Veronica Golos interviewed by Amy Beeder

Veronica Golos interviewed by Amy Beeder
July 25, 2021 Beeder Amy

Veronica Golos is author of four books of poetry, most recently Girl (3: A Taos Press, 2019) which Ilya Kaminsky has called “Cinematic, symphonic, endlessly inventive.” I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Veronica about jazz, synesthesia, political activism, teaching, and, of course, her poems featured in this month’s Plume.


Amy Beeder: I’m struck by how often the featured poems describe a kind merging of the self with other objects or forces: usually musical. In “Bill Evans, Gesture” for example, we witness (or hear) the pianist


…anchor his tension to the strings that
hook him into the amp
of what it means
to be born to have this music wanted it so badly
as to seam himself into the instrument itself…


Sometimes these occasions appear as surrender: in “Lynchburg, Virginia, 1978” the narrator tries to resist being moved to a religious gesture by the sorrow in a mother’s song, but is ultimately “taken.”

For me this motif works on many levels (I find it reflected in your syntax and form, for instance); it also allows your poems to go in unexpected directions. Can you tell us a bit about the use of this device?


Veronica Golos: What a really interesting observation/question you present. And thank you for your choice of poems.  In “Gesture,” “Art Pepper Plays,” and “Ode to Frank Morgan,” I react to the music, their jazz, as well as to the addiction all three carry.  It seemed as I was writing and gathering that these musicians, and Mrs. C in Lynchburg, Va., the music was a kind of flesh. Or that it was enfleshed. In all four I saw a vivid grief―and how your instrument, Sax, Piano or voice―becomes a piece of you. In terms of syntax, and the forms, in the three jazz figures, I was reaching for a response to the music; in Lynchburg to the pull of her song, and her grief. In “Gesture”, I was also thinking of the way Evans would begin, with short phrases, and then lengthen out into longer and longer phrases. In “Art Pepper Plays”, I was also thinking of how jazz morphs and how the body of a woman changes and morphs, from girlhood to aged.


It is an intriguing question, and I might want to reflect on it more. For me, poetry whether reading or writing, is embodied―that is what I respond to―both physically and intellectually. I think I am striving toward this merging: in voice and in living.


AB: I’m intrigued by your words the music was a kind of flesh. And a kind of language? I became curious about the representation of music in your poems when I first noticed that deft use of varied line length in “Gesture.” It’s a device that also seems like someone finding their way into a piece or composition. And in the beginning of “Ode to Frank Morgan”


First the sound of the sax        coffee collared
seams    cleavage            waiting
astringent     tang   and bite      he slips
catches a cool     wind


the language (and white space) creates an impression of separate musical notes and phrases, all while describing sensations of taste, color, etc. A fascinating kind of synesthesia.  This is less a question than a rambling observation, but I wonder if you could talk a bit about to your methods of writing about music and/or craft methods you tend to let guide your description?


VG: How wonderfully you enter into poems. I love your idea of synesthesia.  When I am deep in writing, that is what seems to happen, a kind of exchange of senses.

I think if we have the space, I would like to talk about the “music” poems in context of what I am aiming for in the manuscript as a whole. The idea of a book grew from hearing John Coltrane’s Alabama. And a version of the song by Brooklyn Raga Massive, East Indian musicians.  It brought me to read about the 1963 bombing of the church in Birmingham, where four girls were killed; and then to Dr. Martin Luther King’s eulogy, where he stated, “unmerited suffering may be redemptive.”

A response to that will hopefully come in later poems.

The longer poem, Birmingham, rose out of that confluence. I noticed how the four girls, three of whom were 14 years old, were spoken about as children, younger and younger. It was something to think about. That poem opened a door for me to consider the ten or so years I spent in the south: Norfolk, Virginia, where I was a political activist as I had been in New York.

But hearing Coltrane’s response to the bombing through music, led me to the small anthology Jazz Poems, edited by Kevin Young.  Having grown up in New York City, in the period of great political/cultural performances, I was enormously influenced by the music of the day, particularly Nina Simone. I am at an age where I was touched by and influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement, the Vietnam War, and more.  Music was everywhere in New York: in Greenwich Village, Central Park, Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe.

