Monday, September 20, 2021

Wendy Xu, The Past


We don’t remember how we got here, so have woven a beautiful story of
You mispronounce my sacred name, always in front of others, there it goes

A fine white mist where once it held space for me
I didn’t write for the longest time because you were speaking for me

You had so many eyes trained on you, I wanted them only on me
In order for me to work towards an undoing of my condition, I must know the

characteristics of my condition
In order for me to know the characteristics of my condition, I must not be made

to feel alone in my perception of them
You are and have always been subject to randomness


New York poet Wendy Xu’s third book-length poetry title is The Past (Wesleyan University Press, 2021), following You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Press Center, 2013) and Phrasis (Albany NY: Fence Books, 2017) [see my review of such here]. The Past is a book that frames itself around personal histories, attempting to reconcile her two poles of being, belonging and identity, as the back cover offers: “Born in Shandong, China, in 1987, Wendy Xu immigrated to the United States in 1989, three days ahead of the events of Tiananmen Square. The Past probes the multi-generational binds of family, displacement, and immigration as an ongoing psychic experience without end. Moving spontaneously between lyric, fragment, prose, and subversions in ‘traditional’ Chinese forms, the book culminates in a centerpiece series of ‘Tiananmen Sonnets’ to conjure up the irrepressible past, and ultimately imagine a new kind of poem: at once code and confession.”

“I did wrong by all ideas of nation,” she writes, to open the poem “NAMES OF THE RIVER,” “haunted / by the after- / life of speech, public acts wagging / their dutiful tails [.]” Through The Past, Xu articulates a space that sits between two sides that often feel in conflict, or at least in opposition: how to be in and of two cultures, simultaneously. “The opening to another country was always inside / my father’s mind,” she offers, to open “POEM ABOUT MY LIFE,” “in many forms, in dreams: green swords // swirling in a winter mist, colorful moths, sometimes / a molar falling out, porcelain clattering onto the table // like a single rung chime.” She writes of how these histories, these particular elements of the past, can’t help but impact the present. “In our language the sweetness / of sugar mirrors heaven,” she offers, to open “TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY WORDS,” but the tonal edge / slopes up gently, there and away / from my small attempts at public- / facing speech.” She writes of how such aggressions, micro and otherwise, and their ongoing attempt to reduce her to a foreign entity, even as she explores a poetry that articulates her present as a whole and singular entity out of multiple, complex and moving parts. “There was nothing / inelegant to say,” she writes, to close the same poem, “not a wound nor / opening to make, just the lowly / murmur of a threat hung quietly / between us. Impossible to the tongue, / I know. For the eye alone.” Xu works to articulate a conversation around history, one that is attached to her family’s country and culture; a conversation that wouldn’t be allowed had she and her family remained where they are; an examination that wouldn’t have been possible, even to research or examine as an archive. As she opens her “TIANANMEN SONNETS,” which are “built to evade algorithmic censorship / of the numbers 6, 4, 89, / and other references to _______”:

Dead air in air
The anniversary of language
holds you back against

bucolic dreaming, down stream
from here is running

a miraculous color, elegy

bursts like a ribbon in air
Thinking again of the Square today
Bold sky, passing episodes of cloud

Vegetation mutters in the Far West

A column of ghosts
going violet over time
Familiar song looping overhead

Lines pressed in air

There is something interesting in the ways she structures her stanzas, accumulating a structure not of lyric phrases or sentences but of thoughts set as individual stanzas. A four stanza poem, for example, holds four distinct articulations, allowing the poem as a whole to exist as the articulation of these four ideas in succession. The last two stanzas of the four-stanza “LINEAR TRAVEL,” for example, reads:

You honor me with your ongoing fearlessness, careful not to discolor what you believe in with too many examples. When they come for you, conspire first and most attentively with your dead, make faithful note of every imagined assertion of self in hostile spaces.

When the self cracked open there inside was a sentence cracking in tandem. Tell them there was a song in you then.

She composes poems-as-scenes, painting particular portraits of a combination of a scene and a particular moment, such as the three-stanza “A POEM ON MY MOTHER’S BIRTHDAY,” the middle stanza of which reads:

Uncle has passed, and Uncle before him, Uncle of the wind tipping baskets of squash blossoms from the balcony’s ledge, blossoms on the neighbor’s patchwork roof, lifting with summer air, without regard for melancholy, for death which follows speech but does not undo it, for the chlorine that crept into Uncle’s bones and stayed, greening there.

