Virgin: Poems

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In Praise of Poems That End with Questions

To end a poem with a question is to
offer an invitation. Here, the poet says, now it’s your turn. Rhetorical or
direct, a question requests our participation. We sit up, re-read, and become a
part of the poem.

A question, then, closes a poem with an opening. “Breathing” by Irene McKinney ends with two questions. Her poem starts with the line: “When I refuse to see the chair has presence / I trip over it repeatedly.” Yet when she smells “the oil of hands on the wooden arms of the chair” and sees the “careful fittings of the joints,” she knows the chair has place and space. She will push forward through her life, past chair and even through stream and snow, although she is “wet and cold, hunched against the touch / of the flakes.” She perseveres because she is still breathing, because our “lungs are a happiness kit / that we can carry everywhere and assemble / where there’s time and inclination.” She pauses, we imagine, and then ends: “Why not? / I repeat, I mean it, why not?”

I mean it: McKinney’s question feels entrenched and yet open, a gesture. Don’t doubt that poems are written to be read—and questions offer readers a space to enter. “Naming the Heartbeats” from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic is an explanation of the narrator’s penchant for pet names. She calls her children “Sugarpie, / Honeybunch, Snugglebear,” although “What I call my husband is unprintable.” She ponders the names of collected animals, but wonders about the unnamed moments of existence, ending with a beautiful question: “And what is the name for the movement we make when / we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying / to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams?”

Nezhukumatathil asks, so we’re left to wonder. A poem can leave us like that: unsure, our eyes closed, meandering and meditating. I feel the same way when I read Mary Oliver, who ended several poems with questions. In fact, her poem “How Would You Live Then?” is composed entirely of questions. “What if,” Oliver asks, “a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks / flew in circles around your head?” And then: “What if the brook slid downhill just / past your bedroom window so you could listen / to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?” Her questions are connected by a certain sentience to the world around us—a presence that we know exists but Oliver gives a particular form. Her final question: “What if you finally saw / that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day / and every day—who knows how, but they do it—were / more precious, more meaningful than gold?”

Oliver’s homiletic touch comes from that concluding question, as if we are to close the book, go outside, and consider her words. Other poetic questions call me to attention and send me back through the poem to comb and cull. Analicia Sotelo’s “Ariadne at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 10am” from Virgin begins in what the narrator calls a garden, among “A/C units dripping green-black rivers, // the residue of last night’s rain / sitting in a cheap cherub’s eye.” She ends in ambiguity: “Except the light is blind this morning / like a child at a funeral // asking, What are we all standing here for?”

We don’t have the answer. A poem that ends with a question might leave us without satisfaction—but what do we desire, exactly, at the end of a poem? What does it mean to be complete? In “Dark Slides” by Chase Twichell, we look over the shoulder of a narrator who sifts through overexposed slides of her father’s carrot garden, a horse with “blood-flecked froth at the bit,” and a sled abandoned in the snow, “Footprints, but no humans visible. / Who saved this one, and why?”

A poem that ends on a question is an affirmation of the importance of questions. Seek poems that end with those open, vulnerable moments. “Why not trust / that almost everyone, even in / his own house, is a troubled guest?” asks Stephen Dunn in “The Inheritance.” In Anagnorisis, Kyle Dargan exits “Poem Resisting Arrest” with the perfect question: “This poem knew // it was dangerous to ask why?” Blas Falconer’s “Vigil” tells us that “All day, the body is / failing, the mind failing / to forgive the body for this failure.” The poem ends on an elegiac note: “You, who tended to the body, what // will you do when all / the bedding has been washed // and folded, what pain // will you tend to, now, / if not yours?”

Do you feel that? The poet gesturing to us? In “Leaving Early,” Sylvia Plath describes a room “lousy with flowers.” She’s “bored as a leopard / in your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,” and feels “stared at / By chrysanthemums” while she listens to mice “rattling the cracker packets.” Her final lines: “Lady, what am I doing / With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood, / Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?” Plath’s question reverberates beyond the final line, as do the questions of Justin Phillip Reed in Indecency. In “Take It Out of the Boy,” the narrator is “tired / of pretending.” Told that “you always acted like / a white boy,” the narrator responds with lines “so. so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet.” He ends: “are we convinced?”  