It was a period of great innovation and political upheaval and cultural explosion.

But getting back to the specifics of your remarks.  In listening to these musicians, watching too their body language, I did try to write the poem as if following their music, the sound, beat, and content.

AB: You refer in your first answer to how the body of a woman morphs, from girlhood to aged, and I’ve often seen this theme in your previous work. Regarding “Birmingham,” why is it significant to you that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims have often been portrayed as very young children?

VG: I kept wondering why, in the necessities of the Civil Rights struggle, these girls were so often referred to as young children. It seemed to me that Innocence was a necessity, but it was something denied to black people by white society as a whole. Along with the four girls killed, two young boys were killed that same day: one shot by a policeman, one shot by a white youth. Yet they were treated differently. These youth didn’t deserve to be killed. Why did the Black community have to prove these girls were “innocent”?  It stirred me. And, as I mention above, I think of when Dr. King said unmerited suffering can be redemptive.  Of course, this was unmerited; and who, I wonder, is it redemptive for? What is redemption?  Those questions I hope to pursue later in the manuscript.  I think that at the time treating the girls as children was a way to win people, white people, to the Civil Rights struggle.  It also spoke to me about the paradox of faith: the sorrow of the world, unfairness struggles against injustice―and how faith in way is outside of those things, more than those things.

Besides my obsession with history, with US history, how do we put these ideas, these prompts, this part of our history, into poetry?  I thought only a fragmented piece would work, also comparing my own life at the time.  I was the girls’ ages: 14.  Working class. A northern white girl.

These issues raised also again for me the question: why poetry?  Somehow for me poetry enters into the crevices, places both personal and political; of a moment and of history. Craft is the way to find how to move all of that onto the page, in a voice, in music. In muscle.

AB: Your poems inspired me to go online and listen to the musical pieces that you reference―most recently Coltrane’s Alabama. I suspect this will be true for most readers. Will you talk a little about the role of music in your next book? And/or in what ways its vision resembles (or differs) from previous books? Are these featured poems some of the first you’ve written for it or closer to the end?

VG: Well, I have tentatively named the manuscript The Changing Same after an essay in his Black Music by Amiri Baraka. I was thinking of the role of history, and of music, how music becomes us, enters beneath the ribs, so to speak. African American music in particular. So in this way, I think this manuscript is similar to my strivings in the four others―alongside trying to explore music in poetry and some of my own personal history, especially when living in the south. I am pushing toward longer poems, which is a newer technique for me. The poems you have so generously published in Plume are part of the series at the beginning.

I have taken inspiration from many writers, both poets and non-fiction writers: Of course Baraka, also Jake Adam York, and the work of theologians James Cone, Quinton Hosford Dixie and Cornel West, and Wendy Farley. I also wrote a long poem in Haiku and Tanka forms based on the book, Hanging Tree Guitars, by and about Freeman Vines and the photographer Timothy Duffy. As with my other books, I try to do deep research.

AB: I’m also interested in whether you have a background in music, if you care to share that.

VG: As a young woman I was involved in Dance―and through that, music. So I would suppose what you see coming through in the poems is how I learned to relate to music, through the body.

AB: That makes sense, given what I find to be the very physical nature of your poems. You’ve said that in addition to describing their music, you react to the addiction all three carryFor me you treat the issue of addiction both compassionately & matter-of-factly: can you speak a little about this subject, perhaps why you felt it important to include it?

VG: Well, each of the musicians written about were addicted―primarily to heroin, with which seemed one could still play, and yet be addicted. Drugs at the time of these musicians were part and parcel of the nightclub scene, encouraged by some of the nightclub owners.  But when I would think about how these jazz musicians were probing something―musically, and socially―somehow wanting to enter the music, the instrument, and perhaps heroin seemed to help, for a time.

AB: I know that you teach poetry here in New Mexico. Can you talk a little about some aspects of teaching, for you? In what ways is it inspiring, draining, necessary? Is it part of the ideal life of a poet?

