Summer Poetry and Photography August 7th

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Join me and fellow poets Carol Edelstein, Amy Dryansky and Michelle Valois for a summer reading at the APE Gallery (126 Main Street) in Northampton, MA. We are reading in conjunction with an exhibit by photographer Kate Way. The event is August 7th at 7:30 p.m. Each poet will read for 15 minutes and I’m kicking things off so come on time if you want to hear me read some new work! Wine, snacks and your opportunity to peruse books and photos will follow. I want to thank Susan Kan of Perugia Press for organizing this event and inviting me to read. Perugia Press has been dedicated to publishing poetry by women since 1997. And the work is truly important, especially with the loss of presses like University of Akron Press, edited and led by women.

Perugia poets have won the PEN center USA award, PEN New England Award, and the James Laughlin Award, to name a few. I love Perugia books! This, from the website: “And when confronted with the statistics about gender inequality in publishing, it’s clear we have work to do. Some people believe the reason for discrepancies between men and women is that men are simply writing better books. At Perugia Press, we are convinced otherwise and are doing our part to tip the scales into balance.

Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: 73% male winners, 27% female winners
Nobel Prize in Literature: 89% male winners, 11% female winners
National Book Critics Circle Award: 65% male winners, 35% female winners
Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award: 70% male winners, 30% female winners
Poets Laureate of the United States: 75% men, 25% women”

Massachusetts Poetry Festival and Salem (A Photo Diary with More Landscape than People)

IMG_0105 I made my way out to the eastern part of the state on Friday for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, held in Salem every year in early May. I was born and raised in the eastern part of the state and brave Route 495 every few months to see family or get further north, but it’s truly a different world. Drivers on Route 128 on a late Friday afternoon don’t want to pass you so much as drive through your car. And that’s in the “slow” lane! My life is about as predictable and staid as an anchorite’s, so the Mass Poetry Fest (tiny in comparison to AWP) felt like a boatload of socializing to me. And I wasn’t the only one: poets were dropping like flies from overstimulation. The Panel Zero to One: First Books and What We Wish We’d Known, which I’m a proud member of and have taken part in twice, went off without a hitch on Saturday afternoon. We had a full house and some great questions. I saw the poet Gregory Pardlo give his first reading as a Pulitzer prize winning poet. Saw Cynthia Cruz, who I imagined would be kind of tough (poetry subject matter) but who was slight in stature and sweet-voiced.  I met up with my first poetry professor and a former classmate (it’s been 20 years!), had lunch with poets, spotted Rita Dove and Richard Blanco, met new poets and had dinner with poets, talked about poetry, spent too much at the book fair, felt a bit horrified at the way Salem’s tragic witch trial history has been trivialized and commercialized. It would be like Americans in 400 years creating the equivalent of a 911 amusement park. Sadly, it adds up to historical ignorance and amnesia. The Salem witch trial story is fascinating on both a historic and social level, and there are some interesting theories as to what caused a group of girls to accuse half the town of witchcraft, sending pious citizens to the gallows. But I’ll save that for another post. Finally, on my last day, I found the ocean, where it seems only people with dogs and children converge. The smell of sea air and the peace of the vast Atlantic could only have been improved upon if the temps were above 50. I had to come home to the western hills for that!

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1898 World’s Fair and a Poem

tmi00857  “Indian Parade” Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, 1898

In 1898, America’s World’s Fair took place in Omaha, Nebraska. Called the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the 1898 fair sought to depict the ‘settling’ of the west, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast.  The  Indian Congress was a major feature of the fair and a big draw for crowds. Twenty-one tribes participated in the congress, which included sham battles between ‘cowboys and Indians’, parades, displays of Native American tribal culture and most importantly, a living diorama, where tribes camped and ‘lived’ for the duration of the fair as they would have before reservation life stripped them of tradition. Visitors were encouraged to mill-around the living diorama, view and interact with tribal members. The irony of the Indian Congress was that it sought to to document a Native American lifestyle that had been eliminated by the government’s heavy hand in manipulating tribal culture. The following poem appears in my second collection Split the CrowThe poem is not double-spaced but WordPress can’t understand that, apologies.

Indian Exhibit; The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, 1898

The Indian band strikes up Stars and Stripes Forever—

familiar distress signal of circus performers everywhere.

