Category: Poetry

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Words Are Delicate Instruments

Lucia Duero interviews for Guernica
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Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku is interviewed by her translator Lucia Duero for Guernica:

(…)

Guernica: You grew up in communist Albania, under a dictatorship led by Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was a climate characterized by oppression and isolation; religion was outlawed. In an already isolated country, your family’s political background—which included an uncle’s attempt to assassinate Hoxha—isolated you even further. What do you remember about that time?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: When I was three years old, my family moved to my mother’s hometown, Kruje. That is where I spent my childhood. The town had a beautiful landscape, set on mountains with a view of the Adriatic Sea. It was a conservative place, well-known for having done business with Italy before World War II. That’s why the people there were pragmatic, reserved, and skeptical. In my family there was no small talk, only talk about serious things like global politics—trying to interpret the distant political signs, looking desperately for some hope things would change. Religion was forbidden beginning in 1968, when I was born. So my communication with them was limited to issues of everyday life, which were issues of survival.

When I was in kindergarten, not quite six years old, I was part of a group of children who were being prepared to give a concert on television—then I was separated from them, without explanation. When I went home, sad and angry, my mother had to explain me that we were “different.” Our family had what she called a “bad biography”—as an anti-communist family, we were condemned. Later I had to face this kind of situation all the time. Our family was like a quarantine: No one could escape, and no one could get in. We were rejected. So I was prepared for a difficult life, as were my parents and grandparents.

Albania was a very isolated country, politically, economically, and culturally. Our only connection to the world was through a radio program called Voice of America, and through the Italian television waves, which we caught illegally through primitive, improvised antennas. The only way to escape from reality was reading books. When I was twelve years old, I had already read all the books for children in the library. Confused, the librarian gave me some novels for adults and asked, “Are you sure you will not misunderstand them?” I smile when I remember that now. I think she hesitated because she was afraid love stories might influence me in a negative way. So my books were hidden everywhere—as “love letters,” as I call them in one of my poems. I had to hide those books from my mother; the last thing she wished for me was to be a daydreamer. And in such circumstances, she was right to worry.

Guernica: In one of your poems you write, “a childhood without promises / is bread without yeast / still sweet yet tough and dry.” How did you reconcile the idea of future with such a hopeless situation?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Childhood is usually identified with fantasy, adventure, and dreaming. But mine didn’t offer a lot of hope. I could read my future in my palm. Everything foretold: “You have no future!” A person must be very strong to keep going without hope.

My early books, especially the Child of Nature, are my attempt to understand and explain the essence of morality in that kind of situation. My people were persecuted, hopeless, abandoned by the world and by God (“at the edge of sadness,” as they used to say), but they never gave up. They never betrayed themselves; they were a great moral model. Amid such challenges, you have to wonder: What gives meaning to human life?

Guernica: You’ve lived under two very different political regimes: communist Albania with its lack of freedom, scarcity, and lack of possibilities, and capitalist Albania, with so-called freedom, abundance, and opportunity. What has been your experience of those two regimes, and how did they impact your writing?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Totalitarian regimes produce a culture and a moral code that is totally different from what happens in a democracy. There are two moral categories in a communist society: honest men and bad men. The “honest” ones resist compromising or collaborating with the regime, while the “bad” are the persecutors and collaborators. You can choose to be on one side or the other, but there is nothing in between. In a normal society, other factors can define who you are. You can be a good worker, sociable, tough, generous, tolerant, collaborative, friendly, and so on.

Jean-Paul Sartre said that France was freer than ever during the German occupation, when people had no choices but one: to collaborate or to resist. I’m not saying there was something good about that system. But the freest people I’ve ever met, or knew about, belonged to that period. For example, Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer who dared to fight for political pluralism and free elections. She created the first social democratic party, despite knowing the high price she would have to pay. We usually understand freedom as meaning that there are many choices—but does having more choices, or believing we do, actually make us more free?

Guernica: Your writing grapples with ideas of femininity and masculinity, and you yourself often write from a perspective of a man. How do you think about that binary?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Very often I hear talk about female literature, or femininity in literature. It’s a categorization I am not sure about. Maybe there are a few elements that distinguish women’s observations from men’s, like the ability to notice some fine details. But if you hide the author’s name, in most cases you would have difficulty identifying their gender. The same is true of the subjects of men and women’s writing: women’s literature is often considered sentimental. But if depth and brains are thought to be masculine characteristics, what we can say about women writers like Wisława Szymborska or Emily Dickinson?

