Beyond Resistance: Transcending the Boundaries in Poetry

Photo Credit: Amelia Golden

This guest post comes from Brionne Janae. Her poem, “Alternative Facts,” appeared in LPR‘s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Janae is a poet living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a Hedgebrook and Vermont Studio Center alumni and proud Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry and prose have been published in the American Poetry Review, Bitch magazine, Sixth Finch, Plume, the Nashville Review, and Waxwing, among others. She is the author of After Jubilee, published by Boaat Press. Visit her website: www.brionnejanae.com.

The world is an ugly place. I have spent the majority of my adulthood learning and unlearning this lesson as I, like many of us, have struggled against the urge to succumb to the bitterness that daily threatens to pull us under, like quicksand thickening at the ankles. During one of my most memorable lessons I was teaching several community poetry workshops in Boston. It was the day after the 2016 election, and I entered my evening workshop to find that my students were as hurt and heartbroken as I was. Where the results of the election, and that 53%, had rendered me wordless, they in turn were ready to write poems that grieved, poems that screamed and set fire, poems that would curse the then-president-elect into the ground, where he belongs.

There is a long illustrious lineage of this poetry which works to document what is ugly in our world. Poems that rage against and weep for the individual and systemic violences and erasures endemic to the lives of people who exist at the margins. The cannon of resistance or protest poetry is as long and varied as it is gorgeous and important. And in times like our current political moment, when the world is not more hideous, but simply more visibly, unavoidably awful it can appear as if every poem and poet worth reading is writing as an act of resistance.

Of course this issue of what is visibly awful must be addressed. For Black people who have continuously been shot dead in our homes, churches, and streets, by agents of the state and homegrown terrorists alike, for Black and Brown people who have been locked up like animals, for Brown people who have been harassed and harangued and thrown into cages for breathing on the wrong side of some white man’s border, for indigenous people who are still fighting to protect the sanctity of their sacred spaces, the visibility of all that is ugly in the world has never been anything worth questioning, and it is only whiteness in all its innocence that is just being made aware of the nightmare.

That the world has been obviously horrid for some and only newly horrid for others is reflected in our art. White poets have had the privilege to write about nature, about joy, love, lust, and transcendence while others of us have been subsumed by the literature of struggle, violation, and overcoming. And while I do believe the move to invite the poetry of resistance into our cannon is monumentally important, as it marks an important shift away from the racist gate-keeping of those who would wish to keep the cannon old, pale, male, and pasty, I worry at times that it is presented as marginalized writers’ only option for poetry, that the only way for Black or Brown or queer writers to be read and read widely is for them to centralize and elevate their pain over all else in their writing.

I’ve heard poets say they feel pressure to write poems about police brutality or lynchings because that’s what’s expected from them. I too, have felt at times this nagging sense of guilt for not writing poems to elegize the latest victims of white supremacy though I have read their stories, marched in the streets in protest, and grieved for them as if they were my own blood and bone. I know this feeling of guilt is not unique to me, and I refuse to let it shape the way I art. If I spend all of my time reacting to the white supremacist patriarchy when do I get the chance to write the poems I want to write? That I am called to write? And to be clear, I don’t think anyone is called to write protest or resistance poetry. Not because it is, in any way, a lesser art form, but because I simply don’t believe anyone is called to oppression. Oppression is not a calling it is a situation, and while for many of us it is not temporary it is not the only thing that makes up our lives, and so, should no be the only thing that makes up our art. Continue reading

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Celebrating Contributor Successes: Q&A with Jona Colson

One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Jona Colson, whose poem, “The Orange Speaks,” we published in our Winter 2014: Science issue. This poem will be included in Said Through Glass, a poetry collection released on October 15 which won the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize from the Washington Writers Publishing House.

Jona is an associate professor at Montgomery College in Maryland, and he lives in Washington, DC. His poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Subtropics, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. His interviews and translations can be seen in The Writer’s Chronicle, Prairie Schooner, and Tupelo Quarterly.

