Saturday, 13 June 2009

Loved words even at a young age

Natasha Trethewey

Mississippi poet Natasha Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi, to Eric Trethewey (also a poet ) and Gwendolyn Grimmette Trethewey. Before Trethewey started grade school, her parents divorced, and she moved to Decatur, Georgia, with her mother. As a youth, Trethewey spent her summers with her grandmother in Mississippi and in New Orleans with her father.

She has always loved words and even at a young age spent much of her time in a library reading as many books as possible. When Trethewey was nineteen (1985), her mother passed away (Emory Report). After high school, Trethewey earned her Bachelor's degree at the University of Georgia in English and creative writing. She earned her Master's degree in English and creative writing at Hollins University, where her father is a professor of English and the author of three collections of poems. Later, she went to the University of Massachusetts from which she received her M.F.A. in poetry (Gale).

Throughout Trethwey's career, she has received many awards, including grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue her work on Bellocq's Ophelia, (poems based on her work as a graduate student about photographs of prostitutes in the 1900's in New Orleans). For "Storyville Diary" she won the Grolier Poetry Prize. In 1999, she was selected by Rita Dove to receive the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet for Domestic Work , which was published in the fall of 2000 by Graywolf Press. In 2001, she received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the Lillian Smith Award for poetry.

She received the prestigious Bunting fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She has received money from the Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund award. Other awards that Trethewey has received include the Margaret Walker Award for poetry, the Jessica Nobel-Maxwell Memorial Award for poetry, the Julia Peterkin Award at Converse College, and the Distinguished Young Alumna Award at the University of Massachusetts (Gale).

Trethewey's work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. She has published two collections of poetry: Domestic Work and Bellocq's Ophelia. Her current work in progress is called Native Guard and is also a collection of letter poems by black guardsmen who were once stationed at Gulfport, Mississippi. In addition to Trethewey's father Eric being a poet, her stepmother also has published collections of poetry (Emory Report). Trethewey taught as an assistant professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama before accepting her current position as an assistant professor of English, poetry, and creative writing at Emory University in Decatur, Georgia.

Some of her poems

Domestic Work, 1937

All week she's cleaned
someone else's house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper—
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she'd pull
the lid to--that look saying
Let's make a change, girl.
But Sunday mornings are hers—
church clothes starched
and hanging, a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the rooms in light,
buckets of water, Octagon soap.
Cleanliness is next to godliness ...
Windows and doors flung wide,
curtains two-stepping
forward and back, neck bones
bumping in the pot, a choir
of clothes clapping on the line.
Nearer my God to Thee ...
She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.


Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
you 'bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.
This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.
She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
'cause one of its sides is black.
The other is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.


Here, the Mississippi carved
its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
above the river's bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.
Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her
listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become
of all the living things in this place?

This whole city is a grave. Every spring—
Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle

with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders
in the long hallways, listen all night

to their silence and indifference, relive
their dying on the green battlefield.

At the museum, we marvel at their clothes—
preserved under glass—so much smaller
than our own, as if those who wore them
were only children. We sleep in their beds,

the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped
in flowers—funereal—a blur

of petals against the river's gray.
The brochure in my room calls this

living history. The brass plate on the door reads
Prissy's Room. A window frames

the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,
the ghost of history lies down beside me,
rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

What's left is footage: the hours before
Camille, 1969—hurricane
parties, palm trees leaning
in the wind,
fronds blown back,

a woman's hair. Then after:
the vacant lots,
boats washed ashore, a swamp
where graves had been. I recall

how we huddled all night in our small house,
moving between rooms,
emptying pots filled with rain.

The next day, our house—
on its cinderblocks—seemed to float
in the flooded yard: no foundation

beneath us, nothing I could see
tying us to the land.
In the water, our reflection
when I bent to touch it.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Writing career like an amateur circus performer

Lisa Olstein

Lisa Olstein is the author of Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (Copper Canyon Press, 2006), which won the Hayden Carruth Award, and of Lost Alphabet (2009). A recipient of a Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from both the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Centrum Foundation, Olstein has been widely published. She presently serves as associate director of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts and is a cofounder of the Juniper Initiative for Literary Arts & Action.

A nano-interview

MCC: What’s new and exciting at Juniper Initiative these days?
Lisa: We’re gearing up for this year’s annual literary festival (April 24 & 25) which will celebrate the Massachusetts Review’s 50th anniversary with two days of readings, performances, and a journal and book fair. Readers will include Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Hacker, Christian Hawkey, Lucy Corin, Thomas Glave, and others. And, we’re happily processing applications for this June’s Juniper Summer Writing Institute, a weeklong program (one for adults, one for high school aged writers) of poetry, fiction, and memoir workshops, along with readings and craft sessions. Faculty and writers in residence include Mark Doty, James Tate, Lydia Davis, Dara Wier, Charles D’Ambrosio, Paul Lisicky, and other amazing writers.
MCC: How do you balance your duties at Juniper and the MFA Program with your writing career?
Lisa: Ideally: carefully, and with joy. Realistically: like an amateur circus performer juggling flaming hoops in a tiny car. . .
MCC: What are you working on these days, writing-wise?
Lisa: Poems that, hopefully, will make up my third collection. My second book of poems, Lost Alphabet, will be out this June.
MCC: What writer do you most admire but write nothing like?
Lisa: Li Po (she says with conviction).
MCC: Computer, longhand, or typewriter?
Lisa: Longhand on random slips and scraps to jot down passing phrases, then computer for the real deal, such as it is.
MCC: Do you secretly dream of being a) a pop icon, b) an algebra teacher, and/or c) a crime-solver/writer a la Jessica Fletcher?
Lisa: d) dolphin trainer, of happy, cage-free, entirely fulfilled human- and trick-loving dolphins.
MCC: How many revisions does your work typically go through?
Lisa: Anywhere from none (a rare and delightful occurrence) to dozens.
MCC: Do you ever revise your work on the spot during live readings?
Lisa: I really try not to, but occasionally a word here or there.
MCC: Please revise the following sentence:Though every muscle in his body urged him not to, Sanderson crept toward the tinted windows of the gray-green Caprice.
Lisa:Sanderson crept.
Every muscle, urge him
toward caprice. Urge him
forward toward window
stinted grey-green in the body.
Urge him not to.

