DeWitt Henry regarding ‘On Shadows’:
I’ve been writing in the DMZ between lyrical essays and poems for the past few years, starting with a salient word and free-associating to explore its field of meanings (in pop culture, literature, science, and personal experience). “Shadows” began with a notebook memory from when I was a graduate student and felt insubstantial and prone to self-doubt. That is the anchoring moment, surrounded by acrobatic swings between Peter Pan, sundials, seasonal shadows, Andrew Wyeth’s amazing painting of the shadow cast by a wicker basket (“Monday Morning”), childhood fears enlightened by reason, and finally Macbeth’s reduction of life to “walking shadows.” The surprise for me in the ending involves projections through absence, “familiar, yet strange.” After I finished the poem I discovered two books exhaustively dealing with shadow imagery, William Sharpe’s GRASPING SHADOWS, and John Hollander’s THE SUBSTANCE OF SHADOWS. I sent my poem to Sharpe, who replied: “You cover many of my shadow-bases very concisely, with great insight.” The prose poem “On Risk,” began similarly as a meditation rooted in my persona[-lity], our culture, and times. My favorite line is gleaned from a Facebook video: “Along the glass bridge, tourists crawl.” Also “familiar for strange” echoes the binary wonder of shadows—here as a choice.
G.C. Waldrep on ‘Wordwell Triptych’:
The abandoned early Norman church at Wordwell, West Suffolk, on the site of a deserted medieval village and at the edge of the King’s Forest, is noted for its examples of early stone carving that have thus far resisted conclusive interpretation:
I was there on a warm June day in 2018, having walked through the forest and vaulted the new barbed wire a local landowner had placed across the ancient right-of-way. I nodded off between the second and third parts of the triptych and woke with a start to part III writing itself in my head. I normally do not listen to what the air is saying, because…air.
Jeffrey Harrison on ‘Scene from a Photograph in a Dream’:
It’s been seventeen years since my brother killed himself, but he still appears in dreams from time to time. I’m always grateful when that happens, since these dreams are the only chances I have to see him. In the dream recounted in this poem, his appearance was indirect, through a photograph that only existed within the dream. I was mainly trying to get the dream down on paper, and to get at the accompanying emotions, but now, having been asked to write something about it, I see that the Russian doll effect at the end of the poem is doing a couple of things at once: emphasizing the insurmountable levels of separation between me and my brother—death, the dream, the photograph, and the second layer of sleep within the dreamed photo—but also, paradoxically, enabling the moment of intimacy I long to have directly (or wish I’d had in waking life). So for me (and hopefully for the reader too) there is a sense of something being both given and irretrievably taken away.
Cynthia Steele on Jaime Huenún Villa’s ‘MARI KULA’ and ‘MARI MELI’:
Jaime Huenún Villa is one of the leading exponents of a new mestizo poetry in Latin America. Huenún grew up in a shantytown in the city of Osorno, Chile, to a Mapuche father and a mestiza mother. He currently teaches Indigenous poetry at the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago and forms part of the team that oversees the “World Literatures” major. Also, he works for the Ministry of Cultures, Arts and Patrimony, in charge of the area of Native Peoples of the Metropolitan Region.“Mari Kula” and “Mari Meli” are from a book called The Ceremony of the Names, in which the poet evokes specific deceased members of the Mapuche-Huilliche community in order to collectively celebrate their lives. Having had their lands stolen by the Spaniards, then by the Chileans, the territory remaining to the Mapuche people is the mythological, cultural one, retaining strong bonds between the living and the dead. Those dead ancestors, including the two women in these poems, draw on their connections with the natural world—the plant and animal kingdom, especially trees and spirit animals—and with the dream world, to provide guidance and spiritual sustenance to the living Mapuche people and, through the poet and the translator, to us as readers. A person’s name speaks of that person’s particular family history and characteristics, but also links them to a lineage, stretching back into a popular history of the ages.
Leah Umansky on ‘Regular Arithmatic’:
Stewart Moss on ‘Morning Hunger’:
During my traveling days in the 1970s, my companion and I decided to hitchhike from Fes, Morocco to Marrakesh, a journey of over 350 miles. About midway, we found ourselves stranded by the side of the road as dusk was rapidly descending, when suddenly a tall figure approached us out of the darkness and kindly invited us to spend the night at his aunt and uncle’s modest farm, just a short walk away.