Xu’s poems are very much propelled by motion, however her lines are spaced or rhythmed; her poems are kinetic, sharp and so fast moving her lines appear still, akin to rushing water. The ending to “POEM ABOUT MY LIFE,” for example, allows the rush and flow of her continued thought, picking up speed as her lyrics unfold: “When as a teenager I borrowed the rusted Nissan, / drove it through a field and returned it to him with sudden // blue flowers tucked into its mouth. The bluest one / he saved. The wind that made those dull trees sing, blowing in // from the future. Somewhere my father has never been.”

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Kevin Andrew Heslop, the correct fury of your why is a mountain


through beauty in and through beauty out

don’t remind me                         to tell you the story about the world
on the eve of the fiasco of souls               during the emblematic day

capitalism shot that Vermont state messenger appealing on the spot 

through                    and through
to            beauty in                       beauty out         so     don’t sugar-coat

the pulpit                                 the gas cult
after                                         saying to the future    no

The author of three chapbooks prior to this new release, London, Ontario poet Kevin Andrew Heslop’s full-length poetry debut is the correct fury of your why is a mountain (Guelph ON: Gordon Hill Press, 2021), a curious exploration of lyric thought through pointed language. I’m fascinated by the ways in which Heslop’s rhythm and cadence meets physical space. His poems are less composed by continuous flow or narrative stretch than a sequence of points met that connect to form a larger narrative shape. “a thought, barefoot //// slips,” he writes, to open the poem “forward,” set prior to the first section of the collection. To follow this, as part of “i cavalloni,” the opening poem of the first section, “one whole third of your life is spent getting used to gravity,” he offers:

when my son was a boy           his theatre teacher        a woman who’d spent
            sixteen months tending stables in her twenties told his mother and me

actors       are like teenagers                  are like horses 

capable of bucking the very sky
but with the nervous system of a humming bird

she must have sensed we didn’t know what to make of him
the turbulence of his septembers

His is a poetry of observation, and the precision here is incredible. Heslop composes poems as articulate bursts: he makes his point and quickly out, refusing to linger or tarry across any stretch of lyric. His poems contain multitudes, and are less about and around subjects than utilizing references as source material to provide narrative context; the ways through which he speaks on human interaction and a very living language. As the first of the two part poem, “about the twice-bent blast of that good night,” reads:

Into the habitable painting of the world, a text
like What’s happening bro? arrives. “Fuck,”

candidate responses start. “Fuck, I don’t
know. What’s happening with you?”

The world and everything in it. That night,
was from the Hebrew word for dust;

calculus, a pebble, from the Latin.
“I know that it’s a stupid question, but

how are you doing?”

Offering multiple contemporary references across the collection—Siri, the destruction of part of Notre Dame Cathedral, Twitter—he almost includes these as a means to a particular end; an intimate lyric built in, around and of its particular temporal space, a lyric not possible through any other time. “I’d woken from the dream in which a man,” he writes, as part of the poem “popliteal fossa,” “who in the dream I both was and could see, // mutters Esperanto to himself and walks. Limestone / and moonlight. Mulled wine in a teal ceramic cup // in his hands.” There is almost an echo here of the work of American poet Rosmarie Waldrop [see my review of her latest here], through the way Helsop utilizes structure and syntax as a way to propel his poems. What drives his lyric appears to tbe how and through language and meaning are constructed; a language not specifically assembled around the idea of structure, but a structure of ideas, allowing meaning to simultaneously be both building blocks and destination. There are some remarkable and envious things happening in this collection, and a lyric I haven’t seen done this way by anyone else.


Saturday, September 18, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Joanna Fuhrman

Joanna Fuhrman is the author of six books of poetry, including To a New Era (Hanging Loose Press 2021). Recent poems and poetry videos have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Conduit, Fence, NAW, Moving Poems, Triquarterly, Posit, and Volt. She teaches creative writing and organizes alumni and faculty readings at Rutgers University. 

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

My first book came out in 2000, so it feels like a different world from then. I remember how exciting it was to go into a bookstore and see my book on a shelf. Now, with how publishing has changed, that less likely to happen. I was also lucky that my first book allowed me to meet a lot of poets.