Down the midway waving scalps cut from cow-hide.

The Improved Order of Red Men play friendly

Indians to the white man’s clever cowboy. The sham

battle; a march to the reservation. Wander through the living

diorama, open day and night: this is how they cook

on open fire, this is how they cry.

Three Indians die and one attempts suicide

behind the scenes. This grass house and tipi and windbreak;

the only authentic artifacts says the ethnologist

James Mooney on arrival from Oklahoma

with 106 authentic Kiowa and their ponies.

He carries his grass house like a social studies project.

This lead buffalo, these miniature Indians

holding twigs for arrows. Real sized Indians

brandishing blanks. See

 

these once formidable enemies

of white man

camped together in a frame—

 

Split the Crow Officially Published and Available!

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It’s here! My long-awaited second poetry baby. I have a theory that all poetry babies are overdue. Split the Crow is my second collection and was published by Parlor Press. It’s available now on the website for a mere $14 and you can choose super-quick or no-rush shipping, depending on your tastes. For those of you who read my first collection Church of Needles and enjoyed my blending of history, persona and lyric, I think you’ll like this one. Split the Crow begins in the contact period, 1600s New England, with King Phillips War and friction between European settlers and Native Americans. The poems move forward in time and migrate to the southern United States and the forced expulsion of tribes from ancestral land, forced schooling and attempted eradication of not only native culture, but native people (read: genocide). The poems adopt many voices, both European and native and arrive somewhere in the present, or future, with a few poems on environmental degradation. This quote, one of my blurbs, is from the poet Ellen Dore Watson:

“Split the Crow is rife with surprise, rich with inventive images from the natural world, and delicious with music. Weaving through centuries of Native American material culture, Sousa walks no straight lines. From ‘Her Moods Caused Owls’: ‘Once there was a girl who spoke / garlands’ and (four lines later) ‘her fear caused gardens.’ This brilliant, idiosyncratic book rides the wave of language and consciousness rather than narrative, to breathtaking effect. And this poet is not just smart, she’s wise.”

The beautiful artwork on the cover, titled Fragments of Midnight, is by artist Elise Mahan. Her shop is dangerous for me, so many mythic birds. I want them all! And I’d like to thank David Blakesley, publisher at Parlor Press, for getting the cover design just right.

My book launch will take place on March 30th, 7 p.m. at Amherst Books in Amherst, MA. It will double as my honorary prize reading for winning the 2015 Anne Halley Prize awarded by the Massachusetts Review.

Poem Inspired by a Photo Taken by Itinerant Photographer

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Image From New England Reflections 1882-1907 Photographs by the Howes Brothers

The following persona poem is based on the above photograph and appears in my upcoming collection Church of Needles, officially published on May 30 but available for pre order right now at Red Mountain Press and Amazon.com

 

 

BLACK WOMAN STANDS FOR THE ITINERANT PHOTOGRAPHER

Said in town, a gentleman wished to see me.

Early April, the yard still pocked
where the dull cow stands
blinking back a sharp sun,

winter’s waste laid bare around us.

Trees haven’t yet recalled their leaves
and a cold drizzle slicks the pump handle.
This far north, spring storms still surprise.
April brings a slackened grip, a brighter light
to view winter’s leavings: not warmth, not flowers.

I’m wondering Sir, why you want to see me.

They say in town, you carry a box with an eye and wish to see everyone.
I think they’re mistaken if they believe

you wish to see me, my soiled apron,
dress rubbing bare at the elbows, the scar
I wear down one side of my face.
But this is New York where I am free
to live in one room beneath a low-slung roof, to plot my days and garden.

So, if you still wish to see me, I ask
that you see me true, not seated in repose beneath that pretty oak.

I don’t often take time to rest. See me standing
beside the stones I’ve heaped
to build my own wall,
the hens a blur of flight. Please,
let the light refuse to soften me.

Persona Poetry as Poetry of Witness

Poetryarchive.org defines the persona poem “from the Latin for mask, a character taken on by a poet to speak in a first-person poem”. The Academy of American Poets’ website poets.org defines the persona poem as a dramatic monologue, akin to the theatrical monologue: “an audience is implied; there is no dialogue; and the poet speaks through an assumed voice—a character, a fictional identity, or a persona. Because a dramatic monologue is by definition one person’s speech, it is offered without overt analysis or commentary, placing emphasis on subjective qualities that are left to the audience to interpret.”