Some of her poems
Deserter’s Information Center

The flags on Main Street say
you are one, are you one of us?
They hang in the exhalation
of three thousand people sleeping,
breathing deeply, eyes whirring,
coding messages, shedding messages,
the night before a parade.
Coyotes are lying down in their dens.
The nest of phoebes has not yet woken;
the half of each bird’s brain that sleeps,
remains sleeping. Corn repeats itself
into a haze of tassels and sheaving leaves.
Autumn sharpens its knives.
No more movies hung on sheets
in the park, in the school parking lot,
until next year. Next year.
Your children will become unrecognizable.
They will love a picture of you
more than you every time you speak.
The smell in the hall will migrate
back and forth between memories,
behind doors: substitute ghost
once again waiting, once again come


You take the mortar; I’ll take the pestle,
the weight we laid five years before the door.

You take the door, its flank and hollow.
You take the hollow morning we set out,

I’ll take the conch shell, the sea.
You take the sea, our kitchen window looking out on it.

I’ll take the kitchen; you take the potatoes,
their rough edges, their eyes.

You take the flashlight’s eye we turned skyward
to rebut the stars. I’ll take the sky it travels.

You take my fear of long journeys, of talking in my sleep.
I’ll take sleep and the first morning sounds

of the monastery on the hill. You take the monks;
I’ll take the way they sweep the ground

before every step, the way they nurse other men’s
crippled oxen through long flickering nights.

That Magnificent Part the Chorus Does about Tragedy

There is a theory of crying that tears are the body’s way ofreleasing excess elements from the brain. There is a theory ofdreaming that each one serves to mend something torn, likecells of new skin lining up to cover a hole. I’m not one to havedreams about flying, but last week we were thirty feet above thebay—this was where we went to discuss things, so that no matterwhat we decided it was only we two out there, and we’d haveto fly back together. I’m not one to have dreams where animalscan speak, but last night a weeping mare I’d been told to bridlewanted me to save her.

Dear One Absent This Long While

It has been so wet stones glaze in moss;
everything blooms coldly.

I expect you. I thought one night it was you
at the base of the drive, you at the foot of the stairs,

you in a shiver of light, but each time
leaves in wind revealed themselves,

the retreating shadow of a fox, daybreak.
We expect you, cat and I, bluebirds and I, the stove.

In May we dreamed of wreaths burning on bonfires
over which young men and women leapt.

June efforts quietly.
I’ve planted vegetables along each garden wall

so even if spring continues to disappoint
we can say at least the lettuce loved the rain.

I have new gloves and a new hoe.
I practice eulogies. He was a hawk

with white feathered legs. She had the quiet ribs
of a salamander crossing the old pony post road.

Yours is the name the leaves chatter
at the edge of the unrabbited woods

Radio Crackling, Radio Gone

Thousands of planes were flying and then
they stopped. We spend days moving our eyes

across makeshift desks, we sit on a makeshift floor;
we prepare for almost nothing that might happen.

Early on, distant relations kept calling.
Now, nothing: sound of water

tippling a seawall. Nothing: sparks
lighting the brush, sparks polishing the hail,

the flotsam of cars left standing perfectly still.
Thud of night bird against night air,

there you are on the porch, swath
of feathers visible through the glass,

there you are on the stairs where the cat fell
like a stone because her heart stopped.

What have you found in the wind above town square?
Is it true that even the statues have gone?

Is there really a hush over everything as there used to be
in morning when one by one we took off our veils?

Another Story with a Burning Barn in It

I was on the porch pinching back the lobelia
like trimming a great blue head of hair.

We’d just planted the near field, the far one
the day before. I’d never seen it so clear,

so gusty, so overcast, so clear, so calm.
They say pearls must be worn or they lose their luster,

and that morning I happened to remember,
so I put them on for milking, finding some

sympathy, I guess, between the two.
Usually I don’t sit down until much later in the day.

The lobelia was curling in the sun. One by one
birds flew off, and that should have been a sign.

Trust is made and broken. I hardly sit down
at all. It was the time of year for luna moths,

but we hadn’t had any yet settling on the porch
or hovering above the garden I’d let the wild rose take.

Dear One Absent This Long While

It has been so wet stones glaze in moss;
everything blooms coldly.

I expect you. I thought one night it was you
at the base of the drive, you at the foot of the stairs,

you in a shiver of light, but each time
leaves in wind revealed themselves,

the retreating shadow of a fox, daybreak.
We expect you, cat and I, bluebirds and I, the stove.

In May we dreamed of wreaths burning on bonfires
over which young men and women leapt.

