Virtual Salon #10 with Ruth Dickey

I mark up most of my poetry books–prepare to be shocked–IN PEN. I probably started in grad school, before sticky notes came in all those colors and sizes, and inked notes are more legible when you return to a text to teach or write about it. I recently went back to an old edition of Dickinson’s poems, for example, as I prepare to lead discussions from a newer and better book, Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems as She Preserved Them, and I’m so relieved to see all the glosses and discussion questions I’d inscribed there.

One of the first phrases I underlined in Ruth Dickey’s debut collection, Mud Blooms, occurs on page 5 in “Four-twenty-one,” a poem about a beloved calf Dickey’s parents wouldn’t let her name. It’s the last line: “my brother and me leaning on the fence, stretching our hands through.” The first poem, “Somoto, Nicaragua, #3,” tells you Mud Blooms will be about hunger, but by page 5 you see the book also concerns a longing for connection with the human and more-than-human world, past all the barriers thrown up by difference. Dickey expresses humility about these efforts, especially in her deeply moving poems about working at Miriam’s Kitchen in DC. She orders apples people can’t eat before she knows that “almost everyone who is homeless has dental problems”; “my stupidity galls me,” she adds in an intermittent, abecedarian prose poem sequence called “Alphabet Soup Kitchen.” Sometimes, too, Dickey doubts the worth of her own efforts, because homelessness and hunger are such huge, seemingly intractable problems. There’s so much loss and suffering here, but what impresses you most about the book is its big-heartedness and radical openness. I love this collection and the spirit that shines through it.

I’ve only met Ruth in person once or twice, as I exited and she entered intense work on the AWP Board, but I can also tell from her answers below that she’s a skilled party host, perhaps through her current service as Executive Director of Seattle Arts & Lectures. I’m so glad to introduce you to Ruth and her work, in the 10th gathering of this pandemic-inspired virtual salon!

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

The beloved foods that appear in the book – fresh apple cake, strong coffee, and sandwiches (both peanut butter and pimento cheese) – feel not totally sufficient for a celebration. So there would definitely be rosé, and I’d also order us foods I love from places in the poems – gallo pinto with plantains and fresh tortillas, toast with honey and sea salt from Sea Level Bakery in Cannon Beach, and dosas with extra spicy mango pickle from the woman who used to have a shop on R Street NW just off Connecticut Avenue in DC. And as a finale, thick slices of southern layer cakes from Maxie B’s in Greensboro, NC.

  1. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

These days I’m stunned and scared and outraged and grateful in equal measures. I’ve been journaling and writing poems that are largely terrible, but it feels helpful to have that space where I’m trying to metabolize and make sense of the world, even if I’m doing it incredibly poorly.  

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

More about my book and some poems are on my website – www.ruthdickey.com– and I am frequently posting about books I love and my dog on Instagram at @ruthdickey206. If you are interested in Mud Blooms, you can order a copy at https://bookshop.org/books/mud-blooms/9780988275577– thanks so much for reading!

Virtual Salon #4 with Elizabeth Hazen

We've been called so many things that we are not,  
we startle at the sound of our own names.  
          -Elizabeth Hazen, from "Devices" 

I’ll be teaching a virtual Whitman and Dickinson course in our May term, and because it may be pass/ fail only, it’s especially urgent to come up with assignments my undergraduates will genuinely want to do. Here’s one, although I forget where I picked up this idea because I’ve been doing SO MUCH READING about virtual education: create a virtual meal based on the reading, including a menu and place settings. Dickinson has so many poems about the lack of food (“It would have starved a Gnat–,” etc.) that this idea is weirdly perfect for her poems.

