Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 21 January 2015

poetry anticipation

2015: year of extreme poetry anticipation

There are just so DAMN many books coming out that I’m excited to read. I can’t even go past the first few months of the year. Here’s an extremely thin but awesome slice of what I’ll be spending my dollars on:

Philip Metres : Sand Opera – January 2015
This is en route to my house from Powell’s right now.
An erasure book that takes on US war and torture – I will be tearing into this.
And that is one fantastic cover!

Cate Marvin : Oracle – March 2015
Lucky me – I got to read this book in proof! And I can’t wait to own a copy to read it again.
Every single poem, every single line, refuses to compromise. And it is funny as hell.

Terrance Hayes : How to Be Drawn – March 2015
If you don’t already know that Terrance Hayes is one of the greatest writers out there, then here’s your chance to get on it.
The Confederate Ghost poem alone is worth the price of admission.

Richard Siken : War of the Foxes – April 2015
Admittedly, I’m a late-comer to the Siken party. But that means I haven’t had to wait a whole decade for the follow up to his amazing Yale Younger debut, Crush.

Simeon Berry : Ampersand Revisited – May 2015
Selected by Ariana Reines for the National Poetry Series in 2013.
I wish I could show the cover for this already, because it’s lovely.
Another book that I’ve had a sneak peek on. (Disclaimer: I had a small hand in its editing.)
You can check out a sample from Ampersand Revisited via the link above, so you don’t have to take my word that these poems combine unflinching emotional honesty with wry poetics and command serious attention.

Bonus! Something that’s already out!
Erin Belieu: Slant Six – November 2014
This gem snuck out just in time for the holidays. Slant Six bursts with wit and song and verve. Even the NYT thinks so.
So you should go buy this right away. Right. Away.

Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 18 November 2014

random half-baked poet thoughts

what are people talking about when they debate whether or not there is ‘music’ in poetry these days? i hear a few things that make me uncomfortable swirling around some of these discussions. among them, education/study – doesn’t that mean (at least in part) that poetry only belongs to the leisure-class? that the music that matters is the music of some particular forefathers -they are always a particular shade of fathers somehow- and all the other less-applauded music isn’t relevant? somehow no one ever seems to think they just might be missing the beat…

or the beat is too literal. too slam. too performance. the sound carries too much meaning and the meaning is too identity, too earnest, too something. fair warning: if a person paints all slam poetry as crap, then i find their judgement super suspect. i ain’t into pistachio ice cream, but that doesn’t mean i don’t like ice cream.

i am not a poet of witness. i am a poet. and if i happen to be sharp enough on a good day to see what’s up over there, so be it. that’s the work. i come from the working class and poetry is work. for a while i let the silencers tell me otherwise, from all sides. if a poet isn’t saying something about who they are and who you are and who we are all collectively, best be suspect. and if a poet refuses to perform, refuses to admit that the audience matters, that poet has already turned their back so what are they witnessing? where’s the work?

and if i have to put in x hours at the dayjob, plus x hours in at pretending to be a functional adult, plus x hours sleeping and eating, plus x hours existing in the world and touching other human lives – if i only have q minutes and hours i steal from other responsibilities to read, nevermind write, poetry, my education and taste and ear become suspect, i guess. but i bemoan the poetry i haven’t read yet. i try to buy it up and fill my shelves so it will be staring me down and demanding my attention in those not-spare seconds. mostly it makes me feel guilty and bad for not having time enough. i read a lot of poetry on the bus. (i learn a lot about what makes a poem pop you in the gut on the bus.) then when someone well-read comes over for a lending spree and says i have lots of poets they’ve never heard of, i feel at least i’m making the effort. one page at a time.

Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 18 July 2014

don’t stop get it get it don’t stop being so futuristic

this week i finally started a side project i’ve had percolating in my head for a while: mashup poems. not a unique idea, of course. and as someone who knows more than i’d like to about permissions issues, i can’t ignore the fact that no matter how well any of these turn out, i will never publish them. but still. mashup poem happy for days.

i love mashups in general for much the same reason i love poetry: unexpected and worthwhile new relationships from the junkyard of the familiar. a mashup works because the dj has winnowed down to a backbone beat that will unify what was once separate; there is pleasure in thoughtful and surprising juxtapositions. like a dj or the editor of an anthology, what i bring to my versions is about selection and compilation.

since these are essentially “for me” writings, what do i get out of my mashup exercises? among the biggest benefits i am noticing are attention to rhythm, to patterns of repetition, and to tension within/between lines without the (other) heavy lifting of generating words and ideas. my poems generally have lots of musical and cultural allusions, and explicitly collaging two or three sets of raw material brings those influences out into the open in ways that let me think about them differently. i don’t get to hide behind my own smokescreens. the poems i write that i value most wrestle with something i can’t fully process or resolve, and these weird little beasts are helping me get at some of that.


“Draft of a Modern Love Poem”

And yet white
is best described by gray
bird by stone
in December

love poems of old
were descriptions of the flesh
described this and that
for instance eyelashes

and yet red
should be described
by gray the sun by rain
poppies in November
lips by night

the most tangible
description of bread
is a description of hunger
in it is
the damp porous core
the warm interior
sunflowers at night
the breasts belly thighs of Cybele

a spring-clear
transparent description
of water
is a description of thirst
it produces a mirage
clouds and trees move into
the mirror

Lack hunger
of flesh
is a description of love
is a modern love poem

by Tadeusz Rozewicz
(Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)


i first encountered this poem because my friend Kim sent it to me. so i love that about it. i’m also a notorious sucker for works in translation, those occluded and dazzling windows. Rozewicz, like another favorite poet of mine who is likely to appear later in this series, died just this spring.

there’s something about defining through negation that tends to grab me. a number of poems i admire do it, and it’s been pointed out to me in my own work (although it’s not something i’ve ever intentionally set out to do). i’ve no Polish, so my comments are truly bound to the work of Krysnski & Maguire. but i love the stark simplicity of this poem, reinforced by the short lines and lack of punctuation. there’s a fairy tale quality to the language, and yet it is utterly moored in the mundane world of human suffering. is “a description of love” necessarily rooted in suffering? does “a modern love poem” require “lack hunger absence”? and if so, what about our world has changed to make this true? how did the flesh become as nothing? the addition of the historical dimension, such a small gesture, is a truly remarkable one, deepening what would otherwise be a limited conception of the love poem, extending the poem’s concerns beyond poetics and love into the realms of history and politics and all the messy affairs of life.

and by the way, what is going on with the white and red business? if both can be “described by gray” then have red and white collapsed into one another? are we losing distinctions that are otherwise perceivable when we understand the world in this way? is this truly “best”? in spite of the authoritative tone, the poem seems to question its own logic, to simultaneously assert and undermine its own thinking. as the lines make hunger a “tangible” object, we can understand the emotional veracity of such a statement while wondering what that means for the reality of bread if and when it does appear. does the bread become insubstantial as hunger takes on a solidity of its own? yes. no. yes? no? is a love poem somehow equal to sustenance? do we collapse those categories too? ought we to?


Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 6 June 2014

favorite poem fridays #1 – “Advice to Young Poets”

for the summer, i’m going to try writing a brief something once a week on a poem that i love. whether or not i keep up with it every week, at least i’ll be going back to some brilliant literature when i do. and we’re off!