June efforts quietly.
I’ve planted vegetables along each garden wall

so even if spring continues to disappoint
we can say at least the lettuce loved the rain.

I have new gloves and a new hoe.
I practice eulogies. He was a hawk

with white feathered legs. She had the quiet ribs
of a salamander crossing the old pony post road.

Yours is the name the leaves chatter
at the edge of the unrabbited woods.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Activist Poet

Rebecca Wolff

Rebecca Wolff was born in 1967 in New York City to Pamela Perry Wolff, of Nashville, Tennessee, and Anthony Wolff, a native of Brookline, Massachusetts who was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Rebecca and Nic attended the Fifteenth Street School, a "free" school based on A. S. Neill's Summerhill School in Suffolk,England, until 6th grade. Rebecca went on to Friends Seminary for middle school, and then to Stuyvesant High School. She published her first poem at the age of 15, in Seventeen Magazine, and her next soon after in the journal Hanging Loose's special section for high school age writers.

Wolff spent her first one and a half years of college at Bennington, in Vermont, majoring in Poetry, dropping out during the Field Work Term of her sophomore year, while she was interning at David R. Godine publishers. She stayed in Somerville, Massachusetts for a year and a half and worked the first of many jobs in the health food industry. Eventually Wolff finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, attaining a Bachelors Degree with a Special Concentration in Poetry and Self-Consciousness in 1991.

Her final year of undergraduate study was spent in Glasgow, Scotland, at the University there, though much of her time was spent hitchhiking around Europe, protesting the Gulf War as a member of the Socialist Party, and re-foresting the moorlands as a member of the "Green Group." Upon her return to the United States Wolff traveled to Iowa, where she attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, from which she received her MFA in Poetry in 1993. Wolff then spent several years living in Truro, on Cape Cod, and working at another health food store.

She next moved to Houston, Texas, where she entered the MFA program in Fiction, but only stayed a year. While in Houston Wolff was employed as managing editor of the journal Gulf Coast, and it was this experience that allowed her to think that she would be able to organize her own literary journal, which she began doing upon her return to New York City in 1997.

In the spring of 1998 Fence was launched, with a crew of founding coeditors including Caroline Crumpacker, Jonathan Lethem, Frances Richard, and Matthew Rohrer. The next nine years of Wolff's life were devoted to publishing the journal, and also to Fence Books, launched in 2001, in a fairly typical "labor of love" style. During these years Wolff found paying gigs at the Poetry Society of America, BOMB magazine, and as a freelance editor for publications such as BookForum and PenguinPutnam.
In 2001 her first book of poems, Manderley, was published by the University of Illinois Press, after having been selected for the National Poetry Series by Robert Pinsky. In June, 2002 Wolff married the novelist Ira Sher, , and their son Asher Wolff was born in August. In September of 2004 Wolff's second book of poems, Figment, was published by W. W. Norton as a winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and in December Margot Sher was born. In the summer of 2005 the family relocated permanently to Athen, New York, , a river town in the Hudson Valley. In 2007, Fence and Fence Books found sponsorship at the University at Albany, in partnership with the New York State Writers Institute, of which Wolff is now a Program Fellow.

Some of her poems
Life of Sorts
Stopping under the speaking tree
tracing the lines of my own face

with well lubricated fingertips
I am not now

nor ever have I been
free with myself,

and you know why that is.
If I could only learn to make the perfect skirt

I would never work again.
My own line. "To what do you attribute

your success?" Talent and genius.
A talent for genius: Crows paired up in the black tree

lift off metonymically,
two feathers ride an invincible,

blooded draft. My life
as an activist

Eminent Victorians
Half the day is dead already—

a lady with a baby in the shady graveyard

promenade not quite the idea

but the first idea to be impressed

so firmly—Grace to be born

in the

bisected quadrangle

stones propped insensible

but all in relation

to the babe.
Babe what suckles

babe what grows comfortable with thieves in a fertile

bed of unsaid

slice of eponymous

grafted to the reef

Hold my hand

in the undergrowth

waist high at your leisure cheerful

child of melancholy and displeasure.

Soft in the lap you grow

hard at the breast—Oh

under- and aboveground we go

to relieve us. Camphor

and cambric by the hand not by halves,

one turn more
will take us back to where we rest.

Baby is not baby when she

wears her oblong


I will take her home to rest.

Lost in thought, the baby
I am a mother.

When he was sick;
I engaged his imagination

with a book—
the perfect—I seized it; his

weakened defenses.
This is the way I have

filled his mind
egg and milk and butter and bread

all together—
that's a lot for a small child to take in.

Like Maisie
in the novel is a sieve.

What we want to cultivate in him:
A fat man's

personality on a thin man.

Invidious Comparison
Fat kids of the South

with early breasts

in the swimming pool outside

and as rites of passage go,

it's a benign and thoughtful entry.
There is an expression I keep hearing

I wanted to use it. I looked for it in popular music:

If she's a nun then I'm the pope.
Don't ask me what I'm doing.

I'm thinking it's only this beautiful

here. Now my body is made of long-standing

spirituality, by nature benign. Don't laugh: I'm a
Lotus-flower Gentle Sitting-still Woman.

