The Poets Speak

Ron Slate on “Between the Bed and the Window”

 

“Between the Bed and the Window” was sparked by a dare. My poet friend Elaine Sexton, my artist friend John Kramer, and I occasionally challenge each other to produce something on a theme, phrase, or image. This time, we decided to make something in which the presence in the poem is located between two objects. We were inspired by Edvard Munch’s self-portrait “Between the Clock and the Bed” and Jasper Johns’ 1981 painting of the same title. What begins as a lark may point towards the essential. My poem is syllabic in form. My poem is syllabic in form.

 

Thylias Moss from Devil Mutant Child  

 

A poem of hair.

My mother, from the south in the 1930s grew up ashamed of color, of whatever drew attention to her societal unacceptability, her inferiority, lack of formal education, and all associated trappings:  worse of all, her Africanized hair texture.  How she suffered, her own siblings with lighter skin, calling her the “Little Black One” long before “black” had been reclaimed as a badge of pride.  She worked as a maid, serving her superiors, and still having to honor these white women with the complexion and hair she still craves, often dressed in their cast-offs.

No matter what, her hair revealed she was the lowest, as she calls it, that to this day, she tries to eradicate by frying her hair and using all those skin lightening creams.  None leave a permanent transformation which is what she really wants.  Makes me cry every time, my own mother who never learned to reclaim these signs of identity as sources of pride.

She vowed her child would not suffer what she did, despised by paler ones with straighter, “better” hair, “good” hair, for that is what I have, direct inheritance from my pale, mixed race, father and his completely non-black father, an immigrant from India, half Caucasian —yes, she used that term about her own daughter, as I had what she lacked.  Yes, she was jealous of me, used to hit me, in efforts to slap the superiority out of me, but I was too much like my father who refused to hit anything that should be loved. I understand what she saw in my father, but I do not know what he saw in her.

To her, the only writers worth anything were those who wrote books of the bible.  She condemned me to hell, that Christian woman, every chance she got.

In this sense, she who knew nothing about facts of genetics, did her best to have a child who would not suffer these disgraces of inferiority as I would have the badge  of respect and better treatment, decent treatment, simple respect:  college educated with Good Hair.

 

She cannot love me.

Or any master.

 

Kristina Bicher on “Woman,  Man, Tepozteco”

 

Every angel is terrifying, right?  Here I was in Tepoztlán, my first time in Mexico, and part of the Under The Volcano writers workshop.  My teacher was a famous Mexican poet.  Write about the mountain, he said. It’s beautiful, no?

I wandered like a wayward chicken through the narrow streets. Got lost in the hilly barrios, got spooked by some remarkably poised street dogs. The monolithic mountains rose around me. Somewhere nearby was the supposed birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

Everywhere were shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe—rendered in plaster and bright tiles of glass, adorned with paper flowers.  Her face was placid and beneficent and it shone.

I was unsettled. Something was happening here, amidst the roosters and strange men. I started writing.

I was to have found the mountain beautiful. This poem shook out.

 

William Logan on “The Orders of the Ordinary”

 

I’ve been to very few funerals, perhaps just one, for a favored student who died of a heroin overdose.  I still can’t speak of her death without having tears well up for all that promise forsaken.  None of that is in the poem, and it does not need to be.  Poetry is itself an act of the forsaken.

 

John Taylor on Translating Franca Mancinelli

 

The decision to translate a work of literature sometimes occurs spontaneously, without the slightest preliminary thinking about how one might the find the time to do the job and about what press might publish the translation once it is done. At least, this is how I have often proceeded. I get excited about a poet’s work, I sense that it should by all means be made available in English, and almost as soon I begin to translate samples, telling myself that I will deal with the practical details later—and I do deal with them.

So it was with Franca Mancinelli’s Libretto di transito. When I arrived in Ljubljana on 29 November 2017, I had never met Franca, let alone read her first two volumes of poetry, Mala kruna (2007) and Pasta Madre (2013). Along with Božena Správcová and Timo Brandt, respectively from the Czech Republic and Germany, we had been invited, as poet-critics, to the “Art of Criticism” symposium in the Slovenian capital, an event hosted by some very bright Slovene writers, poets, critics, and editors. The next morning Franca and I met in the hotel lobby, ended up sitting side by side in the same taxi–van heading to the cultural center where the conference was going to take place. As we chatted on our way there, we discovered that we had a few Italian poet-acquaintances in common, plus some other topics to discuss later in the day since I had translated into English the redoubtably difficult and strangely exhilarating Lorenzo Calogero, and she was soon to be published—indeed with Libretto di transito—in the same “A 27” poetry series at Amos Edizioni as Fabio Pusterla, whom I know because he is Philippe Jaccottet’s Italian translator and I translate Jaccottet into English. As one conversation led to another during those two days, we also discovered some probable literary affinities in regard to our personal writing—at least theoretically, since we had still not read each other’s work. We exchanged books before leaving.

It was on the plane back to Paris that I read the book that Franca had offered me, actually a trilingual (Italian-Slovene-English) selection of her poetry that had resulted from a residency in Slovenia. I was moved—the word “awakened” also comes to mind—by these poems, and asked her for more work by e-mail. Soon I was reading not only Pasta madre, but also the manuscript of Libretto di transito. Franca was still making minor revisions to the manuscript, making some of the prose poems even more succinct and slightly modifying the order of the texts, eliminating a few of them in the process and thus tightening the overall structure. Moreover, the title of the manuscript was not yet definitely Libretto di transito.

