The piece below is an introductory letter for a 10-poem portfolio for a poetry workshop course at the University of Kansas (KU).
Upon entering Poetry Workshop at KU, I decided to practice encountering. I wondered what it would be like to hold in suspension past inquiries and open myself to new lines of questioning. I wanted to open to the organic environmental pressures, both internally and externally, that occur when entering unfamiliar territory. A chance-based modality inherent in such an approach is very much a central to how I like to begin a poem. Having a set and definitive idea of how one should end prior to even beginning seems a bit deleterious to me. So, I set about new ways of listening and collecting what I find.
My classmates’ deep interest in the body intrigued me and has shown up in my work via the treatment of wound. Many of them connected a focus on the body to the distinctive ways in which an artist’s work places him/her in easily locatable regions. One of the discoveries that I made was in connecting the wound to elusiveness space. The body as a system follows an incalculable logic that allows flowering warning signals to surface, often times, in my case, popping up in different places day-to-day. Saidiya Hartman in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America talks about how suffering is illegible. Its exteriority and interiority is ambiguous. Thus, naming and placing scarring is an ephemeral project. Yet, simultaneously, the elusive nature of scarring is still a kind of record.
The first three poems in my portfolio--Interstitial, Ancestry, Apolothecary—touch on the issue of body and repair. Interstitial, plays with the cartographic and the geography of the relationship. The background square-shaped image onto which the poem is divided into two columns and positioned along the downward left to right diagonal is of a rock formation. It is a black and white photo of plagioclase and olivine with augite. However, it looks like an aerial view of a rural-suburban town. The poems on each corner are connected by lines meant to mimic yarn. The knitting therein represents the complex web of meaning and signaling present in the body, relationships and between poems.
Ancestry is about wonderment. It seeks to, with the eyes of my Jewish/Hebrew great, (great?) great grandfather, look ahead to the ailing physicality of his descendants and query as to whether he’d still pass on “all of this broken up data.” The aforementioned excerpted line is referencing DNA and the ways in which valuable data can get fragmented or shift form, simply by splitting off. The speaker at the end poem begins to make conjecture regarding the “broken up data”: Is it a recipe? Directions? Promise? Land?
Hartman suggests that the body ravished is now available for empathy and surrogacy in Scenes of Subjugation. Apolothecary points to how injury succeeds or fails in writing one as apt for sympathetic identification. It locates the body and the simplicity of the sign as a more genuine form of communication than the spindling craft of civility in discourse. The grossness then, it seems, of wound is a celebration of immediacy for both the subject and the viewer in that the subject is admitting frailty and the viewer a desire for compassion.
The next four pieces--X Marks the Spot, Bio Porn, Place and Roots—are about question, misunderstanding and silence. Stereo. Island. Mosaic by Vincent Toro inspired the X Marks the Spot poem, which plays with the notion of the griot in West African tradition, who was the historian poet of the tribe or village that not only keep the stories of the people but also in times of distress encouraged its people. According to Professor Dagri, who interviewed for a story on griots in West Africa sponsored by the Goethe Institut, “There’s a Mandingue [Mandingo] proverb that says ‘May God move so that griots never perish in war, on the battle field, but every battle field needs a griot, for without his presence the history of what happened would be forever lost.’” X Marks the Spot was a way to engage deep memory, the all elusive thread, toward re-envisioning the perspective of the griots of the Caribbean when the ships from Spain, Britain and France met them. It is a play on the power of utterance and the syllabic.
Bio Porn began in concept as a running joke between me and my friend Emily de Beer, who is at the University Louisiana-Layfette as well for a PhD in Creative Writing. We met at SUNY Buffalo. There she was working on a project on new confessional poetry for her Master’s thesis. I was working on a project on the lyric as syllabic guttural utterance, inspired by the Dadaists. Emily knew I deeply appreciated and respected her work immensely. I was struggling, yet and still, personally to be open to neo-confessional poetry—as I was for so long disassociated from my own body and the impact of past traumas. I was limited in my perspective. I had come to see when Emily and I did our joint Master’s thesis show work that the way she conceptualized her project was nuanced. It included a satirical treatment selfie culture and was paired with non-illustrative visual art.
Further, Emily knew my real contention confessional poetry was that I felt there was a desire from mass audiences to want to hear “bio porn.” What I mean by that is a desire to hear really personal and intimate information about the poet’s life in order to bring some immediate understanding into the abstract moments of a poem. While I do not mind curiosity about my life, I sincerely desire for my work to stand alone and for it to be a conduit to other worlds—rather than be fixated with placing me neatly somewhere or making me—not my poems—more easily digestible. Bio Porn is a bit of inside baseball.
