Tuesday, April 30, 2013

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger JoAnn Balingit

Thank you to JoAnn Balingit for sharing her thoughts on this last day of National Poetry Month. She turns towards poetry, and brings us with her, after the recent events in Boston.

JoAnn Balingit is the author of a collection of poems, Words for House Story (WordTech Editions, July 2013) and two poetry chapbooks. Her previous work, Forage, was awarded the 2011 Whitebird Chapbook Prize. She has been the recipient of an individual artist fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts, Creative Fellowships from The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Global Filipino Literary Award in poetry. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies such as Best New Poets, DIAGRAM, MiPoesias, PoetsArtists, Salt Hill, Smartish Pace, and Verse Daily. She serves as Delaware’s poet laureate, teaches poetry for schools and non-profit organizations, and coordinates the Delaware Writing Region of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, a national recognition program for students in grades 7 through 12. Read her most recent newspaper articles celebrating National Poetry Month.

On a Tough Day, Rita Dove Delivers the Last Word 

I left Rita Dove’s reading at the University of Delaware’s Gore Recital Hall last Friday evening, April 19th, feeling blissful and satisfied. Also off-kilter and dangerously open in and about the heart. I was weaving a bit, having forgotten my cane, my prop since recent hip surgery. I was having some sort of whole-body kinetic memory. A full-frontal Madeleine. I felt a fullness I remembered after certain rock concerts, when a great band had played all the songs I’d longed to hear, as well as the songs I hadn’t known I longed to hear.

I had been planning to write a triple-book review for this blogspot: Orlando White’s Bone Light; Kate Northrop’s Clean; and Judy Halebsky’s Sky=Empty. Do you see a theme? What these poets have in common are x-ray eyes for language:  they see into and through words. Their books are cozy and yet clutter-free. Language swoons to be delivered unto their doorsteps. But these poets’ spare and cleansing poems could not stand up to the world I found myself a part of after the Boston Marathon Bombings.  I had to put those lovely books aside.

On Tuesday, the day after the bombings, I started reading Far from the Tree. I wanted to finish Oryx and Crake. I got Battleborn. Explosions and killings made me want to stuff my gullet with prose. Family nonfiction. Dystopian sci-fi. DeathValleyHelterSkelter semi-autobiographical tales. Whatever.

But I can’t stay away from poetry, not for an entire week, not even a day. And northern Delaware has been fortunate this month to host great readings by Natasha Trethewey and other poets, locals and guests, observing National Poetry Month. I was busy writing a weekly column, “On Poetry,” for my local newspaper, remember newspapers? So I was perusing lots of favorite poems, old and new.

Maybe the Puerto Rican American on The Daily Show who said that if the US wants to keep that nice, even number of 50 states when PR gets in, then they should kick out Delaware (“We don’t need, uh, Delaware, do we? I don’t even know what goes on there”), maybe she would feel differently if she knew Delaware finally got some poetry action going here during April.
That is, I had been looking forward since January to Rita Dove’s lecture and reading on Thursday and Friday, April 18 and 19th.

I feel guilty not to have read and studied Dove’s work years ago. Though captivated by the controversy over The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry, I felt handicapped by my ignorance of Dove’s own work while I rooted for her response to Helen Vendler’s suggestions of editorial incompetence. (“Are These the Poems to Remember?” New York Review of Books, November 24, 2011)

I had admired Dove’s scary and often anthologized “Parsely.” I’d read individual poems in journals. What was taking me so long to read her celebrated Thomas and Beulah? – a book I knew I would love?

But about five years ago, I did read Mother Love in the Newark Free Library, procrastinating on research I had come to do—I thought. I sat in a corner carrel at the end of the poetry shelves and read the book cover to cover. Over again. Mother Love found its way into my lap, as books of poetry will, when my time of need arrived. My relationships with my daughters were confounding me. My long-dead mother lorded over me and yet I could hardly remember her. I had hit dead ends in a sonnet sequence I was writing.

I took a break to reread the myth of Persephone and Demeter, which figures in the book’s sequence of sonnets, mostly sonnets. Otherwise, I was in a bell-jar with Mother Love for four hours. I copied into my notebook “The Bistro Styx” and “Rusks.” “The library is now closing” came over the speakers.

Why should I be select?

I got tired of tearing myself down.
Let someone else have
the throne of blues for a while,
let someone else suffer mosquitoes.
As my mama always said:
half a happiness is better
than none at all.

