Form Reveals Poems for the Machines They Are: The Millions Interviews Saara Myrene Raappana

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Saara Myrene Raappana grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China, and now lives in western Minnesota where she teaches and is the communications director for MotionPoems.

Athena Kildegaard: How did you come to writing poetry? What is your genesis story?

Saara Myrene Raappana: I like this idea of a genesis story. I’d like to organize the genesis of me writing poetry into a story. Let’s say that in the beginning there was probably just church — my father’s a Lutheran pastor, so there was a lot of church, which is really just a lot of people reciting or singing the same poems every week, so I think that meter and anaphora and apostrophe and all that stuff just got rutted into my brain. I don’t remember ever not writing poetry, and maybe that’s why. I also read a LOT. I had no discipline (like, people think that I’m just being modest, but I’m actually showing my younger self quite a bit of generosity), and wasn’t huge on school, and the further I got in secondary school the worse I did, but I always read, and I always wrote. And I think all the kinds of writing teach you to write all the kinds of writing. Same with reading.

But to return to the conceit.

And in my 18th year, I drove to the local university extension and gave them $200 so I could take classes, for I had neglected to apply to college. And I said: let me not study poetry exclusively, for it is impractical. Let me additionally study things marginally less impractical (human development and literature) while devoting time to what’s almost as impractical. And there were punk rock shows, and experimental noise performances in basements and weird indie magazines and a lot of brightly colored hats. And I heard that it was loud. And there was evening and there was bar time — a second phase.

And I said: let me abandon a lifestyle of watching men play instruments with violent, enviable abandon. And I went to grad school and continued to flail around, undisciplined, and then I found myself with a degree. And there was graduation and reading reading reading reading writing writing reading writing. And I saw that it was better. And there was reading and writing and rejection and acceptance and books and books — a new phase.

AK: You grew up in Upper Peninsula Michigan. I’ve always thought of the UP as being similar in some ways to Maine: a place full of hardscrabble storytellers with their own regional twang. Has the UP voice made its way into your poetic voice and if so, how?

SMR: Well, yes, but not necessarily in a dialectish sense. I do have some poems where the voice — meaning phrases or names or syntax that’s particular to the UP — appears, but the voice of the UP that appears in probably all of my work is, to play on your word, a voice that’s both hardscrabble and gentlescrabble. By which I mean that the UP is difficult — physically difficult, especially if snow and ice aren’t your jam — but also that it’s beset by poverty and isolation and the garbage and spindly, empty, unused buildings and xenophobic ideas that tend to flourish in places like that. But it’s also beautiful — like, inspirational poster/Pinterest board beautiful; I mean, mind-searing, art-defying beautiful — both physically and in its crazy history and in the very particular, unique cultures (and languages and traditions and economies) that flourish there, in part because of their isolation. I grew up taking the beauty for granted and dreaming of living elsewhere, and I’ve left and lived all over, and now of course I often ache for the landscape and those unique particulars, and they’re in everything I write. Plus, I believe in writing complicated, difficult, highfalutin’ poems, but I want them to be accessible — I always ask myself if my grandparents (who were smart and valued reading but weren’t educated; they were miners and trappers and construction workers and housewives and maids) would be able to appreciate my poems, and if the answer is no, I revise. I believe in beautiful, demanding, democratic poetry, and that’s Yooper as hell.

AK: Your first book is the chapbook Milk Tooth, Levee, Fever. Sometimes first books are the result of many year’s work. Is this true of yours? How did it come into being? Why start with a chapbook? Would you recommend this to other writers?

SMR: Yes? I guess — especially if you consider that I did all that wandering around in the ’90s and ’00s, and those years are very much in the poems. One of the poems is actually a radical revision of a poem I wrote in grad school and two or three others I drafted for the first time soon after I graduated.

For years, I didn’t even consider putting together a chapbook. I’d always seen them as self-published and less-than, but either I was wrong or they’ve gotten much fancier — I’m not sure which. Probably both.

But putting together both chapbooks taught me a lot about what differentiates a manuscript from a bunch of poems. Milk Tooth, Levee, Fever happened in one way — I had a bunch of poems and realized that they fit together—and A Story of America Goes Walking was a series of poems written as a project, and each process was extremely instructive.