I like how heavy that question feels. A poem that ends with a question has a little whisper of eternity in that curved punctuation mark. Natasha Trethewey ends her book Monument with a poem that ends with a question. “Articulation,” written after Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of Saint Gertrude, ponders Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart. The narrator looks at her among “quill, inkwell, an open book, // rings on her fingers like Christ’s many wounds” and can’t help but think about her mother’s last portrait. She sees her mother’s face; her mother’s wounds. Her mother’s murder. How her mother “came to me / in a dream, her body whole again but for / one perfect wound, the singular articulation // of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead, / the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.”

She ends her poem with two questions:
“How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with
hers? // And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling
there?”

We will never know all of the answers
in poetry—but we are blessed by the questions.

Image credit: Unsplash/Evan Dennis.

You Can’t Create Alone: On Fostering Literary Community

Writing has its own mythology. The word author stems from the Latin auctoreum, which literally means “one who causes to grow.” And whatever the reasons may be—our media representations, our educational system, or our star-struck awe at famous writers—we tend to emphasize the “one” in that equation. From Shakespeare in Love to questions for authors at events, our culture often celebrates the tortured soul, the rugged individual, the solo genius.

For the past three years, I’ve worked on Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication. The book traces the life history of 11 widely different contemporary debut books. Their books were self, indie, and big-house published. They were travel memoirs, paranormal romances, post-apocalyptic domestic dramas, children’s picture books, short story collections, young adult fantasies, and literary fiction. When I started the project, the only thing that unified these books in my mind was that they’d found some level of success, loosely defined somewhere between runaway bestseller and finding a strong connection to a niche audience. But in all my in-depth interviews, two other unifying factors emerged.

The first shared trait among the 11 authors was perseverance. I’ll leave that topic less explored here, but it’s enough to say they each encountered roadblocks and barriers significant enough to sabotage their entire project. Some quit for a time. But each writer returned to the work.

The second trait each writer shared revolved around the need to develop community. This theme overshadowed even perseverance. So much so, that I felt it deserved more exploration beyond what I cover in my book. I conducted interviews in Minneapolis and in Tampa at AWP 2018 to capture many writers’ thoughts and advice about literary community.

I’m grateful to the following authors for recently taking the time to speak with me: Joanna Demkiewicz (Milkweed Editions Publicist and co-founder of The Riveter), Rachel Fershleiser (Senior Director of Marketing at Knopf), Sally Franson (author of the forthcoming debut novel, A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out), V.V. Ganeshananthan (author of Love Marriage), Ada Limón (author of 5 books of poetry including the National Book Award Finalist Bright Dead Things), Bao Phi (author of two poetry collections and the 2017 Caldecott Honor Book A Different Pond), Kaethe Schwehn (author of The Rending and the Nest), 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin (author of 3 poetry collections and editor of the bestselling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota), and Analicia Sotelo (author of Virgin, the inaugural winner of the Jake Adam York Prize).

Why is Community Important?
In 2015, an Atlantic article questioned the purpose and pressures of literary community. It’s a compelling read, and as someone who shares a deep level of introversion, I found my head nodding several times. The author argues that the pressure for literary community is overwhelming, and that it forces “every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them.”

I wholeheartedly agree that community should never feel forced or mandatory. But I disagree with that characterization of literary community. Based on my experience and my interviews with numerous authors, this definition needs to be broader.

To me, it’s not exclusively about going to book readings or networking at literary events, as the article suggests. It’s admirable and awesome if people want to write just for themselves, but if writers strive to be published, then they have already committed a public act. That act is a powerful choice, and yes, sometimes entirely based in ego, but it almost always requires some act of humility and community building as well. Literary community is then less a narrow set of predefined acts and more about finding a personal and meaningful way to connect through writing, however that comes about and feels comfortable.

