Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (being curated by Christopher Soto in collaboration with the Lambda Literary Foundation) will be hosting Journal Launch Readings in NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco this September. Below is information regarding event details (click here for a list of readings taking place in August as part of our Nepantla summer reading series). We hope to see you there! (more…)
This is how it happens: I arrive early at the airport in Greenville-Spartanburg only to learn my flight is delayed. This small, homey airport feels like someone’s living room–with plush carpet and tall windows and lots of cushy chairs for semi-private conversations and prime storm viewing. I am traveling alone and haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I take a seat on a high bar-stool at Windows Restaurant–the diner side. A seasoned waitress, named Sandy, with a fabulous, frosted perm recommends the mushroom-swiss burger with all the trimmings. We get to talking. She grew up in south Florida near where I live now. “Sometimes I miss it,” she says, pouring my refills from waterfall heights. “But then of course, sometimes I don’t.” She seems like a very balanced person. (more…)
Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (being curated by Christopher Soto in collaboration with the Lambda Literary Foundation) will be hosting a Summer Reading Series in NYC this August. Below is information regarding event details. We hope to see you there! (more…)
The speaker in The Possibilities of Mud roots down and out in the Texas Gulf. He puts himself in league with the deer of the arroyos and the other animals in the world. “The cattle egret is a golden life as much as she is white”–each creature seems a lesson in how to let the world be enough. The speaker’s insistence on likening animal and human bodies is wonderfully devastating: in “By the Arroyo We Asked For Water and Survived” we begin simply with the speaker observing a coyote search for water, then comes the merciless sun on this tableau, all elements and creatures arranged in congress with each other, literally at eye level. The “us” in the poem’s final line, which names the coyote, the speaker and the mesquite pods, feels true to the poem’s world and the speaker’s want to value, to love, everything living. (more…)
Tiger Heron, Robin Becker’s eighth collection, tells the “understory” of a constellation of intimates: parents and lovers, friends and animals—what deceives us and what we miss altogether. In “A Last Go,” we find a daughter trying to serve her long sacrificing mother, pleasure by cake in her last days. In “Understory” “the forbidden Caribbean sparkled with sharks,” a meditation on how the natural world (when left to its own devices) makes just the right amount of room for beauty and decay, and why, the speaker wonders, can’t we? In “Her Lies,” she renders her lover’s dishonesty as carpenter bees, “Humming above me they debride/ the gallery, disappear inside,” where they eventually take down the house. One of Becker’s particular talents is an ability to make an anvil of one word the rest of the poem then bends around, as in here with “debride.” In “Dyke” she chronicles her personal history with the word and speaks back into that history, “…first/ I had to hate her;/ then I had to hurt her; the rest of my life,/ I ate from her hand.” In “Rescue Riddle” and “The Dog I Didn’t Want” she explores the relationship between rescue dog and owner—asking who really does the saving in the end. (more…)
How do you sleep
when the siren
is your own exhaled cry:
–From “Only Kissing”, by Suzanne Parker
As a queer literary community, we often are tasked with the responsibility to address collective trauma: coming out, dysfunctional family dynamics, the AIDs crisis, hate crimes, suicide. The list is longer than we can imagine, and we continue to come up with new narratives, new ways of talking about silence, new ways of making personal globally accessible, reclaiming histories lost/erased/stolen/never told. Some of these narratives are legendary: Tory Dent’s HIV, Mon Amor. Mark Doty’s Tiara. Nikki Finney’s “Head Off & Split. D.A. Powell’s Chronic. And now, Suzanne Parker’s Viral.
In her introduction to the re-release of Cheryl Clarke’s Living as a Lesbian (1986, 2014), Nancy K. Bereano describes the book as “exhilarating, brilliant, and often outrageous.” Having just read it for the first time, I couldn’t agree more. Clarke is a provocative poet who never asks permission to make her voice heard. Some poems knock politely on the reader’s front door. Some poems tap casually at a side door or enter quietly through the back. Not so with Cheryl Clarke’s poems. These poems don’t care if they’re disturbing you; that’s the point. They break windows. They shatter expectations. They enter a room, a consciousness, and fill that space completely, whether invited or not. And seizing the power to speak on her own terms, Clarke grants other poets permission to do the same—to write until they no longer feel the need to ask may I?, the social obligation to say please. (more…)
“What did you expect? Some vertiginous theory
of essence? Or a black claw
stained bright red from tearing apart the gold bird of Form?”
