Bunkong Tuon: An Immigrant

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I was appalled when President Trump signed, last Friday, the Executive Order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which temporarily denies entry for refugees and immigrants and, more specifically, bans those coming from seven Muslim-majority countries. My family and I were part of the second-wave of refugees from Southeast Asia in the early 1980s. After the Khmer Rouge regime fell on January 7, 1979, my family left Cambodia for the refugee camps in Thailand. It took us about three years to come to America. We crossed Cambodian jungles, avoided landmines, escaped Thai soldiers, lived in refugee camps in Thailand, with dust, canned foods, dirty water, the stench that came from no plumbing, and fear. We took tests, had our bodies scrutinized by medical professionals, were interviewed, to make sure we were clean and healthy before we could enter the United States. More than thirty five years later, I am now associate professor of English and director of Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. My daughter was born on American soil. I am an American, and I am also a refugee. I support an America that welcomes immigrants and refugees regardless of national origin.

Below is a poem that describes my family’s harrowing journey through the Cambodian jungles in search of safety and a better future.

Fragments

(First published in the Journal of War, Literature, and the Arts)

I.
The night sky lit like fireworks,
the air smells of burnt skin.
Mothers cry for children.
The boy clutches
his grandmother’s body.
Bodies fall,
pieces of someone—
a neighbor, a friend,
an aunt, maybe.
The boy asks,
“Where is Mother?”
The jungle is silent.
The earth stands still.
II
The boy awakens
from a nightmare.
The bomb, a firebird,
spreads its wings.
The boy is panting,
sweat dampens the earth.
Somewhere in this mist and fog,
outside the UN refugee camp,
a woman howls.
And the boy
thinks about his mother.
III
In our apartment, in Upstate New York,
we watch fireworks from our living room window.
The college where we teach is celebrating—
aging alumni and retired professors
gather under the boom.
I sit back on the futon
trying to rest, eyes closed, sweating.
My fiancée looks out the window,
“There’s something about fireworks,”
she says to me. “Something
about them that appeals to everyone.”

***

Bunkong Tuon teaches literature and writing at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He is the author of the full-length poetry collection, Gruel (NYQ Books, 2015). His second poetry book, And So I Was Blessed, which examines his experiences leading a semester abroad in Viet Nam, is forthcoming.

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An Interview with Dale Bridges

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Felix Morgan sat down with Dale Bridges over pancakes to discuss his current projects, writing processes, and the rather gloomy state of the world in general.

Felix: Tell me about your work as a journalist.

Dale: I had come back from Prague and was sleeping on my friends couch in Colorado. I had failed to write a novel and needed a job, but also didn’t really want to work. I had never done any journalism, I hadn’t even done yearbook in high school. But I had a couple of freelance articles in a Canadian magazine and a few other random things so I put together a portfolio and sent them to a couple local places. Boulder Weekly had just had someone quit and they needed someone right away.

I had lied about all my experience so when I started out just editing, I was googling terms I didn’t know. Somehow this turned out okay and I got a food editor position. Which is hilarious because I don’t know anything about food. But I was mostly just editing and I must have done okay because I managed to get a weekly beer column. That was a great gig, I’d leave the office to get free beer and start my weekend a bit early.

I eventually angled for a humor and pop-culture column where I was allowed to write pretty much whatever I wanted and that worked out really well for everyone.

Felix: How do you get your ideas?

Dale: Getting ideas is the only part of writing that is easy for me. I have ideas all the time. Especially when it comes to satire. We live in a ridiculous world were Donald Trump is running for president. The ideas are all over. That can be hard, though. I used to have a problem where I’d have a great idea and I’d sit down and write a few paragraphs and then it would get bogged down. And there was always another idea I could jump on to. I had so many unfinished things. At a certain point I just had to force myself to finish things.

These days I sit on ideas a lot longer than I used to. Like if an idea keeps coming back there’s really something to it. I explore more parts of it, characters that would be part of it, and let it grow legs. The longer I let it marinate, the easier it is to commit to it and follow through. But I seldom know how it will end. Even when I think I know, I’m usually wrong.

Felix: What are you working on now?