So in that sense, yes, I would recommend starting with a chapbook if you’re having trouble manuscripting. The smallness of it made it feel manageable to me in a way that a full manuscript didn’t.

AK: What do you think that first book announced to the world?

SMR: My understanding of that is limited and evolving, but I hope that it announced that I’m for the usefulness that can be found in what’s broken. I’ll stand for that any day.

AK: You use form sometimes. For example, “Winter Correspondence,” is a ghazal. Why are you attracted to forms? How does a poem take on a form in your experience — do you start out knowing you’ll write in a particular form or does the form reveal itself? If the latter, is this surprising to you?

SMR: At this point, I start probably 90 percent of my poems in form — if not in a specific received form, at the very least in meter and rhyme. It most often falls away in revision (or I move the lines around to hide it because I’m a weirdo like that), but I do love writing in received forms. I’m attracted to the way that they limit the field — without form, I have hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, and I don’t want the burden of that much freedom. I also love the way that writing in form connects me to other poets and the traditions of poetry. And I love the way that a finished line in a received form — or a line of free verse that’s still very formy — absolutely must be the line that it is. You can’t move the break or rephrase or remove words. Form reveals poems for the machines that they are.

As for how I start, whether I begin with a particular form, it goes both ways. I’ve heard people say that it’s ridiculous to sit down and say “I’m going to write a sestina now” — that the poem should reveal its form and or that certain forms are best for certain subjects. And I think that’s true — for example, I love it when an established rhyme reveals new content; that’s for-reals the dream — but I’m relatively new to form. I’ve always enjoyed it but didn’t start actively writing in forms until after grad school, so I feel like every time I write in a form I’m learning or relearning it. So sometimes I actually do say “I’m going to write a sestina now,” and then I write a lot of bad sestinas, and those bad sestinas teach me that, for example, sestinas expand where villanelle’s contract, that sestinas tend to want to be about circuitousness or obsession. Or sonnets teach me that pentameter can heighten drama — things like that. And once I’ve written enough bad versions of a form (and some of those bad poems eventually turn into good poems), that form will start popping up, which is usually a fun surprise. Sometimes, if I can’t get a poem to work, I’ll rewrite it in a few different forms, just to try different solutions.

AK: Your beautiful book A Story of America Goes Walking is a collaboration between you and the artist Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton. How did you find one another? How did the collaboration work?

SMR: Bekah and I were in Peace Corps together. She and her husband arrived a year before us and lived maybe an hour’s train ride away. She turned two of my poems into broadsides for Shechem Press’s 2012 and 2014 artist broadside series. She’d done cuts and prints for other books for Schechem Press — Stephen Behrendt’s Refractions is a beautiful book — but for those, she wasn’t working with each poem individually. She contacted me and said that she wanted to do a project that was more collaborative — where each poem interacted with a print and vice versa. She’d been reading Thoreau’s “Walking” essay, and she asked if I’d be interested in working with it. I’m actually not very into Thoreau, but I’m about challenges, so yes! We both read the essay over and over and talked a bit about how Thoreau’s vision of America mirrored or contradicted both present-day America and the way we saw America while living in China. We both placed drafts (do visual artists call them drafts?) in a Dropbox folder. At first, she was creating images to go with my poems, but as things progressed, I was responding to her prints. In one case — “In the Women’s Hospital” — I had a draft, and I believed in the poem, but I couldn’t crack its form. Seeing her print of an ant trapped in water blight, I realized that it needed anaphora, and the rest of the poem fell into place. A lot of the process was like that — every time I got stuck on what to do next, the answer was in her work.

AK: You are a founding editor of CellPoems. Tell us about that poetry journal. Has this work influenced your own writing in any way?

SMR: It started with one of my grad school colleagues — he had the idea to start a journal of text-messaged poetry. So we text poems to people (140 characters or less, including the title and the poet’s name) every so often. We used to do it weekly, but our technology and budget haven’t kept up with our subscriber volume, so now it’s an occasional surprise thing.