These lines close the first and longest section of Tony Leuzzi’s latest collection, and he would appear to be reminding the reader of the limitations of poetry. But far from “tearing apart,” Leuzzi employs—one might say relishes in—a variety of forms: couplets; free verse; prose poems; and a cadae series (a strict form based on pi). And regardless of the container, Leuzzi’s images at once startle and ring true; his use of language adroit and “precise as a needle” (“Edge”).
The title The Burning Door has a mythical connotation (see, e.g., “burning bush,” Exod. 3:2) though, to my knowledge, there is no such extant myth. And that’s part of the work of this collection: myth-making. The first section of the book (“Prelude to Elsewhere”) is especially preoccupied with creation, with myth and dream. Poem titles include “Before the Curse,” “After the Fall,” and “Post Creation Story.”
Doors appear throughout this first section, perhaps because to get “elsewhere” one must cross a threshold: the titular burning doors (of dawn); Rapunzel’s door to freedom; a carved door on a donkey’s back; suburban doors with their suburban dogs; doors “everywhere…like flugelhorns/on verandas.”
“Interchanges,” Part II of the collection, is a series of brief, poignant 3rd person narrative-driven encounters. Some go inside the figures’ minds; some observe, or record conversations. There are leavings and disagreements; memory and longing. I discuss one of these poems at length below.
“Autumn Leaves” (Part III) is a short series of brief prose narratives. Here, Leuzzi utilizes the prose poem for some of the collection’s most personal work. Or perhaps I have that backwards: maybe (as is often the case) the form enabled the poet to voice what other forms had not.
The cadae series that closes the book begs the question: Is poetry always and already (as they like to say in academia) self-conscious? And is that part of its enduring appeal? The cadae (I had to look it up) is a poetry form based on pi, and a note toward the end of The Burning Door explains the particulars. While the form certainly calls attention to itself, Leuzzi employs it in skillful, pleasing ways, so the poems are what we focus on, not the cleverness of the poet. Leuzzi has said, regarding these cadae: “I was deliberately working on a minor scale. The pleasures of these are subtle and understated.”
There’s plenty in The Burning Door for any reader to appreciate; a few poems, however, will be of particular interest to writers because of the questions posed, the stances taken. In “Adrift,” the third poem of the collection, Leuzzi considers how words are and are not what they say, how they change when lingered upon, how the act of writing can create a “reality” more real than that which it mimics: “The story of the raft is more raft-like than the raft.”
And in “Writ Large,” one of the more conversational poems in the book, what starts as a domestic scene (games inside during a rainstorm) ends in an attempt to make sense of what it is that writers are, and do. They are
seekers of sentiment, too impatient
to be wise, though sometimes
if not sensible, alive to sense
and prone to elegy.
I close with one such elegy, itself “alive to sense” and therefore one of the most affecting pieces in this collection. “Before” is placed midway in the book’s second part, “Interchanges.” The stillness and tension in its two six-line stanzas create a poem as dense and fraught as the longing described therein. In its entirety:
I miss trees—the soldier sighed—
soaring swallows, darting deer. And I—the other
sighed in turn—a dragonfly on silent water.
Each felt his longing as condensed, a bead
of sweat on the ridge of his brow:
how could it therefore be ignored?
What followed rolled like desert sand.
Then, in that instant when
thirst follows thirst, they swore to never speak of it—
as when a grey fox parts tall grass
and passes through and disappears
and the grass springs upright, as before.
With his use of spare lines (what is left out—in the verse; in that stanza break), Leuzzi here makes myth from the mundane. The figures could be ancient warriors or Desert Storm marines. Disclaimer: I’m a romantic; for me, this poem is where Leuzzi’s imagination, imagery, and control come together most satisfyingly. Or, to borrow the poet’s own words, though in a slightly different context (see above footnote), even in this free verse poem, Leuzzi achieves “maximum expression in a compressed amount of space.”
The Burning Door
By Tony Leuzzi
Tiger Bark Press
Paperback, 9780986044526, 96 pp.