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

I remember writing a poem in middle school standing in front of a pizza place that would later burn down. It was a very bad, clichéd poem, but at the time it felt like a door was opening. After that I spent a lot of time at the school library and at the library near my parents’ office reading all the contemporary poetry books I could find. Rich’s book Leaflets was one of the first books that spoke to me. I remember finding it on the shelf of the school library in middle school. I also remember playing surrealist games at summer camp that same year, a few months later. That also really influenced me.

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 guess every poem and book project is different. To a New Era took me a very long time because my sense of the tone of the project kept changing. I threw out a bunch of poems after Trump was elected because they didn’t feel true to me anymore.

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?

A lot of my poems start with exercises I write with my students. I then take a few lines from what I wrote in class and develop them into something totally different. Other poems start in dreams or sometimes experiences.

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

Yes, I love giving readings. Otherwise I forget I’m supposed to be a funny poet. What stinks about Zoom readings is that you can’t hear anyone laughing. Though what’s nice is I get to look at my cat while I am reading. Or if I am reading a poem about wanting a cat, I can shake a bag of treats and show people that we finally got one.

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 think the thing about poetry is that the mind and the body are hopefully joined, so it’s not only theoretical. A lot of my work is about trying to create one’s own value system and sense of reality within the distorted framework of capitalism. I am also interested in the relationship between the realities of being a woman and our culture’s ideas about femininity.

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 I am more interested in what it means to be a citizen than a writer. As a poet I feel pretty marginal, so it’s hard to see any special place for me. But that said, I would hope that we would all be more involved in the civic life of our country. Perhaps as outsiders, we are better to able to see other possibilities.

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

I think it depends who the editor is. Caroline Hagood, who is a new editor at Hanging Loose, was wonderful to work with, and had great ideas and suggestions. My old editor at Hanging Loose, Donna Brook, was also wonderful, though she would lovingly tease me about how many times the color fuchsia would appear in my work, and other things like that. She was good at noticing if I did things like use the word “googly” twice in one manuscript.

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

Find your poetry tribe. I suppose everyone says it, but it’s true.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

It’s always hard for me to get started when I have to write something in a genre that isn’t my “main thing,” but then once I have gotten going I am surprised to enjoy it.  I would like to write more critical prose on poetry, but I have some projects I want to finish first.

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

It depends so much on my teaching schedule. I tend to prioritize my teaching, but I am also prone to dizzy spells. One advantage of dizzy spells is I am incapable of being coherent, so I am forced to work on poetry—where my scattered image-making mood is more appropriate.

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

Poets I return to include to be inspired include David Shapiro, Barbara Guest, John Yau, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Elaine Equi, Sharon Mesmer. I also have a ton of poetry anthologies in translation which I reread. When I feel like writing, I look to for poems to read that have a slipperiness to them.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I like to cook with lots of garlic, so I suppose that. Both my husband and I love to cook.

14 - 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?

I love visual art and movies. In to a New Era, I have a sestina inspired by Mary Beth Edelson and a pantoum inspired by the Guy Maddin film The Forbidden Room, and the project I’m working on now, called Data Mind, includes lots of prose poems that update “dreamifies” (or rewrites) various films, including My Man Godfrey, Dinner at 8, Something Wild and The Matrix.

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

All of the writers mentioned above. I am also grateful to have an amazing writing group that gives me terrific feedback.

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

I’d love to travel more. I have never been to Italy or Asia.

17 - 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?

I love art-making, and do it as an amateur. I also think being a therapist would be interesting. I actually enjoy listening to people talk.

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

As a kid I was always interested in all of the arts, I painted and acted and tried to learn music (though I was terrible at it). I fell in love with poetry because it feels like a combination of all of the arts.

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

I’ll give you two books by friends which blew me away, both of which I had been waiting for for a long time: Rick Snyder’s Here City and Sheila Maldonado’s That What You Get. For film, I re-watched The Lady Eve last night, which very well might be my favorite film ever.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a book of prose poems called Data Mind. It started out as a book about life on the internet as a non-digital native, but it’s sort of morphed into a book about pandemic life. I suppose they are related. I was also writing some flash fiction, but I have taken a break from that. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;