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Sharon Bryan

Last fall, on the recommendation of Kathleen Flenniken and Holly J. Hughes, I decided to take a Hugo House course from poet Sharon Bryan. Wanting to get to know her a bit, first, I purchased three of her books—and plunged in.

Sharon’s Flying Blind (Sarabande Books, 1996) is, itself, a plunge. It drops a reader not so much into the tangible stuff of a life, as into language. And, from there (because from where else?) we swim back into life. I knew right away that I wanted to write a blog post about this book. Its 40-some poems are arranged without sections. Titles point us toward the book’s obsession: “Be-,” “Conjugation,” “-Esque,” “Ode to the OED,” “Subjunctive.” The last begins: “If only”—in a book where nothing is quite what it seems. As the poet writes in “Dissembling”: “Let’s keep an eye / on what’s impossible, its friction // with what is.”

Beneath this layer of playful verbal acrobatics, there is another layer. As Frederick Busch says in his cover praise: “behind the brainy and considering voice-in-the-poems is real woundedness, real and interesting experience, a particular history and earned awareness that refuses to let the book be ‘abstract.’…It’s felt thinking.”

I emailed Sharon and asked how Flying Blind came into being. Her response was a master-course:

After my second book came out, I knew I wanted to make a different kind of poem from the ones in those books. I didn’t think they were bad, but I knew they didn’t reflect my sense of the relationship between language and the world, which is that language creates the world we live in and move through. In those first books, the reverse is true: the poems describe the world as if it were a given. I was determined to find a way to write new poems grounded in that sense of language as shaper of what we see and feel. So I took a deliberate six-month break from writing poems to get the old voices out of my head, and during it read and re-read books from philosophy and anthropology about language. When I started writing again, I wrote poems that started with language as subject matter. I was also able to draw on humor—something central to me—in a way I hadn’t before.

I’d written maybe a dozen or fifteen poems before I discovered the order they should be in. I was keeping them in alphabetical order in a folder so I could find them easily when I gave a reading, and one day I joked to myself that maybe that could be the order. But then I thought, “Wait, it’s all about language. I can use that order.” It wasn’t a strict sense of writing a poem for each letter of the alphabet—I didn’t. But it gave me ideas for some poems. And I knew that I wanted the last one I wrote to be the first in the book, so I gave it a title that would put it there: “Abracadabra.”

But the biggest discovery of all for me didn’t come until the manuscript was almost finished. Only then did I see that while the surface of the poems was all about language, the emotions that drove the poems came from the deaths of three friends a decade earlier. The three were Richard Blessing, Richard Hugo, and Hugo’s stepson Matthew Hansen. All three had died of different kinds of cancer within a two-year period. All three were poets, they knew each other and had many friends in common, so it was a community event, very intense and moving. I came to realize that in my grief I had thrown myself on the mercy of language as if it were a safety net—and it was. I would never have presumed to tell their stories myself, but those three told them through the poems I wrote.”

That line, “I had thrown myself on the mercy of language” made me decide to use almost all that Sharon emailed to me. It’s the answer to a puzzle I’ve been stymied by while working on a book of elegies about my parents. “We can’t quite see / the world,” she writes in the title poem, “but we have it / in translation.” Reading this book made me think about how my usual reliance on the concrete, the event exactly as it happened, is a sort of crutch, a nostalgia. To paraphrase Richard Hugo (a quote she deployed more than once in our class): you owe reality  nothing, the poem, everything. [Or, as Sharon elaborated in another email exchange, “we write to get at the truth of how we think and feel”—not that we don’t revere the truth but that “reality” can get in our way.]

What to do with this insight? Well, she has a poem for that, too:

Minutiae

Having things is a way to forget
about them: straight teeth, enough
food, the midnight blue silk dress.

As if memory and longing were kissing
cousins, and to have were to quench
the light and heat of desire.

So writing things down, love
or the list of groceries, is a way
to leave them behind, perfused

with a certain day that will rise
like ether from the wrinkled page
when you come across it. Forgetting

keeps things whole by letting them
go—the woman become a tree,
for example, or the man a constellation.