Dale: I recently wrote a manuscript for a Sci-Fi novel in just seven days but I’m not sure it’s salvageable. It was important to me to finish because I’ve failed at novel writing three other times. But I’ve already moved on to another novel and I’m about 50,000 words into that one. It’s very different. More literary fiction with a comedic edge.

It’s based on a guy living in Colorado and working for a newspaper so there’s a lot of real world-experience there.

Felix: Is there any thread that ties all your work together?

Dale: The humor. There always has to be a comedic element. I can’t write without that. I can’t really even live without that because it’s the way I process and cope with the world. The world itself, and most of my stories, can be pretty depressing. Without being able to inject humor into situations I would have a lot of trouble producing anything.

But each project is different too. You take something like Sci-Fi and it’s going to be a lot more broad, a lot more about larger social issues. There are personal relationships too, of course, but the larger idea is where I start with something like that. Literary stuff is the opposite. The personal relationships are going to be at the forefront and they might cast some light on larger societal issues.

I like having multiple things going at a time so I can switch back and forth. Using different tools and having a different focus can help me avoid getting burnt out.

Felix: Is there any genre or topic that you would never write?

Dale: I used to be a lot snootier when I was young. I didn’t even want to do journalism. I really like to think that I have to be passionate about a story to be able to work on it. To be able to sustain interest in it long enough to finish. I can’t imagine having that level of passion and interest in a genre like romance or mystery. But, then again, it’s all a matter of perspective. If someone threw $50,000 at me I’d sure as hell come up with 50,000 words of a romance novel.

Felix: What’s your favorite part of being a writer?

Dale: Not the writing process itself, thats full of fear and self-doubt and loathing. But the publishing process is great. Finding out after all your hard work that someone liked what you did, seeing review and ratings. Hearing that half shock in your friends voice when they say something you wrote is actually good. But I don’t think all those good things weigh out over the bad and so ultimately writing is at least a good bit masochistic. Some people say they enjoy every part of the process. I hate those people. I have to write, it’s how I process and deal with the world around me. It’s like forcing your loathing and your depression about the world into a constructive form.

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Notes on the Women’s March by Leslie McGrath

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Notes on the Women’s March

 

By Leslie McGrath

 

It’s the day after Trump has taken office and I’ve just marched for the first time. I didn’t make it to Washington D.C. or New York City. I just drove ten minutes from my well-heeled, overwhelmingly white town on the Connecticut River to another small town, where I met my friend, the poet Marilyn Nelson. Together we walked—she wearing her “Make Racists Ashamed Again” cap and me my “Make Racists Afraid Again” t-shirt—to the Old Saybrook town hall.

Marilyn and I were counted as protesters #610 and #611 of what would eventually become a protest march of nearly 1100 people. It’s a drip compared to the hundreds of thousands of marchers in cities across the U.S. and the globe, but 1100 people marching up and down the sidewalks of a small town feels like a lot. Marilyn’s was the only Black face.

I’ve never marched before. Not for the environment, not for the Equal Rights Amendment, not for Planned Parenthood. I’ve wanted to. I’ve come close. But I live with chronic PTSD and depression from childhood sexual abuse that often make it difficult for me to leave the house, much less join a chanting crowd of protesters. I just haven’t been able to muster whatever it is that people need in order to not feel overwhelmed and panicked.

When Marilyn mentioned that there’d be a “sister march” close by, I wondered if I were chickening out by not driving to the larger events in Hartford or New Haven. There, the crowds would be larger and more racially and economically diverse. Then I thought “Why not? This is where I live. It’s my community.”  So we joined the group of women old and young, some pushing strollers, others holding signs calling for impeachment,  supporting Planned Parenthood, the NEA, environmental protection, and more. And there were men, yes. A young man wearing a wool cap and a bushy beard told me my shirt was awesome and asked for a hug. It was at that moment that I realized that I, a gray haired woman about to turn sixty, was an elder in his eyes. It had taken me this long to make it to a march.