There’s a similar concern with binge and privation in Elizabeth Hazen’s Girls Like Us, as she describes in the interview below. Sometimes zooming in on pain, sometimes regarding it from a wry distance, Hazen focuses on intense material: gender-based violence, addiction and recovery, and, not least, the damage even language itself can do. In style, she’s what Marilyn Taylor has called a “semi-formalist,” sometimes writing in slim columns of free verse but elsewhere deploying meter and rhyme; these shapes work the way Adrienne Rich said her own formalism did, as a way of approaching a conflagration with “asbestos gloves.” The heat in Hazen’s second collection is fierce, but so is the beauty. See, for example, the last poem in the book, which makes my heart ache: “Monarch,” among the earliest poems Beth and I chose for the new Shenandoah.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

This is a tough one . . . many poems in the book explore alcoholism and its fallout; others allude to disordered eating and anorexia – so the question of appropriate refreshments to go with this book is fraught . . . If one wanted to emulate the women in many of the poems, straight liquor – any kind – would be a fitting refreshment; another version of the party’s menu could be the austere black coffee and stale donuts or off-brand cookies so often associated with recovery. A wild array of mocktails would be better suited to a celebration, though, and I do love kombucha. Powerbars would be an suitable snack – not for their substance, so much as for their names; this collection looks closely at power dynamics, particularly those related to gender, and I’m a sucker for puns.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

So far, I would say, I am physically healthy. My mental state is stable. I have adopted a “one day at a time” approach to moving through these weeks and months. I am trying to actively practice gratitude each day, lest I fall into the trap of bemoaning all the canceled events and missed opportunities. I am getting used to my own face staring at me as I record videos for my students. I realize that I miss them, and this is bittersweet; I will be very happy to be back in my classroom again.

When I’m not busy with school-related work, I putter. I completed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and my crossword game is growing fiercer; I have been considering cross-stitching. Writing comes in sharp little bursts, then eludes me for days. I am trying to be patient, to find a voice that’s louder than the one telling me all the things I “should” be doing. I am finding a new rhythm, as we all are, and trying to remember that this, like everything, is temporary.

How can your virtual audience find out more?

You can find me at elizabethhazen.com, but the best way to learn more is to check out my publisher’s website, https://alansquirepublishing.com/book-authors/elizabeth-hazen/

As if suspense were a permanent state

Poetry isn’t generally associated with suspense. It seems like an art of uncertainty–and a consolation for that uncertainty. Yet I find myself more and more convinced that poetry’s fragmentariness needs to be anchored by story (earlier post related to this idea here). I’m also wishing I could see the shape of my own story more clearly. As usual, I’m projecting my life into poetry, and vice versa.

On life suspense: my mother is ailing, and so am I, and so are several other people dear to me. Being ill without a clear diagnosis is definitely a bad kind of suspense. My mother has lymphoma and while chemo is triumphing over the tumor, it’s also wearing her down–the doctors are still figuring out why this week has been so bad. I’m a six-hour drive away, so I spend a lot of time waiting for my phone to buzz.

During my 2005-6 sabbatical I researched poetic voice; during this one, I’m making a long-term study of my mother’s intonations by telephone. It’s not just what she’s saying and in what mood, but hoarseness, shortness of breath, and when things are really bad, her difficulty tracking the conversation. Slurring in October first alerted us that something was seriously wrong. I’m judging my sister’s level of worry, too, through tones and texts. All this close listening makes me think of Dickinson only consenting to medical examination through a crack in the door. Not much for a diagnostician to go on.

I’m not so sick as all that. Asthma, swelling, palpitations, lightheadedness–I’ve had the basic tests done to know I’m not in the middle of some cardiac cataclysm, but these medium-annoying symptoms could spring from about five million different problems, and lord knows how long it will take to narrow it down. Another research project.

I’m medicating myself in the interim by reading and writing. I’m revising Taking Poetry Personally and figuring out what presses to query, but that requires high concentration. What I seem to want to do most is read and write poems. Since I have stacks of poetry books around, some sent for review and others I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I’m picking one up every time I feel low.

