Monthly Archives: September 2009

Major Jackson on Personal Experiences & “Holding Company”

Linus___Major_on_Philly_street__filming

I just read a great interview with Major Jackson in which he discusses, among other things, how he came to write poetry and his current project “Holding Company.” It’s a great read. Here’s a taste.

AT: How much of your personal experience and research feeds into your poetry?

MJ: The creative process is a grinder into which you throw carrots, celery, lentils, shrimp, flowers, music, earrings, kisses–all of that. By the time a poem is done, I don’t know how much of my personal life is in. Granted, there may be some poems triggered by a memory, and trust me you, I’m one of those writers who is addicted to memory, but I am lying a lot of the time. I’m also addicted to the imagination. So what finds its way onto the page is an amalgam of everything sifted through my eyes, my nose, my fingers, and my brain. You know, cognition is a fascinating thing because I believe there are certain kinds of knowing, certain kinds of understanding, but what I find pretty amazing about the human mind is that cognition stops at some point and another kind of exploration, of knowing starts to take over. 

There’s a poem that I have called “Blunts”: did I get high in my teen years? Yes, recreationally with friends. Did that actual scene happen? No. I never had a friend named Malik, never had a friend named Johnny Cash. I played basketball with a guy named Johnny Cash, but only knew him on the basketball court and loved his name. I love the metric and the meter of that name. That hard ‘k’ sound. So the aesthetic demands are like the carrot pushing the cart. Oftentimes, I’m really just paying attention to what kind of sound I need, rhythm or cadence I need. I need to find that combination of words and syntax that will lead me to that. Then, I step back and say, “This is why poetry exists, because I never would have uttered something so weighty.” I’m not a profound person. The creative process–sitting down and writing poems–leads me unto regions of knowing that I didn’t know I possessed.

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MFA Thesis Diary #6: Work isn’t the Enemy

I just finished working on the 32nd poem I’ve written for this manuscript. With each poem, I marvel at the ways words arrange and re-arrange themselves to create new meanings and revive old ghosts. Even more impressive is that two weeks into what already promises to be the busiest semester yet, I’ve realized that being busy actually inspires me to write more frequently. That’s right. Grading papers, reading 2 four hundred page books on Ralph Ellison at once, attending workshop, teaching, and whatever else I do in a given day has resulted in me writing more often & better. In fact, I’m writing almost every day.

During the summer, when I had all the time in the world (it seemed), I wrote every 3 or 4 days. A caveat: writing more frequently doesn’t always translate into better writing, but as I work on this manuscript, it’s helpful for the space between efforts to be minimal. I want these poems to speak to each other. I want the overall project to be a dialogue of sorts. By making the effort to write every day, I increase the likelihood that one poem takes over where another one left off.

I would love to blog more about this epiphany, but I have papers to grade..

Eight Legs & Ashes

blackwidow

As I tribute to the giant spider my roommate & I just found on our front porch, here’s “Black Widow” an essay by Lee Zacharias.

I hadn’t thought they would be so small. In my imagination they were huge, and why not since my only previous encounter had come in a Nancy Drew book? I no longer remember which one, only that when the crook—a counterfeiter or a jewel thief, some sort of greedy schemer—locked the girl detective in a room full of black widow spiders and turned out the light, a shudder slipped down my spine. I could feel them crawling closer, deadly with venom and villainous intent. Never mind that I knew she’d survive, knew even then that there was no real mystery at the heart of the mysteries she solved. Evil in her world was all menace and no force, the evil-doers stupid, and the evil itself easily parsed. But if the villains were petty, the spiders were mythic, black-hearted, potent, larger than life, on a par with tarantulas, piranhas, cobras, boa constrictors, exotic creatures of unspeakable horror.

I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process of working on this MFA thesis. For one thing, I’ve discovered that I might be a closeted-pyromaniac (on the page at least). So, it’s fitting that this morning I came across “Self-Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon” by Oliver de la Paz.

Let me start with fire. A little blaze lit to clear back the scrub brush
brought by the winter storms. Let the air ting with each leaf pop
as the ash of prairie grasses rise skyward. 

And let that fire grow with each gust 
shot straight out of the Cascades far to the west.
The curlicues of smoke fill a sky, void of mountains,

while the corralled horses several hundred yards away
pace nervously back and forth. 
I’m trying to remember how everything settles down

after a fire. How the outcroppings of rock stand out farther
in those charred, moonish surfaces. I’m trying to remember
the nonchalance of a boy used to such things.