VG:. I taught memoir when I lived in New York for the 92nd St. Y; Poetry to Holocaust survivors, children, and adults.  In New Mexico I teach different poetry workshops, primarily for SOMOS, the literary organization of Taos, and with the Dine, (The Navajo) and for Tupelo Press.  I also teach for Hugo House in Seattle, Washington.  I aim always to have discussion, rather than lecture, although I can do that for sure! I prepare packets for the participants, for each class. Some of the more popular workshops are May You Live in Interesting Times (Political Poetry), The Verb: Its uses and Magic; Forms are Fun; The Documentary Poem and The Persona Poem.  I think I learn while teaching, and in some ways it does take away―in the immediate sense―from my own work, but it seems to swirl back around to inform some of my own work. I love to work with poets, it is a joy.  And in these times, joy is a blessing.  Amy, thank you so much for these wonderful questions and your thoughtfulness. And thank you Plume!


Lynchburg, Virginia, 1978


Come on to church today, Mrs. C asks over our
Sanka coffee. I relent. Sun through her screen door.
Young, white, northern – I’m here with my leaflets for her
son, James, who’s “away”—as we say – Virginia State Farm
for no crime he’s done. Mrs. C is large in pain.
The church, hand-built-pitch-pine, seven pews, plain windows.
Reverend Riddick, straight from his field, mud on his boots,
I remember.  Love, forgiveness, joy in Jesus.
Then, Mrs. Carrington stands to sing, a cappella,
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
each note a cry, a moan to the answering Amen…
I hold on to the railing; this sorrow pries—
No, I think,
yet my arms rise up, taken.


Ode to Frank Morgan

First the sound of the sax      —      coffee collared
seams   cleavage            waiting
astringent   tang    and bite     —     he slips
catches a cool    wind     ghost girls snap
fingers              nodding like honeysuckle in the vein
this       hard-main-line-world      music
always   music    overunderabovebeneath
the bellow         of the day-to-day            his eyes
sodden with midnight     flicker   on out on out    suddenly
blinking             full wattage
bright smear      neon marker
bloody-root melody
smoke   of         gone
the nothing        nothing             nothing
till finally           only      Yes


is left only
his free thumb
his perfect breath



Art Pepper Plays


Listening to Art Pepper play You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, and
thinking how the Blue Pines descend like stately women
down the mountain’s side, ruffed in green this time of year, prickly, yes, like
when they were girls just before their period.  Cones covering the ground, those
little worlds women drop along their way. Pepper is praying his
notes, twisting upinto cones of tone.
Is there A woman? Defined by body—profound morphing—as
we grow, grow older—possibilities inside us—as Pepper now
mourns into My Funny Valentine—which is all hard life—an offering
to his mother—a runaway at 16—and then, well, what happened
to her, I wonder, beneath her life, as beneath his, how came those
hard cones of fear, the frenzy
with which they were made, as I was made, without margin,
or a pinafore life – then, in Prisoner—he tunes
it outward, always that minor note, like his short life, haunts. Art
is saxing his alto way through Summertime, meant to break
you, I believe, or just his way of touching. Or being exposed.
Suddenly. Or almost. So
the needle, the somethingtakethisaway, right into this arm. Because the damage
can’t be sung away, can’t be trusted, so he plays Bésame Mucho,
and as a woman I am always hearing rupture, the ancient blue sound,
and sometimes the music takes, and like a pin at the earlobe, pushes through



Bill Evans, Gesture


He bends low so
into the heart of
the piano, as if
as if he would be-
come the sound
board itself per-
haps  the inner
rim of the grand
motion of his days shot
through always every
45 minutes with what he
thought would keep him or con-
sole him anchor his tension to the strings that
hook him into the amp
of what it means
to be born to have heard this music wanted it so badly
as to seam himself into the instrument itself the way
we all might do when that cool stone we keep inside
forces us
to ask what are you doing for the rest of your life 
applause is a wild
kindness to his touch curling
like fog in early morning a simple
rising clear
as a white heron’s lift
and curved neck
as if too the air were music
it was bending



