Sunday, November 28, 2021

Maw Shein Win, Storage Unit for the Spirit House

 

Theater in Three Acts

 

where are the minnows
song of gongs in mini-mall

 

what happens to the body after soliloquy
mine in mottled fur coat

 

when does the future arrive
birthmark on forehead in shape of flame

California poet Maw Shein Win’s second full-length collection, following the chapbook Score and Bone (Nomadic Press, 2016) and the full-length debut Invisible Gifts: Poems (Manic D Press, 2018), is Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Oakland CA: Omnidawn, 2020), a collection composed in short sketches, writing the small moments and perspectives that form together to articulate a particular stretch of both the external and internal workings of a life being fully lived. In a dense and sketched-out lyric, hers is a poetic of accumulated dailyness, a lyric journal of dreams and domestic composed via shorter units of precision around ordinary extraordinariness. She writes portraits of medical appointments, local landmarks, storage units and strange dreams, a litany of family and subconscious images, children who won’t sleep and a house on the lake. “she runs on four legs along a dry / river bed,” she writes, to close the poem “Bottle,” “mother sleeping // the sun blinking / the scar questions // why why the chickens / why why jam & eggs // why why the hand /caught in a bottle of laughter [.]” There are points at which her portraits lean into the dream-like and surreal, offering different levels of concrete detail, all while offering an otherworldly portrait, it would seem, of what might otherwise be considered uniquely and innately familiar. “tinctures for pain,” she writes, to open the poem “Hospital,” “capsized vessels / hand reaches into warm body / she believes in magic & so do I / painted things [.]”

There is something curious about how certain of her poems are structured: stanzas single and even double-spaced within, but larger spaces between, akin to different sections/stanzas existing as a self-contained call-and-response, offering both perspective and reflection. Her play of space on the page allows for different levels of pause, break and connection, offering not, I suppose, hesitation, but levels of connection and commentary, such as the poem “Imaging Center,” that reads, in full:

the pointer stick she grips
trails my twisting spine

she plots movement
with the exactness of a fingertip

slow as the motion of a snail in love
my naked back on treatment table

 

 

coolness hardening into memory

The poem-portraits captured as part of her Storage Unit for the Spirit House each offer perspectives of moments large and small—everything that goes through the mind as her narrator moves through the world and her day—each poem oriented to the detail of their individual frame; the gaze of her poems expand and contract, offering both the larger view and one so close it can only exist within. As the first half of the poem “Phone Booth” offers: “a Brownie camera slung around a sweaty neck // telephone wires crisscross // you didn’t hear that did you? you did not didn’t you? // child in a burlap cape leaps through the garden [.]” The poems are not set as a scrapbook, but as a photo album of memories, moments and ideas. “how does a painting speak?” she asks, as part of the poem “Diorama,” “language is the difference / among three things // who enters the spectacle? the brave ones with their silk skirts [.]”

Saturday, November 27, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lisa Summe