It’s definitely influenced my work — not that I write tiny poems (though I sometimes do), but spending so much time with a Submittable queue has taught me a lot about the difference between a fine poem and a fantastic poem. I’ve learned to always consider both the craft and the stakes of what I’m writing, because one without the other doesn’t work, and if you have neither I’m just not interested, and I’m not saying that I’ve never written something I wasn’t interested in — I’m saying I try not to.

AK: For people who are not avid readers of poetry, how would you describe the “difference between a fine poem and a fantastic one?”

SMR: To some degree, of course, it’s subjective and magical — some poems just grab you for no reason, and you just slip away from others. Like, for example, for years I just couldn’t understand why people lost their minds over Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then one day I heard “Spring and Fall” on a podcast, and it broke Hopkins open for me, and now he’s one of my go-tos. So some part of it is magic and personal, and I can’t pretend to understand that. But the other part, I think, is something we don’t talk much about, which is the stakes of a poem. The ridic brill poet Anna George Meek told me once that someone had talked to her about how (and this is a paraphrase) you can write a perfectly good poem, a publishable poem, but until you enter the wilderness of the poem, it will not be a great poem. And I think that wilderness is where the ice of the poem starts to ride on its own melting or where the top of the reader’s head gets physically taken off or whichever other well-repeated metaphor everyone uses to refer to this unexplainability that I suspect is totally explainable. I know that it’s a combination of craft and stakes, about what the poem is willing to risk.


Yahya Frederickson in Yemen: The Gold of the Wayfarer

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Some poets travel to distant lands and bring back exotic sights and smells. But others go to witness turmoil or violence, to be at the center of political or social change and to bring back the news — not as journalists do, but shaped through language and image in ways that awaken our sensibilities and our emotions.

Bloomer Yahya Frederickson lived in a distant land and has brought back something completely different.

The grandson of a Norwegian, a Dane, and two Swedes, Frederickson grew up and went to college in Moorhead, a small city on the Red River in northwestern Minnesota. In an effort to try something new, he went off to Montana to earn an MFA. Then, because his taste for adventure was whetted, and since he’d never traveled outside the United States and was eager to see the world, Frederickson skipped the continent to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer — and where he landed happened to be Yemen. That first year, he experienced his adopted country as a tourist might, paying attention to what made Yemen different. Gradually he made friends and began to see Yemen as a home filled with people no different in their desires and thirsts from the people in Moorhead and Missoula.

Then the Gulf War began and all Peace Corps volunteers had to leave the country. Some of that group did not return, but at the first opportunity, Frederickson went back — in his year at home he discovered that he’d fallen in love with Yemen. So he completed his two-year obligation to the Peace Corps and stayed. In the four years that followed, while he taught at Sana’a University, he made lifelong friends, met his wife and married, had children, and converted to Islam.

His conversion was not the act of a rebellious young person, nor was it a rejection of a faith he’d grown up in, since his family was not particularly devout. In an interview some years ago, Frederickson spoke of living in a country that was 99 percent Muslim. At first, he found the calls to prayer exotic. “The calls to prayer…would start…in what seemed to be the middle of the night. Just the…loud but hauntingly beautiful call to prayer, the ‘Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar’ in the dark and you’d wake up because you’ve never been awakened by anything in the middle of the night like that before.” Eventually, though, the call “turned out to be something that I really grew to appreciate despite my apprehension and distrust of it at the beginning.” Frederickson was drawn to this ritual devotion and its relaxed attitude toward worldliness, toward business and commerce; an attitude that was less fraught, less demanding than in the United States. He saw that “they weren’t running, running, running all day long…there was a social value…to sitting with people and discussing things, having conversations.” Frederickson realized, “I’d been looking for something to believe in and something to use. You know, a faith that will direct your life, not just direct your faith.” In the Islamic faith he found a way to connect his spiritual life to his bodily life.

After six years total in Yemen, Frederickson returned to the Midwest with his family and went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota. He now teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead and has returned to the Middle East as a Fulbright Scholar — to Syria in 2005 and to Saudi Arabia in 2011.

When I asked Frederickson to comment on the current coup underway in Yemen, he replied: “Yemen has been in turmoil almost as long as I’ve known it.” After the first Gulf War, inflation and high unemployment made life difficult for many Yemenis, and a civil war in the mid-1990s added unrest to the instability. Following the Arab Spring of 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president for the past 35 years, was forced out of office, though his successor has had his share of troubles as well. Relations between Yemen and the United States are delicate, in part because, while Yemen has been an ally in the “War on Terror,” Yemenis have been victims of failed drone attacks.