I’ve also been reading…

“Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles (translated by Robert Fagles)

“American Sublime” by Elizabeth Alexander

“The Birthmark” by Ralph Ellison

Interview: Poet Alex Dimitrov

Alex Dimitrov is the recipient of a Roy W. Cowden Fellowship from the Hopwood Awards at the University of Michigan. His poems and reviews have appeared in Best New Poets 2009Poets & WritersCrab Orchard ReviewThe Cortland Review,Gargoyle, and The Portland Review among others. He is the awards coordinator of the Academy of American Poets and the founder of Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City.

Go to Diode and The Cortland Review to read some of Alex’s work.

Alex with the Virgin

You’ve asked me this question before and now I’m asking you: How did you come to poetry? And why do you stick with it?

As a child I used to take piano and French lessons back to back after school.  I hated both, and for my own amusement I started making up songs, in bad French, in some off key melody I banged out on the piano. That’s how I came to poetry. And I’ve stuck with it because I believe it’s possible, though difficult, to create something beautiful. Beauty is truth, like Keats said.  And I know art can wake people up and help them live in the world. I’m interested in lifting people up. One of my favorite performance artists, Marina Abramović, says that her purpose as an artist is to elevate the public spirit. I try to remember that when I sit down to write.

As a recent graduate of the Sarah Lawrence MFA program, do you have any retrospective thoughts on the MFA experience?

I went to an MFA program to meet my family. My teacher Marie Howe calls it “tribal recognition,” that feeling when you meet another writer and you’re instantaneously drawn to one another on this metaphysical, emotional level—which your love of language (and of life and all its details) has made possible.

Could you talk about the process of writing your MFA thesis? How did you approach the project & how did you sustain the energy needed to get through it?

I wanted to write poems about God and time and the power of place. I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and I immigrated to Detroit, Michigan with my family when I was six years old, after the fall of communism in the early 90s. I had a story but like you say, I needed to sustain the energy of the experience, I needed to hear a voice from somewhere so I could start writing and transform that experience. So I sat and waited, and read a lot of Eliot and Dickinson and Glück. And then I’d write a little. I’m constantly amazed when I finish a poem. I always think it’s going to be my last. It’s a kind of melancholy euphoria. The only thing harder than writing is living.

How would you describe your own work? What are your priorities as a poet?

My priorities are clarity and beauty. Anne Carson, who was my teacher at the University of Michigan, has these great lines in Decreation where she says, “I just want to be clear/ and be more and more clear/ until finally/ all you see/ is the line/ left by the cutting tool/ in the heart,/ not even the heart.” That’s what I want. To make something true and devastating, yet stripped down, so it gracefully disappears at the same time. An art so bare, it almost seems effortless, artless.

Thinking about the poetry community, what do you love and what do you hate about the state of contemporary poetics?

I love how aesthetically diverse contemporary poetry is right now.  I was reading Brenda Shaughnessy and Jack Gilbert one after the other on the train today. It was a good train ride.

What I want to do is bring glamour back to poetry, like Anne Sexton in the 60s—holding a cocktail in one hand and her book of poems in the other.  I’m interested in the idea of the poet as a public figure. A man, or woman, of the people. Poets understand and believe in the internal, but the external is an art in itself. The way you look, and the persona you adopt has everything to do with how you imagine yourself in the culture. There’s a lot to be valued in that kind of aesthetic imagination. I’d love to see poets dress up and be fabulous, craft more of a visual identity for themselves.

You recently founded the Wilde Boys Queer Poetry Salon. Can you talk about the group & what it means to you (and others)?

I’m just so happy that once a month I get to be in the same room with an incredibly diverse (and cute) group of young gay New York poets. I love that we argue over the relevance of phrases like “queer poetry” or “AIDS literature,” or what any of these things even mean. We read James Merrill and Henri Cole, Mark Doty and Hart Crane—it’s a big mish mash. And the boys can swap numbers if they want to. Poetry’s about language and desire after all.

Has the Salon affected your thoughts on what makes a queer writer (or reader for that matter)?

I don’t know what makes a queer writer. The first poetry I ever read was Emily Dickinson, followed by Anne Sexton. And those two women are more queer to me than say Thom Gunn, or even Cavafy.  I think being queer has to do with how we transform our disidentifications into something beautiful, something which enables us to keep living.

Now to speak of identification—I’ve always identified more with women writers than gay male writers, but I’m interested in queerness as a kind of vehicle to transcend misery. But I guess that’s all art—all art is queer.

Are there any poets you’ve been reading that you feel deserve more attention?

Victoria Redel, Donna Masini, Thylias Moss, David Groff, Honor Moore, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Raymond McDaniel, James Allen Hall…I could go on.