Every time I find myself writing from the perspective of a man, a male character, I don’t have a clear explanation why. It might be because through a male voice I can satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to be of the opposite gender. Or it might be even more subconscious than that—perhaps I feel less exposed under the “skin” of a man, less prejudged and more protected.

(…)

From MA

Ida Börjel in Asymptote
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Seen in Asymptote, poems from Ida Börjel’s collection MA, translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida:

A
Earth: mother earth
was. Pangaea
was and Gondwana
was broken from Pangaea
from Pangaea        Laurasia

from Pangaea Laurasia
Ma all was broken into pieces
Pangea was
and Gondwana was broken from Pangaea
the universe expands
the conditional
void, locked
in time, twisted in
the human measurement earth’s
loneliness, emptiness, earth’s
abandoned lonely lunacy
time, the human era        the anthropocene

adrenaline, adrenaline was
swirls, swirls
the milky way’s
spiral structure, poisonous swirls were
hamster wheels, the mobius strips’
which happened, it happened and happened
pattern light, bright lattice bright
where eye light fractured into prisms
where the bloodhound
whose eye had burst        insomnia

F

also the cheaters were, the cheaters
 in an opportunistic flood wave, shock wave was
 waves and in the waves wading after
 the anti-information board’s green
or gray censorious praxis tags
 after wet crackers in the head during
 the press conference, paper bullets fired against
 the foreign ministry’s cheating oil deals
 iron ore, profit, fabrications
the fiction that the only thing that was
 was the only possible path through
 deforestation, iron ore
 the arms factory and the shrewdness
 shrewdness was; Operation Paperclip
 the antitank rifle Carl Gustaf in Kashmir
 the anniversary was, anniversaries
 iron ore, the decision mid-summer
 regarding the german soldiers’ safe transit
 across the tracks between the Norwegian
 and Finnish border        Svea

butterflies, butterfly mine
dams were; labyrinthine
echo chamber
 the shivering; the capsules; semi
prone; flood delta the situation
 could be assessed based on their love
 usually they came out to dance and listen
—when we played and no one came 
the soldiers knew that action would follow
the Syrian troop’s human shields
 a fine wreath of children
 clinging to the tanks to not
 be shot into the head
there was, in the factory and the factory
 outside the factory walls
 the profit margin, the human factor
 what had become reasonable in as things stand
full speed ahead, legitimate answers, weak
 levees        Katrina

(…)

 

Three Poems

Andy Axel for BOMB Magazine
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New poems by Andy Axel for BOMB Magazine:

Canada Dry
 
How specific is neck to a woods?
Sleep-sick, the vehicle I operate’s full
of ears that fail to be pricked by the query
so I field it myself, “one for the road” in that
it keeps it under us because it keeps me awake
to the dark of what’s technically morning,
pierced by First Birdsong Award-winning
bird’s song. We’re trucking scrapple,
a regional meat for meat’s sake
and since back North you can’t get it,
quick since the further you take it
the less edible it gets.
 
No one’s a local at the tollbooth
because nobody’s from where we are,
but the robot’s there always,
taking a job and I’m asking
what can’t be trash
to a bin that says “Trash Only.”
Mirror I saw on the sidewalk,
I know this one,
“not trash, not free, $50 bucks”
it said in magic marker,
throwing up a plot of clouds slick
with the surface but empty of threat.
How much a 2-liter drained of ginger ale is worth
depends on which jurisdiction you redeem it in.
 
Listen—a border welcomes us to brittle glass,
meaningful chiefly in the units we use
to get away from it.
Wherever we’re going is home,
where I’m at my worst for loving distance.
Like a landmark, I steer by the loose-leaf
a Bambi Academy kid crayoned a big rose
and “no smoking” onto I found
stuck to an inner tube in winter
as it rolled free down Mermaid Ave,
navigating by values I can’t know.

