Virtual Poetry Salon #5 with Caroline Cabrera

And even in blindness our chemistries communicate. Our instinct, a lace mycelium. When my cheeks go hot and I distrust a man I may be sensing the hair as it rises from another woman's neck. I may smell her experience. We know more than we trust ourselves to know.  -Caroline Cabrera, from "The body gives itself away" 

(lack begins as a tiny rumble), a brand new collection by my pressmate Caroline Cabrera, belies its title: these hybrid poems, almost lyric essays, brim with language that nourishes me. Pain and grief are starting points, but line by line, with amazing persistence, Cabrera digs herself out of those very dark places. Sisterhood helps, but so does a renegotiation of her relationship with her own body. “The womb is a world,” she writes in one poem, clarifying that image with the eye-opening closure, “Our first act is one of emigration.” In many poems, too, Cabrera unfolds what it means to be a blonde-haired Cuban American: “My skin keeps me safe. My blood, it boils in me.” My own concentration is poor these days, but this book riveted me. Bonus: the collection includes great poems about toxic bosses. I really appreciate poems about toxic bosses.

This book, by the way, feels very much in sisterhood with Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen, star of my last salon, but really I’m just contacting people with new books and posting these interviews in the order I receive them. I’m really enjoying this project, as well as the new books it’s leading me through. Virginia’s governor just gave a stay-at-home order. I totally agree with it, but it makes connecting through writing more important than ever.

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

We would eat popcorn and parmesan cheese. We would eat kale with bechamel and fried rice. We would eat spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp and grits, and beet risotto. We would eat fried chicken. We would eat guava pastries and croquettas and yucca frita with creamy cilantro sauce. We would eat blood oranges and pomegranates. We would eat and eat and eat and eat and never be filled.

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?

Right now I am reading and thinking and processing, which all feels like the precursor to writing. To a Floridian, this period of hunkering feels a lot like preparing for a hurricane that never comes. I’m living from that headspace and trying to be present with where it takes me. 

How can your virtual audience find out more?

I co-host the advice podcast Now That We’re Friends with two other poets, Anne Cecelia Holmes and Gale Marie Thompson. We’re hosting a virtual live episode on Saturday April 11. Check out @NTWFpodcast on Instagram or Twitter for details.

Same old love

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The picture above is of a Christmas postcard from Anne Spencer to Langston Hughes, postmarked 1943. Of course, I’m thinking about the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville a year ago; I’m also sick about the escalating damage the current administration is doing to people and the planet. But I don’t have anything fresh or wise to say on those subjects, so here’s a little out-of-season love instead.

As of this past Tuesday, my husband and I have been married twenty-five years. I’d say “happily married,” which is true, but cliches mute the ups and downs. Figuring out, in our twenties, how to be good to each other while being good to ourselves was hard, and the math on that is always evolving. Raising kids is hard. Finding good employment in the same region for two ambitious people is really, really hard. Illness, dying parents, house floods, a host of other crises–well, you get the idea. Now one kid is twenty-one and the other nearly eighteen, so Chris and I celebrated our milestone on a July trip, while both children were away. We forgot on the actual day until my mother texted congratulations. In the middle of a mixed college-visit/ research trip, Chris and our son were doing a tour in Massachusetts when my mother reminded me of the date. I was reading Anne Spencer’s correspondence, some of which is archived at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

There were a couple of specific research questions I would have liked answers to, but I didn’t find them. Instead I enjoyed watching Spencer’s friendship with James Weldon Johnson unfold and deepen over many years. He encourages her to write and submit her work, staving off discouragement. They recommend books and articles to each other: Johnson suggests, for example, that Spencer read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and she responds with enthusiasm about what she’s found. Spencer encourages Johnson and his wife to visit for spring flowers and Christmas festivities, noting she feels more alive when she can look forward to their conversation. There’s plenty of politics in the letters but also ordinary stuff, like worry about Spencer’s children. It was especially sweet to notice how the salutations evolved over time: from the relatively formal “My dear Mrs. Spencer/ Mr. Johnson” to “Dear Anne” and “darling Grace-‘n’-Gem.”

The surviving correspondence between Spencer and Langston Hughes adds up to a much slimmer folder, but there’s also a lot of warmth and play in it. Spencer tells Hughes, for instance, about naming birds in her garden after distant literary figures. There’s “one named Langston–quite too proud of his black and gold-bronze plumage…and Mencken so yclept because of a certain spurious bitterness–mostly pose.” What a lonely world she lived in, and yet so populated. It’s not totally unlike writer-friends in far-off places now, messaging in ways that will be difficult to archive.

