Poetry, pickled

I spent a lot of 2017 thinking about what poetry can DO. I wish poems could stop inhumane deportations and government shutdowns, and I hope poets will keep trying to make the world more kind and fair. Mostly, though, my aims are smaller in scale: can writing this poem change ME for the better? The stories we tell about ourselves really matter, and I’ve been trying to tell hopeful ones. After all, that’s what I want to read–literature that acknowledges the complicated mess we live in but ultimately tilts towards love.

Now, two weeks into a new class on documentary poetics, I find myself thinking about poems, instead, as testimony, carrying some part of the past into our present attention. That’s not unrelated to poetry as spell, prayer, or action, but the emphasis is a little different. The poets we’ve been reading–Rukeyser and Forché at first, and a host of Katrina poets now, including Patricia Smith, Cynthia Hogue, and Nicole Cooley–are asking what we need to remember. Their poetries still look towards the future but are more explicitly grounded in history. We’ll be sailing even further in that direction soon with Kevin Young’s Ardency, a book I’ve never taught before. (I’m really excited about this class, but once again I’ve scheduled a lot of new labor for myself, as if destroying work-life balance is my explicit goal.)

Then these arrived in the mail. THANK YOU, SCOTT NICOLAY!

cans

There’s art just in the words on the stickers, right? I’m excited to taste what delicious parts of an apparently bad year my friend transformed and preserved for me. And I’m thinking , too, about poems boiling up in me that I can barely snatch time to can, these days. What surplus can I doctor up and put by for another time, when I or somebody else might need them more?

Well, not much, maybe. I’m working flat out right now just staying on top of tomorrow’s obligations. But I do have some jam from April 2014 to share this Wednesday: I’ll be reading from Propagationand my colleague in the History Department Roberta Senechal de la Roche will be reading from her poetry chapbook, at 4:30 pm on 1/24 in Northen Auditorium in Leyburn Library at W&L. There will be a fruit and cheese platter, coffee and tea service, and books for sale, and I will endeavor to keep the poetry tasty–but, selfishly, I won’t be sharing Scott’s plum-pluet-Asian pear jam with amontillado. Maybe visit me with a good baguette, and we’ll talk.

In the meantime, here’s a poem from a few years back. It’s about another government shutdown, with salsa verde on the side. My thanks to One for serving it up.

Women on the radio

english books

Broadcast, by Zayneb Allak

It’s about loneliness.
A woman from Birmingham tells us
about the time she was lonely.

When I left Birmingham
the Bull Ring was still ashen.
I remember it in the slush:

a lady in a pink and gold sari
with a grey anorak over the top
dragged blue and white plastic bags.

Nothing sounds more hangdog
than a lonely Brummie, I think,
no vowels could be droopier.

My dad used to mimic them,
I’m from Birmingham I am.
We’d tell him he was way off.

The woman on the radio says
the time she was lonely was bad,
she actually literally wilted.

Her cadences announce
what I least expect: home
how I might miss it.

The Rialto 82, Winter’s End 2015, page 50, reprinted by the author’s permission

I’ve been meaning to post this lovely poem for a while. When in England this past June and July, I picked up a bunch of books and magazines–Carrie Etter, Sarah Jackson, Rory Waterman, and other poets publishing there now are pretty great. I’ve also put myself on a catch-up reading course in 21st century verse from the British Isles, although in the haphazard way of a curious person rather than in the urgent way of a professor preparing a syllabus (I’m on sabbatical–have I gloated enough about that yet? Of course not!). I took out the few recent volumes our little library owns that I’d never read (how is Selima Hill new to me?). I also ordered books based on selections I liked in a couple of anthologies (Niall Campbell’s Moontide is magical–there’s a podcast by him here). And the new Irish-themed issue of Poetry just arrived, so more self-education awaits. Even on an endless sabbatical I couldn’t read all the published contemporary poetry in English, of course, but it’s fun to try.

Zayneb Allak doesn’t have a book yet–she’s finishing a creative dissertation at Nottingham Trent University. One of her critical chapters concerns my book Heterotopiaa Liverpool-themed collection she found by accident but that resonated with her own complicated experiences of place. She grew up partly in Liverpool, partly in Iran, and her family now lives in Birmingham, as “Broadcast” suggests. I love the lines “Nothing sounds more more hangdog/ than a lonely Brummie,” and I also love that her home-longing is triggered by sound, an accent heard over the radio. Given that my next book, Radioland, uses broadcast as a motif, it sounds like our obsessions continue to harmonize.

New Jersey and New York accents, hated as they are by many, sound homey enough to make my heart skip a beat. So do Liverpudlian voices. My mom doesn’t have a strong Liverpool accent; she grew up in that city but was mostly schooled out of scouse intonations, which carry strong negative connotations over there (but not in the U.S., where everyone thinks “Beatles!”). I had assumed this prejudice was past-tense until I sat with an English couple while traveling a couple of years ago; they were very friendly until they found out where my mother was from, after which they shut up firmly and kept their eyes downcast. I know the bias concerns class and probably politics. I’m too much of an outsider to understand the nuances, but I think of Liverpool when I hear people express prejudice against the varieties of drawl associated with the southeast U.S. The unfair cliche is that a southern accent sounds stupid, uneducated. I know many southerners who code-switch, dialing up the twang for local friends and muting it in, say, academic circles. I personally mourn the loss to the soundscape, but I’m sure I would code-switch too–and probably did alter my own accent unconsciously at some early age. My sister, for example, sounds more New Jersey than I do. And my mother says I had a British accent before I started school.

Zayneb, a generous, capable sort of person, arranged some events for me in Nottingham and Liverpool. It was wonderful to meet her and I’m rooting for lots more poems with complicated accents under her byline in future. For the moment, here’s a picture of her near Nottingham Castle–I wish I could post a recording!english zayneb

And hey, speaking of little magazines doing good work in amplifying poetry’s signal: thanks to One for featuring my eccentrically-titled “Postlapsarian Salsa Verde” in their new issue. They’re looking for submissions for the next one…