We’re very grateful he’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: Here’s a line from “The Orange Speaks” spoken in the voice of an orange: “I did not know what would become of me.” Did you ever feel that way on your journey to this debut poetry collection? 

Absolutely. I have been writing poems since high school, then seriously in undergrad. I worked and reworked these poems, trying to place them in manuscript form, and there have been many doubts.

Q: How does a poet go from having a bunch of poems to having a collection? I suppose there’s two questions there. First is in terms of the work itself, second in terms of the logistics of publication.

For me, getting the collection together in a form that honored the poems and made sense was the biggest challenge. I, literally, as many writers do, placed all the poems on the floor and fit them together into bunches, into narrative threads, spacing and creating tension and surprise—with the help of many friends. A collection starts poem by poem, and it took a long time to get them all in sequence.

Publication wise, I sent the manuscript out for about a year to a few places, and, luckily, it was selected by the Washington Writers Publishing House. However, the collection has been about fifteen years in the making. A writer is ushered into a whole different world through the process of publication. Knowing that a whole body of your work will be available is a bit terrifying—like being exposed on a high ledge in full light. It’s a strange, but exhilarating experience.

Q: Do you think the experience of “The Orange Speaks” might be different when read in your collection versus as it appeared in our issue?

There are a few different engines that drive Said Through Glass. “The Orange Speaks” is the imaginative engine, the engine of play and language. I have a few persona poems like this one in the book that are spaced to provide a rhythm of delight and surprise. What is the orange’s perspective? This view seemed curious to me as a poet.

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Considering Craft: Adapting From a Whirlwind to a Calm Breeze

This guest post comes from Carrie Conners. Her poem, “Unchained,” appeared in LPR‘s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Conners, originally from West Virginia, lives in Queens, New York, and teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at LaGuardia CC-CUNY. Her poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Steel Toe Review, Aji Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, Rhino Poetry, and the Monarch Review, among other publications. She is also a poetry reader for Epiphany magazine.

The last eight years have been a whirlwind. Well, to be precise, seven of the last eight years have been a whirlwind. I defended my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin in June 2010, moved from Madison to New York City in August of that year, and started as an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia CC-CUNY in September. Since then I’ve enjoyed developing my teaching of literature, creative writing, and composition with students and colleagues at LaGuardia while exploring the city and learning to negotiate the subway. (Confession: I still consult a subway app on my phone and would still be lost in the Village if it weren’t for Google Maps.) Working toward tenure is a bit like juggling on a tightrope. Negotiating teaching responsibilities with college, union, and committee service while trying to carve out time to write and publish is no easy feat, especially when working to produce both scholarly and creative writing and, you know, attempting to have a life and maintain relationships. So, after I was granted tenure and approved for a year-long sabbatical fellowship leave to complete a research project, I was presented with a new challenge: how to adjust to having time, how to adapt from a whirlwind to a calm breeze.

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Concerning Craft: A Memory Is Not a Poem

This guest post comes from Tim Hunt. In 2013, Little Patuxent Review published Hunt’s poem, “Thelonious Monk (The Village Vanguard, NY City), Third Take.” This poem will be included in Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes, which is forthcoming in November and which won the 2018 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. The poems in the collection tend more toward 1950s rock ‘n roll and 1960s rock with some folk and blues mixed in, but there are also poems relating to Sun Ra and Yusef Lateef.  

A memory: I’m seventeen. It’s the fall of 1967, and I’m a freshman in a college 3,000 miles from the California hills in a town that I’ve discovered is not called “Eye-thack-uh.” Here, people seem obsessed with whether one’s last name is “Goldberg” or “Kennedy,” “Schwartz” or “Monroe,” and I don’t know why. I don’t yet know what a bagel is. These details are not a poem—simply some recalled particulars of a fairly typical adolescent dislocation as one moves out from one world into another, discovering that there are things you don’t understand but others do. These details could develop into a poem if I were to find an angle, a hook, that would lead to opening this sense of dislocation and drive an exploration that becomes (though from the personal and by means of the personal) more than just these particulars, this memory.  A memory is not a poem.