For a poet, the persona poem offers a greater level of freedom than a poem written from the traditional first-person point of view. It also poses a greater challenge, that of embodying the other, seeing through that person’s eyes, feeling her emotions, suffering her pain, injustices, confusions. In the past five years I’ve come to embrace the persona poem to such a degree that I wonder if I should just write fiction (or plays).

Through the persona poem I have taken on the voices of a 19th century abused woman, her abusive husband and father-in-law, a 19th century giantess, a freed slave, the founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams, a host of Native Americans, both an 18th century midwife and a mother who commits infanticide . One could ask why I didn’t simply write about these people and their situations instead of creating a kind of poetic multiple personality disorder in book form. I can only say that writing about these people from the outside leaves me cold, while inhabiting them and speaking through their voices has resulted in some of my most fulfilling experiences as a writer. And I would bet that other poets who tend toward the persona poem feel similar. At a certain point poets get tired of writing about themselves, but not about the human condition. This isn’t to say that I never write first person poetry where the is actually me. I just don’t find it as compelling and more often than not my first person poems become a hybrid; maybe I start with some fact true to myself, but I quickly move out of myself, fabricate, universalize. It’s just so interesting to imagine how a 19th century giantess might feel if she feared she’d never stop growing. This is where the persona poem can become a poem of witness. Instead of literally witnessing the lives of others from the outside; their suffering and oppression, we become them. Rather than conjuring sympathy, we embody empathy. I’m not saying this practice is without flaws. In speaking in the voice of an oppressed Native American or escaped slave, I’m not assuming I know what it felt like to have my family, my ancestral land, my life taken away. But I can try. I’m human and I think it’s part of my responsibility as an artist to know the vagaries of the human condition, to experience through imagination the lives of others, to try.

I have noticed that I’m compelled to write from the perspective of people who have no voice, who have been silenced. It’s likely my own horror at the thought of not having a voice, not being heard. After all, a person, or a group of people can be seen but have their voices dismissed or silenced. And I enjoy the process of finding those voices and listening to what they have to say.

Below is one of my own persona poems which doesn’t appear in either of my forthcoming collections. It was a finalist a couple years ago for the Blue Mesa prize, but sadly wasn’t published. The story and italicized passages were taken from a New Yorker article of May 2011 titled: “God Knows Where I am” by Rachel Aviv. The article chronicled problems of the mental health care system, in particular, the tragedy of Linda Bishop, a schizophrenic woman who fell through the cracks and was found dead in an empty farmhouse. She had kept a journal during the last months of her life.

 

More Than the Weight of its Laden Branches

 

The cottage has an apple tree and textbooks

in the attic, a couch slashed by bars of sun

where I lie tragic as a wine spill.

Because I fear discovery by the man

who mows the lawn, I keep my routine

simple: wake early with the birds,

wash in the stream, harvest water and apples.

Keep out of sight, conserve energy.

Three apples a day times twenty years equals…

When I stand too quickly the room goes

dim. In autumn I pick the tree

clean, store the apples in a pillowcase 

for winter. I move like a ghost

behind faded curtains, ration my reading,

ration the apples, and make lists

in a black address book: embolism, sharp

cheddar, rhizome, cell division, linguini and clams. 

I write: I know I will die of starvation

and should leave here. I stay.

I write: God is sending a husband

and wishes me to wait for Christmas.

Three apples a day times three months

equals…I wait. Christmas comes,

New Year’s, clumps of hair in the bed.

I believe the remedy to be profuse

sunshine and love. I believe I will

die of starvation. Thirty days ago

I ate the last apple. It’s cold

but the chickadees will sing me

(nobody-nobody-nobody) through winter.

I stop reading. I follow, on hands and knees,

the sun as it moves through the rooms,

lie down in its patches. The heater’s breath

grows shallower every day.

I know I should leave but don’t.

For one, I can no longer stand,

two; it’s so peaceful here. I have everything

I ever wanted—an apple tree equals

more than the weight of its laden branches.

When my husband arrives we’ll add

a garden and a smokehouse. My heart-

beat slows to an icicle’s thin drip. I write:

whomever finds my body should know

this was a case of domestic violence.