice or a show of the faith of a dutiful wife, but a lifeless drought without light.

When I finally managed to define what I meant by a female poem in the months after first reading McCallum, I said that it was a poem that dealt with the standing up and the proclamation of self. The priority and importance of self is not a given for women; Penelope is only defined by her devotion to Odysseus, not by the desires she might have for own life. The domestic spaces and historical spaces and everyday spaces given to and put upon and even chosen by women necessitate a bowing down of self to someone else. Penelope must wait for Odysseus and in the meantime, her life stops. I watch my female students do this everyday: stay quiet when men are speaking, let boys lead presentations, say “I think” before they give their ideas. The journey to acknowledging or maybe more aptly to the realization of self is a female journey.

In “My Mother as Penelope,” the speaker shouts that realization. In the final lines of the poem, she claws at self; “If I am not a world unto itself, / I need to know it.” I am struck every time by the word “need,” by the inherent desperation for self in that final cry.

-Emily Lake Hansen

*Emily Lake Hansen is the author of the chapbook The Way the Body Had to Travel (dancing girl press, 2014). Her poetry has appeared in Atticus Review, The Fertile Source, and Dressing Room Poetry Journal among others and is forthcoming in Mermaids in the Basement, an all mermaid poetry anthology from Sundress Publications. She received an MFA from Georgia College & State University where she currently teaches. She otherwise lives, works, and plays a lot of Chutes and Ladders in Atlanta.

——

On the first Sunday of every month, Structure and Style features a guest post by a fantastic writer. This is our eleventh month with a guest post.

After Twelve Days of Rain

I couldn’t name it, the sweet
sadness welling up in me for weeks.
So I cleaned, found myself standing
in a room with a rag in my hand,
the birds calling time-to-go, time-to-go.
And like an old woman near the end
of her life I could hear it, the voice
of a man I never loved who pressed
my breasts to his hips and whispered
“My little doves, my white, white lilies.”
I could almost cry when I remember it.

I don’t remember when I began
to call everyone “sweetie,”
as if they were my daughters,
my darlings, my little birds.
I have always loved too much,
or not enough. Last night
I read a poem about God and almost
believed it—God sipping coffee,
smoking cherry tobacco. I’ve arrived
at a time in my life when I could believe
almost anything.

Today, pumping gas into my old car, I stood
hatless in the rain and the whole world
went silent—cars on the wet street
sliding past without sound, the attendant’s
mouth opening and closing on air
as he walked from pump to pump, his footsteps
erased in the rain—nothing
but the tiny numbers in their square windows
rolling by my shoulder, the unstoppable seconds
gliding by as I stood at the Chevron,
balancing evenly on my two feet, a gas nozzle
gripped in my hand, my hair gathering rain.

And I saw it didn’t matter
who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone.
The black oily asphalt, the slick beauty
of the Iranian attendant, the thickening
clouds—nothing was mine. And I understood
finally, after a semester of philosophy,
a thousand books of poetry, after death
and childbirth and the startled cries of men
who called out my name as they entered me,
I finally believed I was alone, felt it
in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo
like a thin bell. And the sounds
came back, the slish of tires
and footsteps, all the delicate cargo
they carried saying thank you
and yes. So I paid and climbed into my car
as if nothing had happened—
as if everything mattered — What else could I do?

I drove to the grocery store
and bought wheat bread and milk,
a candy bar wrapped in gold foil,
smiled at the teenaged cashier
with the pimpled face and the plastic
name plate pinned above her small breast,
and knew her secret, her sweet fear—
Little bird. Little darling. She handed me
my change, my brown bag, a torn receipt,
pushed the cash drawer in with her hip
and smiled back.

—Dorianne Laux

When I am frustrated with poetry, or lost and unsure of how to feel, or heartbroken even, I turn to poets that I already know and love. Last week, I read Dorianne Laux’s collection, What We Carry (BOA Editions, 1994), for some guidance—even if I didn’t know what I was seeking.

It’s hard to describe the muted autopilot I’ve been on lately, the way I’ve spent my days packing up boxes and boxes of books (47 or 48 so far), going to the gym in order to prepare my body for the sacrifice of moving, going through the mundane motions I’ve been through so many times before: choosing an internet provider, rerouting my subscriptions, setting up university accounts. When I move this weekend/next week, I will have lived in four cities and states in two and a half years. In total, I will have lived in Kentucky, Missouri, France, Georgia, Chicago, and Louisiana. And every time I move, even when my mom and a best friend or two helps, I move alone.

This poem knocked me out of autopilot. Whether I have been feeling “the sweet / sadness welling up in me for weeks” or not (or nothing), I am reminded what it feels to be alone. Especially the two lines at the beginning of the fourth stanza—“And I saw it didn’t matter / who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone.” Look at that line break. The words “it didn’t matter” are set off, separated from love. The second line ends with the word “alone.”

I am alone.

This poem reminds me that when I am done packing and driving 850 miles to Louisiana, when my mom and my best friend leave, when I am left alone with my boxes and my two cats in a new town where I barely know anyone, I will feel it again: “I finally believed I was alone, felt it / in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo / like a thin bell.” I am excited about moving, but I am alone. And I wish I could say I’m scared of this lonely feeling again, but it is almost comforting in its pervasiveness. I’d rather feel alone than numb, and I do now.

-R

Happy Birthday, Structure and Style!

Today, we turn three! Three! We’re still toddlers, but we’re out of the terrible twos. We can walk and talk and run—and we’re potty-trained. (Did I just take that metaphor too far?) And we want to celebrate all of the things that we love: poets and poems and poetry lovers, line breaks and images and metaphors, and sound, sound, sound.

It’s been a hell of a year, both personally and professionally. S has been a featured poet in multiple readings, and I’ve gotten into a PhD program for English and Creative Writing. (I’m moving in less than two weeks!) But more importantly, Structure and Style has more readers than ever before, especially because we were featured on Tumblr Tuesday for National Poetry Month. (We still don’t know how to thank you, tumblr!) We also have more writers, because we’ve been featuring a guest star on the first Sunday of every month. We love the variety of voices we’re seeing and the things our poet friends are teaching us.

To celebrate our third birthday, we’ve got a few interviews with some of our favorite poets lined up for this week and next. Here’s a list of twenty of our favorite contemporary poets. Can you guess which ones we’ll be interviewing?

Check back this week and next to read our interviews!

Thank you for loving poetry, too.

-R (and S)