And another paradigm slips into

place like the diamond it

sounds like. I'm no go-getter—

what am I after all but a

Saturday, 6 June 2009

A Literary Lioness with a zookeeper's heart

Diane Ackerman

Born Diane Fink, born October 7, 1948 in Waukegan, Illinois , she was raised in Waukegan, Illinois. She received her B.A. in English from Penn State and an M.F.A. and Ph.D in English from Cornell University in 1978. Her dissertation advisor was Carl Sagan. From 1980 to 1983 she taught English at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has been married to novelist, Paul West since 1970. She currently resides in Ithaca, New York. A collection of her manuscripts, writings and papers (the Diane Ackerman Papers, 1971-1997--Collection No. 6299) is housed at the Cornell University Library. Ackerman's book A Natural History of the Senses inspired the five-part Nova miniseries Mystery of the Senses , which she hosted.

Ackerman's awards and honors include: a Guggenheim Fellowship, the John Burroughs Nature Award, and the Lavan Poetry Prize.. She was named a "Literary Lion" by the New York Public Library, and a molecule ("dianeackerone") has been named after her. In 2008 she won the Orion Book Award for The Zookeepers Wife

Poet, essayist, and naturalist, Diane Ackerman is the author of two dozen highly acclaimed works of nonfiction and poetry, including A Natural History of the Senses -- a book beloved by millions of readers all over the world. Humans might luxuriate in the idea of being “in” nature, but Ms. Ackerman has taught generations that we are nature—for “no facet of nature is as unlikely as we, the tiny bipeds with the giant dreams.” In prose so rich and evocative that one can feel the earth turning beneath one’s feet as one reads, Ackerman’s thrilling observations—of things ranging from the cloud glories to the human brain to endangered whooping cranes—urge us to live in the moment, to wake up to nature’s everyday miracles. Her 2007 work of narrative nonfiction, The Zookeepers Wife, received the Orion Book Award, which honored it as "a groundbreaking work of nonfiction, in which the human relationship to nature is explored in an absolutely original way through looking at the Holocaust. A few years ago, 'nature' writers were asking themselves, How can a book be at the same time a work of art, an act of conscientious objection to the destruction of the world, and an affirmation of hope and human decency?
The Zookeeper's Wife answers this question." Speaking deeply to readers of all ages, it has been chosen as a Freshman Reads and Community Reads book in many cities. Ms. Ackerman's other works of nonfiction include: An Alchemy of Mind, a poetics of the brain based on the latest neuroscience; Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden; Deep Play, which considers play, creativity, and our need for transcendence; A Slender Thread, about her work as a crisis line counselor; The Rarest of the Rare and The Moon by Whale Light, in which she explores the plight and fascination of endangered animals; A Natural History of Love; On Extended Wings, her memoir of flying; and A Natural History of the Senses.

Some of her poems

School Prayer
In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,
I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.
In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the star

Toadies thick as an Egyptian plague
line your office each afternoon.
Wit-lame and mincing, they backpat or effuse.
People stop in the hallways to discuss your mood—
the deft, the spoonfed, those with brains of rattan.
Stricken, I wince as you rally each
with well-tried, if tonic, deceits.
Sweet years, I rode your faith’s catamaran,
thought I’d a special affection specially won.
When my metal fretted, lest it fly apart,
I coiled you round the mainspring of my heart.
But you were lukewarm to me as to any other,
nesting your indifference in charm.
All the while I flourished in your countenance,
you gulled me, you led me a dance,
wooed me as protçå, lady-love, confrère,
when you never cared, you never cared.

A Chapter from the Garden

Where hot pipes
run under the pool deck
a garter snake
we tag “World Without End”
finds central heating
a boon to his aging hide.

He still likes to stroll
ten yards of bleached wood
to be swell
under the porte-cochere
of a cushion yew, or better yet
ladder up its needles
and coil right on top
in sunswilling rapture.

We find him there
each afternoon, an odalisque
in a striped caftan
resting his head
on one long elbow,
basking and feeding,
high, narrow, and handsome.

Nor does he mind
our infant-like ogling,
though a warm pea
offered to him on a fork tine
made him leap
down into the bowels of the bush
and whip under the pool deck
for quick cover.

Most days, tolerant to a fault,
he puts up with all
our menu mischief, barracuda stares,
poking and sarcasm,
treating us even
to his red forked tongue,
and Hindu rope trick
(where he disappears
down a coil of himself).

At sundown, he staggers
through the grass,
back to the slender missus
we often find at slink
beneath the wild orchids,
dashing and cool,
full of nobody’s business,
a snatch of melody
in summer’s unbroken hum.

Losing the Game
On the face of this midfielder,
a saint’s passion.

Sweat brilliantines his hair
flat as a seal pup’s fur.

Thorns rake one knee, and fatigue
is a train whistle that never quits.

In his mind, the falcon of defeat
slips off its own hood

and sails into the vapory cold December,
hangs like a crucifixion over the field,

then slants down the wide thermal
of his shame. Today 2 + 2 is algebra,

and nothing will transmute
his base metal to gold leaf.

When crowd and players have gone,
he watches the sun set

under a tumultuous bruise of sky,
below the empty grin of the bleachers,

deep into the valley,
a ghastly, yellow bile draining out.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The young and lovely

Bridget Arsenault

Bridget Arsenault is a twenty-two year old graduate student at Oxford University. During her undergraduate degree at Smith College in Massachusetts, she won the Gertrude Posner Spencer Prize for excellence in fiction writing awarded by Smith College, the Sylvia Plath Memorial Award, an annual intercollegiate writing contest for poetry and prose, and the Smith College Excellence in English Award. These are the first poems she has published.