Plenty of them are good, but too often I’m disappointed by the first few pages. Every published poet knows, I think, to pick a strong opener, a well-wrought poem that inaugurates the themes and strategies of the collection. It’s surprising, however, how few poets use those early pages to generate suspense–the good kind that keeps a reader on the hook. I don’t mean a murder should be discovered in the first stanza, leaving us to ponder who done it over seventy pages of clever line breaks. Yet there should, I think, be at least one urgent question percolating. And the poems that follow should sustain interest in those questions, so that, by the last few lines of the last verse, we have some provisional, partial, fragmentary sense of an answer.

Narrative isn’t the only tension-generator: poems can also be arguments, spells, and riddles, to be resolved by sound or formal elements as well as, or even instead of, sense. The best poetry book I’ve read recently is actually pretty experimental: Anne Carson’s Nox (what? you demand, and shh, I reply, because my yet-to-be-read list is really embarrassing). I bet many of you have already cracked that box, unfolded the astonishing accordion pages, and pondered her artful use of collage, translated verse, dictionary glosses, etc. The book certainly doesn’t tell a straightforward tale. Yet Carson has such a strong sense of story–she is one of the best living poets, I think, when it comes to writing suspensefully.

“I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” she writes early on, addressing the death of her brother. “But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”

Who was her brother, you wonder, and how did he die? What’s “odd” about his life and death? Isn’t there something odd about this speaker, too–the mix of grief and cool detachment in those lines? Carson doesn’t reveal complete or stable answers to any of these questions. She replies, rather, as poets do, through patterned fragments. Nox is really a long poem and therefore much more unified than most collections, and maybe my own distraction makes me a cranky reader right now, yet I really, really wish more poetry books had some part of its propulsive drive.

In considering all this, I realize the guiding question of my next book of poems is already crystallizing. It’s: Where am I? Really, interest in place runs through all of my poetry collections (think of the titles Heathen, Heterotopia, Radioland), but I’m further out on that question’s ledge than ever.

One answer: nowhere. I’m a middle-aged striver laboring in an obscure small town. As I try to promote Radioland, and feel enormously grateful for the reviews I’ve received and the events coming up soon (W&L next week, and also the VA Festival of the Book, AWP, Kenyon College, and Poetry by the Sea), I’m also struggling. It is HARD to inspire people to order and/or open a poetry book, much less decorate it with laurels, no matter how  engaging its interior might be. One kind of suspense I’m suffering from: of all the threads I’ve recently cast into the void, trying to launch the poems toward a larger audience, will any catch?

Well, I keep telling myself, suspense in this case is better than having hit the canyon floor. I’m proud of the book, plus the new work is worth doing in its own right. I’m finding the somewhere in nowhere and having a hard look around. These badlands have some interesting features.

wile-e-coyote

Skidding on the banana peel of literary judgment

Goodreads is driving me banana. (After misspeaking recently, I decided “going banana” sounds significantly crazier than the plural.) I resolved to keep better track of what I read, both out of curiosity and because my memory is really not sharp enough for those year-in-review pieces I get asked to write. (Alternately, somebody suggested LibraryThing, but I’d had a brief flirtation with Goodreads before, so I decided to have one more go at a familiar system.) But in logging books, you rate them, and I have a feeling I’m doing this ALL WRONG. That is, I’m saving five stars for the books that move or dazzle me memorably, the books I’ll keep coming back to. That criterion is idiosyncratic: the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson would be a no-brainer for many, but When the Water Came by Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross is also up in that stratosphere for me, both because those interview-poems are so affecting and because reading them launched a new interest in documentary poetics. The latter changed the direction of my thinking; I understand it might not change yours. In the meantime, I’m giving Mary Szybist’s National Book Award-winning Incarnadine four stars, because it’s merely a really, really good collection. Some of the poems are amazing, but like all collections of disparate works, the book’s a little uneven (so is Dickinson, to be fair). I see why those smart judges admired Incarnadine, that is, but it did not shake my world. The banana segment of this personally reasonable reaction is that nobody knows my weird criteria, so in rating books this way I’m liable to offend a lot of author-acquaintances. Besides, poetry needs all the boosterism it can get, right? Even if you say, no, it needs critical judgment in this age of grade inflation, what good does one tiny star-clicker do in the scheme of things, anyway, with her fine discriminations?