Lisa Summe is the author of Say It Hurts (YesYes Books, 2021). She earned a BA and MA in literature at the University of Cincinnati, and an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bat City Review, Cincinnati Review, Muzzle, Salt Hill, Verse Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. You can find her running, playing baseball, or eating vegan pastries in Pittsburgh, PA, on Twitter and Instragram @lisasumme, and at lisasumme.com.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I wish this weren’t the case, but I definitely feel validated as a writer in a way that I didn’t pre-book. It’s also so nice when strangers reach out and tell you something positive they experienced when reading or hearing your poems. My book just came out this year, in January, but it’s been finished for a couple years now, and I’ve been working on other things. I finished a second manuscript in the fall, another collection of poems. I’d say it’s really different in that it’s just better. The poems feel a little more controlled and intentional. They’re just better because I’ve had more practice. In the second collection I’ve also delved into some topics I haven’t previously explored involving domestic violence, particularly in the home my mother grew up in, and the intergenerational trauma and grief that comes with that.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I wanted to be a fiction writer once I switched to being an English major in college! But those workshops always filled up, every single term until I was a senior, so I settled for poetry, hoping to get a teacher who would talk to me about how to write a novel. Little did I know I’d never stop writing poems after that first class. Writing poems is what has actually changed my life.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I never think of writing as toward a project outside of assuming that once I have a big pile of poems I’ll make them into a book. The idea of starting anything new is pretty paralyzing for me, so I try to trick myself by doing very small steps like can you write a poem, any poem, this week. I was in a good rhythm for a couple years recently where I wrote a poem a week. A lot of those poems made up the second collection. My revisions don’t usually radically change a poem. If the poem sucks I just throw it away.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Poems happen different for me all the time, but usually it’s from making myself sit down and carve out the time for it. Sometimes I’m so stuck I just kind of journal until I say something complicated or interesting, then I try to latch onto that and make a poem. Better than that is coming up with a really interesting image or sentence while on a run or something, but that’s pretty rare for me. I always have to keep the mindset of just one poem at a time because I can only handle small tasks and goals, and so I’ve learned how to make big things small. The fun part of making a book, actually, isn’t writing toward a thing, but taking all the pieces and seeing how they talk to each other / what kind of story they tell.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I find giving readings to be pretty energizing but they don’t do anything for me in terms of my creative process really. It’s just nice to be in a room with other writers and seeing them do their thing. It’s nice to have someone tell you good job.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I never feel like I’m working to answer any questions on a large scale, though I, of course, hope my poems inform peoples’ feelings about major things, like love and grief and how one cannot or will not exist without the other. It feels a little too expected or easy or something for me to say that my concerns are feelings, mostly my own. Which are broad and both theoretical and not theoretical at all. Right now, I’m kind of obsessed with time and how it passes and how it can be measured very precisely and yet, depending on where a person is, physically in time and space, and where a person is emotionally, how we perceive time to be passing, the rate of it, is affected by those things. I don’t really know what to say about what the current questions are, but I hope, for all of us, writers or not, we’re thinking about how to live in a way that treats others (people, animals, the planet) kindly, and navigating that in a genuine way—there’s questions we all need to ask ourselves in order to do that.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think it’s similar to what I think, for me, is the role of literature, which is to provide emotionally honest perspectives on things so that readers become more imaginative and, therefore, more empathetic.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential, probably. Difficult, maybe. I only have one experience with YesYes for my one book, and it was really positive. The most difficult thing, I think, doesn’t have to do with the writing or editing at all, but maybe with people just having different organizational skills and approaches to completing tasks. I guess that’s true of any work environment.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Be nice to yourself.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I don’t have a writing routine right now. What’s worked best for me is trying to write a poem a week. But I take months-years of breaks from doing that. I may be getting back into the swing of it now, but still feel kind of fried from a long stretch of writing from the last few years. Started taking an intentional break in December am not writing much these days. All my best days begin with avocado toast on seedy whole wheat sourdough and a run after a night in which I went to bed early.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I turn to books. The more poems I read, the more poems I write, usually. Alex Dimitrov, Matt McBride, and Wendy Xu are poets who come to mind, whose books I take off the shelf when I’m really struggling.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Anything that has just been cooked and is cooling by an open window.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Feelings lol.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Running is a big part of mental / emotional health maintenance for me that I think has helped me keep a somewhat clear head in which I’m able to kind of “organize” my feelings in a way that make sense for a poem, and helped me, too, I think with staying disciplined with writing when I choose to prioritize it, maybe from the high or the release that happens, maybe that helps me feel “motivated.” Reading books of poems and listening to music that make me feel excited about creating are important. All time fav poets are Alex Dimitrov, Olivia Gatwood, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Emily Skaja, Richard Siken, Danez Smith. But so many more, too.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Get good at skateboarding. Learn to play the drums. Maybe write prose, but really I waver on that.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

This is such an interesting question. I always think of occupation as job as how you make money. I don’t make enough money from poems to live. If I did, that would be the dream for sure, I think, though there’s always the feeling of when something becomes your job maybe you don’t really like it anymore.