The Nightself

Swallow the sun
to bring the night.
the smell of blood,
crisp and wet, like
rusted pipes and
sewery veins hangs
in the room
the battlefield of this
primitive surgery.
Thick musk—leather and soot, shrouds
first the torso, then
the thigh,
over the calf and to the tip
of the pinky toe.
Pulverize the beautiful
acerbic charm
luring from the corner.
An echo of a howl claws
the room, side
to side
rotting from the inside

In the Eyes of the Tiger

Hands the size of teacups
never chainsaws
Her once loved face
She blinks with thick compliance
He still finds her
___in a certain light

Etiquette Lessons in San José

Flying overhead watching San José
become a toy
city, then a geometric blob
Her glassy-eyed pieties
her tanned bare feet like sandpaper
against brittle pavement
her head throbs her head throbs her head throbs
the unrefined staccato of her taste; their
buttery thighs tied up in knots
his threads of grey
a conversational trope like the stock market
her chiseled heart
Day trips to El Carmen and San Sebastián
an evening at the Teatro Nacionel, after
a Gold Museum, before
an oak-paneled laundry room

The Wedding

She loved music
thick, rough, grinding, heavy, gripping, pounding, music
the charisma of a C major, the lure of an F sharp
rag, blues, funk, A cappella, rock, rhythm
sweat, man, spittle, whiskey, morning after—smells
A pock mark where
the music’s been removed
now she finds darkness wrapped in a large handkerchief
the ugliness of the night undressed
beer un-suctioning thighs
Cigarettes and wedding bands
humming in white only
a Chocolate Lake
space touching her
flowers rotted like flesh
throw rocks
throw anything
Eyes closed to concentrate
lost in a pot hole on the Trans Canada
tall trees
tall men
a room full with colours of people
fuchsia, tangerine, saffron, crimson and pistachio

Answers Like Filling in a Questionnaire

Answers like filling in a questionnaire
___If only they’d been more tolerant
A voice high and unstable
Pulsing tongues in junior high bathrooms
Credit for courage?
Leggy girls in summer clothes
___If only they’d encouraged me more
Chapped lips flake like grated cheddar
Personalities subsumed like phagocytes
and molecules.
Warm palms brush then slither
___If only they’d been more strict
Mattressy eyebrows
Suspiciously perfect teeth
Wear lower heels next time.
Electric feel—Monochrome to Technicolour
___If only they’d applauded me for the right things.
Battle wounds from vampire
neck bites
What a farce.

Mental Incest

The preliminary version of my own life is sticky, sloppy, syrupy and soupy like concentrated pink lemonade. I find myself goaded to anger at the slightest tickle, the most inconsequential prick, any possible hint of animosity provokes audacity, vigorous hair-pulling, merciless arm-scratching, barbaric biting, I’m not above any of it; after tireless attempts to re-invent innocence I realize that throbbing heads, pulsing pelvic bones, red crayon lips and heavy black smoke thrilling the insides of dank moist lungs isn’t exactly innocent. Is innocence pliable like the hinge of a jaw, the span of two wings, the axis of two meaty thighs? Ultimately my thoughts lead to heavy moping, despondent shrugs towards emptiness, my aim for a coercive gesture hangs frivolously, unnoticed, untouched, unkempt like rich, chunky, matted, sweaty hair. You know language can express what a face knows, your primitive astonishment, your pedantic approach, which you claim is the prologue, simply lateral thinking, only excuses, hazy, amorphous, shadowy covers for residual guilt. In fact, your vitriolic spits of languid vocabulary express far too much, like how freshly mown grass is too perfect, unnaturally placid, inexplicably manicured, unnecessarily groomed. I’m picturing you, bated cherry breath, lascivious curving torso OK, caught in the filthy act, that’s me not you, a schoolgirl posing as a harlot, a vixen, a tramp, a hussy, a call girl, a slattern from generations past. Or is it the other way around—a tart acting as a schoolgirl? A whore play-acting as a debutante? Florescent thoughts parachute my snappy ‘take-it-away’ attitude, Ah the oppressive mother, the distant mother, the over-loving mother, has she sharpened her exacting scythe? Has she shined its spiny, scalloped edge? Wicked the erudite commentary from within her lava-hot, frosted-alabaster, cavernous throat—dank, acerbate, curdled stench and all. Lest we not forget her preternatural desire for love: a love rhombus, love in iambic pentameter, a gargantuan dollop of foamy, frothy love. Of course, there are the pursed kisses like raspy shards of metal from her porcelain jaw, that rope of mucus, gelatinous, swollen, opaque, and spongy like a jellyfish. Her immutable humiliation of my mundane memories, why not shove my banal thoughts down my paper-mâché throat like tentacles, pulsing and prying with porcine inaccuracy? Why not?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Vital and probing truth

Diane Seuss

Diane Seuss is Writer-in-Residence at Kalamazoo College. She is the author of the poetry collection It Blows You Hollow (New Issues, 1998). Her poems have been anthologized in Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework (2005), Are You Experienced? Baby Boom Poets at Midlife (2003), and Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation (1999), all from the University of Iowa Press. Seuss’s work has recently appeared in The North American Review, Indiana Review, Cimarron Review, and The Georgia Review.