For all the violence in Spencer’s time and ours, there was and is a lot of love zinging around. I hope we can keep protecting it from the general heat. Write from the saving coolness of it. But it’s so, so hard.

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Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty

Researching poetic networks is making me feel anomalous. Partly this is just the familiar unfamiliarity of living in a different country, where every friendship is new and you’re never quite sure whether you understand people or they understand you. Some of my disorientation is minor and funny, like realizing in the middle of reciting “Spring-Sick” in Dunedin that oh, I have a northern hemisphere bias: April does not equal spring here. That was during an event at Circadian Rhythm organized by Emma Neale. She smiled down the long room, gave a brilliant mock flight-attendant introduction, and passed out candy in case our ears popped. When Diane Brown read some engaging sonnets about being an Aucklander dating a southerner and the possible local meanings of “southerner” began to explode in my brain, the psychic jet lag caught up with me. I had spent the morning wandering around a cloud-ridden city that reminded me of Liverpool, England; eaten terrific Korean food for lunch; watched the day turn brilliant from the tip of the Otago Peninsula, among yellow-eyed penguins and baby fur seals who gazed back at me curiously; and ended the day in an imaginary airplane, avoiding poems of mine containing swear-words, because New Zealanders are much more polite than people from New Jersey.

Being the featured reader at a poetry event in a city you’re visiting for the first time feels incredibly presumptuous. Here everybody is in the middle of their own long-running conversations, among friendships and rivalries and hierarchies you cannot detect. Even if you research the scene in advance, which I rarely find time to do well, you don’t figure out the important things until you’re driving away, or much later. How can you choose poems that will make those audience members glad they came?

After gawking at the stupendously scenic south island of New Zealand for much of the second half of April, I spent three days in Melbourne, Australia, giving scholarly talks and finishing with a reading among the mirrors and leopard-spotted throw rugs at Animal Orchestra. My visit was initiated by Jess Wilkinson, whom I met in San Diego, California at the Contemporary Women Writers conference in July 2010 (note how I don’t say “last summer”). I attended as many poetry sessions as I could, and so did she. We sipped wine by the hotel fireplace while Linda Kinnahan and Cynthia Hogue told us about the funniest crises they’d had to field as university administrators. We exchanged email addresses; although Jess was just finishing her doctorate at the time, she was hopeful that she could tap university funds to get me across the Tasman while I was down under. She seemed sparkly with delight during the whole conference, although she told me later what a rough year she’d had personally. When I met her again last week she wined and dined me with poets whose terrific work I should have known beforehand and didn’t, but they were nice to me anyway. After the reading I spent an hour talking about birth order, how to get work done, and what one should do with one’s life with Jess’ student, Daniel, and his friend, Hans, who is in medical school and aspires to practice anaesthesiology in disaster zones. Hans said this was his first poetry reading since his mother made him recite verses as a child to visitors, but he connected with Heterotopia after living in England, the Netherlands, Kuala Lumpur, and now Australia. As I anxiously prepared to read to poets whose work is quite different than mine, I could not have imagined Hans as a member of the audience.

Ann Vickery, who has published some of the most important scholarship on poetry networks, arranged a symposium while I was in Melbourne. Her very sharp paper on friendship both overlaps with and challenges my research into that slippery term community; I’m now thinking about whether friendship influences poetry itself more profoundly while community participation shapes the poetry’s dispersal and reception. And what are the boundaries of friendship anyway—is it fundamentally about feeling, the way community comes down to a subjective sense of belonging?  Reading poetry by a person you know has an intimate charge but it’s all refracted through literary imperatives, mixed up with fiction, and anyway, that leaves out most of the basic stuff that entangles you in another human being’s life. Most friendships revolve around shared attitudes towards work and family and politics and religion, what you like to eat and drink, what media you’ll admit to consuming, what you like to do on Saturday. Maybe those relationships are figments too, but they feel less illusory.

Among kangaroos, one’s American weirdness is brightly illuminated. I went back to the hotel after the reading and watched the royal wedding on television while typing in passport numbers for online check-in. I flew to Cairns and came back from snorkelling to pictures of other U.S. citizens cheering the death of an infamous terrorist. I still think that fish are real but the mask is so estranging and all you can hear is your own respiration, a Darth Vader-ish heavy breathing. The animals are watching me watch them and I probably don’t want to know what they’ll tell their real friends about me later.