What clings to us is incidental,
dust too fine to cohere
and become forgettable.

—Sharon Bryan

You can read more of Sharon’s poems under the poems tab at her website, and I especially recommend the video at the bottom of the page (look for “from Eureka”).

Don Mee Choi

Don Mee Choi is a citizen of our troubled world. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, lived in Hong Kong, and now lives in the United States, in Seattle, Washington. Reading her newest book, DMZ Colony, challenged me to throw out my lens on the crises in global politics, particularly immigration, and try on a new perspective. The Academy of American Poets site addresses her multi-form, surprising art by quoting Craig Santos Perez:  “Choi translates feminist politics into an experimental poetry that demilitarizes, deconstructs, and decolonizes any master narrative.” It is hard for me to say more.

I am reading DMZ Colony for a Hugo House class this spring. All by itself, it is an education in global politics. It was published by WAVE books (2020), and is the 2020 winner of the National Book Award for poetry. The NBA judges hailed DMZ Colony as a “tour de force” of personal reckoning, and also wrote of this moving interweaving of poetic forms and translation:

Don Mee Choi’s urgent DMZ Colony captures the migratory latticework of those transformed by war and colonization. Homelands present and past share one sky where birds fly, but “during the Korean War cranes had no place to land.” Devastating and vigilant, this bricolage of survivor accounts, drawings, photographs, and hand-written texts unearth the truth between fact and the critical imagination. We are all “victims of History,” so Choi compels us to witness, and to resist.

“Migratory latticework” and “bricolage” do much to help us imagine this book. And do explore the Poetry Foundation and other sites. But much of DMZ Colony is in images, and you really have to hold it in your hands to experience it.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to one section:

One starless night, I was stranded….I decided to translate the stories of eight girls who survived the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre, which took place in Gyeongsangnam-do, a southern province of South Korea, in 1951. My decision to translate the girls’ stories wasn’t entirely mine alone. It can take billions of years for light to reach us through the galaxies, which is to say, History is ever arriving. So it’s most likely that the decision, seemingly all mine, was already made years ago by someone else, which is to say, language — that is to say, — translation — always arises from collective consciousness.

And here’s one poem (printed in white lettering on a black page):

We too were born under the bridge. Every night, we listened to the whispers of the angels bathing in the river. They too cried and sang, Sky, sky, sky. Our lullaby. They didn’t blame our nations. Migrating from pole to pole they watched our falling stars, our failing planet. They too were hungry. They too were homesick. We the fatherless watched the angels depart. Our farewell. In reality, we were all motherless.

 

 

Ted Kooser

Such a delight this morning to once again open this slim, familiar book.

The Wheeling Year: a Poet’s Field Book by Ted Kooser (2014) feels like an older book than it is, something from another time and place. When I read the entries, I’m transported to that place, too.

I have to admit that this was another of those impulsive purchases — fairly leaping off the shelf into my hands while I browsed at Open Books — and not even poetry, but this strange collection of short prose pieces, arranged by month, like diary entries, or (as he explains in a prefatory note) like an artist’s field notes: “sketches and landscape studies made out of words…[along with] a few observations about life.” On a video on his website, Ted explains that he has been writing every day for 50 years — that’s how you get good at something, pitching horseshoes or writing poems.

The book doesn’t have 365 entries (more’s the pity), but there’s a generous handful of them for each month, a sampling of what is no doubt a daily habit.

In April, for instance:

Month of my birth. What record do we poets leave? Not on stone tablets, but in books like leaves that have matted together under the snows of indifference. That we were fretful, mostly, but that now and then we looked up and glimpsed something wonderful passing away.