“Advice to Young Poets”

Never pretend
to be a unicorn
by sticking a plunger on your head

Martín Espada, from The Republic of Poetry



mid-way through my MFA program, this poem circles around in my brain quite often. Espada captures worlds of humor, anxiety, wisdom, and longing in deceptively casual language. how can you not love this image?

and the quirky “advice” provokes a number of questions: beyond the obvious why try to be a mythical creature with the most mundane of tools?, there’s why get involved with someone else’s shit? what is the job of a poet? what are the tools of a poet’s craft? how should they be employed and to what ends? does a poet have an obligation to reality? is this advice serious despite its playful tone? or does the poem undermine itself with its levity, asking, in fact that one do the opposite? is it truly merely banal and silly to “pretend / to be a unicorn” or could this “sticking” somehow be performed as an act of deliberate and thoughtful rebellion? what does that “never” attach to: being a unicorn or using a plunger or both? should one be a plumber instead of a poet if a plunger is what one has to hand? or should one say fuck the plunger and find some more authentic way to “be a unicorn”?  can i be a poetcan i be a poet? these are, of course, my questions. your mileage will vary.

what i love about this poem is that i spin off in a million directions. “Advice to Young Poets” is, among other things, somehow a window into my head. and yet despite all of the scattered and varied thoughts it engenders, i consistently return to the body of the poem itself. not only because it remains startling after countless visits, but because of the language play. “pretend” and “plunger” are beautiful words to encounter in proximity.

Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 2 May 2014

testing testing testify

stay with me here. i got a lot of unresolved threads to talk about, and none to work out.

who gets to witness? who gets to testify? these questions sound the same, or similar, or synonymous, but listen closer. not all witnesses testify. not all testimonials come from the mouths of witnesses.

who gets to interrogate art?

i write poems about where i come from – physically and imaginatively – and things end up in my art. like Junot Diaz, i’ve heard that old workshop saw about writing in Spanish (does anyone criticize French in literature? technical jargon?). unlike Diaz, i don’t get to retreat (even internally) into come mierda. my cultural reality is not a match for my blood reality. in multiple directions. i know i am not alone in this.

so do i get to witness? do i have the right to testify? is authenticity possible or desirable? is it even that even a word? question words.

QuestLove is part-way through a series of essays philosophizing on hip hop. the essays deserve a wide audience, but the comments are truly amazing. the best comments section i have ever read. the thoughtful, provocative sorts of comments that are so hard to find. in this week’s essay, someone going by the handle “chowtimer” writes: “Ice Cube never rhymed about how he studied architectural drafting.” this in the context of marketability and dehumanization of lyrics. i read an accusation of cashing in, of inauthentic art in this statement. is Ice Cube less real because he went to college? can he no longer participate in the imaginative life of where he comes from? can he witness? can he testify? interrogate art. not a bad thing. not a good thing. interrogate.

why does Stephen Colbert refer to Saul Williams as being from the streets? Williams has never backed down from his education, trained in philosophy and acting at prestigious schools. does he get to witness? testify? is he authentic enough?

so i ask myself these kinds of questions incessantly. i can’t breakdance. but does that mean i can’t write about b-boys at my childhood roller rink? yes and no. when my art gets called to the stand, can i defend it? can i draw the line between self and art? me and it? should i?

do you have to be in it to make art about it? is art possible if you are in it?

i don’t even want any verdicts. but i want to listen to every word i can hear before i die.

Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 25 April 2014

an observation from the land of many words

as i near completion of my first master’s program and the halfway point of my mfa, i want to pause. i came to both of these programs hesitant and uncertain about my abilities. both the support i’ve received from the programs and loved ones – and sometimes also the ways in which those programs have fallen short – have focused my attention on the thing i care most about: words, words, words.

i’m excited about the base i am building for future mayhem.

so today i encountered Shannon Barber’s article “Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons Learned.” you can take a few minutes to go check it out if you’d like, i’m not going anywhere.

my lessons aren’t Barber’s lessons but – as good writing does – her work gives me insight not just into a world that is not my own but also into how my world overlaps with hers. that’s the real magic of the written word as far as i’m concerned: it preserves what is unique about an individual experience while underscoring our shared humanity. i’m grateful that she inspires me to be more curious about my habits and position.

i run up against the race/culture problem basically every time i sit down in front of the page. at this point in my life, i don’t have a satisfactory answer to give myself (never mind other people). i’ve cobbled something together in my own head that let’s me get through the day. the short answer is: history has fucked up a lot of things, and who gets to be indigenous and how is com-pli-ca-ted, and i want to figure out a way to own my background without being a jerk about it. (the long answer is unsuitable for a blog post.) and i don’t write about it very often because i still feel very tentatively about the whole situation, as you can tell from all the vague goobledegook in this paragraph.