Diane Seuss won the University of Massachusetts Press Juniper Prize for Poetry, judged by Pulitzer-prize-winner James Tate. Her collection of poetry, called "Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open," will be published in Spring 2010

‘ I have been compelled by the slipperiness of persona since I first read Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” and Ai’s poems in the personae of reprehensible speakers. I like the opportunity to abandon the mask of goodness and to explore the pockets of personality where the 8-ball lurks. My most recent project came as a result of listening to my mother’s oral history of her upbringing in rural Michigan. These characters aren’t reprehensible, but they’re complicated. Their mystery can’t be solved. I wanted to get at the weirdness of small town life rather than the nostalgia. I’ve always believed poems can be a potent link with the dead. What can be better—especially at midlife—than to abandon your own storyline and to let the dead speak through you? Persona allows me to abandon my narrow shell and take up residence in a coffee can. ‘

Her poetry in “It Blows You Hollow” is described as a “chronicle of edgy memories, private sorrows, charged darkness; of scarcities, plenitude and dangers,” according to an online review by author Colette Inez.“These sensual and irreverent poems erupt with unexpected turns of language at once elegant and fierce,” writes Inez. “Reading them made the back hairs of my neck bristle in recognition that real poetry is going on here. Hers is a gift of metaphoric daring and wit that dazzles and consoles with ... vital and probing truth.”

Some of her poems

prayer that goes: dear god

then it goes: buttercups.
then it goes: marsh marigolds
with waxy petals that time
he sailed the little boat
with a message stuck
in a film canister glued
to the deck. then it leaps
to watercress salad that time.
then it says i gotta bring this
diction down and not rely
so much on italics. down
so low it sounds country
western. dear god
it goes, and some steel guitar,
reverse the flow of water
and send that little boat
home. it goes:
my son
my son
which is how god answered
why hast thou forsaken
me. then it says
cattails. it says those
cattails that one day
and his hair, the curl
and swirl of it.

i lie back on my red coverlet and contemplate

the paintings of seascapes we won't be seeing in the Louvre.
the miniatures of the infamous Van Blarenberghe brothers.
no rented wooden boats in the Jardin de Tuileries
though this is not about a particular lover or a particular city.
even i am less a woman than a ball of mercury breaking
into forty pieces of silver.

there was talk of Prague, the Klub Cleopatra, that bar called
the Marquis de Sade. as if poetry lies there on a gold settee
smoking a black cigarette in a red holder.
green dress. that Van Gogh green, the color of his pool tables.
the ceiling too is green, and the absinthe we won't be sipping.
the unmade love in unmade beds. small, oversensitive breasts.
Americans always think it's elsewhere. believe
in transmutative sex. i did, when a girl, scrutinizing
my queendom, a colony of fire ants, their thoraxes
gleaming like scoured copper.

hey pauly
it was the barber and the undertaker who got into the heart
of the village earlier than even the firemen and the pharmacist

the barber would call hey pauly that's what he called paul
the undertaker and they'd head for marge taylor's place

for coffee and maybe a poached egg or a fried cake
thrown hot into a paper bag with some sugar and then
marge would shake it and stick her hand down in and lift
it out and present it to them like a magic trick it was said
the barber had the eye for her his own wife home scaling
fish or picking the pinfeathers out of a goose or washing

the storm windows with white vinegar bye pauly the barber
would say as they parted on the street each to face his own
kind of work and although they were such good friends
the undertaker never asked the barber to style the hair
of the dead but he came in every two weeks for a shave
and a trim and never paid nor did he charge the barber's
widow for his services a few years later the washing
and the dressing and the steel comb through what hair
was left. that's how things worked out between them.

what Marge would say if she'd lived to say it:

thatched roof like the one on Stack's garage and inside
six stools covered in split red plastic, five booths, a cement
floor (I'm being honest about its frailties) and an oil heater
the kids gathered around drinking their cocoa, no I didn't
offer marshmallows, no I did not make my own pies,
simple fare, chili, burgers, grilled cheese, coffee, real

cream, the men liked it here because it wasn't home
and they liked me because I wasn't their wife, my own

husband at the Uptown drinking his case of beer a day
with George Stack and Charlie, yes I was bony but I had

a nice smile and that place wasn't called Tom's or
Marge and Tom's it was Marge's, such as it was

the Lee girls had it bad

and their little brother Sonny but they were busy
for a long time on the top floor of that old barn

at the edge of their dad's property and finally
one day led me up the stairs into what had been

the hayloft and removed the bandana they'd
tied across my eyes as a blindfold and there

was the most beautiful playhouse I'd ever seen,
they'd made little curtains for the windows with

a matching tablecloth for the table and cups
and saucers and beds for us and small beds
for the dolls and a wash basin and a vase
filled with wild chives and white lilacs and empty
cans for canned goods and nails in the wall
for our coats, I used to believe all the babies
Mrs. Lee lost when they quit breathing and turned
blue were the lucky ones until I saw the rag rugs
on the floor of the playhouse and the bookshelf
and the Bible and even a newspaper for when
we could get Sonny to play father.