I find myself considering questions of evaluation in the classroom, too, and not just in grading undergraduate essays (once I could have written an angsty post about grading, but after a few thousand tries I find myself pretty relaxed about it). “What’s good about this?” is a typical question in creative writing workshops, but in literature classes we more often ask “how does this work?” or “what kind of poem is this?” or “how does this fit in a chain of influence/ reaction?” Certain kinds of literature classes do invite literary judgment, especially courses that stretch or challenge the canon in some way. And we make those private pronouncements all the time: this famous author is amazing; that one does not float my banana boat. Still, when a grumpy student complains about some text on the syllabus, I’m likely to reply that we’ll have a better conversation if we start with the assumption it’s worth reading. “What’s interesting about this?” is usually a more productive prompt than “Is this any good?” It’s rooted in a better stance towards the universe. Snarkiness has its own dark delights, but aren’t curious, open-minded, open-hearted people just more fun? Don’t you know someone whose eternal enthusiasm, whose assumption that everything and everyone is fascinating, make him or her a delight to spend time with?

Yet I found myself having a little temper-tantrum last Friday. I’m teaching Twenty-First Century Poetry, focusing the readings on lost, damaged, or imaginary places. For the first few weeks, I’m revisiting a unit I did once before on poetry after Hurricane Katrina (I blogged a bit about it two years ago). We began with When the Water Came, some clips from Spike Lee’s amazing documentary When the Levees Broke, and readings about documentary poetics. Then, before moving onto some related poems I admire by Nicole Cooley and Patricia Smith, I taught the controversy about Raymond McDaniel’s prize-winning book Saltwater Empire. An essay by Abe Louise Young and a rather indirect retort by McDaniel give more information, but in brief, McDaniel built a series of collage poems out of survivor testimonies from the Alive in Truth web site (which has been taken down since). He did not seek permission to quote the materials, as the site directed him to do, but he did put a tiny little acknowledgement on the copyright page (not in the Notes section, weirdly). My class read just part of the series, collectively titled “Convention Centers of the New World,” and compared it to another poem from the same book, “This Is a Recording,” which does sample a Bo Diddley song but seems to represent something more like a personal experience of listening to music in some lonely southern darkness.

We had lively conversations about ethics versus aesthetics: of course writers are always transforming other sources, but is there a bright line somewhere designating kinds of appropriation that are just wrong? The college I teach at has a strong honor system, so not surprisingly, some students argued that McDaniel’s poems simply constitute plagiarism. Others found them beautiful and powerful, and suggested the quality of the art could mitigate his failure to seek the appropriate permission.

Truly, strong differences of opinion are great in a classroom, and I’m glad to have made space for them. And I see why people find McDaniel’s poems beautiful and powerful. Yet even if it were possible to put aside the ethical problems, McDaniel’s poststructuralist justifications drive me banana. Yes, yes, we and our voices are fragmented and multiple, but this is an academic piety I’ve grown up with and I’m bored of it. Poetry is an art of implication, of mysterious and not-quite-tameable resonance, and yet I’m no fan of the fashionable jumpy, extremely anti-narrative mode (well, except for the very very best stuff). It strikes me as lazy.  I want to shout: “Do the work! Make the connections, or at least give me enough hints that I can do it! Know what your own damn poem is ABOUT!” And, um, I kind of did in class, although I wasn’t very shouty.

So there I was, potentially closing down interesting dissent with my own strong internal rating system, and only two weeks into the term, no less. It seemed unwise to me, but I feel so fiercely about the whole business–I take poetry personally, and I think others should, too. The lone banana, split. It’s a fabulous group of students, though, so I suspect they’ll bounce back with their own fierce age-of-Google opinions and puree me.