I drove home a couple of hours later and posted the few photos on Facebook I’d taken that I hadn’t ruined with close-ups of my thumb. I was flush with a small flame of accomplishment at this ordinary act of civic mindedness. As the likes and supportive comments began to appear, I scrolled through my feed reading posts from friends. Many were marching in D.C., Chicago, New York City and elsewhere. Others watching live news feeds from around the world expressed enthusiasm and wonder. But here and there I came across posts by younger feminists calling out white women who, like me, were marching for the first time. Where were we all these years when Black men and women were protesting and risking physical harm on the streets? Our white privilege had allowed us to ignore their pain. Our white fragility was now the reason for our whining, er, protesting.

I’ve heard these criticisms before. They’re legitimate questions and legitimate issues for thorough, thoughtful discourse. But to toss them into the global protests on the very day they’re occurring is like tossing a concussion grenade into a crowd—it’s a painful distraction. No one owes an explanation for the nature of their activism.

 

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: “LET THEM NOT SAY” BY JANE HIRSHFIELD – A POEM OF SOLIDARITY & PROTEST

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from LET THEM NOT SAY
By Jane Hirschfield:

Let them not say: we did not see it.
We saw.

Let them not say: we did not hear it.
We heard.

Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke,
we witnessed with voices and hands.



READ THE FULL POEM HERE and LISTEN HERE:


Today’s poem originally appeared via The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series.


Poet’s Note: “This poem was written well before [the 2017] Presidential Inauguration and without this event in mind. But it seems a day worth remembering the fate of our shared planet and all its beings, human and beyond.” —Jane Hirshfield, via The Academy of American Poets

Editor’s Note: Today I defer to Jane Hirshfield and The Academy of American Poets. Listen to the poet read this important work of protest. Read the poem in its entirety.

Today’s poem is dedicated to those who are marching with the Million Woman March and those who stand with us in solidarity.

Think. Feel. Rise up. Resist.

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: ALEX BEN-ARI

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I ASK FORGIVENESS
By Alex Ben-Ari
Translated by Vivan Eden


I ask forgiveness of all the poems
Born misshapen because of my desire to write them
I ask forgiveness of all the people
Whose lives were disrupted by my desire to influence
And of the world
For the superfluous things added to it
And those unnecessarily severed
Because of my lust for symmetry
And happy endings.

I ask forgiveness of my mother
For not knowing how to love her in her misery
Of my children
For the moments when I don’t want them
Of my wife for every time I was too small
To contain her love.

I am lighter than a falling leaf
I am softer than grass
Now a small bird could
Build its nest in me.



Today’s poem originally appeared in Haaretz and appears here today with permission from both the poet and translator.


Alex Ben-Ari is 43 years old. His debut volume of poetry, Concealed Seas (Yamim Samuiim), was awarded honorable mention at the 2008 Metulla Poetry Festival and the 2015 Helicon/Ramy Ditzanny Poetry Prize. His second book, The Gatepost (Korat Hasha’ar), published in 2015, is composed of his original Hebrew haiku. His third book, planned to be published during 2017, is a volume of conceptual poetry.
Alex is one of the six members of the “Waning Moon” blog and publishing house dedicated to Haiku in Hebrew. He is also co-editor (with poets Gilad Meiri and Noa Shkargy) of Nanopoetica, a literary journal of short form literature.

Editor’s Note: Part personal, part pastoral, part ars poetica, today’s poem is emotive, honest, and raw. The poem’s I approaches the reader — and the page — seeking forgiveness. Free from false modesty, free from pride, the poem’s I is humble, admitting failings as poet and father, husband and son. The confessional, narrative nature of the poem is carefully constructed within the framework of the lyric, while the elegant, gentle translation midwives the essence of the poem as it crosses the borders of language. As the reader, we cannot help but be moved — to compassion, to transcendence, to forgiveness and beyond.

Want more from Alex Ben-Ari?
“Ripe Peach,” a poem from Concealed Seas (bi-lingual version)
Haiku poems from The Gatepost (bi-lingual)
Alex Ben-Ari’s official blog (Hebrew)
Ben-Ari lectures (in Hebrew) on music covers
Alex Ben-Ari on Twitter

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Kristy Bowen & Cynthia Manick: A Conversation

CM: So what does the word “Salvage” mean to you and how did it become the title of the collection?

