Let’s be honest about this: Poetry scares people. It can be a challenge to understand and refers to French people a lot. School doesn’t help, since most of the time teenagers are forced to read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and count syllables in Robert Frost’s work. While I now, as a poet, enjoy both of those things (in terribly small, occasional doses), at 16 I would have rather read transcripts of “The Lawrence Welk Show” than study poetry.
So, until about the age of 21, I thought I hated the stuff. I studied literature but only scanned through anything with funky line endings and rhymes. Then in my final year of college, I was blessed to take classes with two poets, Kathleen West and Tony Hoagland, that changed not only the way I looked at poetry, but at writing, human understanding and myself.
Though T.S. Eliot dubbed April “the cruelest month,” since 1996, it’s also National Poetry Month, an opportunity for the converted to spread the gospel. The springtime celebration was begun by the Academy of American Poets in an effort to save poetry from the dust heap of indifference. Like Black History Month and Women’s History Month, National Poetry Month seeks to fill the gaps in our education and understanding of poetry.
Is some poetry plodding and pretentious? Sure, but a ton of it is shocking and sexy and sad. This year, we asked some of our local talent to help testify. Each poet submitted an example of his or her work and, per a recommendation from former Santa Fe Poet Laureate Valerie Martinez, wrote a bit about the origin and process of the poem, adding to the overall splendification of your reading experience. Splendification isn’t a word, you say? Oh, but now it is—such is the power of the Poet. Viva Poetry!
Valerie Martínez is a poet, teacher, translator, playwright, librettist, editor and collaborative artist. A book-length poem, Each and Her, is forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press in 2010. Her collection of Santa Fe poems (written during her tenure as Poet Laureate of Santa Fe), And They Called it Horizon, will also be published in 2010 (Sunstone Press).
Who scatters the bones, bus stop, sun. Torso wrapped tight. Trigger button. How many. Heavy. Much.
You with the dark hair. You with the conviction. You with your paradisal maidens.
Come crashing in. Deliberate.
There is no music, no goblets no table of golden loaves. If I am virgin, it matters not. Your eyes are disparate— knuckles, arms, windows— blown apart.
Now, find your hands and there is one task: harvest.
This is how the dead work.
BECAUSE you have scattered flesh, marrow, breath, writ the bloody writ.
THUS you’ll live every specific agony. Your own. Each one. Family. Every friend. It goes on.
NOW gather it. Make it whole again.
Don’t ask how.
Here you go, wandering: shrapnel, earlobes, inky red-blue, bits of bone.
What? No light? (and I am so comely) Messy? Cold?
What comes together
sparks, makes heat, sumptuous, whole and lovely,
glows and glows.
from World to World (University of Arizona Press, 2005)
The Poet’s Process This poem was actually written before 9/11, in the first week of September 2001 and after a particularly terrible summer of suicide bombings in Israel. My anger is apparent. I had no idea what was lying in wait. What might the afterworld be like for those who take so many lives on their way out? And what of those 72 virgins that some suicide bombers believe wait for them upon their martyrdom? This poem, in the voice of one of those virgins, describes what I imagine is a more deserved fate for those who wreak such violence upon others.
Richard Oyama has a master's degree in English: creative writing from San Francisco State University. His volume of poems, The Country They Know (Neuma Books), was published in 2005. He is currently working on a novel, The Orphaned.
For Fay Chiang
I caught you preparing a dinner of breaded shrimp From Costco. We should expect more. You were in Topanga between the Santa Monica Mountains And the blue water, flew to San Francisco for Another funeral, another Chinese wake— This one, Bing, who, with your father and Paul, opened A shirt pressing factory in Jackson Heights. But They like my father weren’t businessmen, shut it down.
The fall arrives as a gift in New Mexico after The sun-stricken summer. Even the frail grasses And wildflowers along the arroyo nod their heads In gratitude. Soon, you’ll return to East 4th for another Bone scan, surgery, another recuperation.
This week in July was as it always was Me trailing you on the sidewalk as you pursued the chimera Of surgeons through the grit of Chinatown air. But There was an unseen figure in our conversation. That week was a narrative of missed connections: you too Fatigued even to clean house because of chemo Me by the weight of all that knowledge. That shadow was inside you now: it was A gate, bad code, waveform, a plethora of stars
The Poet’s Process I wrote the first draft in 2003 after visiting a friend diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer. The use of second-person “you” is meant to give the poem a conversational tone and flow. Then I forgot about the poem. This year I rediscovered and finished the poem to read at the book party in New York for 7 Continents 9 Lives (Bowery Books), by my friend Fay Chiang last month. I’d read her book, adding autobiographical details that I’d omitted in previous versions. My reading about cancer and music informed the poem as well.
Greta Pullen is a poet, essayist and novelist. Her book Lost and Found Café was published in 2005 by Neuma Books. A longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area she enjoys Albuquerque more with every year that passes. She is the Senior Librarian at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
Eva at Point Isabel
At Point Isabel We repeated “Stay on the path, this way” While she selected an opening Through the rocks Climbed down goat-like To wade at low tide Came back up the path On her timetable White paws caked with grey ooze
Near the little bridge leading to the prairie She liked to slip down towards murky water Once more until she heard “Bridge, Eva, bridge” Took the challenge and raced across Before we managed with our Two only legs apiece
Mercurial loner girl She liked to run far from sight Once up the little rise Then rejoin us One of the fastest ones Except for other Aussies or Greyhounds
She knew hosing off with cold water Was required wending Our way back over A liver treat to get the leash Back on and always mad afterwards Shaking it off Despising the leash Running alongside sea water Loner girl La Eva
The Poet’s Process The writing of “Eva at Point Isabel” began with the impulse to describe my dog Eva's exuberance and eccentricity. Because she was a fast runner I went through many drafts trying to eliminate words that were slowing the poem down. I wanted to convey a walking pace for the people and a running pace for her. At low tide some of the water was stagnant and she enjoyed that the most; part of her general mischievousness. It was only in the final drafts that I was able to come up with the line “mercurial loner girl,” which conveys her essence. The entire process took several months.
Adam Rubinstein founded Destructible Heart Press in 2002. Mild-mannered graphic designer by day and book artist after a quick stop in a phone booth, he's been feeding his life to a massive series of poems about history, erasure and identity in the Northeast United States. He dreams of one day fondling an M.F.A.
First Day of Seventh Grade
My sister was sure she’d left a paper at the elementary school. So we broke in. At eleven o’clock the classrooms are all blur and paper. If you don’t steal anything the cameras don’t care.
While she pushed on the lock, I waited by the nurse’s office. How I had prayed for the threat of lice, the soft parting of hair with a tongue-depressor and the first hint of sex. But her office was all threat now, dim floodlight and a jar of cotton swabs.
I’d always wanted to know this place, to trace its secret scalp at midnight. But there, then, the building did not prickle, and the cameras rolled on slow, helpless.
from Freshwater Dredge (Destructible Heart Press, 2007)
The Poet’s Process
Like so much of The Dredge Cycle [of which Freshwater Dredge is the first volume], this did and did not happen. The speaker’s longing—to see the building’s true self, to be privileged with this knowledge—is pretty familiar, but I never broke into my elementary school. Writing it became about vicariously reliving my childhood. The speaker and his sister are far braver than my sister and I ever were. As I realized their plan to break in, I started to reconcile my childhood with his, and the last line became as much about his epiphany as about our worlds intersecting. That happens in these poems a lot.