                                    from “Rusks” by Rita Dove

Half a happiness. Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, April 16th, the day after the Marathon Bombing, friends and family messaged me: was Adrian OK? Yes: my older son had texted me. His friends were OK, as far as he knew; his ex-girlfriend OK. He had been in Boston that morning but left to get back to his apartment in New Bedford. He had started his program at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth last fall, I reminded my family. He no longer lived in Boston. Half a happiness. I called him up. He seemed distracted, fed-up, dismayed. He was fine, Mom. “I’ll send you a care package,” I told him. I was driving, I said, I had to go. That Tuesday morning I was driving to give a reading.

I told my lovely audience, “I woke up in a sweat this morning.” With the bombings, the hurt, the fear, how could I read the same poems I had planned to read? And what reaction am I having to all this? What are we having?

I told my audience that an hour before, I had printed out Billy Collins’s poem “The Names,” an elegy he wrote one year after 9/11. I read it to them. We had a moment of silence. Also an hour before the reading, I had printed out the draft of a poem I started last December, called “Connecticut I-84.”

The poem is about driving past the “Newtown-Sandy Hook” exit sign on I-84 minutes after hearing the terrible news on the radio. I was on my way to New Hampshire to pick up my 14-year-old son for winter break. He was living, suddenly this year, six states away at a boarding school deep in the woods. I choked. I gunned the gas. I stole glances at people in the cars beside me. I imagined men with guns stalking the rambling white house tucked into the acres of New Hampshire forest where my son now lives. Is he safe? I gripped the wheel. And if he is safe, how in the world can that be?

None of these thoughts are in the poem I read at my reading. They will get in there somehow. But the audience liked it. I changed up the list of other poems I read. The reading went really well.

By Friday, April 19th, I was ready to be read to. Tell me a story. I sat in the gorgeous recital hall. The appearance of my cane secured me a nice chair. I was grateful that Dove’s lecture on the origins of Sonata Mullatica the evening before had not had a thing to do with the Boston Marathon Bombings.

I figured the poems she would read today would be bombing-free. The banter too. And yet in the beautiful hall, which our esteemed guest marveled at and praised, we were all aware that the world outside was not well. It takes a bombing in our own back yard for Americans to open our eyes to the suffering world-wide. I wanted to think that sort of thought.

I had turned off the news at 7pm on Thursday, the night before. But at noon on Friday, as I got ready to go to Dove’s reading, I turned on the radio: “University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth campus on lockdown.” I called my 23-year-old son. The younger Tsarnaev brother had been attending classes on his campus. Killed a police officer. Older brother dead. My son was sheltering in place.

“And this is how my school gets into the national news.”  He was frustrated, sad, defiant. “Yes, I have food,” he replied.

Still, I left Rita Dove’s reading at the University of Delaware’s Gore Recital Hall last Friday early evening, April 19th, feeling blissful and satisfied. I think. She had begun the reading by promising she’d take us on a tour of her oeuvre from the earliest to the latest poems. A journey she rarely gets to go on, the kind of reading she doesn’t often get to do. It was one of the best poetry readings I have ever attended. I didn’t know there’d be a live manhunt on TV when I got home.

I thought for this blog I would just share the list of the poems Rita Dove chose to read during her 90 minutes, and talk about her most revealing comments on what’s behind the poems. I wanted to do that. But I am trying to describe. . .the reason this “post” turned into a long and ruminative storyline about last week’s events, into my coup d’essai at making sense of the swirl (I typed swill) in my brain: I am driven to resurrect and dissect one moment during Dove’s reading.

It was a moment when every emotion and argument of me—of woman, wife, daughter; leader, other, teacher; mother, orphan girl, American; poet, victim, immigrant’s child—was taken and assuredly, adeptly shaped together into a comprehension of acceptance, and a simultaneous shove into the ring. Into the battlefield. That moment came during Rita Dove’s reading of “Meditation at Fifty Yards: Moving Target” from American Smooth, a five-part poem which begins, unexpectedly, with the pleasure of shooting a weapon; considers the anxieties and wisdom such knowledge brings, and finally, inhabits the bullet.

Fear, of course. Then the sudden
pleasure of heft—as if the hand
has always yearned for this solemn
fit, this gravitas, and now had found
its true repose . . .