KB: I had been thinking terribly literal (as I always maddeningly do…lol) about “salvage” as the things that get taken from a wreck, the leftovers of a disaster. I guess I didn’t even think about the second meaning — that it also means “to save” until I read the blurb that Laura Madeline Wiseman wrote for me that mentioned it. Since mermaids featured prominently, “salvage” was obviously a sound choice, but other sections of the book, that are definitely more landlocked, sort of resonate with both definitions, whether it’s the “wreck” of illness or bad relationships or just situations that don’t work out in an ideal way.

CM: Both of our books have a strong connection to “body” whether it’s a mermaid in fo0bowenamy lingerie, a woman growing birds in her chest, or the realization that body can be armor or a pathway. How does “body” inform your work and what impression of “body” should readers leave with?

KB: I feel like this whole book is about the body that is endangered, whether it’s the illness-guided poems in the first section or the mermaid guide poems in the last section. There’s endangerment, but also transformation, sometimes through that very same endangerment, particularly in the “ghost landscape” series. I feel like the body in these poems is always at odds with everything, the mind, the language, the environment, probably more so than anything else I’ve ever written.

KB: When I’m reading, I keep thinking your concept of “body” is almost inseparable from language and history, more maybe more of a deep entanglement..I’d also be interested to know how would you describe the “body” in your work as well.

CM: For me body is the first thing people see when they look at you; its color, shape, height, and from there they judge you. Now sometimes the judgment is innocuous – oh she’s a woman, oh she’s brown, oh she reminds me of xyz but at the other times it can be harsh – oh she’s too brown, she’s not that attractive, she has nothing of importance to say, etc. Then the body becomes how you judge yourself, – you walk taller, you slump, you know your best outfit, you model behavior based on levels of safety, and you’re uniquely aware of every exit in a room. In my book, the body is endangered but is aware of its endangerment. So in the poems, the body questions, posits, celebrates, and it mourns.

KB: When reading BH, I was struck so intensely by the lush sensuousness of the first section of poems, the writing so bodily present, but also swimming amidst history, both on a grand scale and a more familial scale. As I moved through the book, I almost got the 0kristysense of a widening lens—first the body and the individual, the sensory, out on through the family and society and history. By the end of the book, you are dealing with larger universal questions and epistemology. Was this intentional? How did you decide the order in which the sections occur? How did you decide on the overall organization of the manuscripts?

CM: When I writing Blue Hallelujahs, I didn’t know I was writing Blue Hallelujahs (lol, if that makes sense). So the poems came first and arrangement came second. I was writing poems sparked by some thing, phrase or memory and then as time went by I was thinking of the speaker’s place in the world. So the poems contain multiple geographies and lenses. And you’re right, in the beginning our world is so small, we only know what surrounds us. But then you look to your senses and that expands, then what expands, expands again to witness. I definitely learned from poets like Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Nikky Finney who taught me to think of the speaker and what’s outside the speaker as two parts happening simultaneously. When organizing the book, it really came down to which poems talked to each other but I knew I wanted to end on “Blue Hallelujahs from the Hands.” Surprisingly the order of the sections came easily like plot points along a curved line, but order within the sections was more difficult. I have to thank Leigh Stein and Brooklyn Poets for their helicopter view because at one point I was just too close to it. Having other poets read it in its entirety helped me decide the organization and remove poems that tripped when reading.

CM: It was difficult for me to think of my work visually when it came to my cover art. What about you? Was your cover art a journey and what was thinking behind it?

KB: Since I bounce back and forth between writing and visual art and do so many cover designs for dancing girl press, it’s usually almost second nature to me, but weirdly, I was drawing a total blank on this project. I thought about just a lot of blue, watercolor abstract seascapes, something oceany. I initially didn’t want a mermaid at all because it seemed so literal. Around the time we started thinking about the cover, also been totally jonesing to get an old-school Sailor Jerry mermaid tattoo somewhere on me (it would be my first, so I’m still procrastinating even now.). When Diane asked me what I was thinking, I sort of offered it off the cuff but was totally convinced when she sent me some options. I mean, really, what is more bodily than a tattoo? She did amazing work with the text and the banner and the whole thing turned out more beautiful than I could have imagined.

