How I Wrote

Tiana Clark: How I Wrote "BBHMM" by Peter LaBerge

BY TIANA CLARK

 From Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video.

From Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video.

“…survival is not an academic skill.” — Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

When I wrote this poem as a modern ekphrasitc response to Rihanna’s music video, I was met with some resistance from various sources in my life and M.F.A. program. When I worskhopped the poem, I wanted my cohort to watch the music video first. A white, male poet refused to watch. Instead, he turned his head away. I told him he was refusing to look at me.  

I was told not to publish the poem. I was encouraged not to write about pop culture, and definitely not pop music. I was told the poem was too violent. I was told the poem would make white people feel uncomfortable, and then a white person actually said, “This poem frightens me.” I was told that I should be more concerned about legacy, and that poems should stand the test of time. I was told Rihanna would not stand the test of time.

It still astonishes me that certain white artists can have privileged access as interlocutors, freely dipping in and out of blackface to exploit and appropriate black art for their gain. What’s good Miley? What’s good John Berryman? But when I, a black artist, want to use black art that was made for me (FUBU poetics), somehow that’s not allowed or not deemed as elevated or worthy enough of a subject for a timestamp.

But what if my concerns are so present and urgent and necessary, that I don’t have the privilege to consider the bourgeois fears of tradition and inheritance?

I’ve never had anything passed down to me. Growing up, my mom never had any surplus cash for a savings account—no inheritance or heirlooms, no security for her future or mine. Our life was mostly paycheck-to-paycheck, sometimes a money order and making a Papa John’s Alfredo Chicken pizza last a week. My poetics were built on this need for some slice of survival concerned with communicating not in the future and for all time, but trying to save myself right now because I’m hungry. “I’ll eat you to live, that’s poetry,” Terrance Hayes says in his poem, “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy.” And for me, poetry has always been a means of persistence, black persistence, by making, breaking, and re-imagining the possibility of received forms, especially my adoration and obsession for ekphrasis.

“There is something transgressive in writing about the visual arts,” Edward Hirsch says about ekphrasis. “A border is crossed, a boundary is breached, as the writer enters into the spatial realm, traducing an abyss, violating the silent integrity of the pictorial.” But what if the image isn’t always silent? Perhaps, that dynamic image is what Ezra Pound describes as “…a radiant node or cluster…a VORTEX.” For me, that massive whirling image is Rihanna repeating “pay what you owe me” while punching a payphone and when she gleefully tries to find the right weapon to attack her accountant who has presumably screwed her out of millions.

When I teach my students about ekphrasis, I urge them to make a static image sing. We start by reading Rilke’s famous sonnet, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends, “For here there is no place / that does not see, you must change your life.” I ask my students to tell me about a piece of art that has dazzled them to the point of transmutation. I often repeat what Carl Phillips told me and what Ellen Bryant Voigt told him at Bread Loaf: poetry is not the mere description of an experience, but the transformation of an experience. Hands shoot up across the classroom as they excitedly tell me about their favorite songs, plays, and movies. They tell me how they felt like a different person after, somehow even their cells have rearranged. I tell them they can use it all. Respond to it all. I repeat: nothing is off limits. I give them that sense of permission and freedom to explore what fascinates them, because I have to remind myself that it’s okay to respond to my current obsessions too. As a teacher, I’m not in the business of telling my students what poetry can’t do.

For me, there was no place that I did not see myself in Rihanna’s music video, which opens up with her naked blood-drenched body smoking a blunt covered in cash—her cash—signifying her power and entrepreneurship, her audacity, and ferocious revenge fantasy.

In Picture Theory, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that, “Ekphrastic poetry is the genre in which texts encounter their own semiotic others.” He describes a triangular relationship between: the poet, the art, and the poem—or the self, the other, and the image, as well as the listening subject all working through the meaning and multiple forms of linguistic and imagistic communication. And this is why I replayed the music video over and over and over again. Each click on my cursor felt like a rapture. I was encountering an electric otherness that I wanted to claim as my own, because Rihanna signified a luxurious power that I did not see reflected in my own tired life. I was tired of tact, tired of legislating the volume of my anger, tired of becoming a stereotype. For once, I was not ashamed of myself after watching “BBHMM.” For once, I could have the audacity to try and transcend my trauma.