I started college as a dietetics major and have, in the last year or so, been toying around with the idea of going to nursing school, though right now, today, I don’t really think that’s something I’ll follow through with. I currently work an office job and I really don’t want to hang out a desk for the rest of my life, though working from home most of the time has changed my attitude quite a bit. I’m really into moving my body and a stationary job isn’t very good for me. Maybe I’d have gone to trade school for some kind of more physical job, which would suit me better, but I just went to college like everyone else around me did, like I was expected to. I would’ve never started writing had I not gone to college and then switched majors, but I also think college is kind of a scam, at least in the current model that puts many people in debt for the rest of their lives. I will also say I went to school for 9 years and have 3 degrees. So I mean I love school. I just think it’s fucked up everyone who wants to go doesn’t have the same opportunity to do that.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

How much I loved my freshman comp class in college.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’ve been reading a ton of poetry this year and have come across some real bangers. Two that stand out are Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse (Milkweed Editions, 2020), and Pine by Julia Koets (Southern Indiana Review, 2021). I don’t see many movies. Promising Young Woman was pretty uncomfortable in a way I enjoyed. I liked that movie.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Giving 100% at baseball practice. Navigating nonmonogamy. Right now it’s April, and me and my girlfriend are trying to write a poem a week this month. I’m doing it but it’s taking everything in me.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, November 26, 2021

Ongoing notes: late November 2021: Heather White + Michael Boughn,

More chapbooks! Hooray for this, yes? It is good that I’m finally seeing further appear in my mailbox (although now I have a mound of them I’ve yet to get to). Stay tuned!

Montreal QC: I’m struck by this seeming-chapbook debut by Montreal writer Heather White, her chapbook DES MONSTERAS (Vallum Chapbooks, 2021). Subtitled “a long poem,” the eighteen poems within display a playfully-structured collage, folding in quotes by and elements of and around Mary Oliver, Taylor Swift and Paul Celan, among other references. “I roam the cold city with Taylor Swift,” she writes, mid-way through the collection, “singing voiceover. Her songs tell / their stories to the people in them.” The structure of the poems, as the back cover echoes, suggests poems quickly sketched via cellphone as journal notes, hastily written between thoughts as “both an insular retreat and an impulse to connect during the Montreal winter of the pandemic.” I’m curious about a number of things regarding White’s work: how far might this poem go, for example, beyond the boundaries of this debut publication?

signal bars|wi-fi|time|headphones|battery
<DES MONSTERAS           share send

I slept and woke up remembering
that demonstrate comes from the
same root as monster. Both are

about pointing out or warning,
showing, montrer. A monster is a

messenger, often mistaken for the
message. A harbinger, coming

round the mountain, montagne:
nature’s pedestal. Mont Royal,

Montréal
. What did I want this man
to put on a mountain for me?

Already his gaze released my face
from me for blissful long shifts. And

God knows how aching, how weary,
I’d become as the sole watchman of

my self, the last guardian of my
features, the one clerk left still

minding the store of my whole
buzzing, godforsaken body.
 

    trash|list|photo|edit|new

Toronto ON: It is good to see that Toronto poet, editor and critic Michael Boughn is still producing chapbooks, the latest of which is The Battle of Milvian Bridge (shuffaloff, 2021), a playful and gymnastic eleven-part open-ended sequence around the Green Knight, a character from Arthurian lore that has lately fallen back into cultural awareness, thanks to the recent feature film, as well as Helen Hajnoczky’s recent Frost & Pollen (Picton ON: Invisible Publishing, 2021) [see my review of such here]. “Where’s the Green Knight,” the poem begins, “when you need him & his axe / to smarten up the Zeitgeist, when / the zeit’s geist is all / wham bam thank you ma’m, grab ‘em / by the— / well, Morgan Le Fay / might have a thing or two to say / about that […]” Boughn utilizes the legend of the Green Knight as a framework through which to mark and remark upon current affairs and cultural currency, language incursions, religious fervors and twisted meanings. As the sixth section ends: “nothing adds a depth / of understanding otherwise / circumscribed by judgement’s / geometry which brings the poem / back around to the Circular Slab / at the centre of our story / and the Green Knight / bearing news of the Hot Tamale [.]”