more concretely, i write from a bilingual position. i grew up with spanish. i speak spanish now. is my spanish perfect? absolutely not. but at various points in my life i’ve tried to walk away from it, and it doesn’t work. turning my back on it is disingenuous. i’m not being true to myself when i try to squash into a monolingual, monocultural box.

what i hear time and time again, from teachers, in workshops, from other writers, is that my spanish is a problem: i’m alienating readers. i’m asking too much. i’m a turn off. i have to watch it, dial it back, not be so foreign. if i’m gonna go there, i have to provide more background, more translation, more history, more story. i shouldn’t make people have to go look this up.

here’s the thing: if i don’t understand a classical reference to greek mythology in (insert one of a billion english poems here), tough shit, i need to go look it up. if there’s a french phrase or latin phrase, i go look it up. the onus is on me, not on the english-speaking (often white and male) author. as long as the point of reference is one that cozily fits into the accepted canon of western literature, no one says don’t bother reading that poem, it’s just got a bunch of references you won’t understand. i, the reader, must educate myself and get on the same page as the author.

this is all fine and well – i like looking stuff up – except for the double-standard (double doesn’t even begun to cover it, but hey). when i write a poem that references latin american history, for example, i’m told i have to write more context. i can’t just name an event, i have to explain it to the reader. and the spanish needs to be in short, controlled, small doses. set off from the rest of the text. easy to digest. not intimidating. don’t scare people away with stuff they don’t understand because it’s hard enough to get people to read poetry these days without being difficult about it.

so look: i take this feedback into consideration. but i am judging you. and if i find you wanting, lazy reader, then you are not my reader. if more than two words of spanish in a row scares you, then i can’t help you. if a publication rejects me because there’s too much spanish, because i refuse to let them italicize all my spanish, because if i want to quote neruda why can’t i just do it in english so it will be familiar, then i don’t belong in that publication. because while i am studying to hone my craft, while i have lots of technical things to sort out so i can be a better writer, i am not here to spoonfeed my poetry to anyone. my reader is going to have to do some work, and i believe that my reader can handle it. my palette isn’t just the traditional anglo- and classics-centric western template. i can do that, but it’s not why i write.

i write from a bilingual position. i write because language inspires me and i want to be part of the global multilingual literary conversation. i write to understand how i fit into a nation and a world that can’t comprehend why i speak a language that no one else in my family speaks. i write to figure out how to be a good person on this planet, how to find out as much as i can about the people who revolve around the sun with me – the living and the dead – in the short time that i am given. i write to challenge the received notions of my time and place. i write to learn. i write because i am curious to the point of pure distraction. i write because i read this way and because i believe there must be other readers who want this too.

Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 15 January 2014

juggling and judging

it’s nigh unto impossible for me to interact with anyone without the double masters thing coming up. often i am asked to explain this insanity. then i feel a touch the sideshow weirdo. and while i understand that 99% of the time someone is looking for a way to relate to me and floundering and what they hit on is this sort of mixture of what-the-fuck awe and horror, the frequency of “why are you doing this?” can feel judgy. (no, i don’t care that judgy is not a word.)

and when i think about why this bothers me, it’s not about the conversation i’m in at the time. the conversation is fine. it’s because i’m sensitive about feeling judged (past tense) for lots of reasons that all circle back to one thing: throughout my life, society has indicated the path i want is not ok.

one of my greatest assets in life has been my stubbornness. without my stubbornness, i would be living the absolute wrong life. my stubbornness gets me in trouble plenty, and can keep me in places i shouldn’t stick around in. but it has saved my ass more times than not. and even with it, i get tired. i give in. i do things that i know aren’t right for me. i allow things to happen that i know i will regret.