KB: Your cover design is so beautiful and so perfect. How did you decide to use that particular piece?

CM: I’ll admit it was tough. I knew I wanted a woman because the books’ identity is formed around woman, body, memory, and race. I wanted a woman looking toward or away because there’s a duality in the word Hallelujah – its praise and its lament and you can’t have one without the other, and you can’t go forward without knowing how to go back. Diane gave me the option of finding my own cover art or having Black Lawrence design something. So I was researching and I had to come to terms with the fact that Blue Hallelujahs isn’t a “light” book (lol) There is definitely levity and joy, but I knew the cover color palette couldn’t be purple, yellow or pink – it just didn’t fit 😉 Then I found the artist Ify Chiejina and she had a gorgeous piece that stopped me in my tracks and it was unavailable (gasp) but she was willing to draw me something similar. So I sent her a picture of my Mom in her 20’s and a couple of chapters from the book. She created silhouette and pattern that’s on the cover. But then Diane, Amy and had to agree on the color palette which took a couple of weeks. I know appreciate all shades of blue!
CM: Tell me about the making of house made of mothers
Sometimes, mother is a nesting doll, a doll-faced mess,
feral beneath her skin and skimping on potatoes.
Sometimes she’s a hotel fire, and I’m on the wrong side
of the door.

KB: The series of poems about houses is very much about houses as actual location, as place, and as a more abstract concept of “home”. So many of us have complicated relationships with our mother’s in terms of body image and eating, so this poem stems from that. The image of the nesting doll at the beginning seemed perfect, how the larger body can be reduced and made smaller and yet somehow still live inside the larger, almost as if women, especially those who have fluctuations in body weight, can have all of these smaller women existing simultaneously inside her. My own mother once stood in front of mirror and admitted that she had never in her whole life been happy in her own body and it kills me. This poems is sort of a dialogue with that.

KB:I feel like place plays such an important role in this book… Can you talk a bit about where you grew up? Where you write from? Places that inspire your work? (past or current)

CM: The poems are set in different parts of the North and South. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, but my parents and relatives are all from South Carolina. So I remember traveling down South on the greyhound bus with my mother. And even though my parents are separated, when they see each other, they always end up talking about who’s alive or dead from back home. (lol) So in a lot of the poems the speaker is looking back, trying to create a tapestry or trace an origin story from overheard conversations, imagined events, recipes, and music. In other poems, the speaker is in Brooklyn or up north and the actions in those poems follows the geography. Also kitchens appear a lot in my work, you’d be surprised at how many things come together and break apart in kitchens.

CM: In the poem codex the love of language is apparent to the reader as you describe perfect words. “I write glottal but I mean goldfish . . Butterfly becoming butter knife becoming flying buttress.” What are some your personal perfect words? Are their words you avoid? One of mine was peaches . . . I used it all the time until someone pointed it out me.

KB: I have certain words I use way too much—girl, dress(es), dark, throat, water. I am conscious of them now and try to be sparing, but they’re still there in places. One of my favorite words is “dulcet” which I use as a name for my online shop, but have never used in a poem because it seems weirdly pretentious and too “poetic.” I think as I get older, I have more and more odd mental misfirings where I can’t recall the perfect word for things, which is where the boggled language in the radio ocularia section stems from.

CM: Your book is a mixture of the physical and the ethereal with lines like “my mouth spewing wildflowers” in contrast to “if only I can sleep late and break shit” (which I love by the way!). How do a balance the real with the fantastical? Is it a conscious decision?

KB: I sometimes say I’ve spent the last 20 years writing poetry that is attempting to get away from, well, poetry. My initial impulse is to fill every piece with as much image as I can layer on, and the prettier the image, the better. Since I have a tendency to do that, I try to balance it with the opposite as much as I can. If I can strike a balance between the “poetic” and the sort of normal stuff that comes out of my mouth on a daily basis, as mundane or crude as it may be, I find I’m happier with the work.