(…)

Post Identity

Carmen Giménez Smith for LitHub
CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH

Excerpt from a new poem by Carmen Giménez Smith on LitHub.

am I reclaiming separatist
or redefining epithets
fiction fable or fact
a shift or a sharing
who leads this tango
the thief or the judge
the huckster or the king
can I trust the momentum
or is it pure performance
will I be claimant or
defendant there
plough or oxen
is this like any other insistent
duality are we going to get
ahistorical because of
the thing with the thing
covered up with things
quashed and censored
unnameable inexpressible
untame hard to pronounce
things better left in the past
sounds like shrimperial
I could just leave the grid
leave it behind me
for some tentative exile
but what island might
I become where would
my allegiance be
and how would I construct
reasonable interventions
into culture or where might
I occupy where might I find
the suitable therefore inferior
slot meant for this labor
and could I live there
interminably and how
civil would I have
to perform like arboretum
or like the city public statue
of a settler or like skate park
or sanitarium or fallow field
with a pile of burning tires
and then how would you define
what I was or if I was
what you had hoped true
erotically or temperamentally
therefore intrinisically
how should I transfigure
and where should I locate
the self because it’s loose
and hot and deranged
it’s hot and ill-tempered

(…)

With Love and Love and Rage and Love

Stephanie Anderson for Guernica
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Stephanie Anderson’s poem in Guernica:

Wednesday we discover several things.
First that some consider memory
to be a lilting luxury. But it’s science she says

and reading is the most beautiful
posture. I agree, I can’t explain, I throw it up.

We use several because singularity sounds
like woe. How can they not believe in science

out the window white water. Lyric sounds
like pretty nation but we’re going to spit it up.

Why do I leave furrows in all these texts dragging
my bad memory beside. We’ll show these men
our lyric. It’s not modesty it hurts she says

what they forget. Lyric is supposed to
hurt he said while I choked it up.

All these minutes of questionable consent.
When I spoke he said how unfair.

They sang of sweets as the girl starved.
It’s not a simile it’s a scene it’s not an allegory

it’s an event. On the map, great gasps
of land are already gone. When we sleep
we are heaving about power.

I Used to Go for Long Walks in the Evenings

Stephen Sexton writes for Granta

Stephen Sexton’s poem in Granta 135: New Irish Writing

My celebrity accumulated like a kidney stone:
children, pets, even some corvids recognised me
so it was time for my appointment at the wax museum.
I was to be measured and charted with lasers and calipers,
from the depth of my philtrum to the balls of my feet.
Finally, the fellow admired The ears like little queries,
he said, What do you think about that!
Just then the Director of the museum, a man
with no more scruples than a cat o’ nine tails has pulses,
entered to inspect his investment.
Very expensive, he grumbled, footfall, overheads,
gallons of Japanese beeswax, apiarists’ strike in Osaka
and I passed the time naming the counties of Ireland.

When it was December, I came in to view
my likeness the night before its exhibition.
There was a little party. Because I loved myself
I had plenty of wine and made my acquaintance.
Every detail was present: itchy Velcro hooks of stubble,
pink threads of blood vessels in the sclera.
I had the sensation of looking in a mirror about a year ago.
After an hour or so I pretended to quarrel with myself
and the long and short of it is that the model went over
and broke off at the waist. It was accidental.
The Director exploded like a good break in a great game of pool.
I’d be arrested, prosecuted, fined, executed unless
we came to some sort of arrangement. I had no choice.
It hasn’t been easy learning to stand perfectly still
but from 10 until 6 each day, I do in the East Wing.
The days are long but the evenings are mine.
This is why my eyes are so glassy, this is why my legs are so sore.

You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday

Michael Robbins writing for the Paris Review

Michael Robbins’ poem in the Spring 2017 issue of the Paris Review:

You haven’t texted
since Saturday,
when I read Keith Waldrop’s
translation of Les Fleurs du mal
on a bench by whatever
that tower is on the hill
in Fort Greene Park
until you walked up
late as always and I do
mean always
in your dad’s army jacket
and said “Hi, buddy”
in a tone that told me
all I needed to know,
although protocol dictated
that you should sit next to me 
and spell it out
and we should hold each other
and cry and then pretend
everything was fine, would
be fine, was someday
before the final
trumpet, before heat death,
zero point, big rip
sure to be absolutely
perfectly completely
probably fine. And 
though it wasn’t and 
wouldn’t be, 
I walked you to the G
then rode the C
to Jay Street–MetroTech.
Just now I took a break from 
this retrospect
to smoke one of the Camels
in the sky-blue box marked
IL FUMO UCCIDE
you brought me from Italy
and page through a book
on contemporary physics.
“Something must be
very wrong,” it said,
and I agreed,
although it turned out
the author meant that “no theory
of physics should produce
infinities with impunity.”
I’d point out that every theory
of the heart
produces infinities
with impunity
if I were the kind of jerk
who uses the heart
to mean the human
tendency to make
others suffer
just because we
hate to suffer
alone. I’m sorry
I brought a fitted sheet
to the beach. I’m sorry 
I’m selfish and determined
to make the worst
of everything. I’m
sorry language is a ship 
that goes down
while you’re building it.
The Hesychasts of Byzantium
stripped their prayers
of words. It’s been tried
with poems too. But insofar
as I am a disappointment 
to myself and others, it seems fitting
to set up shop in almost 
and not quite and that’s not 
what I meant. I draw the line at the heart,
though, with its
infinities. And I have to say 
I am not a big fan 
of being sad. Some people 
can pull it off. When 
we hiked Overlook, you
went on ahead to the summit
while I sat on a rock
reading Thomas Bernhard. 
I’d just made it to the ruins 
of the old hotel
when you came jogging back down
in your sports bra
saying I had to come see the view.
But my allergies were bad
and I was thirsty,
so we headed down the gravelly trail,
pleased by the occasional
advent of a jittery
chipmunk. You showed me pictures
on your phone of the fire 
tower, the nineteenth-
century graffiti carved
into the rock, and the long
unfolded valley
of the Hudson. At the bottom, 
the Buddhists let us
fill our water bottles
from their drinking fountain.
We called a cab and sat
along the roadside
watching prayer flags
rush in the wind. I said the wind
carried the prayers
inscribed on the flags
to the gods, but Wikipedia
informs me now that 
the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread good will and compassion into all pervading space. 
So I was wrong, again,
about the gods. Wherever
you are, I hope you stand
still now and then
and let the prayers
wash over you like the breakers
at Fort Tilden that day
the huge gray gothic 
clouds massed and threatened to drop
a storm on our heads
but didn’t.

Burns night: the battle over Scottish identity continues

Annalena McAfee writing for the Guardian
rose street poets

In 1950s and 60s Edinburgh, the Rose Street poets led a Scottish renaissance that kindled today’s independence movement. Language remains at the heart of the debate today. Annalena McAfee writes for the Guardian:

Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden wrote. It does, however, provide an excellent excuse for a late-January bacchanal. The annual Burns Night supper, marking the birth of Scotland’s national poet, reprises the excesses of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, with a ritualistic meal, strong drink and verse recitations standing in for carols.

Accessorised in tartan, in pubs, clubs and private homes throughout the UK, revellers raise glasses to the immortal memory, musically recall Auld Lang Syne and, in robust rhyming Scots vernacular, praise haggis then spear, eviscerate and serve it. The rite, with optional ceilidh dancing, is observed from Abu Dhabi to Hawaii, Singapore to Moscow, as well the more obviously diasporic regions of Canada, New Zealand and America (although haggis is currently banned in the Land of the Free).

Some native Scots, however, are sceptical about the tradition, and Scottish scepticism, forged in the birthplace of David Hume, has a particularly abrasive quality. One of the most high-profile dissenters from Burnsian orthodoxy was Scotland’s other national poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who, in 1926, in his most celebrated poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, wrote of the Ayrshire bard: “Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name/ Than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ.” MacDiarmid attacked the Burns cult for its reactionary kitsch and “kailyard” sentimentality: “You canna gang to a Burns supper even/ Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o a knock-knee/ Chinee turns roon to say, ‘Him Haggis – velly goot!’ /And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.”

Burns had his “shortcomings” – MacDiarmid, perversely, singled out “a tendency to jeer at foreign things and express a sort of xenophobia”. But it was the “church of Burns”, not the poet himself, who earned MacDiarmid’s true ire: “Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts/ And aa their fancy freens rejoicin/ That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo/ Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin/ Burns’ sentiments o universal love,/ In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots”. The devotees didn’t even understand his language, argued MacDiarmid: “No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote.”

