I am beyond excited to serve as a Senior Poetry editor for Tupelo Quarterly. And what better way to celebrate the release of our first issue than to celebrate some of the poetry published in the last year. I think I speak for all of us who read submissions for Tupelo Quarterly when I say that we are grateful for the parts of our days that are filled with the dynamic universe of poetry. As a poet myself, I often think about the values that shape and construct the literary journals I read and submit my work to. So I wanted to share with Tupelo Quarterly readers, as explicitly as I could, what kinds of values keep me reading and writing poems—and therefore what kinds of values inform how I read the work of the poets who submit to TQ. When I thought about the form of how I’d like to express those values, it seemed clear to me that what I value in poetry is also what makes me grateful to the poets who write the poems I won’t soon forget. So this is a list of gratitudes that, while they refer specifically to books I’ve read in the last year, are also a reflection of gratitude to the poets who submitted their work to this issue of TQ. As my own disclaimer, I could go on and on about what a debt my life and understanding of the world owes to poetry, so this list arrives, however incomplete it may be.
Thank you, poets and poetry:
for writing poems that are made of un-poem like things
This year I had the pleasure of reading Aaron Smith’s Appetite. Smith is among many poets to thank for reminding us that there is no off-limits content, that poems can be made of un-poetry-like things. Thank you, Aaron Smith, for “Fat Ass,” a poem about language, and politics, and irony, a poem that won’t stop repeating the phrase “fat ass” over and over until the insult becomes a kind of music, the drum beat to a poem that says: hey, poet, make poems out of language, not subjects, fat ass! A poem that simultaneously takes poetry seriously and doesn’t take poetry seriously—because for me good poems are all about contradictions, and tensions, and two seemingly conflicting truths existing in one shifting and fleeting moment.
for the undeniable truth of music
If I could say it better than Douglas Kearney, I would. But I can’t. Of Yona Harvey’s Hemming the Water, Kearney writes, “This poetry watches a baby’s heartbeat turn into a bomb with the gentlest nudge of alphabet.” Harvey’s book has a three-part poem aptly called “Sound” in this collection. And the second of these poems, subtitled “Hearing My Daughter’s Heartbeat for the First Time” enacts, in sound itself, the transformation Kearney describes. In her poem, “Hurricane,” a lyrical meditation on letting a child go on an amusement park ride: “ . . . a hurricane. (You let/ Your girl what? You let/ Your girl what?)/ I did so she do I did/ So she do so—/ Girl, you can ride/ A hurricane & she do/ & she do & she do & she do.” Yes the poem is about letting go, about the strange balance of protecting the seemingly vulnerable through letting them go. But if you didn’t just read the lines I quoted out loud, do it. The content is in the content, yes. But the content is ever more so in the song. Thank you, Yona Harvey, for singing this book. Thanks to all poets who sing.
for insisting on the cyclical relationship between language and power
Thank you, Ruth Ellen Kocher, for the poem “M/meditation I Dominance” from domina Un/blued. Kocher’s work brings the past into the present through its sharp clarity even while its project is deeply philosophical, political, and historical. When I get to the final lines of this poem, “Forget that within you a knife/ Forget the red storm of wanting to,” I experience something that great poems create for their readers: the sense that I am implicated—in power structures, in my body, in the air I breathe, in my desire, in the histories I made/make. I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to poets who show us to ourselves in all of our strange, ugly, impossible beauty. And what’s at the nexus of this understanding is the inextricability of language and power.
for illuminating how form is content, and content is form
Because I also teach writing, some aspects of poetry bring my mind directly to the teaching of poetry. And sometimes, when I say the word “form,” my students look at my like I’ve said the most boring word of all time. And so, this year, I gave them Denise Duhamel’s “Recession Commandments” from her most recent book, Blowout. And here’s just a piece of the poem they see:
thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s oxygen bar nor ass nor Assembly of God Membership
nor anything else that is they neighbor’s—not tennis rackets nor rollerblades
nor art collection nor wine glasses nor Costco membership nor ice cubes
nor commanding presence in room nor junk mail and catalogs
nor flawless articulation nor perfect posture nor political connections nor gutters
nor scrapbook nor table runner nor encyclopedias nor vintage poscards
This poem is made of religious form, and it is a big poem, and its form takes over your mouth when you read it out loud. And its form is gluttonous, and its form is the commandments, and suddenly my students want to talk about form. Thank you, Denise Duhamel, for brining Costco memberships and capitalism and religion and “America” into conversation with craft. Sometimes conversations about craft and form get reserved for forms that are conventionally nameable, but thanks to poets we know form is more complicated that what is readily available.