KB: There is so much music here, some of which I’m familiar with and some I went of searching for as I was reading. A publisher I worked with a couple years back (Sundress Publications) had their authors make a mix-tape of musical influences, a sort of soundtrack for our books after publication. I’d be so curious to see your list for this project, including both things already explicitly named and others behind the scenes.

CM: Music is such a big part of my writing life. I usually have it on while I’m writing and when I think of life events, it’s music that I remember first. There are a couple of artists and songs mentioned in the book: Etta James “Groove Me”, Koko Taylor “I’m a Woman”, Louis Jordan “Ain’t You My Baby,” Ella Fitzgerald “Summertime”, Cab Calloway “Minnie the Moocher,” and “Down Down Baby” is chant we used to sing in elementary school; it’s a clapping game. In passing I mention Lena Horne, Diane Ross, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker because those are the artists I’d hear on the radio when the elders got together. But there are also phrases that are sung but aren’t necessarily song like I’ll be your Clementine which is play on “Oh My Darlin Clementine”.

KB:I find the rhythm and internal music so beautifully wrought in your work. Do you compose out loud or more visually when you form your lines?

CM: I actually don’t compose out loud; it’s always via paper from one image to the next. In real life I’m a fast talker (I think I get that from my mom). So I’m careful with line breaks, so that when I’m reading the poem, I know not to read it too fast. Visually I’m also looking at line length because that can inform the breath. For me couplets equals fast past, blocks of texts means “I’m working stuff out” and tercets are usually a rolling narrative. After a poem is page ready, then I’ll start reading out loud and realize yes this part works or no this line feels uneven, or this word feels too rough for a particular line. Luckily the actions of my poet brain equals a poem with rhythm.

CM: I always consider every poem I’ve written a part of me, almost like a baby and you can’t have a favorite baby 😉 That being said, what’s your favorite poem in Salvage? Is there a lynchpin poem; the poem that made you nod and say “this is definitely a collection?”

KB: Oh yeah, that’s tough. I think I can look at older books and say that this or that poem is something that I like better than others, but that’s only after time. My first book, the fever almanac, which was published in 2006 has only a couple of pieces I look at now and think they are solid and the rest are annoying in some way. With SALVAGE, it’s all still pretty new, the majority of those poems having been written in the past 4 or so years, so I’m not sick of them yet.lol. I think the “care and feeding of mermaids” segments in the last section are my favorites though, and the entirety of that section holds the entire book together. I tend to work in small series that I usually publish in small edition zines alongside visual components, so the majority of my longer projects are these small projects stitched together based on similar themes and feel. Only when these smaller projects start to constellate somehow, do I start thinking about pulling them together.

CM: This is your second book with Black Lawrence Press, so I’m curious about your writing practice. I recently attended a talk with the talented Shonda Rhimes who said that you have write everyday and writing is a muscle. Do you agree?

KB: Definitely But like exercising daily I don’t manage to do that very well..lol.. Writing takes a backseat to all the other things I have to do in a day, be they the things required to make a living (I work full-time in an academic library) or other things I do out of passion but that require a big time commitment (like running dancing girl press as a one woman operation). Add in errands, bus commutes to and fro, sleep, etc, writing is the bottom priority and sometimes at the end of the day I’d just rather go to sleep. I had some good momentum going when I wrote the first book Black Lawrence (it was my MFA thesis and, at the time, the third full-length I’d completed.) The books since then have been slower going..I’ll go through spurts where I’m writing and finishing projects, and then months of writing very little. But even if I’m not writing myself, do get to spend a lot of time with the press immersed in other people’s work. I also am usually working visually (I dedicate my weekends to art-related projects, usually collage, but lately painting) so I keep the creative impulses flowing even if I’m not getting things down on paper.

KB: Can you also tell me a bit about your processes as a writer? Do you write daily? What is the spark that sets a poem in motion? How much revision tends to happen after that spark, or do things arrive more or less intact? Has your process changed over time?