Yes, there’s a graphic violence in the music video with viewer discretion advised, but haven’t we all been bombarded enough through literature and media with tortured images and descriptions of the black female/femme body beaten and/or lynched and/or raped and/or killed, often at the discretion of white men? However, this time, Rihanna is taking her own pleasure and dominance in a revenge fantasy that is often relegated to male actors and the male gaze. For example, Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar for the best original screenplay for “Django Unchained,” which Roxane Gay writes, “is a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, one where white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental.” But in “BBHMM,” the inverse is true. Rihanna is fully foregrounded and in control for seven minutes and two seconds (with 134,743,912 views as of 11/8/18).

But somehow “Django Unchained” is critically acclaimed, lauded as brilliant and subversive high art, whereas “BBHMM” is deemed, to some, as aggressive, low art trash, especially by several white feminist critics who were upset by Rihanna’s character kidnapping and torturing the accountant’s wife as collateral damage for the wrongdoing of a man. Rihanna is unworried about the well-being of a blond and beautiful white woman, because her own survival is at stake, which such a commanding visual metaphor, a comparison colliding two unlike things: black women and possessing power, black women and lynching the European standard for beauty, black women and the wage gap, womanist vs. feminist, and the dichotomies continue ad infinitum. Robert Frost writes, “…unless you are at home in the metaphor…you are not safe anywhere…you are not safe in history.” But what if I’ve never felt safe…anywhere? Let alone in my own black body. Nia Wilson’s throat reminds me that my breath is always at risk. I am anxious every single day about my well-being, and this is what I wanted to explore in my poem: the economy of sex and desire based off of retribution. I wanted to dare myself not to be scared, if not in life, as least for the length of one poem.

A few years ago, I went to a workshop with the badass poet, Kendra DeColo. She brought in a poem by Hanif Abdurraqib titled “E•MO•TION” after Carly Rae Jepson. This prose poem was a giant permission slip. It was another reminder that I could use it all and that nothing was off limits. I’m fascinated by this muscular poem and how Abdurraqib zips back and forth between the viral nature of black murder from police brutality, while weaving in an interview from Jepson about falling in love, all in a gorgeous container that wrestles with longing and persistence. Abdurraqib writes, “I say I, too, am a romantic, and I mean I never expected to survive this long. I have infinite skin.” After reading “E•MO•TION” the Rihanna poem just barreled out of me, almost a fully formed fist.  

Abdurraqib also writes, “It's been said that pop music desires a body—a single, focused human form as an object of interest.” But I didn’t realize that the body I desired was my own. It wasn’t Rihanna’s body, but my own damn body on the brink. I wrote the poem in celebration of a persona, a lyric self, unconcerned with the burden of approval or workshop critique. I needed a poem to save me and keep saving me, and that’s I why I wrote “BBHMM,” as a legacy for me.

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Tiana Clark is the author of the I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, as well as the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Best New Poets 2015, Oxford American, and elsewhere. You can find her online at tianaclark.com.

Nancy Reddy: How I Wrote "Your Best Post-Baby Body" by Peter LaBerge

BY NANCY REDDY

 From Amy Gilmore’s “ Honey Baby ” (Issue Sixteen).

From Amy Gilmore’s “Honey Baby” (Issue Sixteen).

In terms of content, the obvious backdrop to my poem “Your Best Post-Baby Body,” published in Issue Nine of Foundry, is celebrity baby culture, starting with those insane supermarket checkout headlines about how X celebrity “got her body back” after baby. (Perhaps Beyoncé’s interview in the September Vogue, in which she describes her frenzied efforts at getting back in shape after her first baby and her decision after her twins to take things more slowly, will mark a change in coverage of celebrity moms and their bodies. I can’t say I’m optimistic on that count.)

But I’d rather talk here about craft, and how the postpartum body—my own postpartum bod—helped me to think differently about my work.