for writing letters
Some days, I admit, I’m worried no one is writing letters anymore. And I feel like some cliché of nostalgia pining for the old days when I left love notes in lockers, when I sent one letter every day to a girlfriend while on a road trip. No cell phone, no internet. A good old-fashioned road trip, full of crumpled maps and mix tapes. But enough about my lesbian life in the 90’s. Thank you to poets who still write letters—letters that are also poems that are also letters. Thank you, Julie Marie Wade, whose book Postage Due is full of postcards and letters. Even better, many of the letters come from the speaker’s younger self, the speaker’s mother to the Stafford Shirt Man in the JC Penny catalog. One letter poem in the book ends as perhaps all letters should end: “Here in the snow, I write your name & watch the sky erase it. And then,/ being only a poet & lost for words, do all that I can do. Quietly./ Caesura./ Pause.”
for paying attention to what seems small
I sometimes wonder how much better off we’d all be if we could figure out how to best teach people to enter the state of noticing the ways poets often do. I’m struck, time and time again, by the ways poems call our attention to something easy to miss, something almost invisible. Sure, this is about beauty, and aesthetics, and the strikingly small details that show up in poems. But it also about vision, which means is it also a deeply spiritual and political methodology, a way of looking at the world. This way of looking implies that if we look closely, clearly, carefully, and with great self-awareness, we can see not only what things are, but we can also see what things mean and who we are. Thank you, Ruth L. Schwartz, for noticing the smallest and most significant of things. This is from her book, Miraculum. The poem is called “In the Garden”:
Although their glistening wings are too small,
although the laws of physics say they can’t fly,
the bees do fly, clover to clover,
parting the blades like lovers’ thighs,
nuzzling every sweetness into another.
Wherever we go, the ants still find us.
Over and over, they tell us, Crumbs are enough.
for repetitions and revisions
Here is the opening to the poem, “Dome Riddle,” from When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz:
Tonight I am riddled by this thick skull
this white bowling ball zipped in the sad-sack carrying case of my face
this overwound bone jack-in-the-box
this Orlando’s zero, Oaxacan offering: cabeza locada, calvera azucarada,
clavo jodido, cenote of Mnemosyne,
this sticky-sweet guilt hive, piedra Blanca del rio oscuro,
this small-town medical mania dispensary, prescribed cranium pill,
this electric blue tom-tom drum ticking like an Acme bomb, hypnotized
explosive device, pensive general, scalp-strapped warrior, soldier
with a loaded God complex
In her famous essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Adrienne Rich writes: “Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for woman more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.” For Rich, and for many writers, looking again or revising, is part of the process of making a poem, making a book. And revision happens in each substantiation, or version, of a piece a writer makes. But for many poets, for maybe the best poets, revision is something that happens instantly; it’s a way of approaching both the poem and the world—the very minute a phrase, or way of describing “this thick skull,” appears on the page, the imagination ignites with revisions, with qualifications, with seeing again the very image the poet just composed. This is how the world works: it shifts, it changes, it engages our perception. To write poems that honor and take seriously that shifting, the act of revision happens throughout the poem rather than just behind the scenes of the poem’s making. Diaz’s revisionary instincts are transparent in this poem—in fact, we can read the entire poem up until the last stanza as a revision of the very first line. The image repeated so that it can be re-seen, and in the end of the poem (and I’ll let you look it up to experience the turn), “we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched” and we see Diaz showing us how to “know ourselves.” Thank you for that, Natalie Diaz.