“I’ve learned,” says Frederickson, “to see that people are not their governments. People are people, with the same hopes, dreams, fears, and feelings as anybody else.” This knowledge, he says, is what he is trying to convey in his most recent, full-length book of poetry. “And isn’t this realization — that people are not their government — something that we’d want people in other countries to realize about us?”

The Gold Shop of Ba-’Ali, winner of the 2013 Idaho Prize for Poetry, follows Frederickson as he becomes a member of the community, converts to Islam (and relinquishes his given European name for “Yahya”), marries, and has children. Yet the book is not memoir or confession. Readers won’t find here a speaker wrestling with his identity or his faith, and while there are a few poems that consider the political life of Yemen, the book is not the poetry of political witness. What then, is this remarkable book of poems, how do we understand it?

The book begins with two hadiths: “Be in this world as if you are a stranger or a wayfarer,” and “The people of Yemen have come to you, and they are gentler and softer-hearted. Belief is Yemeni, and wisdom is Yemeni.” A wayfarer, or one who journeys, is an apt description of the speaker in these poems: one who moves through the world — through his life. But he’s not alone, in the journey of this book, the people of Yemen come to him — friends, students, new family members, shop owners, even a man at prayer with a Kalashnikov.

In the first poem, “Crossing,” the speaker describes a dry riverbed where sheep “lip leafless stems” and where a boy “without pants or sandals / pees into the ravine.” The speaker follows this boy into the souq, or market. The poem ends:
To earn a living, all a seller needs is a word

and the throat to wield it. Let mine answer why
I am in this life so far from my own,
why I enter every day, no desire to buy.
The poet sets out here one purpose for the book: it is an opportunity for the poet to make sense of why he’s here, in this place, far from his “own.”

The first section of the book is filled with poems that enjoy the sensory particulars of Yemen: “waxy taffy slabs” in the market; the “booty” of shops: “mutton on hooks, / shelves of jarred honey, carpets from Turkey;” the smell from a hookah: “the smoldering tang . . . tendrilling around us.” Amidst this sensory lusciousness are moments that pull us back, that refuse an urge to revel only in what’s beautiful and exotic. At an outdoor restaurant, a man named Hamoud joins the speaker. “In English tempered by movies and rap, he’s cursing his father’s homeland, its soldiers who don’t like what might be hiding behind his car windows’ purple tint.” In the living room of a friend hangs a poster that shows “Saddam Hussein atop a white stallion, greeting a clapping throng.”

In the prose poem “The Last Time,” the speaker goes to the apartment of his friend Ahmad, only to find that Ahmad’s older cousin Salih, “an officer in the military,” is there with a woman, “poised like an empress…dressed in a gown of turquoise satin.” Things turn strange:
Salih leaves the room. When he returns, he is no longer wearing his olive uniform but a white terrycloth bathrobe, his belly protruding over the cinched belt. Our presence will not alter his objective. I cringe to picture it. Our queen looks too fresh to be a prostitute, too comfortable to be a victim. For her delights, how much will he pay?
Also in the room is another man, a cousin, unnamed, who is there “maybe to watch, maybe to wait his own sloppy turn.” The speaker and Ahmad go to another room where they pick up guitars and try to make music, but their songs “don’t merge.” The poem continues:
We try a Bob Dylan tune that both of us know, but even that is hopeless: inside the room closed tight as a small fist, our discordant notes crumble onto the floor. We can’t even keep time anymore.
Frederickson perfectly captures this moment of cultural and social awkwardness.

He does the same in the poem “All-Night Teashop:”
Under the lone fluorescent bulb,
an army transport rattles to a halt,
emptying its cargo of young soldiers.

Their carbines sleep across their laps
as they devour sandwiches of jam
and cheese, glasses of mango juice.
Watching these young soldiers prompts the speaker to ask, “And what am I?” The answer: “I offer no opportunities, // nothing, except maybe / the forgiveness I see, no greater wish / in the world than tea.” This wayfarer speaks with a gentle, humble voice, a voice of one willing to look honestly at the world.