Poetic navigation

The kids, you’ll be shocked to hear, haven’t been especially receptive to the Yeats I’ve been reading aloud over dinner. Madeleine thinks the Maud Gonne poems consign Yeats to creepy stalker territory and isn’t nearly as impressed as I am by the beauty of it all—and I was moving chronologically, so I didn’t even get to the infuriating “A Prayer for My Daughter.” I think when you know a place through art, really visiting is an experience full of layers and facets that make the grass much more brilliantly green. They’re skeptics, although maybe I can console myself that they’ll be better Yeatsians one day after having seen Thoor Ballylee. Since our Pacific adventures, after all, they love recognizing New Zealand and Hawai’ian landscapes in films and they’re much more fervent about Flight of the Conchords.

I’m obsessed with the difference it makes to visit literature’s sacred sites. I’m not sure if I’m a better critic or teacher of Emily Dickinson since touring her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, but I have a different feel for her poetry, what those garden references and domestic metaphors mean. An early pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—H.D.’s home turf—bore fruit for Chris, leading to an article on her handling of missionary and Lenape history in The Gift. Visiting Aotearoa New Zealand was my biggest conversion experience. That trip had a massive payoff in my understanding of and commitment to poetry from that part of the world. I’m no expert but at least I know what I don’t know, and nearly all of it had been invisible to me for most of my career, poetry full of birds and foods and expressions and geological formations I wouldn’t have been able to recognize, much less pronounce. Now teaching poems from places I have no first-hand experience makes me wonder: what incredibly basic, important scraps of context am I missing?

Hence, in a few days, our first trip to Ireland. I have a long-term commitment to the place. My maternal grandfather’s people, the Cains, were Irish exiles in Liverpool, so my mother grew up listening to fairy stories and her father’s Irish tenor (he died when she was a teenager). She never visited the country, though, and associates it, I think, with shame and anger as well as music and storytelling; to be Irish in Liverpool was to be brutally, unromantically poor. I grew up in New Jersey, attending Catholic schools where Irish connections are fetishized, so I was delighted to find out, one St. Patrick’s Day, that I had a proper claim on those green bagels. Although there was little Irish poetry beyond Yeats in my own education, working through it with students is now part of my job description.

The British & Irish Poetry course is scheduled for this winter and I know I’ll teach it better once I’ve listened to the Irish birds. I have a more particular mission, though: to track down some of the places Paula Meehan writes about in Painting Rain. I suspect that locating any poem is basically impossible but wonder what I’ll learn by trying.

Meehan has a suite of poems about St. Stephen’s Green, which even a confused American should be able to find. What about all the lost and damaged sites, though, like the meadow beneath the housing development she laments in “Death of a Field”? In what sense can you even get there from here? Placing poems fully would involve time-travel and other spectacular feats, since poets may layer into a single poem impressions gathered over years, or things they’ve simply imagined. What about, too, where a poet does the writing, revising, first public reading?

This year I wrested possession of our study from Chris (actually, he gave it to me, and my verb reflects a guilty sense of triumph). The tall maple outside the window and House Mountain in the distance kept entering my poems—while I wrote a poem a day during April, the tree went from stark branches through first-green-is-gold to full leaf, and the mountain’s face fluctuated from sharp purple to utterly veiled by cloud and smoke. Both became poetry triggers even when I was writing about very different situations. Then a massive June storm tore the tree in half. Its former canopy, though, persists in the poems’ virtual space; I recreate some version of that maple’s shade whenever I reenter, revise them. That’s part of why I wrote them, right, to preserve what I didn’t know I was about to lose?

Poetry’s chronodynamics

So if poems are time-travel devices, they ought to travel sideways and forward as well as backwards. I recently hosted a reading by Natasha Trethewey, who definitely points her universal remote towards the past in Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, and Beyond Katrina. I’m teaching the latter two books in various courses and our conversations focus on memory and monuments. Her poems about Louisiana’s Native Guard, Gulfport, and her mother offer various ways of honoring history. Sometimes she reinhabits, recreates lost moments; sometimes she considers how impossible it is to do so.