Often the pieces are about the natural world, particularly about Kooser’s midwest:

Imagine this bluestem as salt grass, and these crows as a species of gull, and you will know what it’s like to live on the coast of the sky, waves of light slapping the barns, splashing the windows with a blue that has come all the way from the other side. [March]

And because I saw my 21-year-old daughter and her boyfriend on Sunday, and have been feeling my own version of blue, this piece was a balm to rediscover:

For a girl pouring water into the cappuccino machine from a spotted carafe at the Quik Stop at eight in the evening, an old man is as difficult to look at as a page of homework. On the counter next to the register, her geometry book lies heavy, brown, and unopened. Her notebook has numbers scribbled all over the cover. What’s the point in learning to be old, she is thinking, when that is something she will never have to use? [April]

A student once said to me: “In my family we never feel guilty about buying food, fabric, or books.” But buying this book made me feel a little guilty (hardback!) and I told myself I would give it away.

But, no. This is a book that needs to be reread every so often. It needs to be taken down and browsed through. Ted himself seems to say the same: “Keeping the original for myself, of course, I now offer a copy to you.”

 

 

Nancy Canyon

[featured image is “Pond Lily” by Canyon]

Nancy Canyon’s Saltwater (Independent Writers’ Studio Press, 2014, 2019) maps a life’s trajectory from childhood abuse and loss to healing. Though the chronology is from childhood to womanhood, the poems also march from a closed, inner space, claustrophobic, smothering — to an openness where even “skin to skin” contact evokes “meeting in the wilds, / running in meadows.” On the back cover, Mary Gillilan describes how Canyon “bares her soul in order to free it in poems told with white-knuckle honesty” — concluding, “Saltwater delivers the life of a woman from the inside out.”

I emailed Nancy with a few questions and she emailed back, generously sharing her publishing history (a novel, Celia’s Heaven, and an ebook of short-short fiction, Dark Forest, a memoir, forthcoming) and her influences:

I have put together a number of poetry books that I haven’t published yet. They sit on my computer, waiting I guess for a big collection of my poems, since I have over 150 poems in just one file. Many poems I’ve written during February Peace Poem month, April poetry month & August postcard month. Most of the poems I have published are in anthologies, such as Take a Stand: Art Against Hate, This Uncommon Solitude, and For the Love of Orcas. I favor World Enough Writers and the work Lana Hetchman Ayers does. I have a poem in her anthology Ice Cream Poems titled “Outdoor Theater Church.” And another poem, “The Thing He Secreted,” in Last Call. And I do love Crab Creek Review, where I was a fiction editor back in 2007. The journal was then run by some of my good friends Kelli Russell Agodon & Annette Spaulding-Convey. Kelli and I went to graduate school together at PLU. She is the person who got me started writing poetry. Writing poems helped my fiction, and it gave me a reprieve from writing long documents.
Nancy is also an accomplished artist (see her website to learn more) — no surprise as you can see both the arc and the artistry in the poems: some quite short, some in blocks of prose, some in shapes, but always with an artist’s deft touch  (“eyes vacant / as flat primer”). I asked Nancy about how she ordered Saltwater and she confirmed my suspicions: “As for ordering poems…I like connecting the story, color, theme or image within a poem to those elements in the next poem.” When I went back to the book, I could see this pattern everywhere. One poem, “Outdoor Theater Church” includes lines of a new father’s commands; the next poem, “Housekeeping,” begins “Father says: Clean your bedroom.” In later poems a twist of green in one poem leads to a raven’s whirling dance in the next.
It was a challenge to choose just one poem, but I think this one. It’s a late poem in the book, but the “sleeping children” carried at the end took me straight back to the opening:

Night Dance

A raven danced on my roof tonight.
He whirled beneath a silvery moon
dangling from an invisible thread in the sky.

Raven’s black eyes darted, lustrous wings
unfurled, feathers ripped through chill
of night air, gathering me into an embrace.

Like a coin flicked by a child, we spun at the peak,
burning a smoke signal of gratitude to Great Spirit
for carrying sleeping children in His arms.

—Nancy Canyon

 

I once traveled to Litfuse with Nancy and shared a house with her and two other poets. This morning I feel as though I just spent several hours talking about our childhoods and reading poems aloud, sipping coffee on the back porch like old friends. Next we’ll be breaking out the Merlot and putting our feet up.