After giving birth, my primary experience of my body was as an unreliable, boundary-less blob. (“Motherhood frays my edges,” writes Carmen Giménez Smith in Bring Down the Little Birds.) When I was away from the baby for too long, I’d leak milk through my shirt. When he cried, milk through my shirt. When he slept too long at night, milk all over the bed. (This almost never happened, mostly because he almost never slept very long.) I bled for four weeks after his birth, like a nightmare never-ending period. The first time I tried to go for a run after I was cleared for exercise at my postpartum checkup, I peed right through my pants, the result of a pelvic floor weakened by pregnancy and labor. I cried all the time, sometimes for relatively good reasons, sometimes not. All of this is within the rather broad range of normal for a postpartum body, though I wish I’d known then what I know now about pelvic floor physical therapy, which really should be standard care for every postpartum woman.)

My own postpartum body was an untrustworthy, leaky container, and I’ve become interested in the poem as a porous container. This poem was one way to test that out: how much did I think a poem could contain? Could I write about the troubled saint Christina and J. Lo in the same poem? What might the connections be between the teenaged female saints whose path to sainthood so often entailed self-starvation and my own adolescent desire to make myself small and unassailable?

Erika Meitner’s poems, which so often move between the intimate and the ordinary and broad national issues, have helped me to think about how expansive a poem can be, how much of the world it can let in. “Porto, Portare, Portavi,” the last poem from Copia, moves from airports to the wars to Iraq and Afghanistan to the death of a neighbor and the heartbreak of secondary infertility; “In Defense of the Empty Chaos Required for Preparation” places the murder of Philando Castile alongside Meitner’s fears for the safety of her own black son. I think also of Sarah Vap’s aphorisms, which, she explains in her Commonplace interview with Rachel Zucker, developed as she allowed her children’s interruptions to enter the poems, rather than making a dividing line between the domestic and the world of art. (I especially like the ones in The Spectacle and The Nashville Review.)

In addition to wanting my own poems to become more porous, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the female body as it appears in poems. It took reading two poems by Rachel Mennies, published in Adroit last summer, to get some critical awareness about how I’d been positioning the female bodies in my work. “The Teenage Girl Understands” and “Kneeling,” which take a blow job and bulimia as their respective subjects, are each knockout poems, but together they’re even more compelling, even more unsettling. They make me think about the work (as Rachel puts it) we ask our bodies to do, and how destructive that labor can be. And they pushed me to think more critically about the bodies in my own work. My first book was full of bodies, often my body—but always posed, always consumable and attuned to an outside gaze.

I’m interested now in making space for the unsexy female body, and I hope this poem and this essay are a start. I’m trying to extend the tenderness with which I handled my tiny newborn’s body to own wracked body, my own altered postpartum brain and writing life. These are not just personal or domestic matters. It’s also a project for the craft and practice of poetry.

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Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Pleiades, Blackbird, the Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers' Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.

Melanie Finn: How I Wrote The Underneath by Peter LaBerge

BY MELANIE FINN

  The Underneath  ( Two Dollar Radio , 2018), by Melanie Finn.

The Underneath (Two Dollar Radio, 2018), by Melanie Finn.

She is young, 22, her make-up smudged, racoon-ish. She wears a tank top and jeans, unwashed, bra straps showing, rubbing her bare shoulders. Her shoes are the giveaway: scuffed, leaky sneakers, laces undone. I see her clearly, as she passes me, oh, I take her in, the smell of her, dandruff, cigarettes, the clinging odor of closed, dark rooms, of a creature kept underground.

Her shoulders, I think, should have sunburn, should be exposed to the sun by a lake somewhere, a reservoir where kids like her go and drink too much and plot their escape. Not ferreted in, as she is, room to car to room, her skin the color of mushrooms.

He’s ratcheted to her side, black t-shirt, low-slung jeans, a facial hair arrangement that hints at individuation. He has a sense of his particular self, his own life, his face and he looks at himself in the mirror, in that brief plateau between the high and the jones, when he feels, loves, regrets, yearns, hopes intensely. He takes a razor and chooses the side-burns, the narrow strip on the cleft of his chin. Then he erases himself with smack.