 (Question: If you were being pursued,
how would you prefer to go down—
ripped through a blanket of fire
or plucked by one incandescent

The Bullet.

dark dark no wind no heaven
i am not anything not borne on air i bear
myself I can slice the air no wind
can hold me let me let me
go i can see yes
o aperture o light let me off
go off  straight is my verb  straight
my glory road yes now i can feel
it the light i am flame velocity o
beautiful body i am coming i am yours
before you know it
i am home

Right before she read that searing, gorgeous pastoral trickster of a poem, that violent warning prayer, she simply paused and said, “Hmmm. I don’t know now. . .whether to take you up, or bring you down.” Silence. “Because I have taken you up. And I could take you still higher.” She flipped through pages.

Dove says of this poem in an interview: “I believe that my poems work best when violence simmers just under the surface.” American smooth.

I am still trying to understand what happened to me during “Meditation at Fifty Yards: Moving Target.” Did the poet bring us up, or take us down? I know I was weeping furtively. [I was fine Mom.] I had more than half a happiness, and then some. I had my cake. I was pissed off. I was really really high. I was thinking about how they died. I was scared.

The poems Rita Dove read:

“The Event”
“After Reading The Night Kitchen for the Third Time”
“The Island Women of Paris”
“Persephone, Falling”
“Demeter, Waiting” [?]
“Bistro Styx”
“The Enactment”
“Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967”
“American Smooth”
“Samba Summer”
“Meditation at 50 Yards: Moving Target” (for full-text see interview of Dove by Camille Dungy)
“The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude”
“The Spring Cricket Repudiates His Parable of Negritude”
“Reunion, 2005”

Monday, April 29, 2013

National Poetry Month: Guest blogger Suzanne Zweizig

Following Friday's post about Poet Lore by Genevieve DeLeon, today Suzanne Zweizig focuses on translation and her recent experience as translation editor at Poet Lore. Suzanne's poetry has appeared in such publications as 32 Poems, Beloit Poetry Journal, Subtropics, Poet Lore, Waccamaw Review and featured in Verse Daily. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Washington D.C. Arts Commission and was a semi-finalist for The Nation/Discovery prize in 2003. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lived for seven years in Europe and Israel before returning to the U.S. She now lives in Washington, D.C.

Turkish Delights

Despite the fact that I’ve devoted years of my life to learning foreign languages, one of my biggest regrets is that there is not more time to learn more languages. I dream of being able to read more of my favorite poets (Szymborska in Polish for example, or Blok in Russian) without that somewhat despairing, suspicious feeling of being excluded from something beautiful—no matter how much I revel in the poet-translator’s work.  

My favorite writers tend to be foreign. Reading them enlarges my world. It introduces me to new ways of thinking and to unconventional relationships with metaphor. And, although I sometimes wish I could do without translations, the best translators also give me fresh possibilities for English: As the poets are pushing their original language, the translator is challenged to push English to that experimentation, so, the innovation can be more than what you get from native English writers—in the double-bonus rounds!

About a year ago, my love of foreign writers developed a new avenue for expression when I got the amazing opportunity to become the translation editor for Poet Lore magazine, the oldest continuously published poetry journal in the United States. Founded in 1884, Poet Lore was in the foreground of introducing Americans to early 20th-century European writers that are now firmly part of our consciousness—Rilke, Chekhov, Tagore, to name just a few.

In its new translation feature “World Poets in Translation,” Poet Lore calls back this tradition, presenting annually a 10–12-page portfolio of a renowned poet rendered into English. This spring, I had the immeasurable honor of curating a portfolio of poems by Turkish poet Melih Cevdet Anday—widely recognized as one of the most influential modernist poets not just in Turkey, but in the world—translated into English by Sidney Wade and Efe Murad.

I honestly don’t think there is anything I am prouder of in my literary career than providing a venue for Anday’s poems to be more widely read in English. The translations bring to life a poet who moves deeply: “Nothing comes or goes. This is just quivering” begins one of my favorite poems.  Anday’s style, his gravity, the weight of his lines and thought, the sense of time and history and the simple lucid, profound, but almost surreal, metaphors take readers to a world at once  familiar but yet unsettling, as Sidney Wade, his translator writes in her introduction.

Anday’s work is not yet available in English book form (Wade and Murad have a manuscript prepared, but not yet published), but I encourage you not to wait to read this amazing writer.  Copies and subscriptions to Poet Lore are available at its website.  I trust you won’t be disappointed!