Written during Linda Russo’s visit, Place and Roots, engage with the page and poem as land- and soundscape. While writing outside of Wescoe Hall near the entrance to the Underground Cafe, I wrote Place. My cotton candy, lay-flat notebook with “Ideas & Such” emblazoned in gold on the front is where I drafted the poem. Most of my poems have been drafted in some or large part via the good ol’ notebook. This day a bee kept buzzing around my watch. I let it. I was writing a poem out in nature, the meditative long poem of observation. I decided to just observe. It then went to my keys, which come equipped with lots of keychains, loyalty key cards and lanyard from when I was sixteen. It left. Then it returned, again, to my keys. All of that happening entered the poem, “what to call this closing in? buzzing?”
Roots in its layout is a landscape piece. It was written while sitting in a circle under a sparse yet wonderful canopy of trees behind Spencer Library after we, in Poetry Workshop, wrote questions to one another. The question I received was, “What if we are disconnected—do we have roots still?” I moved still around in the poem for rhythm: “What if we are disconnected—do we still have roots?” Transferring the poem from notebook to digital file, I started to create a staggering effect on the page to mimic rain fall. When I got to the middle of the Word document, I was tired of seeing the dashes across the page. I wanted a moment to pause from the choppy letters and let my eyes scan the page entirely from left to right. That helped guide the latter half of the poem as I set that section of the page to full justification from left to right margins with additional spaces insert in between each letter save the last two lines “constituting them.”
The section in Roots that comes after ‘as foundation” is the page layout move with which I am most satisfied out of all the poems in the portfolio. If it was not immediately apparent, the section is to represent not grass but rock layer. The Dadaist notion of deep memory is something I find really appealing. It is connected to the Dadaist celebration of subconscious and primordial instincts, the celebration of the idiot-genius. This all connects to Roots because in the poem, I make mention that the ground we believe is ground is not; it is actually ancient civilizations and pieces of leaf and sky compacted onto layer after layer. In allowing for the idiot-genius is to access the depth of memory from which we are often blocked.
Lastly, Generative, Nearing Temple, Is It Over?, close out the portfolio. They are the most deeply personal. Generative was written over a week after a good friend of mine passed. However, in the poem, I do not mention it directly. The discussions of Jessica’s angelic qualities are metonymical—so is following every post that passed on social media after I got the news. It represents the difficulty in talking about loss and grief, and how sometimes we talk around some of the most important and humanizing occurrences in our lives. The story of the Daemen College professor in the block paragraph at the end is one way the poem moves toward speaking grief out of its voice.
Nearing Temple, is the most clearly marked Dadaist piece in the portfolio. It is a long poem collage. It begins with the illuminated image of the third poem I had written during the Russo visit. It was inspired by Apollinaire’s sun ray calligrammes. I find there is nothing more satisfying that having the record of the hand on a poem. Do not get me wrong. Word processors are a great invention. Typing allows for a different, I would not say necessarily more fluid, stream of consciousness kind of writing that I enjoy. Corrections are quick, and the keyboard is forgiving to the laboring hand of the poet. Yet, there is nothing like the pen to the page. The ability to switch so deftly between script and print, line and design, size and weight allows image-based thinking to more easily enter into writing. Interestingly now, there are all of these new tablets out that tout their innovative handwriting-like technology with their specialized styluses that have no drag or delay in making line. That feels like an admission to the power of the flowing hand, which is missing from the traditional word processors or even the Hemmingway typewriters populating the European cafes nowadays.
The calligramme-like poem then is followed by, in Section II and IV, a bit of absurdist theater. The entire piece is in five sections. Sections II and IV are marked by em dashes to signal dialogic activity. I am very much a poet. So, what am I doing playing with theater and fiction? I don’t know, which is why this piece in the portfolio is the most Dadaist! I was having fun. As a poet, one ultimately believes that methodology and form are arbitrary and is determined poem by poem. So, why is this my first play with writing drama? I ran into a limitation in poetry. In the foreword Of Words: Anthology of Belizean Poetry edited by Michael D. Phillips, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is quoted, “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose equals words in their best order; poetry equals the best words in their best order” (Coleridge 1827). I could not write fiction or theater because I would previously labor over the word choice incessantly. The result was an overly curated piece of work that felt false. Thus, this time, I just let the characters talk. I would let the work sit for a day or two and while putting away items in my drawer, for example, I’d hear a phrase or two from Graysun and Jaxon, picking up from where they left off in conversation. I’d then run to the computer and begin typing, asking myself not to make pains to edit while writing but also encourage pausing while writing so that I could authentically hear their voices, hear what was next. The result is a comical take on the strange ways concern and caring about one another manifests among housemates.