They move past me, they don’t even notice me, they are thinking only of the second floor, Skink or Bunty or Shifty, whatever his name, with his wares, whatever they are, bundles, eight balls, dime bags, tabs. I know because I have been in such motels, seeking such wares from such Buntys. I was once familiar with the underneath.

But now I am here, hand-in-hand with my dazzling twin daughters, I’m an actual paying guest at this motel, I will shower in it, sleep in it. Tomorrow I will get in my new Subaru Outback and we will drive away. No one will ask me to suck dick if I can’t pay.

So, this moment, her passing me, is where a book begins, because she turns slightly. Seconds—all this is happening is perhaps five seconds; we forget how the brain attends on many levels, and a book is about opening up those seconds, exploiting those levels and using the dark matter within as you wish. There is no exact word for this process; theft, manipulation, disfigurement—none quite convey the ruthless appropriation by a writer of another person’s experience, the turning and twisting it, like a glass blower, into narrative. In those moments, I am hardly human, I’m a soul-stealer.

This girl, my prey, I cannot see her eyes, they’re buried inside clumpy mascara, but I know she regards me, I have this sense she is trying to speak, she has a message. A plea?

Child.

She turns, moves on, as if on wheels, pulled by steel cables, into the motel. I turn, on my wheels, pulled by my cables. I see her child. He is sitting in the back seat of her shit-box Pajero, no seat belt, a hat and jacket, filthy and too big. He is five, his eyes gone like a war child, pin pricks. I experience two completely disparate sets of feelings. As a mother: sorrow, anger, pity, concern—does this girl want me to do something, call someone, save her, save the child? As a writer, I am already shamelessly conjuring the lines: of course there was a kid… with what was left of her smacked-out brain, with some remnant of her mother’s love, she’d left him in the car, her child, her asset. She wasn’t selling him. Yet. She wasn’t that far down. Yet. The “yet” was out there, she could perhaps glimpse it in the distance like a dark tower, and therein the dark walls lay all the terrible things she was capable of.

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Melanie Finn was born and raised in Kenya until age 11, when she moved with her family to Connecticut. She lived and worked in six different countries as a freelance journalist and screenwriter for 20 years. In 2004, her first novel, Away From You, was published to international acclaim. The following year, she and her husband, wildlife filmmaker Matt Aeberhard, moved to a remote region of Tanzania to make DisneyNature’s haunting flamingo epic, Crimson Wing. During the filming, Melanie became the medic to the local Masai community and established the Natron Healthcare Project. Her second novel, The Gloaming, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Vermont Book Award. The Underneath is set in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where she now lives with Matt and their twin daughters.

Chelsea Dingman: How I Wrote "Fugue" by Peter LaBerge

BY CHELSEA DINGMAN

 From " Linoleum Flowers ," by Nadia Wolff, from  Issue Twenty-Two .

From "Linoleum Flowers," by Nadia Wolff, from Issue Twenty-Two.

I.

Let’s start with why I wrote this poem.

Because women are crazy. Or pregnant women are crazy. Or ovulating women are crazy. Or grief-stricken women are crazy. Or betrayed women are crazy.

Because I had read Emily Van Duyne’s article, “Why Are We So Unwilling To Take Sylvia Plath at Her Word?” in LitHub while writing a manuscript of poems about infertility and child loss.

Because my speaker suffered several miscarriages, as well as a stillbirth. Because my grandmother suffered this. Because my mother suffered this. Because I suffered some of this. Because women everywhere suffer this.

Because I was enraged and heartbroken when I read the accusations about Plath’s miscarriage. Because she couldn’t, and still can’t, be trusted. Because she killed herself, we are discouraged from taking her as seriously as we might. Because I was scoffed at, seen as cliché for reading her as a teenager. And later.

Because it felt insane for my speaker not to feel less than sane at this moment. Because there were times when I wondered if the babies I had tried to have were real. Because shame.

And what might be the expected mental health of a person under extreme duress? Is it really that women are crazy? Rendered incapable by hormones? Unable to control their emotions? Or is it more possible that external stressors have a lot to do with how one deals with extreme circumstances? These questions seem never to flag. Hillary Clinton and the election aside, attempts to discredit a woman’s experience as emotional and thus less worthy are what made me want to write this experience, and write it as honestly as I could.