But a poem may draw on memory to explore things that originate in memory but aren’t restricted to it: That fall, I spent the Thanksgiving weekend with a classmate who lived near New York City. Friday night we took a bus into the city to hear The Electric Flag, the new band of my first guitar god, Michael Bloomfield, play at The Bitter End. It’s a small room, a club, with little tables for drinking—not a ballroom like the Fillmore or the Avalon back in San Francisco. And the room is much too small for the horn section and amps and Buddy Miles’ drum kit jammed onto the tiny platform. But when the band kicks into the first song I’m maybe six feet from Bloomfield, his left hand on the fretboard is electric—as if he’s plugged into the socket and the current is playing him through the guitar and the current radiating out through the band filling the tiny room. I don’t remember what the opening song was that night (“Killing Floor”?). I remember his hand gripping the guitar neck, the tremolo of his fingers, his body trembling as his knees bent, and the guitar line, as if a pure electric current, freed of wires and strings.

Off and on over the years I’ve wanted that memory to be a poem, but it’s always shrugged its shoulders and walked away. As I wrote the pieces gathered in Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes, a collection deriving from encounters with American music of the 1950s and 1960s, I kept trying to write something about that evening at The Bitter End that would be part of the set. I’d pretty much given up hope, when I finally let go of my memory and instead tried to remember (to re-remember) and realized that that evening was also a moment of dislocation: how much I’d felt like merely a customer as I paid a cover charge and minimum for drinks I wasn’t old enough to order, how much the short set made the music feel like a commodity, and how different this was from the Fillmore and Avalon in San Francisco where the bands played for hours and there was that odd illusion that audience and musicians were a kind of community:

The Electric Flag, An American Music Band, Plays The Bitter End (New York City, November 1967)

In New York you are almost old enough to drink
as you sit at a tiny table and your friends
who have showed you how to ride the subway
explain cover charges and two drink minimums
and how the club tosses you out after the set.
Or makes you pay all over again, because here
this is the order of things—in the real City,
where no one means The Golden Gate when they say
the bridge and San Francisco is just Frisco. But you
pay anyway for an overpriced coke because tonight
Mike Bloomfield will play, and he is your guitar god,
and you have worshipped hour upon hour
spinning East-West as if the blues mantra were not
just a Prayer but the revealed Word—an electric Tongue
speaking the modal truth in liquid bends. But
tonight is “Killing Floor,” the fingers scaling
the neck, twisting the strings into a scream
that is, somehow, still the Wolf’s killing floor,
his Delta, Chicago, a West Side slaughter house
and the floor blood-slick as the black men swing
their sledge hammers to crush the bawling skulls
of the cattle forced, one by one, down the chute,
but, too, your killing field, that jungle
where your friends are already dying to the beat
of the chopper blades, the rim shots of spattered
rifle fire and the napalm’s whoosh, the screams
that are not an electric guitar. And this, too, a truth,
as if the guitar string were a live wire, the electric
shock a scream—the guitar’s scream, your
scream. And then Bloomfield drops
his hands, and stares off over your head,
and when you turn you see The Gray Line
Tour being led through to stare at the band
and gawk at you, as if you are aliens
from some unknown planet and you gawk
back at the ladies in heels with their clutch
purses and the gentlemen in jackets
and ties, and they, too, are exotic. But you know
what planet they are from
because you are from there, too.

In my memory of Bloomfield’s hands, the detail of the Gray Line Tour being led through that evening to gawk was a kind of “oh and by the way.” In the poem it matters more, and perhaps it did that evening, too. And in the poem, the way Bloomfield was transforming the racial and economic protest of the blues of Howling Wolf’s “Killing Floor” into a protest of the war in Vietnam is treated as if it was part of the evening, something remembered, when it’s something I came to realize only later, after I’d started listening to Wolf’s music. But that’s also to say the poem is not a record of a memory, even as it draws on memory and remembering.  A memory is not a poem.