Nothing lasts for long here

You can be one of the richest men in town
today and just a splatter at the bottom of your grain

elevator tomorrow, you can be a town in the morning
and by evening a pile of cinders, the old barber shop
went up in flames, Merle smelled smoke and ran down
to the fire station in his long underwear but it was too late,

all the guys were volunteer firemen but still their houses
burned, the lumber yard burned, later the Hicks house

and field fires out of control swallowing churches,
though never the funeral parlor, which was good

at staying where it was, and always things got built
back up again until these days, when what had been

the hardware store and what had been the drug store
and what had been the Uptown Tavern all burned

within a few months of each other and nothing
moved in to replace them, empty lots bulldozed flat,

Stack's place long gone, Irma gone, I remember
smoke spiraling down the barber pole like a woman's

long gray hair when she pulls out all the pins

A risen star of the international poetry

Valzhyna Mort

Valzhyna Mort was born in 1981 in Minsk as Valzhyna Martynava. The adjustment of her surname to Mort stems from the student culture there. She subsequently realised what connotations ‘Mort’ could have, and decided nevertheless to retain it.

In the searing work of Valzhyna Mort, marvelously different in form and in delivery...dazzled all who were fortunate to hear her translations, and to be battered by the moods of the Belarus language which she is passionately battling to save from obscurity.” —The Irish Times

“A risen star of the international poetry world,” declares the Irish Times, about Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, who is famed throughout Europe—and now the US—for her vibrant reading performances. Mort, born in Minsk, Belarus (former Soviet Union), in 1981, made her American debut in 2008 with a poetry collection Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon Press), co-translated by the husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Pultizer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright

There is an urgency and vitality to her poems; the narrative moves within universal themes—lust, loneliness, the strangeness of god, and familial love—while many poems question what language is and challenge the authority that delegates who has the right to speak and how. The New Yorker writes, “Mort strives to be an envoy for her native country, writing with almost alarming vociferousness about the struggle to establish a clear identity for Belarus and its language.” Library Journal described Mort's vision as ”visceral, wistful, bittersweet, and dark,“ and Midwest Book Review calls Factory of Tears ”a one-of-a-kind work of passion and insight.“ Valzhyna writes in Belarusian at a time when efforts are being made to reestablish the traditional language, after governmental attempts to absorb it into the Russian language have been relinquished. She reads her poems aloud in both Belarusian and English.

Mort received the Crystal of Vilenica award in Slovenia in 2005 and the Burda Poetry Prize in Germany in 2008. She has been a resident poet at Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin, Germany, and has received a fellowshiip at Gaude Polonia, Warsaw, Poland. Her English translations of Eastern-European poets can be discovered in the anthology, New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008). Factory of Tears has been translated into Swedish and German.

Mort has the distinction of being the youngest person to ever be on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine. She lives in Washington DC.

About FACTORY OF TEARS (2008) Factory of Tears is the American debut of Valzhyna Mort—and the first bilingual Belarusian-English poetry book ever published in the US. Set in a land haunted by the specter of a post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and marked by the violence of the recent past, intense moments of joy leaven the darkness. “Grandmother”—as person and idea—is a recurring presence in poems, and startlingly fresh images—desire as the approaching bus that immediately pulls away or pain as the embrace of a very strong god “with an unshaven cheek that scratches when he kisses you”—occupy and haunt the mind.

The music of lines and litanies of phrases mesmerize the reader, then sudden discord reminds us that Mort's world is not entirely harmonious. “I'm a recipient of workers' comp from the heroic Factory of Tears”, she writes in the final stanza. “I have calluses on my eyes...And I'm Happy with what I have.” Engaged, voracious, and memorable, Factory of Tears is a remarkable American debut of a rising international poetry star. The translation was in collaboration between Mort, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright.


Valzyhyna also speaks brilliantly on The Politics of Language and The Poetry of Revolution. In these energetic and dynamic talks, Valzhyna Mort addresses the poetry of anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s, the time in the twentieth-century when poets became prophets for their nations; when a poem was the only voice of freedom—in such cases, poems were learned by heart and repeated like a prayer or rewritten many times and carefully hidden, because poetry was considered a sin and when a poem was also a weapon, in many cases the only weapon available.

In a humanizing and expanding view of history, Valzhyna looks at poems written at the times of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the Solidarity movement in Poland, including the work of poets Adam Zagajewski, Ryszard Krynicki, Julian Kronhauser, Leszek Moczulski, Ewa Lipska, and others. She talks about the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the current situation in Belarus, both the political and the poetic scenes—and how the two overlap in the politics of language.

Her first collection of poetry, I’m as Thin as Your Eyelashes, appeared in Belarus in 2005. At that time, she was studying at the University of Minsk. She was not only a poet but also a translator from English and Polish. It was not Valzhyna’s intention to leave Belarus. However, having met her American husband there, she decided to go with him to the United States, where she has experienced considerable success as a poet and performing artist – and has also been granted American citizenship.

Her American debut was the collection The Factory of Tears, which she wrote in collaboration with the married couple Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Franz Wright (winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2004 for poetry). Until she was sixteen, Mort had envisaged a musical career – as an accordionist – but poetry was her final choice. She comes from a Russian-speaking family and studied Belarusian at school. Because of its musicality, this language became a means for her to create “music in a different form” and to write poetry.

In the course of history, the Belarusian language area has completely or partially been part of Poland on several occasions, and Polish has left behind distinct lexical and phonetic influences in its language. In 1918, White Russia (as it was then called) declared itself independent, but in 1921 the country became a Soviet Republic and a large proportion of the intelligentsia was liquidated. Many Belarusians tend to see themselves as Russians who are part of the great Russian cultural traditions.