After reading Van Duyne’s article, I paralleled Plath’s miscarriage with my speaker’s multiple miscarriages (& child loss) in this poem. I wanted the speaker’s voice to be less than reliable and by invoking Plath, I knew it could create that sense of suicidal irrationality. I also wanted to let my speaker enter a sort of fugue state and tell her: it’s fine. Take all the time you need. You can come back from this. Maybe I was speaking to myself.

II.

The definition of Fugue (from Merriam-Webster):

a: a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts  

  • The organist played a four-voiced fugue.

b: something that resembles a fugue especially in interweaving repetitive elements

  • a story that is as rich and multilayered as a fugue

2: a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the acts performed

III.

Women are expected to be godlike. We should be able to lose babies and go to work and take care of our other children and keep up with all obligations and fail at nothing. I quickly realized that that is the fastest way not to process anything either. In a way, this poem is a pause: I gave my speaker a time-out to feel as disconnected as she wanted to from her body, her baby, her spouse, her reality. She is in a place where her body feels like it is at war with her. The invocation of the holocaust harkens back to Plath and her work, but also this feeling that the speaker’s body is this nation-state that betrays her, where all that tries to live inside her dies. Literally, spiritually, and figuratively.

I had crazy dreams when I was pregnant. Many stemmed from fear. I was sometimes in a place called “Three Valley Gap,” which is a ghost town in the Columbia River valley in British Columbia. When I wrote this poem, I had this terrible image of Ted Hughes chasing Sylvia Plath, threatening to kill her in this isolated place where she was very alone. My dreams, because they felt surreal, came back to me and entered the poem. The landscape of the poem very much mirrors the speaker’s interior landscape.

I do want to stress that this poem did not begin with politics. I wrote it by forcing myself to sit inside old experiences and trying to write out of them. There were times that I didn’t feel believed by doctors, or even my husband. There were times that I thought I had done something to cause the miscarriages. There were times it felt like nothing had happened and I could pretend that was true. The ease with which you can lose yourself is the reason this poem is so short.

In a workshop I had with Terrance Hayes a couple of years ago, he described himself as a confessional poet. He said that he took many events that he either witnessed or had happened to him and combined or rearranged the details in his poems. I already knew that poems didn’t need to stick to the literal truth, but his admission was freeing for me. Everything in service of the poem.

When I wrote this poem, I was pulling from all of the places in my life, as I often do in my work. All of the reasons that I feel strongly about it occurred to me afterward. The emotional reason is still the most resonant for me, though: it can be terribly painful to attempt to have a child, to lose anything loved.

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Chelsea Dingman is a Visiting Instructor at the University of South Florida. Her first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved, is forthcoming from Madhouse Press (2018). In 2016-17, she also won The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Poetry Prize, The Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, Water-stone Review’s Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, and The South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s Creative Writing Award for Poetry. Her work can be found in Ninth Letter, The Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Cincinnati Review, and Gulf Coast, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.

Lynn Melnick: How I Wrote "The Night of the Murdered Poets" by Peter LaBerge

BY LYNN MELNICK

  “  Leonid , ” by Maggie Chiang, from  Issue Fourteen .

Leonid,” by Maggie Chiang, from Issue Fourteen.

The Night of the Murdered Poets is the name for the execution of thirteen Soviet Jews in a prison in Moscow on August 12, 1952. The defendants were accused of crimes such as espionage and treason. Stalin thought that if he destroyed the intellectuals, particularly the Jewish intellectuals, it would put an end to any rebellion or dissent. It is shocking to me that poets had that much influence, but apparently, they did. (The historical truth is that those who were murdered weren’t all poets, but that name stuck, and it also works as a title for this poem.)

When I wrote the poem, I had just begun a fellowship year at the New York Public Library and suddenly, for the first time ever, I had so much time ahead of me to write and to think. It was September and I was in a nice office in a huge library and I began to request from the catalog a pile of books containing, hopefully, the secrets to unlocking my heritage. How do I fit in? How does my story fit in? How do I tell my story in light of all these other stories? My overall project rested somewhat vaguely in my head, but I knew I wanted to finally take on the issue of Jews and Jewishness and Americanness and my Jewishness and Americanness. Most of the poems I wrote last year are about some aspect of these issues and I was always thinking a lot about how much I don’t know. Investigating and acknowledging the scope of what I don’t know is very important to me.