The demise of many long-term relationships are rife with familiar battles: the nostalgia for romantic times gone by, the gratitude for space to breathe and grow, the rage and regret of suffocations and daggered encounters, the ambivalence in moving on, and the combined reticence and joy in new beginnings. In Breaking up with Los Angeles, Raquel Gutiérrez offers us a glimpse into the wounds and triumphs, hopes and disappointments, of her lifetime affair with California’s largest city. Many of us know the sentimentality and pain that come with geographical affinities, the complexities of places we call home, and the often hesitant kinship that bonds us to the places that grew us up, though Breaking Up with Los Angeles is far from sentimental. With an intelligent and critical subtlety, Gutiérrez paints a series of 22 portraits, rendering for us a bilingual telling of the city, the angels and demons that have constituted her life amid the sprawl, her separation from it, and the question of
to create the room for mourning
away from the terror of territorialism
for the dejected Angeleno
And indeed, this collection is an effort at carving out a space for mourning after a long survival, as well as a turned head at the leave-taking. Gutiérrez now resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, and, while digging her heels in there with her work at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in this collection, she appears wary of diving into her new locale too quickly, as one might expect from one who is broken hearted and still recovering from what came before. Her mourning is long, and stippled with the bruises of history, of the ever-tenuous sense of belonging as a self-proclaimed Queer Butch/Brown Bulldagger, Salvi-Chican@, and of the love and ache that wraps around us in the company of those we variously call home.
So many shards
a house is a mess
and the cuchillazos
multiply in this place
There is death and loss and a certain quiet rage that indicts, while keeping complexity close, refusing a hyper-moral stance, as she writes, for example,
they got the year of your birth wrong
all of them; probably could not find the tilde, and accent mark
if their lives depended on it.
But neither could you
Te busco en la Cantina
Tattered red leather barstool
Cushion split in the middle
Sizing up the bottles and cans
Mexican bandits lined up
And ready for execution
But the lament is never only about her, and carries out its duel function as commentary and critique of larger questions of the racism, nationalism, sexism, and political self-righteousness that organize different spaces in her life as well as the larger Los Angeles and Bay Area social architecture, as in,
My internalized racism blushes
at the thought of you being told
Don’t wave your flag
And neither is her mourning timid, as Gutiérrez plots out the cartographies of a life framed by the ribboned web of freeways that structure Los Angeles and its civilian movements, the extensive system of capillaries of an obviously sacred body one can move away from, but never leave behind. With both grit and poise, she knits her way forward, and yet, one wonders if, ultimately, the heart of Southern California will beat its rhythm in her til the end, the love of a lifetime, inevitably carrying her back to its motley streets, as she beckons:
scatter me in the mouth of Los Angeles
her stomach the desert
her ass the sea
her shoulders the mountains
and her womb
the east Los Angeles freeway interchange
Breaking Up with Los Angeles
By Raquel Gutiérrez
Paperback, 33 pp.
Tell me what you’re looking for in a poem. You’ll find it here.
A story? you say. A narrative scene with close attention paid to character and place?
Consider the poem called “Allen Street”:
Miss Pearl would open the door halfway
so I could tell her which flavor
& her smoke-cured contralto would sing
Hold on, baby […]
She’d return from the icebox with a huck-a-buck
& my quarter passed into her thick-lined hands
long nails jaundiced by smokes
that saved my mother too
Or I was thinking of a kōan, you say, a riddle that reveals the limitations of logic, the myriad other ways of knowing?
Consider “kōan in San Francisco”:
the body is essentially all throat […]
teeth loosen in the mouth of a believer
do not believe
& you shall chew savor & swallow
whatever you please
until you fill yourself with absence or flowers
Or I like a multi-lingual poem, one that incorporates etymology and polyphony into a larger meditation on life and language.
Consider “Après moi, le déluge”:
After me, the flood
This is my sign
Give me an aria. Check.
Give me an aubade. Check.
Give me persona poems, ekphrastic poems, and found poems. Check. Check. Check.
Tell me what you’re listening for in a poem. You’ll hear it here.
Kevin Simmonds’ Bend to It is a symphony of forms conducted by a master vocalist. It would be redundant to ask if Simmonds plays an instrument when his voice is an instrument, a conduit of incomparable depth and range.