“The Electric Flag…” (recording of the poem)

TicketStubs & Liner Notes, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

https://www.facebook.com/TimHuntPoetry/

Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Rachel E. Hicks

Rachel E. Hicks’s poetry has appeared in the St. Katherine Review, Welter, Off the Coast, Gulf Stream magazine, and other journals. She also writes essays and fiction and works as a freelance copyeditor. After living in eight countries—most recently China—she now resides in Baltimore. Her career has included teaching (high school English and homeschool) and volunteering with an international relief  and development agency. Find her online at rachelehicks.com.

Hicks’s poem, “The Exile Speaks of Mountains,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). She read an excerpt at our issue launch in June (video below).

Q: What’s the form for this poem? And how did you end up with this form?

This poem went through many variations in form before I decided upon unrhymed tercets. One form I played around with, before I cut a good many lines and stanzas, was stanzas as “chapters” or scenes of my life. The sensory details and images felt lost in the clutter, though, and I felt it needed to be cleaned up and made a bit sparser, allowing each stanza room to breathe. The order and visual symmetry of tercets express my developing understanding that there is order to the “chaos” of my life, my many moves, my identity as a cultural chameleon. It feels less haphazard than it used to, a bit more coherent.

Q: I feel like this stanza perfectly captures the idea of the universal experience conveyed through a particular detail:

Only if I embrace this life as a perpetual pilgrim
do I find solace in remembering
the terraced cemetery in the Himalayan pines

What’s one way you’ve learned that poets can try to hone this sensibility in their own work?

Just one? Teaching writing sharpens my work. When I’m workshopping with students, coaching them in how to “cut to the bone” or to say “no ideas but in things” (Williams), I’m always inspired by the symbols and images they come up with. One of my students went from generic “desert animals” to “the chuckwalla lizard sneezing salt”. Another chose a beetle brooch as a symbol for a relationship with a special adult in her life. When I’m teaching, I’m also reading a lot of poetry to and with my students—reading, noticing, marveling. (I have to make a plug here for Nancie Atwell’s writing workshop and poetry curricula for middle school students, Lessons That Change Writers and Naming the World [Heinemann].) And speaking of workshopping, my writing has benefited tremendously from working with my poetry critique group here in Baltimore. I suppose I gave three answers—teaching, reading, and working with a critique group—rather than one. Forgive me.

Q: Now just to understand a little bit more about your life—why were you in the Himalayas and how did you come to be in Baltimore?

My parents were both missionary kids—my father was born and grew up in India, and my mother was born in Indonesia and grew up in Southeast Asia. After marrying, they worked at the boarding school my dad attended in the foothills of the Himalayas. They have worked in international schools around the world for their entire careers, hence my many moves. My husband and I lived in southwestern China for seven years, working with an international Christian relief and development organization. After returning to the U.S., we moved to Baltimore for my husband’s job.

My sense of what “home” means has morphed over time. More often for me, it’s about people rather than place. But place still matters—the soil of each place in which I’ve lived still clings. I try to make a home for myself and my family wherever we go, to create some sense of rootedness in who we are, even when the scenery around us changes. I’ve written in prose about this tension, but this poem was my first poetical attempt at describing it that satisfied me. I’ve been more at peace with my nomadic life since coming to identify it in terms of pilgrimage and sojourning—there is purpose to that kind of life: it can be understood in a positive sense, rather than in the negative sense of something being missing, or of roots dangling.

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Staff Pick: Jennifer Clark’s “Not a fast runner…”

Desirée Magney is the publisher of the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, she shares one of her “Staff Picks” from the Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

It seems an oxymoron to say that poet Jennifer Clark beautifully describes the conflict faced by the victim of domestic abuse in, “Not a fast runner, I consider other ways to escape this relationship.” But her scene setting, visual and auditory references, as well as metaphors, are so strong, the reader is drawn into the narrator’s dilemma.