I was immediately taken by the subtle qualities of her brief evocations, which seemed to revolve around unvoiced centers which, as I meditated on them, would reveal their intricacy and mystery. That is, wordless centers full of emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and even imaginable acts—those pertaining, for instance, to the loss or lack of something or someone essential. And there was a compelling movement in many pieces; in fact, an overarching quest could be made out whose “story” is, arguably, the entire book. The writing of these prose poems had seemingly accompanied the poet on a kind of journey: pain, loss, and absence lead to a search for healing or at least acceptance.

A key word, “faglia,” surfaced. We entered into a dialogue about this word via e-mail because it is so difficult to render it in English. Like the French “faille”, which I had encountered in my translations of French and Swiss francophone poets, a “faglia” is a “fault” (as in geology), a “fault line,” a “flaw,” or a “rift”—the image is both concrete and metaphorically resonant. Interestingly, one of the two epigraphs introducing Libretto di transito is by Emily Dickinson: “To fill a Gap / Insert the Thing that caused it.” A “gap” is also a sort of “faglia.” Many of Franca’s prose poems indeed derive from or indicate gaps: the distance between two places (or two human beings); a breach in a continuity that must be bridged or healed, perhaps by the “clay” that another human being applies to the “broken, empty places.”

By now the translation was well underway. I kept telling the editors of my other, pressing, commissioned translation projects that I was “a little behind schedule,” though I did not mention that the delays were due to this Italian book of prose poems that I had unexpectedly come across.

I would e-mail each draft or “bozza” to Franca, with comments and questions. What resulted were friendly, lively, and meticulous e-mail discussions—with words highlighted in various colors—that greatly helped me make the translations as precise as possible. Sometimes solution A would evolve into solution B, and then into solution C, only to come back to solution A; or to solution B. Such is translation, a never-ending process that must end. And it has ended, or almost. Excerpts are appearing here in Plume, and elsewhere. And now will there be a press willing to take on the whole book, The Little Book of Passage?

 

Jake Crist on “Riff on a Line by Char”

 

Like nearly all of the handful of poems of mine that have seen publication, ‘Riff on a Line by Char’ is the product of at least a decade of revision.  Some of my poems are veritable ‘Ships of Theseus’—lines replaced like planks one by one over a span of years until nothing but a recalcitrant title hearkens to anything like a constant identity.  Other poems, like the canvases I’ve hauled around since my undergrad painting days, are serially re-envisaged, painted over nearly wholesale, with some faint palimpsestic traces of earlier versions.

Perhaps because so many of my poems become such long-suffering companions, their most satisfying iterations—the ones I’m finally likely to mail out to editors—capture a little bit of that protracted creative relationship.  ‘Riff on a Line by Char’ refers explicitly to a poem I left unfinished while I was a graduate seminary student (c. 2007).  In a way, for me, the whole poem unspools from a twofold desire: first, to make sense of why I felt compelled, ten or so years earlier, to write about leprosy and dead birds; second, to make sense of why I felt compelled to revisit it ten years later.  The haunting epigraph by René Char was the finger that pulled the thread.  Of course, any sentient gumshoe could suss out the common ingredient of those compulsions: a desire for transformation.  A new skin.

Even now, I have to admit the poem grates a little with its evident (to me) time stamp.  For example, the ‘worst year’ referred to in the poem has been unfortunately one-upped.  (A twist on Edgar’s reply to Gloucester: The worst is not, so long as one can write in a poem ‘this is the worst.’)  And so, again, a more existential thirst for new flesh is enacted in the practice of potentially ceaseless poetic revision.

Then again, that reference to an old unfinished poem could suggest that I am also developing a new, more salutary love of old skins, including my own.  The old skins still have wine in them.  I know I still find that single old line of Char’s intoxicating.

 

Maxine Scates on “April”

 

I wrote this poem in April of 2017.  Nothing seems to have changed with regard to an unfriendly universe, the gods then as now, remote and indifferent.  But as the poem developed, my thoughts of engaging my failures proved grandiose, a false equation as failure gave way to the immediacy of my mother’s mental erosion and the ongoing grief of losing my dearest friend—two kinds of grief I guess.  As I write, my mother, ninety-nine and three quarters, is in hospice hoping to make it to one hundred.  She appears in many of my poems as a rather indomitable figure.  It’s not that she is physically imposing, it’s that she has always carried on refusing to be stunned by memory, now overcoming her despite her wishes, or death.  And, given that I often dwell in memory, I think I wondered if there were any lessons to be learned from her example—grateful, as always, for the process of the poem that allowed me to explore my own doubts in the face of her stoicism.

 

Ralph Angel on “Untitled” (I and II)

 

Though it happens only rarely, the poems were made in quick succession, and each was driven by its first line. I wrote down “Day as in backwards,” and it altered consciousness, and over the next few days the poem just led me by the nose. I wrote down “Like someone clearing his throat before dawn” the very next morning. I was equally altered. I don’t know why. I heard it one sentence at a time.

 

Laurie Lamon on “The Myth of the Eternal Return”  

 

A while ago, I came across an article discussing Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return and his belief that understanding something of our archaic past enriches our contemporary lives and connects us to the sacred, a fixed point. The title became resonant for me as a way to connect myself as one among billions to the realities and devastation of global warming, fires and floods, rising seas and drastically impacted animal and human habitats, and at risk economies, particularly in poor areas of southeast Asia.  The present leadership in this country is dismantling national and global protections, and plastering “fake news” across expert research, testimony, and diplomacy. “Myth” in the contemporary idiom still means origin and connectedness, but it also means that which has been revealed to be untrue, that which has been lost. The endangerment and loss of fixed points in this poem are mourned and loved by a citizen, a lover of animals, and a daughter.

 

Editors Note
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