When I wrote this poem, I had just spent a quick weekend in California, the state in which I grew up, and I was in the confusion of all that air travel. Plus, a trip to Los Angeles always mindfucks me and makes me think about my personal history. I bring up photos of myself early in the poem because I’m trying to conflate the historical events I describe with the historical events of my own life. I do that in my poems sometimes. Here, I’m switching back and forth between this historical story and my story, trying to make connections between things that maybe don’t always add up but they’re like puzzles I’m trying to solve because my gut tells me they add up.

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Lynn Melnick is the author of the poetry collections Landscape with Sex and Violence and If I Should Say I Have Hope. A former fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she also teaches poetry at Columbia University and the Unterberg Poetry Center at 92Y, and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. 

Jos Charles: How I Wrote “tonite i wuld luv to rite” by Peter LaBerge

BY JOS CHARLES

  feeld , by Jos Charles (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

feeld, by Jos Charles (Milkweed Editions, 2018).

Read the poem, listed as “III” at Poetry Foundation, and listed as “LVII” in the collection.

Writing was, for me, like a gate, or slab beneath a charred, dripping piece of a thing, collecting remains.

I am not ashamed of what I was writing or had written, but across those months in the winter and early spring of 2016 when I graduated my MFA, I was unemployed, lost my healthcare, my cohort moved back home with their families (which for various reasons typical to many, but especially trans women, was not available for me at that time), I was turned down for work across a spectrum of legality, two of my immediate friends were hospitalized (trans women who were assaulted), and three friends died (all trans women, two who died by their own hands and one who was murdered). One evening I saw a post on Facebook about the life expectancy of a trans woman being 27—which I doubted, still doubt—but I had turned 27, and, I don’t know, it felt impossible not to shut the world off.

I was “depressed” and “suicidal,” in a kind of pathological way I still can’t grant myself. I was in the thicket of a kind of time that is very proximate to death. A time that, like a gate or rack, keeps one just before a visible open.

I say this not to exceptionalize myself—as if acknowledgment of affect were a way toward escape—but to say these experiences are typical of trans women, and, more broadly, how the academy is structured, unemployment, grief. I have experienced far from the worst, and, speaking as I do now, to you, is a kind of privilege I am grateful for, being something unavailable to the lives of those adjacent to me, like the life of who I was, then, in the kind of wood where the trees seem to speak, and they do speak, and I, silent, picked at the fallen fruit.

Let us say I was quantifiable, wholly interchangeable, in a way I no longer am.

Reading late Paul Celan for the first time, starting with Sprachgitter, I learned many things. I read Éduoard Glissant too—and Clarice Lispector. I learned about barring, or found words for this thing I learned, long ago, elsewhere. I learned how barring, from the job, from gender, from the bathroom, was constitutive of entrance. Or, rather, that the disciplinary mechanisms, as they say, are in fact the thing they are disciplining, existingly. That I am not so much trans, but it’s the bathroom, the job, the house, the loss, that’s trans. The death that’s trans. The incalculable now.

It was not a conversion, but a revelation, a looking outward, at what one passes through in order to conceive of stillness. The poem can hold much, yes, but it also necessarily veils and lets so much through. So I stopped trying to gather it, as if my blushing hands could hold damage. I focused on corridors, how a sound resonates, accrues its space. The poem, I understood, was, or could be, a space a reader wanders, accruing, in addition, instead, alongside, her being gathered up into an “I.” I learned to let the char finally fall and smoke up through the room.

That’s what I want now of work—the artwork, the poetic work: a use, not as a tool has, but as something unwieldy, figurable, like, not the slab, but the rack, gate, you pass through, and you look back to or will never look back to.

A thing you pick up, and at every moment, possibly, could shatter. Knowing one day it will.