In the second section of the book, the speaker learns to be a member of the Yemeni community. “I’ve learned the futility / of proof, a commodity no one hoards,” concludes a poem about passing through checkpoints. He has followed the lead of others in passing through checkpoints with aplomb. At the end of “Malarial,” the speaker is on the beach practicing his Arabic with a boy, following fishermen to a mosque, and watching as “an old man hacks melons open, / sings wedding songs.” The poem’s quiet, observant reporting ends with the speaker watching fishermen return with their catch:
They’ve come to devour
sweet red flesh.

No reason to remember names, places.
Only the nectarous juice running down
the brown cords of their arms, the fever
their foreheads press into damp sand
for the God who brought them back.
This quiet comment on prayer reveals the speaker’s own slow turning toward the faith.

And thus it is that in the third section, the speaker describes his conversion — quietly, almost incidentally. In “Embrace,” the speaker’s student remarks that he dreamt the poem’s speaker was a Muslim. Says the speaker, “Last night, who worried more / about my eternity than he?” The tourist is no longer a tourist, but a member, loving his new faith and community, entering into both their purity and imperfection:
Like this, I fall in love
with every pure

but imperfect intention:
every stone staircase

with uneven steps,
every mud wall built

to lead me away,
every peel and pit

strewn in the fruit souq
because the buyer couldn’t wait,

every bent key
to open a gate.
The narrative of this wayfarer ends in a fourth section that begins with the speaker marrying. “We will learn / that love means what we have begun.” His father misses the wedding because of illness, and the bride’s father is not alive: the two young people must begin their lives together without fathers. And it is just as well, since it is clear that neither would have approved. The two poems that capture this familial difference are followed by a prose poem in eight parts entitled “Secession.” This poem captures the time, from May to July in 1994, when Yemen was engulfed in a civil war. While anti-aircraft guns go off, the speaker helps carry a judge’s paralyzed wife for a bath, boys throw rocks at dogs, a neighbor tapes her windows with black Xs to “prevent them from shattering, neighbors leave for rural villages,” and “in a small mosque, old men read Surat Yaseen in unison for those whose homes Monday’s Scud exploded over them.” The poem gives us an honest experience of life under siege, neither maudlin nor prettifyied:
The whitecaps of your nightgown roll toward the warm beach of night. I make plans by praying. Plans with you and falling water, flattened trees, the earth of a different brown country. Whatever manner of flesh will rekindle our blackened bones, Allah can raise it above the pounding, cover it with the coolest mist.
In the last poems of the book, we witness the survival of the speaker’s premature twins. While his son is being examined by the doctor, the speaker goes outside, to escape the smoke of other men in the waiting room. “A garden nearby perfumes the night with lemongrass, / jasmine, and onion. I know he’ll be healed.” This appearance of the onion helps us to understand the last line of the final poem in the book, “Praying Beside a Mujahed:”
Were I to turn my head to the left, I could gaze
deep into the dark eye of the Kalashnikov.
Never think that a trigger tripped, a skull separated
onto plush carpet, is an accident, for destiny

allows no accidents. After the prayer, we’ll say peace.
His hand will shake mine with vigor. Until then,
closing my eyes, all I can see are onions, glorious
and sweet, thundering in the damp loam of Heaven.
What sort of a book is this? A speaker journeys to another part of the world and as he looks around, as he meets the people there, he changes and grows, he converts and joins the community, he marries and has a family: even with its seemingly exotic, politically charged content, the collection has all the elements of a bildungsroman, a universal coming-of-age story.

But the book is also a lesson in understanding and forgiveness. In recent days, we’ve watched how easy it is in this world to castigate a whole people, a whole community, for the actions of a few. Forgiveness requires intimacy. Frederickson is suggesting, among other things, that we can come to know and forgive others, people who are strangers, if we journey to them and learn up close their gentleness, their soft-heartedness. And of course, we must make that journey bringing our own attitude of gentleness and honesty, just as Frederickson does in these surprising and beautiful poems.

For more on Frederickson, check out this Q&A with Bloom.

Shop photo credit: YXO via photopin cc
Man praying photo credit: Jano Fistialli via photopin cc