Discord, at least on the surface, between housemates is not to be feared. Marc Crepón during one of three visits to Steve Miller’s class at the University at Buffalo shared that attachment is necessary; it is what binds us to the community of mortals and that the balance between the force that governs and the force that divides is the inevitability of war. “All wars duplicate this experience,” Crepón writes. The fictional take and composite of various room- and housemate interactions over the last seventeen years, with a couple of stints where I’d be back home or live with a partner, is really my way of compassionately trying to step outside of myself and enter lovingly into the complicated arena of existing side by side.
Sections III and V are a return to poetry, Section V more traditionally. Section III pulls in part from Robert Duncan’s constellation or field of composition in poetry. In a micro form that is a bit squashed, compact with a lot data, this section is guided by disjunctive narrative while borrowing the caesura to create a sense of line breaks in a rather block paragraph style. The poem travels through summer and fall in preparation for finally making it to a fabled land, Topeka. What moves the speaker in this section is a desire to find a place where she outwardly is accepted. Topeka for the poet is an all-black town, like the actual all-black town founded by the homesteaders in Nicodemus, Kansas. However, it’s the state capital. Of course, there are additional groups other than black people there. For the speaker, she moves toward the notion of acceptance and has the faint idea that once she arrives, she’d be recognized as kin.
Crepón shares, in talking about Freud and a changing attitude toward death, that “our reaction to change is about how to look” and that very much includes looking at oneself. He continues, “[There’s been an] efficiency in keeping the living obsessed with mortality and its material evidence. We never gave the question a second thought” (Crepón 2016). What he means by the question is whether or not what one is experiencing is war. The speaker feels compelled to go to Topeka because she feels ravaged; she’s come from or is in the midst of a kind of war where her physical markers are evidence of her not-belongingness in the specific setting she has found herself. N. H. Pritchard in Black Bones writes, “times like this / are times when black people / are with each other & the strength flows / back & forth between us like / borrowed breath.” The speaker in the poem was seeking strength.
The last section, Section V, the poem is about two and a half pages long and varies from about an inch to an inch and a half in width from time to time. The speaker in the poem after visiting a city of angels gets to a small roadside gas station before the highway. Although, she has a tank half filled, she cannot make it to leave. Candy, or its promise of sweetness, helps. The poem reads as a section in a longer epic—well, in some sense, given that it is that last section in a five-section poem, it is part of a larger epic! In reflection, I may have been invoking Charles Olson and Projective Verse (1950). In the act of composition, Olson shares that, for a poet, its “the kinetics of the thing.” The inch to inch and a half wide lines of Section V, if breath, mark a shortness of it at the moment on the edge of the highway. “The breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings,” Olson writes, “a poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it…by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be…an energy-discharge.” The speaker in Section V takes the reader to the moment before her drive. She brings the reader into the quietness of need, the promise of sweetness for the long road ahead. It is a moment that in all actuality lasted five minutes; yet, it takes up a two and a half pages, single-spaced. Section V is protracted, projective verse.
In closing, the last poem in the 10-poem portfolio is Is It Over? Interestingly, that was the first poem I wrote for the semester. It feels elegiac in some ways and fitting for a capstone piece. It was inspired by a friend Monica McIntyre’s work as cellist and singer, who is a super tiny, shaven-head black woman carrying around this instrument that is bigger than her—inspired only in name reference and in that she often played at World Café Live in Philadelphia. The remaining poem is another play on absurdist theater and drawn from the recent experiences where people noted a funereal aura about many of us first-year MFA and PhD students as we initially began our trek. I think the weight of what we left in order to seek what is before us created this sense of fog through which many of us are breaking free.
While my overall scholarly interests include Dadaism and the relationship between poets, painters and mass culture, my current explorations as it relates to the herein portfolio is about the question of record. The docupoetry collection on which I am currently working is titled, Zephyr: The Windstorm Record of the Flanmigrant. It was prompted by discussions with Joseph Harrington (University of Kansas) on academic labor and non-traditional actors within the university setting, Megan Kaminski (University of Kansas) on the notion of the “flanuese,” the woman flaneur, and visiting poet and scholar Linda Russo (Washington State University) on ecopoetics. To Russo, I queried, “If the poet is the archivist and the poem the archive, how is the work of the tree in archiving rainfall any different than the work of the poet?” Zephyr is an attempt to begin answering that question from the perspective of the “flanmigrant,” the queer woman, migrant flaneur. It is an attempt to archive the wind. Listening differently in nature, not using it to express an anthropomorphized quality but in order to eavesdrop on the mind of Earth, has at the moment prompted an interest in reconceptualizations of the traditional archive, in how listening is materially held.
Shayna S. Israel
Blog Mission: In the spirit of becoming , to provide iterative thoughts toward a deepened understanding of and experience with the intersection of literary and visual arts.