Poetry Is Our Birthright: Happy National Poetry Month

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan

If you are a poet, you will be asked when you will write a novel. The implication? Poetry is the writing equivalent to biking with training wheels: someday, you can write in full sentences, with proper paragraphs. Though there are many poets that also write fiction, essays, or memoirs, there are also poets who are poets. And not “just” poets. Poets by choice. Fully-dimensional, flailing, fabulous poets. There is also the misconception that all the vital, vibrant, vein-chilling (read: important) poetry is written by dead white guys. Fact: that is absolute hogwash. For proof, I gathered some of Houston’s poetry lovers, and we talked verse past and present. Whether you tend toward traditional or are attracted to avant-garde, one of us can point you toward a poet you might want to peruse. Hands up for National Poetry Month!

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“How does poetry continue to surprise you?”

Erika Jo Brown: What surprises me is how often poetry surprises me. As a PhD student, I spend a lot of time dissecting the poem’s craft, but the power of language and the human imagination is infinite.

This may be a separate, more political issue: Some critics/haters moan about the proliferation of MFA programs and online journals, when they actually extend authority to many, many poets who might’ve been practicing in a silo. Risks you find in a book with, say, a distribution of 500, are much wilder than those that come filtered through cultural gatekeepers.

Adrienne Perry: When I was in high school, one of my teachers gave me For Colored Girls … I had no idea what that slim book was about, but there was a black girl on the cover and I’m a black girl from Wyoming and that was an encouraging start. I took the book home, pushed the dirty clothes on my comforter to one end, and sat in bed reading aloud to myself. Later, I prepared and recited one of the poems in For Colored Girls for a speech and debate competition at Cherry Creek High School in Denver, Colorado. It was my first speech competition and I didn’t edit anything out of Shange’s poetry. The judges flinched at every curse word and they gave me horrible scores, but I was a big hit with an exchange student from Ireland. I can’t even remember the poems he read, but they must have been meh. If a poem moves me, it gives me good chills, which is what Shange’s choreopoems did. Her work also brought me out of a feeling of isolation, into a conversation with words, images, and ideas. It surprises me how often poetry unlocks or unhinges something inside of my being, how often it pulls me more deeply into the world.

The forms poetry takes are beautiful to look at, too, beyond what they might say. I love the way poets and their poems play with the space on a page and often extend beyond margins and whitespace to experiment with other genres. Poetry lends itself to innovation, to radical re-seeing of lines, of ourselves, of space. I feel very strongly that poetry is our birthright.

Gwendolyn Zepeda: The range of topics that come up always pleasantly surprises me. There’s no new emotion under the sun, but poets always find new connections.

Roberto Tejada: I’m surprised, still, to find in poetry made by very different kinds of writers a desire to re-enchant the way imaginative language composes its audience; with poems that account for encounters with another person, present, absent, whether embodied in real-life public space or in the silent companionship of reading sight-held sounds that excite and make matter. Despite the rabid monetization of experience, or the diminution of knowledge into data harvesting, I’m surprised again and again to read poems that contribute to what Anne Carson calls “a living fabric of value.” Such moments are startling in the sense one wonders that a world—awakening, flashpoint, duration—should transpire at all: a mood that led Wittgenstein to inaugurate an ethics in such phrases as “how extraordinary that anything should exist”—or, alternately, “I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.”

Annalia Linnan: One thing that surprises (and delights) me is how the definition of a poem continues to expand. Fady Joudah’s Textu is a great example. A poem the length of a text message! Text messages as art. I’m also grateful that more and more subjects that were taboo when I was a kid are considered fair game now. Obviously, there is still (always?) progress to be made, but the fact that books like Citizen by Claudia Rankine and And/Or by Jenn Marie Nunes exist (and those are only two examples!) is gratifying.

“What are some favorite lines from some favorite poems?”

EJB:
She stood in tears amid the alien corn
– John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

Oh my boyfriend my boyfriend my boyfriend. Ripper of a thousand wings. Holder of a thousand hands.
– Julia Story, from Post Moxie

a fish hook
an open eye
– Margaret Atwood, “You Fit Into Me”

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going
– Robert Creeley, “I Know a Man”

I’ll show you these bitch Welsh quatrains I’ve tried
– Marilyn Hacker, “Lacoste IV”

My candle burns at both ends
– Edna St. Vincent Millay, “First Fig”

I’m not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.
– Mark Strand, “2002”

I marvel at my normalcy.
– Dorothy Parker, “The Searched Soul”

Faces, who needs them?
– Mary Ruefle, “Saga”

Let us live and let us love
– Catullus, “V”

Me? On a dark and stormy sea of Bob-thoughts, desperately, I bob.
– Jonah Winter, “Sestina: Bob”

Do you think if I hang around here long enough / someone will proffer a muffin
– Dean Young, “Speech Therapy”

AP:
if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if
– Lucille Clifton, “poem in praise of menstruation”

If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here—and always a missed land.
– Agha Shahid Ali, “Land”

Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, —
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now.
– Sappho, “One Girl” (translated by Dante Rossetti)

GZ:
He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
– Louise Gluck, “A Myth of Devotion”

March is here
like a granny
a child doesn’t
like to kiss:
– James Schuyler, “So Good”

Like a stuttering fool
Uttering butter king jewels
– Daniel Dumile, “Butter King Jewels”

RT: The Mexican baroque poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) composed long philosophical works and scores of sonnets. “To Her Portrait” [Poem 145] is a stunning argument against the spell cast by lifelikeness, celebrity, or the self-serving “excellencies of art.” As from the reflecting surface of reverie, deductive reasoning too becomes foreign to itself. So does analogy in this sonnet: released is an associative flood that begins recalling vanity and vulnerability of talent, and fades by means of time-lapsed disintegration:

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado:
es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

And in Samuel Beckett’s irresistible translation from the Spanish, the painting or poem

is an empty artifice of care,
is a fragile flower in the wind,
is a paltry sanctuary from fate,

is a foolish sorry labour lost,
is conquest doomed to perish and, well taken,
is corpse and dust, shadow and nothingness.