for the wisdom and conscience of the figurative
I often find myself explaining to some of my friends and family who aren’t writers why poets and writers are “so fancy” with their language, or why poets don’t, as a few of my students say, “just say that” rather than convey meaning figuratively. And the ways poets employ their figurative moves, of course, isn’t just about beauty or effect (though, of course it is about that), but it is also about acknowledging the profound complexity of language, idea, and image. We live in a time too often driven by reduction, simplicity, or a kind of binary thinking—a world in which it is expected that one can actually even “just say” something in a simple way. And there are certainly moments for simplicity, and certain poets who make that simplicity shine. But there are also moments where the figurative moves of poets help us see the nuances of meaning, the complex magnitude of the subject. So thank you, Lee Sharkey, for the poems in Calendars of Fire, poems with what I might call a figurative conscience. Here’s Sharkey in the poem “With birds on his shoulders”:
Violation rises like a planet
its own sound something quiet
like sliding bodies into water
That might be one way of thinking about history.
for giving voice to the silences
There are things about which we are given the message to say nothing. And from that imperative to say nothing, poets often speak. Deep gratitude to Afaa Michael Weaver for his collection The Government of Nature, a terrifying and elegant collection of poems that illuminate the consequences of silence. And that illumination reminds us, again, how the idea that “the personal is political” isn’t just something we say, isn’t just something we can allow to lose meaning, or become a commonplace we take for granted. Here’s the closing of Weaver’s poem “If You Tell,” a list poem that gathers a series of fears or consequences that could be the result of giving voice to the silences:
If you tell, you will see the wounded everywhere,
shuffling legions, the murdered souls of children
under angels’ wings, beating a prayer in a place
with no night, no day, no palladium of lies.
Thank you, Afaa Michael Weaver, on behalf of every silence, for your voice.
for calling our attention to names
I am grateful to poets all the time for reminding us of the essential nature of names and naming. And there are two poets, who I could not choose between, that published poems this year that bring naming (something poets do all the time, something we all do all the time) to the complex surface. Thank you, Jan Beatty and Richard Blanco, for opening up for us, again, the undeniable power of the name. In her poem, “Visitation at Gogama” from The Switching Yard, Beatty writes:
We’re approaching the town of Gogama,
Ontario—small railroad town erased
by the diesel engine. There’s a bar called
“Restaurant/Tavern” and a meat market
called “Meat Market” and a motel called
“Motel”—no other names.
In this place of no-naming or maybe
first-naming, I decide I’ll call myself “bastard”—
it’s plain and accurate, you can count on it.
We approach a signal, a woman in a
black tank top with killer arms slouches
in a grey Buick Century at the crossing
in a modified gangster lean. I decide
I love her, call her free.
And here’s Richard Blanco, “The Name I Wanted,” from Looking for the Gulf Motel:
Not Ricardo but Richard, because I felt
like Richard Burton—a true Anglo-Saxon
in tights reciting lines from Othello, because
I wanted to be as handsome as Richard Gere
in a white tuxedo, because I had a pinky ring
just like Richard Dawson on Family Feud,
because I knew I could be just as wholesome
as Richie Cunningham, just as American
as my father’s favorite president, Nixon.
What things are called, what their names signify, is the work of poets. The names we give to things, the names given to us, the names we give to ourselves. Both poems are studies of identity—and in both poems, those questions of identity are deeply bound to the questions of naming. To be a poet, or a writer of any kind, is to take on the burden, responsibility, and paradox of the name—the ways naming can both empower and constrain us. Blanco ends “The Name I Wanted” this way:
Ricardo De Jesús Blanco, I dub thee myself
Sir Richard Jesus White
defender of my own country, protector
of my wishes, conqueror of mirrors, sovereign
of my imagination—a name for my name.
These categories of gratitude I’ve written, themselves a set of names for a set of complex movements and investments enacted by poets, seem only the beginning. And I’ve tried (if you can believe it) to be as unromantic as I could here about what I think poetry and poets have to offer and what kinds of poems I experience as full of power, nuance, and complex clarity. And I hope, even if it doesn’t point to all the things I (or the other editors at TQ) value, that it does start a dialogue about what poems are for, what ways they enact on the worlds and histories they describe. If I didn’t believe poetry mattered in the ways I talk about here, I’d do something else. So, I am glad I am doing this work and I look forward to all the poems I will read this coming year.