In Belarus, such Russian authors as Pushkin, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky and Tsvetaeva are much read, but many Polish writers such as Szymborska, Miłosz, Zagajewski and Barańczak are also extremely popular. According to Mort, present-day Belarusian poetry is conservative and formal in nature, with roots in folklore. There have never been any avant-garde, surrealist or futurist movements. There are, however, no traces of conservatism and formalism in Valzhyna Mort’s work. It deals with sex; war; skyscrapers; becoming acquainted with the internet for the first time; lack of freedom; repression and corruption; the status of Belarusian; the traditionally awkward position of Belarus between Poland and Russia; and the troubles, sorrows and deficiencies of everyday life. Typical of the repressive atmosphere is the following fragment from the poem ‘Belarusian I’:
completely free only in public toilets
where for a little change nobody cared what we were doing
we fought the summer heat the winter snow
when we discovered we ourselves were the language
and our tongues were removed we started talking with our eyes
when our eyes were poked out we talked with our hands
when our hands were cut off we conversed with our toes
when we were shot in the legs we nodded our head for yes
and shook our heads for no And in ‘The Factory of Tears’ we read as a consoling conclusion:I’m a recipient of workers’ comp from the heroic Factory of Tears.
I have calluses on my eyes.
I have compound fractures on my cheeks.
I receive my wages with the product I manufacture.
And I’m happy with what I have.

In 2004, Mort was one of the three winners of the Crystal of Vilenica, the prize for the best poets during the international literature festival in Slovenia. In Germany, she was awarded the Hubert Burda Preis für junge Lyrik in 2008. For a time she was visiting poet at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin, and she has also been awarded a work and residence scholarship by Gaude Polonia in Warsaw.

Roel Schuyt (Translated by John Irons)

Some of her poems


even our mothers have no idea how we were born
how we parted their legs and crawled out into the world
the way you crawl from the ruins after a bombing
we couldn’t tell which of us was a girl or a boy
we gorged on dirt thinking it was bread
and our future
a gymnast on a thin thread of the horizon
was performing there
at the highest pitch
we grew up in a country where
first your door is stroked with chalk
then at dark a chariot arrives
and no one sees you anymore
but riding in those cars were neither
armed men nor
a wanderer with a scythe
this is how love loved to visit us
and snatch us veiled
completely free only in public toilets
where for a little change nobody cared what we were doing
we fought the summer heat the winter snow
when we discovered we ourselves were the language
and our tongues were removed we started talking with our eyes
when our eyes were poked out we talked with our hands
when our hands were cut off we conversed with our toes
when we were shot in the legs we nodded our head for yes
and shook our heads for no and when they ate our heads alive
we crawled back into the bellies of our sleeping mothers
as if into bomb shelters
to be born again
and there on the horizon the gymnast of our future
was leaping through the fiery hoop
of the sun


my grandmother
doesn’t know pain
she believes that
famine is nutrition
poverty is wealth
thirst is water
her body like a grapevine winding around a walking stick
her hair bees’ wings
she swallows the sun-speckles of pills
and calls the internet the telephone to America
her heart has turned into a rose the only thing you can do
is smell it
pressing yourself to her chest
there’s nothing else you can do with it
only a rose
her arms like stork’s legs
red sticks
and i am on my knees
howling like a wolf
at the white moon of your skull
i’m telling you it’s not pain
just the embrace of a very strong god
one with an unshaven cheek that prickles when he kisses you.

In the Pose of a Question Mark

How hard it is to draw ourselves up
from the pose of a question mark
into the pose of an exclamation.
The left labia of Poland and the right labia of Russia part
and our heads emerge out of . . .
By now we have sixteen names for snow –
it’s time to come up with sixteen names for darkness.In the pose of a question mark –
with our whole bodies we call ourselves into question,
confirmed by a urine dot.
Is it really us calling into a question?
Or adolescence has just birthed
a rumpled beach towel.So blunt were
the midwife’s scissors
which with time turned into
brightly-polished avenues
jointed by a military obelisk.
A tractor plant started manufacturing hair-rollers
and every Sunday sent mother
a gift basket.
Her head in rollers –
the ideal reconstruction of the solar system –
was photographed for albums and calendars.
The principle of rollers clenching hair
underlay the national production of harvesters.
This became my first metaphor
which I gobbled till my mouth foamed
as if I had swallowed the whole Swan Lake.
My body didn’t belong to me.
Bent with pain,
it was making a career out of being a question mark
in the corporation of language.
The bureaucracy of the body drove me to the wall:
head didn’t want to think –
let the eyes watch
eyes didn’t want to watch –
let the ears listen
ears didn’t want to listen –
let the hands touch
hands didn’t want to touch –let the nose smell the body
which blooms with linden flowers of pain.Where are my bees?
Aren’t I sweet enough for them


men arrive like a date on a calendar
they keep visiting once a month
men who've seen the bottom
of the deepest bottles
kings of both earth and heaven
and like the pearls from a torn necklace
trembling i scatter at their touch
their heartbeats open doors
vessels respond to their voice commands
and wind licks their faces like a crazy dog
and gallops after their train and roams
they undress me as if undressing themselves
and hold me in their arms like a saxophone
and oh this music these endless blues
like milk from breasts
those notes too high for human ears
too low for gods'
men who teach children to laugh
men who teach time how to run
men who love other men in club toilets
men who've kissed the hand of death herself
men who've never paid attention to my threats
nightmares which bound me to a chair
mama their lips fall on me
like burning planes
they are powerful patient
and when the world crashes
everyone runs for the shelters
they pause to pluck one of my lashes
mama not even mine
just anyone's mama
come back
rescue me find me
in this place wreck