3. In Which The Mystery Ship Reappears

The absent ship sails by again
corposants merrily aflame

& signage boldly splayed
to let the poet know he made

a slip, & the elusive ship
is without a doubt Solomon’s

built at spousal request
(ah! the marriage bed)

to bear crown & sword
into story’s bleeding future

lances, fancy cups, the whole
round table schtick the Green

Knight brought to a quick
pause, the Cup recalling Morgan’s

judgment, a sign of eldritch
ledgibility, glyph’s untranslatable

clarity, indigestible scrawl
amid communication’s rubble


Thursday, November 25, 2021

Amanda Moore, Requeening

 

Confession

In the chapel of our first days,
I put you to my breast again and again
and let you refuse me.
 

Half-life half-lived and with you
as my witness: I have been more
mother than woman. I have stayed up

all night lining the shelves of my life
with your toys and books.
 

It might be a comfort
the way my whole world spins
on the tip of your smallest toe,

but you will learn to be a woman
from the way I am a woman

in this world
and this is the litany

of my mistake.

From San Francisco poet and essayist Amanda Moore comes the full-length poetry debut, Requeening (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2021), 2020 winner of the National Poetry series, as selected by Ocean Vuong. Bees are, I’ve garnered, the earth-equivalent of the canary in a coal mine, and poets seem to return to bees fairly regularly, from Tonya M. Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Brooklyn NY: Belladonna*, 2015) [see my review of such here] to Renée Sarojini Saklikar’s Listening to the Bees (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2018) to Muriel Leung’s IMAGINE US, THE SWARM (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2021) [see my review of such here], among others. For Moore’s part, the figure and mantra of the bee follows from opening to central image: “This might have been the way I was born,” she writes, close to the beginning of the opening poem, “Opening the Hive,” “to move over my mother and wash from her / what was left of painful birth, her legs / like the old wood cracked with a hive tool, / my lips clamping and the bees burrowing / into honeycomb, bathed in sweetness, / a taste fresher when robbed this way.” She writes of the wisdoms and lessons passed from one generation to another, such as the poem “Sonnet While Killing a Chicken,” that opens: “The most important thing a girl can learn / is how to kill a chicken for a meal / to feed a man, so she begins to turn / the bird by neck and bound feet—this skill real, / precise, my mother wringing damp both towels / and snapping them on our rumps like the neck / snaps in the hand, wings sputter, bowels / release shit.” Moore writes of labour, industry, mothering, birth and daughters; a sequence of women and bees, and the physicality of bodies and work. “I prefer the mystery / of a bee’s body returning,” she writes, as part of “Waggle Dance,” “bright orange streaks of pollen / in the sacks on the backs of her legs // like fistfuls of hazy, polluted sun.”

“Everything beautiful can be reduced // to scientific measurement:,” the same poem offers, to open, “this language / this dance // this swoop and waggle / across the hexagoned surface of comb [.]” The word “precarity” is utilized in Vuong’s blurb on the back cover, and Moore speaks to issues of health and other complications, writing a motherhood of bees and of just how easy the entire hive structure might simply collapse, and everything completely lost. Composing poems around the metaphor of bees, Moore writes of aunts, wasps, mothering and the lessons that emerge from each and all of the above, structuring her hard-won lessons through a variety of structures, from sonnets to a section of haibun to her carved accumulations of lyric couplets. And such hard lessons, certainly, through the ebb and flow of her prose lyric narratives, such as the opening of “20905 Caledonia Avenue Hazel Park MI,” that reads: “After tuning each floorboard / and scraping walls to chalky plaster // layering checkerboard tile and nailing / every shingle to the roof we made // a baby and I bore her in my body / until she broke me and we brought her there // where I milked myself each morning so happy / to make a home // for suffering, down to / the location even: the old place perched // on the edge of a city waking / from decades of cold dormancy.”

There is an attentiveness to Moore’s language; a precision to her explorations through mothers and bees, wasps and ants, and her own thoughts on mothering her own daughter. The slow evolution through the collection from writing of her mother to mothering to her own daughter is reminiscent of a couple of other titles over the years, most recently Silvina López Medin’s Poem That Never Ends (Essay Press, 2021) [see my review of such here]. Moore writes not only of mothering, but of the shifts in perspective that emerge with the role. She writes of love, failure and exhaustion, and of moving through the accumulation into something akin to appreciation, and even wisdom and accomplishment, such as the end of the poem “Everything Is a Sign Today,” that offers: “The only difference / the season and time of day, which is to say / they are like this grief these months later: / all the same but for the light.”