신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin explains that the simple feeling of belonging can have powerful effects. She points out that in her community in Minnesota, it took a few community leaders to plant seeds and lead the way, and now the Twin Cities area has a vibrant and supportive community for writers of color. That community has helped her “keep at something that is not always easy to justify in terms of the amount of time and money invested.”

Sally Franson, whose debut novel comes out in April, says it wouldn’t exist without the people around her. This echoes many of the sentiments I heard in Behind the Book. “My novel, for example, didn’t get off the ground until an editor friend took me out for coffee and said, ‘you’re funny, you should write something funny’ and a beloved poet mentor, months later, said more of the same,” says Sally. “I honestly don’t think I would have started it without their nudging!”

Poet Ada Limón goes one step further and says that literary community is her lifeline. Twenty years after graduate school, she still emails the first drafts of poems to her close friends from the program. They are her touchstones and keep her grounded. She says it’s especially important in a climate and time when the arts don’t feel valued. Her sense of literary community “inspires me, protects me, and makes me feel like I can actually make a living and a life out of the arts.”

For Analicia Sotelo, writing can never be a solitary act because it’s something we do together. “Writing is not just about the individual artist, but that it is rather something that is generated from our communication, from our rhetoric, from our language and how that changes. Once we acknowledge that, I think we can be much more giving to each other.”

In many ways, an act of community is really an act of generosity. It can be notes from one trusted early reader to another, attending a reading, giving a reading, telling someone else to attend a reading, taking a loved one out for donuts after a tough rejection, posting an online book recommendation, offering to watch the kids for a few hours so your partner can write, writing a review for a writer you love, or speed-networking your way through a 10,000-person conference event. It can be big or small. It can be public or private. But if there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over, it really can’t be avoided, and we shouldn’t want to avoid it. It helps us, and it’s part of what you sign up for as a writer.

Most of the time, even for the most introverted, it doesn’t even need to be painful. “Everyone is the person who thinks that they don’t belong at one point or another. So it’s really important to remember that everyone feels that way. I mean I often felt that I was the mistake. Everyone feels at some point like they are the mistake,” explains V.V. Ganeshananthan. “But if you start to think of it like a whole room full of mistakes, it starts to sound pretty fun.”

How to Find Connection
So, that’s great, but how do you actually find, establish, and foster literary community and connection? In my interviews, there seemed to be four common pieces of advice: Be active, be present, be kind, and be giving.

1. Be Active
Start by being active, however you define that, says Bao Phi. Bao’s way of interacting and participating has changed as his life has changed, but he continues to try to stay as active as he can. When he was younger, he “went to as many literary readings, open mics, and slams as I could. Trying to absorb, listen, think, and learn.” Now as parenting, writing, and work have soaked up more of his time, he still tries to stay active, but in different ways. “I use social media a lot, and I might be the only person who’s still emailing folks like it’s 1998. I send poems or essays I like out to people who I think might enjoy them, have conversations electronically, and buy a lot of books.”

Joanna Demkiewicz says it takes some work to be active. “You’re going to have to do some research and hit the keys a little bit,” she argues. “The literary community is a friendly community despite this impenetrable mystique. And it’s definitely not all happening in New York. So the first step is just to show up and take part.”

2. Be Present
Demkiewicz says the easiest way to take part is to follow our second common piece of advice: be present and start local. Rachel Fershleiser agrees. She says, “No matter what, I think it’s about starting local. Find one or two people who you know and like, or even reach out to people via social media that you’ve never met before, and say you’re going to this reading and will they join you. A lot of times if you start with that one-on-one connection—and it just takes one—then that person might introduce you to someone they know.”

Furthermore, Fershleiser says don’t just start local, start small. When you’re starting out, “don’t just go to the big events with the big name authors and crowded rooms. Go to the smaller, more obscure events. Then people will introduce themselves more freely. They’ll be so happy that you took the time and effort to come, and you’ll be part of something.”

It also pays to be genuine, notes V.V. Ganeshananthan. “If someone is being Machiavellian about wanting to get something out of a conversation, people pick up on it pretty fast. So just be real, just be human. Ask other people what they are working on, try to connect with them rather than figure out how to get something from them. If you’re faking it to get someone to introduce you to their agent, that tends to be the kind of thing that people can tell. But if you’re interested in another person or their writing, that also comes through loud and clear.”