Beyond Katrina also demonstrates concern and commitment to the present and future, especially to survivors of Katrina’s devastation and to the damaged, disrespected natural environment of the Gulf Coast. Trethewey does not, however, project herself into the future as constantly and vividly as she does into the past. I’ve been rereading Native Guard looking for tomorrowland and even instances of future tense are entangled with history as fate (“my native land, this place they’ll bury me”). Dreaming conjures alternate timelines in a few poems, but generally Trethewey is concerned with how the past inhabits the present. She voyages constantly between the two like the obsessed historians in Connie Willis’ time-travel novels.

I’m trying to read poetry as speculative fiction, a genre closely associated with the future. If poetry looks mainly backward, where does that put my argument? There is a fair amount of poetry addressed to the future through children. Some poets prophesy revolution (Langston Hughes), their own deaths (Emily Dickinson), or environmental apocalypse (W.S. Merwin just for starters).  And the sort of remembering Trethewey does is very much about the future, though indirectly.

The most uncanny, haunting lyric projection I can think of is in Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose…Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.”  Here’s the spaceship/ TARDIS (n.b. Eric)/ multidirectional time travel device I’m looking for, and it’s an incredibly powerful one. Whitman’s ferry as De Lorean.

How else do lyric poets speculate? What am I not thinking of?

Heroes in trouble

My baseball-playing-son’s choice of “Casey at the Bat” for school recitation made sense. I noticed in his practice sessions that he read the line “Kill the umpire!” with intense personal feeling; he tossed off “That ain’t my style” a little less confidently, but he clearly aspires to such flair. We had fun looking up the slang in “The former was a lulu and the latter was a cake.” It turns out that he didn’t even have to choose a poem for this three-minute speech: he elected to, he said, “because my mom is a poet.” His next public speaking assignment is to memorize and recite a poem of at least twelve lines. I thought maybe “Invictus,” but he said no, a funny one; he was disappointed that Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” wasn’t long enough. Out of the sheaf I presented as possibilities he chose Stevie Smith’s cheerful song about cruel loneliness and death, “Not Waving but Drowning.”

Both Thayer’s poem and Smith’s are about solitary men set against what Sylvia Plath calls “peanut-crunching crowds.” Five thousand fans in Mudville cheer in unison for arrogant Casey; Smith’s drowned man moans about being misunderstood while obtuse beachgoers exclaim, “Poor chap, he always loved larking / And now he’s dead.” Cameron loves brainy, wise-cracking heroes in the movies he watches and he books he devours, but seems to understand that even stars strike out and Holmes doesn’t always find his Watson. The boy is way too clear-eyed, in short, so I hope he keeps that dark, dark sense of humor.

As he mumbles rhymes under his breath, I’m revising essays about poetry and community and once again feeling the perversity of the whole project. In Cameron’s recitation pieces, crowds are either alarming or wilfully stupid. Dickinson’s “admiring bog” isn’t a club you’d want to join, either. Remember how John Stuart Mill described lyric poetry as utterance overheard? Dickinson’s poem, like many others, performs privacy: I sort of really hope somebody might be listening, but I’m over here pretending I’m talking to myself, so don’t bother me. Poetry is a funny way to be sociable, even when there’s a substantial readership or listening audience at hand. It’s a mode of conversation, yes, but incredibly slow and indirect, less like mailing letters than broadcasting greetings to hypothetical space aliens.

Of course, producing scholarship about poems may be even crazier if conversation is something you care about. This is why I’m now plotting a more narrative approach to this poetry and community project—wondering if I can write a book informed by research but driven by reflections about process, and possibly the story of why I’m interested, as much as by argument. What I need to decide before I pick up speed, though, is who would read this imaginary book and what they would want from it. The nature of the crowd, I guess, and what its taste in peanuts might be.