AL: I’ve been keeping a quote journal for at least eight years now. Not all of these poems are published.

you can tell from my address I
don’t have much out here but the mud
and fishing pole and sunken
dock plants wrecked in mist, the muck
and the rot, and that is where I’ll wait
all night if I have to, I have to
– Emily K. Lazar

This is your skin peeled back like the sticker on an apple beneath
the softness browning the place we stood toe to toe rotting us
into the sea. Tell me you’ll never stop paddling & I promise. I’ll
eat you first. I won’t leave them one bone.
– jenn marie nunes

This is what is wrong: we, only we, can humans retreat from
ourselves and not be altogether here.
– Jorie Graham

No one remembers. Even you, my brother,
summer afternoons you look at me as though
you meant to leave,
as though it never happened.
But I killed for you.
– Louise Glück

This is how our conversations go.
She observes the gleaming world that arcs
in pain and waxes it to stay – reminds me
of my unjarred jaw, placing hers
in parenthesis. We
are precarious, a see-
saw splintered at the waist.
– Alessandra Lynch

“What are some poetry collections you’d recommend?”

EJB:
Lovely, Raspberry – Aaron Belz
Geography III – Elizabeth Bishop
Beauty of the Husband – Anne Carson
The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis – Joanna Penn Cooper
A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People – Gabe Foreman
My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge – Paul Guest
Sun Under Wood – Robert Hass
31 Letters and 13 Dreams – Richard Hugo
Constance – Jane Kenyon
We Mammals in Hospitable Times – Jynne Dilling Martin
Lunch Poems – Frank O’Hara
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid – Michael Ondaatje
Harmonium – Wallace Stevens

AP: These books have changed my thinking about poetry and its possibilities.

All the Garbage of the World Unite – Kim Hyesoon (translated by Don Mee Choi)
The Butterfly’s Burden – Mahmoud Darwish (translated by Fady Joudah)
Citizen – Claudia Rankine
Locomotrix – Amelia Rosselli (translated by Jennifer Scappettone)
The Works of Anne Bradstreet – Anne Bradstreet
Yingelishi – Jonathan Stalling

GZ:
Some Clarifications y Otras Poemas – Javier Huerta
My Tranquil War and Other Poems – Anis Shivani
City of Regret – Andrew Kozma
How to Undress a Cop – Sarah Cortez

RT:
fungus skull eye wing – Alfonso D’Aquino (translated by Forrest Gander)
Poems to Read on a Streetcar – Oliverio Girondo (translated by Heather Cleary)
Dirty Poem – Ferreira Gullar (translated by Leland Guyer)
Diana’s Tree – Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Yvette Siegert)
Other Letters to Milena – Reina María Rodríguez (translated by Kristin Dykstra)
Spit Temple – Cecilia Vicuña (translated by Rosa Alcalá)
Song for his Disappeared Love – Raúl Zurita (translated by Daniel Bortzutzky)
Purgatory – Raúl Zurita (translated by Anna Deeny)
Selected Poems – Elsa Cross (translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano, Ruth Fainlight, Luis Ingelmo & Michael Smith, & John Oliver Simon)
Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing (edited by Carmen Giménez-Smith & John Chávez)
Mexican Poetry: An Anthology (edited by Octavio Paz, translated by Samuel Beckett)

AL:
I’m Your Huckleberry – Erika Jo Brown
Some Ether – Nick Flynn
All of it Singing – Linda Gregg
Hustle – David Tomas Martinez
And/Or – jenn marie nunes

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Erika Jo Brown is from New York. Her chapbook What a Lark! was published by Further Adventures Press in 2011. She was educated at Cornell University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Capote Fellow in Poetry. Most recently, Brown taught at Savannah State University and co-curated the Seersucker Shots reading series. Brown is currently a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Annalia Linnan hails from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and earned her BA in music and english from Butler University. She is now the offsite coordinator/marketing assistant at Brazos Bookstore and regularly contributes to this website. 

Adrienne Perry grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the daughter of a rolling stone from Southern California and a mother whose family homesteaded outside of Gillette, Wyoming. Perry earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College, serves as the current editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, and is a Kimbilio Fellow at the University of Houston. Perry is currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories. An excerpt of her story “Red Desert” was translated by Jean Guiloineau and appears in the French literary journal Siècle 21. An excerpt of her forthcoming novel is forthcoming from Tidal Basin Review.

An art historian, curator, and editor specializing in Latino and Latin American art, Roberto Tejada was born in Los Angeles. He earned a BA in comparative literature from New York University and a PhD in interdisciplinary media studies from the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks Gift & Verdict (1999) and Amulet Anatomy (2001) as well as the full-length collections Mirrors for Gold (2006), Exposition Park (2010), and Full Foreground (2012). A former professor at the University of California at San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, and Southern Methodist University, Tejada was appointed the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston in 2014. 

Gwendolyn Zepeda was born in Houston, Texas in 1971 and attended the University of Texas at Austin. She was the first Latina blogger and began her writing career on the web in 1997 as one of the founding writers of entertainment site Television Without Pity. Since that time, Zepeda has published three critically acclaimed novels, four award-winning children’s books, a short-story collection, and a book of poems. She is Houston’s very first poetry laureate. Her first poetry collection Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners was published by Arte Publico Press in 2013. Her second Monsters, Zombies, and Addicts was published in March 2015.

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