3. Be Kind
When I asked 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin for her advice, she listed kindness first. Try to include others, and reach out to them. This extends to “being a fierce advocate for free expression from underrepresented communities.”

Kaethe Schwehn agrees, noting that kindness goes a long way in the arts. In some ways, writing is a competitive enterprise, but it’s healthier when practiced with kindness. “Cheer loudly and sincerely when a writer friend accomplishes something,” says Kaethe. “Madeline L’Engle has a great quote about how each artistic act is a stream that feeds this greater ocean of art. Believing that we’re all on the same team is crucial.”

4. Be Giving
Perhaps most of all, the group of people I interviewed challenged anyone seeking community to start with generosity. Ada Limon says to start with service before anything else. “Reach out and write the poets that you love, the poets that are undercelebrated and underrepresented. Do interviews, ask questions, help promote books that you love. It can mean the world to those writers and build a connection for you.”

Sally Franson says that literary community is ultimately about generosity and help. “It’s folly, this myth of the tortured genius working in her room for years and coming out wild-eyed with a sheaf of papers that will change the world. No one can create alone. Great ideas are a confluence of five to 100 other great ideas. And so you’ve got to listen and pay attention to what the world is telling you. You’ve got to ask the world for help. And you’ve got to let the world help you, too.”

Image Credit: Flickr/hiimniko.

Must-Read Poetry: February 2018

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in February.

Giant by Richard Georges
Giant begins with how the “gods of our fathers rose” from the “unlighted deep.” The ocean “splashed about their groaning limbs, / foaming and licking their creaking bodies / stippled with black barnacle.” The long titular poem that opens the collection unfolds into a stanza of direct address: “Recite the prayers your mother taught you, / measure the depth of your days in sunsets, / count your crosses, the number of your years.” Georges commands a voice both calming and cleansing. Giant is a book of myths and minutiae. In poems like “Brandywine/Tortola,” narrators long for the old music of youth. The past often opens through the night, when “the ghosts / howl the unreasonableness of love // to those, like me, who listen for voices / on the wind.” These narrators wish “to believe again in gods, // and bodies as real as this green earth is.” Night, wind, prayer, and water become his refrain, coupled with a stubborn belief in words: “This is a night full of voices: / the infant wailing at the baptismal font, / the weeping around a silent casket. / The whole damn world is alight / and hungry and nothing is ever enough— / but there is poetry, which will suffice.”

Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
Sotelo’s poetry reveals the weight of desire, how our hearts drag our bodies. After a narrator heads home from a bar, alone, she’s “discovered / humiliation is physically painful: / the crown-like stigmata of a peach / that’s been twisted, pulled open, / left there.” A later narrator contemplates the “darkness of marriage, // the burial of my preferences / before they can even be born.” In “Trauma with White Agnostic Male,” she writes “This is blood / for blood, a prodigal heartbreak // I must return” (in Sotelo’s poems, past is always present). “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful” is hilarious—“She was very unhappy and vaguely religious so I put her / at the edge of the lake where the ducks were waddling / along like Victorian children, living out their lives in / blithe, downy softness”—and builds toward an emotional end. Imbued with Catholic cultural touches (“I was a clever rosary”), Sotelo mines the Marian paradox with complexity, grace, and power. And this is a book about Texas, where “there’s no winter,” but “the light changes, grows sharper, // keener, and when I was a girl, / it was breath to me, // walking up the hillside to school, / the wind touching my throat.” Her narrators want more out of life, but they clench what they have—and draw us back to her pages. A significant debut.