what i want out of my life isn’t generally socially acceptable. work? poet. children? no. husband? don’t give a shit. i’ve known every one of those things since before i was 10. i’ve been undermined, ridiculed, and dismissed for each. i’ve worked very hard to build myself a life where i’m surrounded by people who don’t treat me that way. and mostly, i’m at peace with how i don’t line up with societal expectations. but sometimes i’m not. and then i feel judged, even by people i know aren’t judging me. it’s in my head, but that doesn’t make it fantastical. this shit is real – we’ve all been there.

why am i working full time + teaching yoga + writing a master’s thesis + studying for an mfa? because i looked someone i love in the face while they told me how their life was not what they wanted. not the job, not the relationship, not the creative outlets. because of my own baggage, what i saw was a reflection of myself, getting older and being bullied into a corner not of my own choosing. and because i was struggling to pull myself out of a long period of depression and i didn’t want to be there anymore. this was just over a year ago. as my friend talked, i knew i was going to apply to study poetry. i pretended to debate the merits of throwing myself into a concurrent degree program for the next several weeks, but it was a fiction. i knew i had to throw myself at poetry, at being a poet. i’ve run away from it my entire adult life. because poet is not paying the rent. practicality first! it’s pretty much impossible to absolutely shut down that working class need for security. even when the security is a lie. impulsiveness is my weapon.

the timing will never be right. there will always be something in the way. there will always be an excuse. there will always be fear.

it’s scary. it’s scary to want to do this and it’s scary to be doing it. it will probably still be scary after it’s done. (oh it will never be done.) there are other things i want that i’m too scared to go after, too scared to even admit to wanting. part of that fear is the judgement fear. that my ambitions aren’t sufficient. most likely i will never get over that fear. but i can learn to live with it.

since the end of november, i’ve written and revised 18 pages of poetry, written two thesis chapters, and survived the awesome exhaustion of mfa residency. i’m about to write more poems, and read more poems, and do more thesis work. i almost never stop to feel pride, but i look back on these last few weeks and know that i’ve achieved a ton. these things matter not because i’m fulfilling (arbitrary) requirements or obtaining degrees, but because they help me know myself. i want to be someone who is curious and intellectual and creative and who looks beyond the (arbitrary) borders of her own identity. despite my share of screw ups, i’m building a person i want to be and hanging on to it. we all know people who have lost what they feel is their truest self, especially when daily life doesn’t line up with that sense of self. i want an integral life that fulfills all those parts of me and to live that i know i have to juggle plenty and judge less. that’s what ambition looks like to me; not a particular job, or starting a family, or owning a house, or any of the other things that society says to chase after. just being me. which right now means working full time + teaching yoga + writing a master’s thesis + studying for an mfa. plus whatever other ridiculosity i heap on.

i spent many years of my life not owning my ambitions. judging myself inadequate. not reaching so i wouldn’t fail, or worse, prove the outside/inside voices right. i was failing myself then anyway. and so maybe people ask me “why are you doing this?” because maybe they are partly silently asking “why am i not doing x?” just like i was.

Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 27 November 2013

a tale of two masters

this is just to say that it’s all still happening. can a person hold down a publishing day-job, finish a master’s thesis in foreign literature, begin an mfa in creative writing, and keep sane and keep dreaming of the next steps? so far, yes. it helps to have an awesome roommate who will do all the dishes without hating your guts.

the most important survival skill i have learned this semester is how to separate off my time into effective slices. i can handle a day where i work on poetry & outside things (like errands or tidying up or singing loudly off-key in my room to chill out). i cannot handle thesis writing and switching to something else. i am learning about working within my limits and being forgiving of my trespasses. i am learning -slowly- about saying no to things i would normally love to do and hoping that no is a temporary thing. no one can teach you these things. my mistakes probably won’t help anyone else, but i am learning how to be myself from this process. i threw myself at this insane wall of over-achieving, i haven’t drowned yet, and i’m less afraid.

would i ever advise another human being to have three full-time commitments at once? not likely. but two masters has been the right road for me. one step at a time, turtle girl.

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