Poems including history

I asked Robert Sullivan at a recent reading about the role of history in his poems. He replied, “I’m making a genre argument that historians are, like poets, imaginative writers; that poetry is also well equipped for these conversations; and that the historical can also be personal.” (I suspect those semicolons are all mine, but I’ll save my comments on orality for another day.) I admire his point—accounts of the past are never neutral and there’s no reason they need to be prose. The “poem containing history,” though (Ezra Pound’s phrase), is usually epic or long poetry. The brevity of lyric requires different modes of argument. Even in a lyric sequence with narrative elements, any tale is full of skips, blanks, recursions; metaphor and music have their own logic and can’t always accommodate names, dates, and other factual details.

So how can a lyric poem contain history? When in “Indian Cartography” Deborah Miranda remaps California, she embeds a narrative of colonization in her list of place names: “Tuolomne, / Salinas, Los Angeles, Paso Robles, / Ventura, Santa Barbara, Saticoy, / Tehachapi.” The displacement suffered by her family is the very ground of the poem, the landscape she assumes, and her poem constitutes an imaginative return to those waters, that earth. Words themselves, their textures and etymologies, widen a poem’s field. That’s also true in “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, with its train times and brand names. The speaker grabs “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days” and suddenly race is in the poem, many lines before Billie Holiday sings. Think even of Emily Dickinson’s “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –.” The first word sends you in one direction, chasing after the agoraphobic belle of Amherst, but this is a politically astute New Englander writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. After images of auctions and whiteness, she concludes her four quatrains with the ringing imperative: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price –.” Of course she’s thinking about abolition. It’s tricky; I say she’s condemning slavery but you could also accuse her of using that vast, terrible trauma as a metaphor for her own situation. That’s one risk of opening a newspaper inside your stanzas. Your poem can gain power, or the world can shrink absurdly.

There are stories inside words themselves, but collage and direct quotation are also important strategies; visual elements such as typefaces, margins, and gaps can signal temporal and spatial shifts; titles, dedications, and notes can carry some of the burden of context. Within the lines, verb tenses and pronouns also involve highly-charged decisions. The poet is always in the poem somewhere, but how far inside the frame does she stand? In one of Robert Sullivan’s sequences about Captain Cook, “For the Ocean of Kiwa” in the book Voice Carried My Family, he represents the Polynesian members of Cook’s various crews, beginning well inside the frame. Addressing one of those men, Mai, Sullivan protests, “I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” (28). Nevertheless, he keeps stepping back, out of the picture. That anxious “I” appears only once in the following poem, and by the next, the first person pronouns belong to those Polynesian crew members, speaking in the present tense.

When fictionalizing a real person’s voice in a poem, I think it’s best to acknowledge the transgression as Sullivan does. However, when I brought up that issue on Wom-po, The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List, a couple of writers, Eve Rifkah and Pat Valdata, explained why they disagreed. Valdata wrote, “if you have no personal connection to the people involved then it seems self-serving to make the poem about your own life and your own issues” (Fri, 18 Mar 2011 16:40:26). Many problems unfold from our contrasting views: what stories does a person own? Are there tales a privileged European-American like me should never presume to tell? Is there an extra burden on poetry as a genre (as opposed to, say, historical fiction)—is it inevitably personal? And anyone writing history as lyric has to decide what her goals are, what kind of experience she wants her readers and listeners to have. A poem engaging the past can provoke, evoke, give answers, or leave disturbing questions hanging in the silence.

Addressing history in a poem is one way of constructing a community. The affiliation is through time rather than, or as well as, across space. Some might say that cross-temporal community can’t exist because one side of the conversation is always already over. I talk to dead poets all the time, though, and their poems are complex enough to present new answers. And I recently heard a similar point made by digital archivists who are trying to change the ownership of history by making original documents available online—letters, maps, early printed texts, often in nineteenth-century Maori. One of them said at the end of his presentation, almost as an aside, that he often felt guided by the tupuna; his ancestors collaborate in the project. Some documents pop up just as you need them; others hide, or the computer breaks down. “You know they want you to tell the story,” he said, smiling, “because they allow you to.”