I chose this piece from our June 2018 issue as my “Staff Pick” not only because it is so artfully written but because it also illustrates the difficulty of leaving an abusive or toxic relationship. I saw this dilemma firsthand during a college internship at the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C. doing intake interviews for victims of domestic violence. I saw it again, many years later working as a Child Advocacy Lawyer for the D.C. Volunteer Lawyers Project.

For ease in writing and reading my comments, I will refer to the narrator or protagonist in the poem as “she” and the antagonist as “he,” fully recognizing that there is no gender distinction between abusers and victims.

In the first line of the poem, the reader learns the narrator has built something of a life with the antagonist when she says she plays “dead, like a ‘possum [i]n the den, we have built…” We see her on the “mossy” couch, playing possum but tense with fear as the antagonist throws a lamp and “darkness crashes.” The den is a metaphor for their relationship—the thing they’ve built that now confines her.

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Wallace Lane

Wallace Lane is a poet, writer, and author from Baltimore, Maryland. He received his MFA in creative writing and publishing arts from the University of Baltimore in May 2017. His poetry has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, The Avenue, Welter and is forthcoming in several literary journals. Jordan Year, his debut collection of poetry, was released in May 2017. Wallace also works as a teacher with Baltimore City Public Schools.

Wallace’s poem, “Groceries,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). He read “Groceries” and two other poems at our issue launch in June (video below).

Q: You majored in criminal justice, then went for an MFA and now work as a teacher. Just from reading your bio, there seems to be a consistent social justice theme, but one that’s taken you in a few different directions. Could you share a little about your path?

Honestly about three years ago I would have cringed at that question, just based off the distance between a criminal justice degree and an MFA. But now it’s now one of the questions I’m most anxious to answer. As a first generation college student, I had no clue of what to major in at college. I knew it had to be something where I would profit financial gain but also something I would enjoy during the pursuit. And quite honestly, nothing at all stood out to me, not even criminal justice (I knew I would never proudly wear a law enforcement uniform, no offense to anyone). But the aspect of mentoring youth and juveniles stood out to me and that’s mainly why I chose to major in criminal justice my junior year of undergrad. From there I went to work in several juvenile center detention centers and schools. And I must say it’s the hardest work I ever done. I witnessed first-hand how kids were profited off of in a corrupt criminal justice system and how it was, in many ways, preparing them for a life designed for them to depend on some corrupt system of some sort. I was 23 years old at that time. I saw enough death and pain growing up. I knew I could do more to help the youth somehow so I started to create an exit plan. I STARTED TO WRITE POETRY. I always loved poetry. I start writing poems in middle school and I had a dozen composition notebooks of poems in high school. I even took creative writing classes while pursuing a criminal justice degree. Somehow my falling in love with poetry all over again led me to pursuing my MFA degree. The rest is history. It’s a lot of twist and turns in my journey but I love it. It inspires a lot of people and encourages the youth and even adults to pursue their passion and never be afraid to try new things. I’m grateful for that.

Q: When on your website you describe Jordan Year as about “what it means to live and survive in Baltimore City,” I remembered Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes about his own childhood in Baltimore in Between the World and Me. I don’t think Coates does any poetry, but has he influenced your writing in any way?

I’m rooting for black excellence. I’m rooting for anyone from Baltimore. Anyone who is attempting to bring light and hope to a city like ours. Especially artist and writers who love this city. We are the pillars of culture here. But as far as Between the World and Me, it was definitely a narrative I drew inspiration from when I began drafting my manuscript. I enjoyed how Coates presented a harsh reality to his son while intimately taking him and us (readers) on a journey through his life. That was my goal when writing Jordan Year–to tell two stories in one, my journey of growing up in Baltimore City but also the reality of people in my community who often get overlooked. I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything or leave anything out, you know? And that’s why I can appreciate books like Between the World and Me and so many others because of the transparency in the narrative.

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