The same could, of course, be said about MacDiarmid’s own Scots verse, but for this fierce contrarian, who never claimed the easy charm of his predecessor, accessibility or popularity was not the aim. If the English were baffled by his Scots poetry, so much the better. This was an unsurprising stance from someone who, in his Who’s Who entry, described his hobby as “Anglophobia”. MacDiarmid took pride in contradiction – “Caledonian antisyzygy” he called it – and had the unique distinction of being expelled from the National Party of Scotland, forerunner of the SNP, for being a communist and from the Communist party for being a nationalist. In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, when thousands of British communists left the CP in protest, MacDiarmid rushed to rejoin the party.

(…)

Say Something Back by Denise Riley

Kate Kellaway on Denise Riley's latest collection
denise riley

Kate Kellaway explaining in the Guardian why Denise Riley’s poetry is ‘deeply necessary’: 

It sometimes seems that contemporary poetry divides into two sorts – those poems that did not need to be written and those written out of necessity. Denise Riley belongs to the second category – her writing is perfectly weighted, justifies its existence. It is impossible not to want to “say something back” to each of her poems in recognition of their outstanding quality. Her voice is strong and beautiful – an imperative in itself. But her subject is not strength – it is more that she is robust about frailty. She describes in A Part Song, the most important of her poems, the death of her adult son, Jacob – to whom, along with his sisters, the volume is dedicated.

Maybe; maybe not starts the collection on a wing and prayer – in which Riley refashions the biblical with a new take on Corinthians – I love her line about putting away “plain things for lustrous”. Although written with certainty, it is a poem about doubt, and leads naturally to A Part Song, which follows it. Here she begins by doubting song itself: “You principle of song, what are you for now.” And in song, it is the plain, not the lustrous, she craves. She dismisses the conventional lyrical solace of elegy. “I can’t get sold on reincarnating you/ As those bloody ‘gentle showers of rain’/ Or in ‘fields of ripening grain’ – ooh/ Anodyne.” Instead she wishes her son’s “lighthearted presence, be bodied forth/ Straightforwardly”.

It is a poem of several tones – but never hushed, reverent or docile. This is part of its originality. At one point, she startles with a mum’s scolding tone – painful to read – as she urges her son to be alive almost as you might tell a teenager he has had one sleepover too many and urge him to come home (death the never-over sleepover). And she complains: “But by now/ We’re bored with our unproductive love,/ And infinitely more bored by your staying dead/ Which can hardly interest you much either.”

(…)

Say Something Back is published by Picador (£9.99).

The Hatred of Poetry

by Ben Lerner
Fitz.cover_Ben-Lerner

Today is the publication day of the fifteenth book from Fitzcarraldo Editions: Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. Buy the book from our website and read the first few pages of this essay below.

In ninth grade English, Mrs. X required us to memorize and recite a poem, so I went and asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew, and she suggested Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorized Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet, whereas I had only to recite twenty-four words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make fourteen of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorize than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb—a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That, plus the four instances of “it,” makes Moore sound like a priest begrudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the deliberately clumsy enjambment of the second line and the third (“in / it”). In fact, “Poetry” is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right each of the three chances I was given by Mrs. X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.

My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence; I just Googled the poem and had to correct what I typed out above, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike ithas been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet is being introduced (including myself) at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach, I basically hum it. When somebody tells me, as so many people have told me, that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe that poetry is dead: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.

“Poetry”: What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it? An art hated from without and within. What kind of art has as a condition of its possibility a perfect contempt? And then, even reading contemptuously, you don’t achieve the genuine. You can only clear a place for it—you still don’t encounter the actual poem, the genuine article. Every few years an essay appears in a mainstream periodical denouncing poetry or proclaiming its death, usually blaming existing poets for the relative marginalization of the art, and then the defenses light up the blogosphere before the culture, if we can call it a culture, turns its attention, if we can call it attention, back to the future. But why don’t we ask: What kind of art is defined—has been defined for millennia—by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense? Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it, and have largely organized my life around it (albeit with far less discipline and skill than Marianne Moore) and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are for me—and maybe for you—inextricable.

[…]

Fitz Carraldo Editions