CM: I know we’re supposed to have as many hours as Beyoncé but maybe poets need extra hours? I don’t write creatively daily. By day I work at a nonprofit, where I edit and do critical writing. I’m also involved with Jamii publishing and the Soul Sister Revue reading series. So when I’m not writing, I’m engaged creatively. I honestly write best when I’m in workshop or I have a deadline, without a deadline I think I’d over edit and no poems would get finished (lol). In terms of what sets a poem in motion – it’s usually a word or idea that I can’t shake. Images arrive intact but arrangement and focus can take awhile to come together. I have learned to put a poem away after its done. Many of time’s I’ve written something and thought it was great, 24 hours later I realized that it doesn’t work because of a, b or c. My process hasn’t changed that much, but I do send poems for feedback more than I used to; poems can’t live in a vacuum,

CM: As a writer, what experiences have shaped you the most? Is there advice from a writer that served as light bulb moment?

KB: In 1998, I was 23 and taking lit seminar in 20th Century British authors and got to spend a good amount of time with Eliot’s The Wasteland. I had been writing for several years at that point, but not very well, and while I was a grad student in lit and could talk to you endlessly about Bronte novels and feminist theory, outside of a bit of Plath and Sexton, I wasn’t all that acquainted with more contemporary poetry at all and it showed. I had only that spring began reading more current women writers–Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Anne Carson–and those influences combined with the Eliot, sort of formed my poetics for a time and actually made me much, much better as a writer. It was still a few years before I started publishing on the regular and another 5 years until my first book was accepted, but I think of that period as setting the groundwork for whatever my “voice” became as a writer.

KB: What are your three greatest influences (writing, other arts, etc.)? What are 3 current authors or books you are loving now?
CM: In terms of a single writer, I’d have to say Lucille Clifton because she was so great a filling small spaces with infinite emotion. In terms of writing, the workshop experience has really influenced me because I’ve taken workshops with great teachers along with other poets, who were eager to learn and create communities within communities. You forget that people can be magic until you’re in a room and things click. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of clickable moments. Lastly, I want to buy a round for libraries because that’s where I discovered books. I also learned it was okay to be quiet and think because with words you can go anywhere (okay now the theme to Reading Rainbow is in my head lol). Authors I’m loving right now – Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Robin Coste-Lewis, and just started reading the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

KB: What are you working on currently?

CM: I have such a backlog of poems that I started and I need to finish. I just finished a poetry fellowship at the Poets House, so I have poems from that class that are on the editing block and an entire page of prompts given to me by Adam Fitzgerald. I have about 45 to 50 poems outside of Blue Hallelujahs, and I think I was in denial, but I’m pretty sure these poems are on the way to being book number 2. I’m still waiting for the light bulb moment. A while ago I found a 1940 census report that listed my grandmother in her early 20’s, so I’m interested in poems serving as a type of census report or found literature focusing on identity and femininity. Maybe poets are really under cover anthropologists. If people 100 years from now, found our poetry, I wonder what they would say?

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“Between Klimt and Giacometti” by Hélène Cardona

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Between Klimt and Giacometti

by

Hélène Cardona

A room inhabited by paintings
seizes my mind, fluid unpredictable
lives, their secret eliciting
attention, Klimt’s innate aesthetic,
linear statements without tonality.
Their spontaneity transmits essential wisdom.
Dark eye shapes, dominant lip lines, upturned
corner of mouth, eyelashes and iris
connected, vine charcoal ready to tumble
like a Giacometti. Soft focus and impressive
looseness enhance anatomy,
allow latitude for creativity.
Every wall is a beginning.

***

A citizen of the United States, France and Spain, Hélène Cardona is fluent in English, French, Spanish, German, Greek, and Italian. A poet, literary translator, actor, and dream analyst, Hélène is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Hemingway Grant and the USA Best Book Award. Her books include three bilingual poetry collections, most recently Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016) and Dreaming My Animal Selves (Salmon Poetry, 2013), and two translations, Beyond Elsewhere (by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press, 2016) and Ce que nous portons (by Dorianne Laux, Éditions du Cygne, 2014). With Yves Lambrecht she co-tranlsated Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb.

[The above poem was originally published in The Warwick Review and appears in Life in Suspension. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.]

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