Wednesday, April 4, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is one of the most prolific and active poets I've ever met, not to mention a kind and generous friend. You might remember an interview I did with him for Eclectica two years ago. 

Jee Leong Koh is the author of three books of poems, including the most recent Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press). Born and raised in Singapore, he now lives in New York City, and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter

An Invitation to Write

I have been working with epigraphs in the form of quotations of women poets. The first such poems were written after reading the Collected Poems of the Irish poet Eavan Boland during National Poetry Reading Month in June. Instead of jotting down my thoughts in prose, I wrote poems responding to her poems. Then I read her younger contemporary Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who is less overtly political, more mystical, and wrote poems responding to hers too. Then followed a re-reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s entire poetic oeuvre.

I also searched in anthologies for women poets that I did not know. The Norton Anthology of Poetry led me to Mary Wroth, who wrote sonnets after they had gone out of fashion in early seventeenth century. In the pages of The Penguin Book of English Verse, I met Anna Wickham, whose adventurous life and writing between the two world wars absorbed me for weeks. Anthologies such as Not A Muse, Infinite Difference, Incantations and Japanese Women Poets introduced me to the work of women poets from around the world. A personally significant find is the twentieth-century Japanese poet Tada Chimako who draws on the poetic traditions of both East and West.

Now when I enter bookstores, my eyes may still look around at the men, but they go straight for the women in the poetry section. In this way, I found books by Polina Barskova (St. Mark’s Bookshop, Russian), Dulce Maria Loynaz  (Rizzoli, Cuban), and Shirley Kaufman and Ama Ata Aidoo (secondhand bookstore in Dumbo whose name I cannot remember, Israeli and Ghanaian). From Times Literary Supplement, I learned of Nelly Sachs and Doris Kareva. From Facebook, Kim Hyesoon and Dalia Ravikovitch. So much to read! So much to write!

What does this reading do for my writing? Several different things. It gives me ideas and images. It blows the top of my head off. It challenges my point of view and my poetic strategies. It reminds me of forgotten memories. It provokes a rebuttal. It presents me with the repetends for a villanelle. It puts two and two together and makes eight. It offers me a way to write about my mother, my sister and myself. It helps me examine my feelings about gay marriage. It talks with me. I join a stimulating on-going conversation about love, family, travel, politics, death and poetry.

An epigraph sits at the top of the blank page, and the page is not so blank: it becomes an invitation to write.

Eve’s Fault

     Eve, whose fault was only too much love

            Aemilia Lanyer, “Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum: Eve’s Apology”

Though she has left the garden, she does not stop loving them.

God won her when he whipped out from his planetary sleeve
a bouquet of light. They watched the parade of animals pass.
He told her the joke about the Archaeopteryx, and she noted
the feathers and the lethal claws, a poem, the first of its kind.
On a beach raised from the ocean with a shout, he entered her
and she realized, in rolling waves, that love joins and separates.

The snake was a quieter fellow. He came in the fall evenings
through the long grass, his steps barely parting the blades.
Each time he showed her a different path. As they wandered,
they talked about the beauty of the light striking the birch,
the odd behavior of the ants, the fairest way to split an apple.
When Adam appeared, the serpent gave her up to happiness.

For happy was she when she met Adam under the tree of life,
still is, and Adam is still Adam, inarticulate, a terrible speller,
his body precariously balanced on his feet, his mind made up
that she is the first woman and he the first man. He needed
her and so scratched down and believed the story of the rib.
She needed Adam’s need, so different from God and the snake,

and that was when she discovered herself outside the garden.

first published in tongues of the ocean

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