Friday, April 26, 2013

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Genevieve DeLeon

Thanks to Genevieve DeLeon for today’s behind the scenes look into the literary magazine Poet Lore. She graduated from Columbia University in 2010 with a B.A. in English Literature. Thereafter, she worked for the Manhattan-based Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency, until returning home two years ago and beginning work with The Writer’s Center as managing editor of Poet Lore.

The Shape a Journal Carves

Sometimes, the figure a contemporary poetry journal cuts is one of a platform for a conversation that exists more loudly outside its pages than on them. It can feel as if the published object is an artifact of a relatively complete idea of what is interesting or surprising work in the field today. Like a Joseph Cornell box, the magazine presents its pieces as found objects, carefully chosen and arranged. In these instances, editors seem more curators of sensibility than individuals charged with the preparation and refinement of texts, which together might do more than exhibit or illustrate. When Chloe Yelena Miller kindly opened her blog to this post, it struck me I’d have a chance to introduce her readers to Poet Lore, the journal I work for, and the shape it carves in the small journal landscape.

Poet Lore is a book-sized poetry journal published twice a year by The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Each issue contains new work from some 60 poets, along with essays on poetry and reviews of new collections. Founded in 1889 by two Shakespearean scholars, Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, Poet Lore sought to fill a void. In a day when, as Charlotte Porter put it, "the static and the has-been rather than the dynamic and coming-into-birth constituted the measure in criticism," Poet Lore championed standards that “relate all aesthetic expression to evolving life." The founding ladies read widely across languages and styles and opened their pages to little-known writers that are now widely-recognized.

In recent decades, Poet Lore's editors have proven similarly prescient, publishing the first poems of such poets as Carolyn Forché, Kim Addonizio, and Terrence Hayes. Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller, Poet Lore’s current executive editors, are both established poets in their own right and have served the journal in this capacity for over ten years.

If one aspect of the journal is responsible for the shape Poet Lore carves, it's that the editors of Poet Lore take a rare ownership of the poems they accept.  They read every poem that is submitted and accept 16 from the nearly 1,000 submissions that reach our offices each month.  At times, they make such dramatic editorial suggestions as to warrant this wording in their correspondence with poets: “We imagine you’d prefer to see this elsewhere in its original form, but, if not, please consider….” Their “meddling” presents poets with important decisions about their work—who has a say in a poem? Who can better see what it should be? It's a matter of trust and likeness of intention between the poet and editor—and a number of poets feel overly challenged and perhaps, even, not properly understood. But many rejoice in the careful attention such editorial suggestions require.

The editors' method has a two-fold effect: it means the poems in a given issue (and, relatively speaking, in the issues published over their ten year tenure) are glossed with a similar lacquer. Because each poem is tilled with editorial labor for fruits of a certain maturity, poems from established poets and poems from younger poets can stand on the same firm ground. It's what A.B. Spellman talked about when he said Poet Lore “gives new voices a place to sing and old voices a place to harmonize.” So, one effect is equalizing—these poets are not speaking in the same register—their work represents a great diversity of style and form—but they are sounding at the same volume.

The other effect is related. Because the editors have invested themselves in what the poems have to say and how they say it, they can then arrange these pieces in an arc of their own narrative. In each issue, the editors use the poets’ work to craft a reader’s experience towards certain revelatory moments. The poems speak to each other and have a directional push, just as they do in a collection of one poet’s work; the issue is meant to be read cover to cover. The fingerprint of the editors is made transparent in the Editors' Page, where themes and frameworks are named. If the set-up seems manipulative, it speaks to the fact of the editors working from within their skill set as poets. The crafting of an issue is always a creative act, but, I believe, our editors use their process to draw closer to their own ideas of beauty and truth. Their close-listening to each poem's music is as much a service to them as it is to the poets.

Poet Lore has just released its Spring/Summer 2013 issue. In addition to poems by such poets as Michael S. Harper, Rachel Mennies, Rita Dove, Kate Angus, and Thomas Hawks, it includes a yearly feature, "World Poets in Translation." This feature presents a portfolio of poems by 20th-century Turkish poet Melih Cevdet Anday in translation by poet Sidney Wade and Efe Murad. Please pick up an issue online at poetlore.com—or send your poems our way—to learn first-hand about this team’s heartfelt work.