But here’s a form I never expected to find as a poem—exegesis, meaning “critical explanation or interpretation of a text.” The opposite of kōan, the antonym of song, and yet here is Simmonds singing, a memory expanding in his hands like the folds of an accordion, expanding in his throat like the low, enclosed reeds of a bagpipe:
There was nothing trivial about the
Thai masseuse who slid his vertical
along my vertical, the power
outage, or those extra minutes
without charge. I cannot say he
wasn’t God. What I felt then, what
I feel with a man’s body on mine, is
holy, holy the way I imagine it is
right & without damage, worth
thanks & remembrance &
The hardest thing we ever sing is desire. It’s everywhere—in our breathing in and breathing out (“When you can control nothing else/ you can control your breath”), the flow of our blood through our bodies (“it runs mad in the ruby fractals/ of their capillaries”), the pitch and timbre of our voices as we whisper, as we scream (“Never afraid to rummage/ the plain thing/ until it surfaces ascends is called out/ sung”). How to capture all the melodies and cacophonies of wanting on a page! Simmonds tells us, “to twirl/ you must have a center.” To sing, you must carry a tune. His forms provide an axis around which desire spins, then splays, and with it ecstasy, and with it heartbreak, and with it longing that will not be resolved.
One poem, in the form of a “Prayer,” cries out, “Make me alive/ without anger.” But this we know is impossible. One poem, in the form of a second “kōan,” murmurs, “what’s more human/ than fear look at how human we are.” The poem cannot intercede on its own behalf, but it can lament the wishes it knows will not be granted. Oh, to be fearless. Oh, to be brave.
Then comes the poem in the form of a “Lie.” If fiction is the lie that tells the truth, why can’t poetry contemplate the promises it would like to make but trusts it could never keep?
Simmonds sings his untruth with poignant honesty:
I’d write fewer poems
for my father to say
over the flat cell phone
he’s thinking of me
remembers some vital time
when I was a small brown promise
with his wide nostrils flat feet […]
I would give up all the mouths
I’ve fallen into
even the soft ambulance
of a man’s body
And then there’s this paradox: how a sound can make us see so clearly. Perhaps this is part of the lie that tells the truth. We don’t believe for a second that our singer would give up these lovers’ mouths, even for the prospect of a closer relationship with his father. We don’t believe for a second that our singer believes he would either. As he examines the lie he tells himself sometimes, an image careens from his mouth to our ears, from his imagination to our eyes upon the page. Man’s body as ambulance. The word ambulance alone evokes sirens. We hear the screeching and wailing of desire—just two of its many songs. We feel the multi-valence of the word that sound inspires: siren, meaning both “a device that makes a prolonged noise as signal or warning” and “a mythological creature whose singing lured unwary sailors onto rocks.”
Maybe Simmonds is the siren of these poems. His singing at once warns us of—and lures us toward—the dangers of our vexed and volatile nature. Of a book that contains an “Exegesis,” we must also expect a thesis. This postulation appears in the first line of an early poem: “wreckage is the lasting thing.”
Consider these words as the collection’s existential refrain, what every poem that follows in some way seeks to prove. Our singer-siren continues:
whatever vows you’ve made
sink your vowel
none of us are right
just made […]
We are here without asking to be. We are wrecked “by many mannered// & unmannered/ fires.”
We are here, imperfect as anything, imperfect as everything, full of music and lies we tell ourselves and yearning for others to tell us otherwise.
The Bible says, “if the hand offend thee/ cut it off” and “as a man thinketh/ so is he,” but our singer-siren replies, “I don’t calm myself/ that way.” An exegesis often includes a refutation of accepted ways of knowing, asserting an alternative. Our siren sings his credo, which lends its name to his own Books of Songs: “That way you are/ bend to it.”
This is an invocation, a benediction, and an imperative. Bend to it—twirl, sing, keeping in mind that “wreckage is the lasting thing.” And if all else fails, the siren sings another alternative:
take my life
It will be
What I hear here: Let us make a canticle of our catastrophes. Wrecked as we are, let us cast ourselves beautifully and rhythmically upon the rocks.
Bend to It
By Kevin Simmonds
Paperback, 9781927668061, 84 pp.