As I reflected back on this incident many years later, what I recalled most vividly were the simple hospitality of our hosts, awakening under a warm rug in the barnyard at dawn, seeing the sharp crags of the Rif mountains in the distance to the north that the rising sun was just beginning to illuminate, and sharing in the hunger that the earth – at least all I could see of it – seemed to be experiencing. Writing this poem also enabled me to explore the suppleness and mutability of language and our compelling need to communicate with one another, which is itself a kind of hunger.
Richard Hoffman on ‘Invocation’:
I have often wondered about the headsets broadcasters wear, the discrete earpiece and squiggly wire: are they taking the occasional suggestion from their producer? Are they being offered bits of information as they became relevant? Are they being kept apprised, on location, of the changing situation around them? Are they being fed everything they say on camera, turning them into meat puppets for a kind of ventriloquism? One day, driving in my car, I heard a radio station advertise itself as “beamed from our tower high atop Mount whatever-it-was,” and the two things came together in my mind as a humorous way to talk about poetry, and about the notion of the poet as one who listens for the poem: Sing, heavenly Muse! Come, Holy Spirit!
The evangel receiving the angel’s coded message in the poem is from a stained-glass window in Holy Trinity Armenian church in Cambridge Massachusetts. It is fitting that it occurred to me as an emblem for the poet listening, waiting for what to say, because I was in that church for the funeral of the great Armenian-American poet Diana der Hovanessian. I like to think the poem borrows its tone from her wonderful ability to be absolutely serious about poetry while never taking herself too seriously, never surrendering her warm, quick sense of humor, a stance rooted in generosity and humility, and productive, often, of insight.
That said, there is a kind of panic in the poem as well, something approaching despair about the future, a feeling not unreasonable in this time of increasing authoritarianism, upheaval, and mass extinction. We can’t, of course, really summon an angel, invoke a salvific vision, we can only endeavor to become eligible for it. We have to be out in the storm, in the dangerous storm, struggling to hear the words.
Nicole Caruso Garcia on ‘By the Numbers’:
“By the Numbers” began as an experiment, inspired in part by the odd terrain that is social media. Our feeds are flooded with inane surveys and lists, skewed statistics and fake news, humblebrags and oversharing—despite privacy concerns about data mining. Friends post invitations to list how many bones you’ve broken, or what your favorite soup is, or if you’ve been skydiving. I asked myself, What are we revealing, and why? I began creating a private list of data, ranging from statistics to quirky anecdotes. I set out to explore the potential relationship between seemingly unrelated events. Could these details be clustered numerically? Thematically? Reduced to statistics, or with limited context, what does a portrait look like? On paper, is a person more strange, or less?
I began the earliest drafts three years ago—coincidentally, a year before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. I tinkered with the poem on and off, and by the time it took shape, the news story was in full swing. The poem winks, its obfuscation an aesthetic choice rather than a paranoid one. I’d be amused if big data corporations, social media magnates, or Russian bots found anything of use in this merkin of a poem.
Although there are links between “By the Numbers” and my other poems (i.e. violence, the feminine, fate versus free will), in a few ways the poem feels anomalous. Perhaps just to me. Many of my poems unwind in a straightforward narrative, but here the poem presents a pseudo-narrative built from a few dozen severely truncated stories. Many of my poems are autobiographical, yet here I wondered what confessionalism on steroids might sound like. (Ultimately, it was a runaway luge, demanding that I pump the brakes and put the speaker in a flesh-colored bodysuit.)
The poem is an outlier mostly in the sense that I don’t write a lot of free verse. In fact, when I began writing this poem, 90% of my published work was in received or nonce forms. Yet having been seduced by so many wonderful free verse poems by authors I admire, I wanted to dip a toe into those waters again for myself. When inspiration arrived, I speculated that formalism was not the appropriate vessel for this particular content. The task was still a game, though: begin with chaos, and wrangle it until you’ve imposed order. To ensure I wouldn’t chicken out, I took my draft to Clare Rossini’s free verse workshop at the Poetry by the Sea Conference. I also ran it by my spouse, a market research analyst. As the saying goes, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Although the data in “By the Numbers” was accurate when I submitted the poem, at the time of its publication, one figure is off. But who’s counting?