Birmingham, 1963                                                                                           


September in New York still warm
streets and parks –
i am 14, kneeling
working at stitching the wealth
of a woman’s velvet hem—
she is standing  on raised steps
carpet, spotlight on her head


i  repair
circling around her,
pins in my mouth, as those girl’s
names are in my mouth – as if
i know them—as if i could cross
barriers of cloth, distance, repair:
yes, repair the church stone-by-stone,
heal the brickwork, repair the smashed
repair the stained
glass window
repair the hour, just before,
when Addie and Carole were walking and…


Thisis where i begin this:
Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Dionne Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson—
their   names weighed  with           after
so  far away   they crumbled
it seemed in   slow motion
i begin here because because
i would not be afraid
i would not be hurt
but those amid the wreckage?
a mother finds a shoe—


The 4 girls begin their journey
they move inside their names
they are retreating
to please-not-yet
they are
we redress them
call  forth ruffles,
petticoats lace ankle socks black
patent leather shoes silver  buckles –
as if
beneath their shoulders sprout
hollow bones of wings…
i repeat
4 little girls 4 little girls their laughter
in higher register as they evolve younger because
their innocence is paramount
necessary: innocent, unoffending, beautiful
That Sunday i was leaving,
at that very moment, the five-floor walk-up,
bathtub in the kitchen, 3 rooms one after the other,
leaving for noon St. Joseph’s Mass,
et cum spiritu tuo but not—
not a word was said—
everyone must have known—
that silence—
as if the blast filled our ears our eyes
the very center of us     named us –
All that July and August,
i rode on the cross-
bars of bobby’s bike, his white
tee shirt smelling of boy sweat
and bleach—we’d ride west
to the river or east
to the park, or the old hand-
ball court on 100th street
where bobby would
meet up with boys and i would
sit with the girls, on benches,
our hair in huge rollers, pedal-pushers
pushup bras under our
summer blouses, flashing our boyfriend’s thick
name-bracelets to show
who we belonged to:
and on that one day in  birmingham       numbers, so many numbers:
1 girl at 11
3 girls at 14                   caught
on the soft
and husk of adult-hood – and Virgil Ware, 13,
riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bike…and Johnny Robinson, 16—
*** ***
this looping songgrief
refuses articulation
those    six            notes    take      me
warped             scratched
for those
James and Virgil Ware   biking
through Dócena
from the scrapyard
looking for another bike
for Virgil
their newspaper route Virgil
also delivering coal, these working
boys, not having heard yet…

but Johnny Robinson heard  & understood  the morning’s bombing—
then saw confederate flags, police car & knew to run, run, as he & his friends
had from the carload of white youth, who, to ensure mayhem called the police
& indeed this young boy, 16, is shot in the back by officer Jack Parker (say his
name & erase it & say it erase it) at 16th St. and 8th avenue Parker blocking
their escape, forcing them to an alley & with his shotgun, shot Robinson in the
back. the sixth that day. that day. there is no room for poetry here, none at all.


{Sims, Larry Joe, white male, 16; red motor bike. bought gun 2 days before; shot Virgil twice. Larry Joe.
22 caliber. 7 month 1st degree suspended; went to college. what did the parents say/  do/  or was it the Code/ the other students at the college/ the admissions board/know he killed a 13 year old boy/shot
him twice/2 year probation/ volunteers for Vietnam/( {hey hey LBJ how many babies did you kill today!
we shouted this over and over}  )


**** ***

Have you/no art but that of violence?

rife as a hacksaw within you

(But it is not/permissible/
that the authors/of devastation
should also be /innocent/it is
innocence/ which constitutes
the crime.)