The Möbius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone
“No one here is glad anyone is dead. But / there is a certain comfort in knowing / the dead can entertain us, if we wish.” A little bit Inferno, but maybe even more so the deliciously devilish No Exit, Stone’s book is a strange, entertaining journey into an underground world where poor souls are “clinging to our tragedies, finding our favorite face.” Stone offers her reader a topography of a purgatory, a place where you “leave your inhibitions at the door,” and there’s “Grandma, half-blind, naked but for an open / XL flannel and Birkenstocks.” After their shift, dancers give tips to the House Mom, and then they go upstairs to their rooms, where grief “read itself aloud / in gilt fragments and tapestries fallen apart.” For all the spectacle of this netherworld, this grief returns in waves: “I can’t tell anymore whether I am grieving you particularly / or I simply find life and death erroneous.” You’ve never quite seen a poetic party like this: “Death’s last-minute cosmetic surgery, the skin taut / from gravity, confined in beauty for one last hurrah.” Yet at some point in Stone’s vision, the nightmare recedes, and we settle into her narrator’s mind—one pained by the cycles of generational loss, longing for her mother. When Stone finally returns us to that club in the book’s final pages, it is as if we might never leave there ourselves.

The Elegies of Maximianus translated by A.M. Juster
“I am not who I was, my greatest part has perished.” Juster’s fluid, engaging translation should bring the curious elegies of Maximianus—whose only previous English edition was in 1900—to a wider audience. A 6th-century Roman poet, Maximianus’s 686 lines arrive in the voice of a “querulous old man” (to quote Michael Roberts’s fine introduction), who laments the loss of his erotic misadventures. Readers of Michel de Montaigne will recognize the poet’s pithy lines quoted in the French essayist’s work (“Alas! how little of life is left to the old.” is crisply rendered by Juster as “how much life remains for old men?”). Juster imbues a profluence to the elegist’s consideration of life. Young Maximianus, full of lust, equally brimmed with folly: “So I, who everyone considered a grave saint, / am wretched and revealed by my own vice.” We can sense his old soul inaccurately lighting the lost loves of his youth—Juster’s translation is sharp, his pacing pure—and the book’s final elegy, a mere dozen lines, arrives with a particular sadness: “Death’s journey is the same for all; the type of life / and exit, though, is not the same for all.” Sometimes there is no solace, not even in memories.

Noirmania by Joanna Novak
Joyelle McSweeney has called the necropastoral the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classic pastoral.” The necropastoral is a place of “strange meetings,” and it is within that setting Joanna Novak’s Noirmania exists. A dark book with drifting, spaced lines, Noirmania is a series of single-page, untitled poems that depict the stratification of memory. The narrator exists out of time, moving between visions of childhood and a place more severe and stagnant than Theodore Roethke’s root cellar. Sharp lines sneak through: “Who hasn’t / eaten alone at dusk, with the moon / pouring out like a placemat?” While it will take time for readers to settle into Novak’s schema, once they do, there is much to see in the darkness, where “silence studied / my lostness: a mass in a room in a suite / off an impossible house with bats and eaves.”

House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh
Poet as reporter, reporter as poet. In Sleigh’s essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers, he ponders the differences between American and Iraqi poetry. He sees the poets Naseer Hassan and Hamed al-Maliki as championing “the Rilkean attributes of vision, inspiration, and the ability to express profound feeling,” in contrast to the occasional “poetry gloom” he feels in the states—born from “the world of workshops, ‘scenes,’ and hyperbolic blurbs.” Sleigh’s new poetry collection is informed by his reporting on the lives of refugees, but it is instructive to see the difference between his modes of writing and seeing. In “Lizards,” an early poem from the book, he is patient: “In the desert the lizard is the only liquid flowing under rocks and / down into crevices, undulating in shadows.” Above the lizard, “in heatwaves turning into air,” the mirage—or perhaps the reality—of tanks appear. Around them “mosques broadcasting wails of static, / baffled minarets like letters of secret code, a whole codex of holiness / and banalities.” The lizards go on, with their “still, flat eyes.” Around them, “marked in red, are the circled oil fields, the blow-torch / refinery flames / looking like souls in illuminated manuscripts.” What Sleigh helps us see in these poems is something deeper than journalism can offer: a heart and mind torn by inhabiting a world but not fully grasping its pain. “Whatever you do,” he writes, “there are rockets falling, / and after the rockets, smoke climbing.” Weeds swallow “beds of lettuces and coddled flowers.” What happens when “the bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down”?

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