National Poetry Month: Kiki Petrosino

April 15, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 1 3 min read

Kiki Petrosino’s first book of poetry, Fort Red Border, will be published by Sarabande Books this summer.

A line of poetry by Kiki: “You can’t lie to a machine. You can travel anywhere, in the right machine.

I would like to talk about trumpet cases. And toolbelts. And those large, leather folios for carrying architectural drawings. I would like to talk about safety goggles, driving gloves, tap shoes, bowling bags. I would like to talk about all the cool stuff that cool people carry when they are about to do cool things, like scale mountains or make lithographs or filet enough tuna to feed a hundred wedding guests. Equipment, I mean. Accoutrements.

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a poet is: I don’t get any stuff to play with. The craft of poetry involves surprisingly few physical materials. Good paper, a pen. Yes, certainly, a computer. But everyone uses computers; unfolding your laptop at a cafe is not necessarily a poet’s gesture. The presence of such machinery in the public sphere denotes only the idea of work, the broadest sketch of occupation. Sometimes, when I am writing poetry, I find myself wishing for the fluorescent orange belt I once possessed in my youth, when I was a “safety” at the crosswalk, ushering the smallest kids past the hot front grills of cars and school buses. I want other people to notice me and know that I’m a poet. Frank O’Hara says: “if/I ever get to be a construction worker/I’d like to have a silver hat please.” Totally!

A poet moves through the world and no one realizes who she is. The things she touches, she touches. There are no silver hats, and therefore no rules, to govern how she addresses herself to the world. Srikanth Reddy says: “The present is a word for only those words which I am now saying.” Sabrina Orah Mark says: “I did not fear them until I wanted to be afraid.” A poet moves fiercely through creation like the Biblical Adam, naming things as she goes along. Like the poet, Adam is naked except for his imagination, and in a 5th century ivory diptych, the toes of his left foot stretch beyond the frame, as if to say that Adam is already too big for the britches he’s not wearing, already halfway out of Paradise and into the wide world, where no distances may mitigate his naming. Just so, the poet’s power is located somewhere inside the immediacy of creative action. The poet sees. The poet speaks. It’s here, in this freedom, that surprises begin.

I know a chef who cultivates a sheaf of delicate knives. I know a painter who loves his linseed oil. These people make virtuosic use of their tools, moving beyond the limitations of our concrete, workaday world to bring something entirely new into it. This strange alchemy makes sonatas rise from plinths of wood and ivory; transforms a plaster wall into the face of the Virgin; makes marzipan appear where once were sugarwater, almond meal, and little else.

For the poet, this transformation happens in the darkness of the braincase. There, we each shelter a secret trove of language; there we swing our special hammers of rock crystal and solitude. Virtuosity, for the poet, comes from locating that sweet lexical vein in the rock, where our true words live. I mean our real language, the words that belong to us and to no one else. There’s a point, in every poem I write, when I begin speaking my own language for the first time. It’s when I feel the poem’s heart beating out its bigness, or its littleness. It’s when I feel a bunch of sharp little stars gathering in my own chest.

Who can deny that poems come from other, inner worlds? When Alice Notley says: “No one can sing the blues like no one. Believing in paradise which is red like fire,” she is giving us the gospel from her own planet. She is speaking a language that comes directly from her bloodstream. There are no silver hats, and so no way to predict how a poet may come into her full truth. There are no silver hats, and so any one of us may come to poetry with new songs in our mouths. Charles Simic says: “It was the age of busy widow’s walks. The dead languages of love were still in use, but also much silence, much soundless screaming at the top of the lungs.”

Unlike other tradesmen, the poet is at her best when she doesn’t quite know what she’s making, whether her song will be silent or screaming. A master goldsmith takes the recipe for “wedding ring” into his own body, so that he can fashion one the right way, each time. But the poet has mastered her craft when each poem travels to radically different places, when the sand at Margate is just as golden, as illuminated, as the sand at the bottom of the Frito’s bag.

Are you a poet? If you are, you don’t need to carry anything more than your secret song-engine. If you’re one of us, we’ll know you by the top of your lungs.

More National Poetry Month at The Millions

is the author of Fort Red Border. She lives in Iowa City. You can read her poem "Afro" here.

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