to walk

{trapped in a history/
which they (you me i) do not understand/
and until they (you me i)understand it/
(you me i) cannot be released /from it.}
**** ****
At 16, i was waitressing at the Wall Street Diner,
yellow uniform of form-fitting polyester, walking
with a dancer’s turn out; a 6am get-to for the taxi
drivers, longshoremen, the regulars,
filling their coffee, always  smiling, hey honey, what else can i get for you
some would spin their 50 cent piece, and i would smile, held
there until it fell
flat on the formica table–
even two years later i could not fathom Sims; how he crushed the sweet beauty of Virgil, snapped his
own beauty too
in the moment of release –
damaged so greatly all the lives from inside Virgil that might come.
i  would simply look up             and see Virgil falling     held
in air –
βάλλ’ εἰς κόρακας
Larry Joe Sims
you destroyer of beauty, of generations of beauty.
may all the hours you walk into
have a hand upon your shoulder
tapping out the seconds you have left & the day
that you harmed—
may each wrong you’ve done
be a gate that forever opens into storm;
may all of spring & its
passion of flowers bring you only fever
& a dry bolt of pain pressed against your neck;
may your loneliness be smoke-dark around you—
& everything you touch
vanish— may your insomnia be rouged
into palm prints upon cave walls—
& may your throat be filled with only one
word & whenever you speak
may those letters each by each
cut their way up to voice : v i r g i l
**** **** *

yimakh shemo  may you be erased
I will spill you

Robert Chambliss
Herman Cash
Thomas Blanton
Bobby Cherry
Larry Joe Sims
Jack Parker
this country.
may i remember to erase your name(s) every day
***** *****
eulogy  ^
of this
they move through the exit
unoffending innocent beautiful
silence  stained             courage
say  wring redemption   from despair  bitter       faith
say door  of crucible
say alone
say children
say love
**** **** ***
a   tremulous register of music
moves beneath us
writhing      melismatic stops
turn away
tenor sax      what
are we hearing?:
Alabama           Alabama                    Alabama

avalanche rolls  beneath     as Coltrane offers    almost hesitating     to conjure six notes
inside his own he    peels back each to a single tone    McCoy thrumming   shouldering the
caskets of sound    while Jimmy hums on the bass yes         Elvin breaks into threatening–god
  McCoy pianos   & picks up a motion of wailing walk    we are about to leave then John
changes register     pushes-us-not-out-but-into        Jimmy thumbs his bass to remind us: 
sorrowsongs   their relentless mourning      as Coltrane’s single voice rises–falls–rises     into a
green-blue-mercy    oh the silence   stops us makes us     tremulous Jimmy fingers almost a
jaunt–we-who-are-still-alive  repeating even as Elvin startles     interrupts with his harsh
banging race &  John  keening  what could have been:  6  lives calling him to smooth     out their names      Virgil  Addie  Carole  Cynthia  Carol  Johnny        in his moaning-heat     he does            
but then   he can’t help  his high pitch scream  then this ache gentleness                   
that disarticulates    music’s interrogation          of grace.


Alabama (John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison)

(Alabama is thought to come from a combination of two Choctaw words; Alba and Amo. In Choctaw, “Alba” means vegetation, herbs, plants and “Amo” means gatherer or picker.)



Veronica Golos is the author of four poetry books, GIRL awarded the Naji Naaman Honor Prize, 2019 (Beirut, Lebanon); Rootwork, Winner of the Southwest Book Design Award in Poetry, 2016; Vocabulary of Silence winner of the  New Mexico Book Award, translated into Arabic and Persian; and A Bell Buried Deep, winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, She was the former editor of The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and presently the editor of the Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art; She is an instructor  and on the faculty of Tupelo Press’ Writers Conference, SOMOS, literary organization of Taos, NM,  and, Hugo House, Seattle Washington.  She lives in Taos, New Mexico, with her husband, David Pérez.

Amy Beeder is the author of three books. Her latest “And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey,” is out from Tupelo Press. A recipient of an NEA Fellowship, a “Discovery”/The Nation Award, James Merrill Residence, Bread Loaf Scholarship, and Witness Writers Award, she has also worked as a creative writer instructor, legal writer, freelance reporter, political asylum specialist, high-school teacher in West Africa, and an election and human rights observer in Haiti and Suriname.