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Jos Charles is a poet, translator, editor, and author of feeld (Milkweed Editions, 2018), a winner of the 2017 National Poetry Series, and Safe Space (Ahsahta Press, 2016). Charles has an MFA from the University of Arizona and is pursuing a PhD in English at UC Irvine. She currently resides in Long Beach, CA.

Leila Chatti: How I Wrote “Hometown Nocturne” by Peter LaBerge

BY LEILA CHATTI

  Tunsiya/Amrikiya , by Leila Chatti (Bull City Press, 2018).

Tunsiya/Amrikiya, by Leila Chatti (Bull City Press, 2018).

To explain how I wrote “Hometown Nocturne,” the final poem of Tunsiya/Amrikiya, it might be helpful to know the following things:

1. I spent the summer and fall after my MFA program in Tunisia and southern France. Visiting my home state of Michigan that October for a wedding, I discovered a SOLD sign in the front yard of my childhood home.

2. A dear friend of mine, Samuel Piccone, had recently asked me why, when I write so frequently about place, I never wrote about my hometown.

I began writing “Hometown Nocturne” a few days after returning to Michigan from my stay overseas. It was the second week of November, winter was quickly approaching, and I was staying in a Detroit suburb with my partner and his mother. I was disoriented; both “home” (in the United States, in Michigan) and not home. I would never again be home—my home was gone.

I remember very clearly how the poem began—I was reading Maggie Smith’s The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and a word jumped out at me: “field.” Just field, one ordinary word. I quickly opened my laptop and the first line arrived: “When I can’t sleep, I remember it: blue fields. . .”

I believe in trusting your impulses; if something startles you, follow it. I was startled by the word field that day in a way I had not been the previous thousand times I’d read that same word. I think that’s part of the magic: what was ordinary becoming suddenly new and urgent. I am also part of the magic, an integral part, as is any writer in the act of writing. My role is to be alert—to recognize the prickle on the back of my neck, the little rabbits in my brain lifting their heads from sleep. Right word, right time, and me paying attention—the poem began.

Writing this poem, I was very attuned to sound. In the beginning: remember, blue, borrowed, boots, curbside; lawns, poplars, spitball; sleep, fields, sleet, teenagers; sleep and slip; and so on. I write with my ear, and read aloud as I’m writing. I also think about the lines as distinct units, and so write line by line. I want each line to be interesting when read alone. Sound play and enjambment might be my favorite tools, and this poem was one where I really followed those instincts.

One of the most important parts of writing this poem was unwriting its ending. The poem has actually stayed almost identical to that first draft except for the final two lines. In the first version, I continued on after the trees’ pompoms into a long, unnecessary extension of what I had written in the rest of the poem—more East Lansing wintry details. As embarrassing as it is, here’s the ending of the first draft:

The whole way home I scuffed my feet,
shuffled across any unplowed stretch to mark the colossal
peaks and ledges of my name. I trekked
puddles to my bed, crawled into the fresh
bank of moonlight. Frost brimmed
the branches of the magnolia outside my room.
More than once, I mistook this burden for blooms.

What I realized when revising the poem four days later, in order to submit it in time for Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest, was that I was getting too poet-y, too flowery (literally, with those blooms at the end). Dorianne Laux, my beloved teacher, once told me very kindly that I didn’t need to add frills and lace to my poems—I could keep that for my wardrobe (which I do, if you’ve ever seen me). Instead of flourishes, she said, just tell it straight. So I told it straight. I also chose to keep myself outside of the home, to further emphasize the sense of isolation and yearning for belonging and ownership I felt, as well as to resist the temptation for an ending which neatly resolves. This was the result:

I carved carefully my name in frost.
Scuffed my feet the whole way home.

I sent the poem in with a half hour to spare, and that’s the story!

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Leila Chatti is a Tunisian-American poet and author of the chapbooks Ebb (Akashic Books, 2018) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors' Selection from Bull City Press. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place, and the Key West Literary Seminar, a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Cleveland State University, where she is the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Publishing and Writing. Her poems have received awards from Ploughshares' Emerging Writer's Contest, Narrative's 30 Below Contest, and the Academy of American Poets, and appear in Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere.