They’re quiet, the choir, their voices go higher
The choir, the choir, their voices go higher
— Palace Music, “Brute Choir”
The future is a con. A dream remembered in excerpts: enjoying cigarettes, frayed rope ladders, cubicles. My cat’s heavy metal heart beat when she lays pressed against my head is aggressive. I like my information distilled, fermented, and expansive in perspective. Accumulation drags. Fragments fascinate. What was before and what can I imagine after? Learning language and understanding her partner, grammar, I realized early that words strung properly don’t always hold their power—not nearly as long as when you have to stumble, pause, or outright stop to notice the tender edges of the fragment’s extraction. Disclosure. Do you want me to continue? Broken, then mended. There isn’t a stable subject or am I paranoid? Out of context trends. Passive tense is monetized. You are welcome to take all of this and make what you want. Build from these haunted tensions.
During the war, we felt the silence in the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterward. The result was, of course, that the meanings were lost. —Muriel Rukeyser
I consumed so much “information” throughout this very long weekmonth that this post is what it is. I know that too much intake isn’t good for me and yet I binge as if satisfaction could be found in declaration. Refreshing will tell me something new, smooth these edges of unknowing, and fill all the holes. At saturation, it physically hurts. Early symptoms are a tight chest and shortness of breath. Today the sky is a perfect California blue absent clouds and smoke. Fact: you can believe it but that doesn’t make it true. The barrel of the camera can cause dramatic harm. This is a threat. Surely witness reifies reality. I know some will say angles and their slants are beholden to the power that frames and seduction laps those edges but there’s more. There’s always more. Urgent thinking and wanting immediacy always take us away from the subject who doesn’t want to, ironically, be seen. The next spectacle must definitely be worth it? Any similarity to a person living or dead is entirely coincidental.
If the water should cut my mind, set me free — Cat Power cover of Bathysphere
This waste has a frequency. Fragmentation, ritual undulations.
Football snaps. Trees release their green grip as shadows lengthen.
Gritty details of fire and death dominate our collective vision.
Language is spoken as advice. Gather paper: cash, proof of identity, maps.
Consider packing the most precious of your valuables, nothing more.
Poets obsess over lyrical scale, enormity of loss and perspective.
I crave open space in the way a true horizon shows separation—land from sky.
If we believe these times are unlived, restricted and dangerous,
how will we evolve within the inevitable next adaptation?
Urgent expectations transition this chaos. Short-term addictions.
Thunderstorms from a ghost hurricane came through last night.
Focus on a feeling of ascension as our emotional worlds
and their borders dislocate from distracted penetrations.
You say deprivation. I claim radical self-interest.
And always I wanted the “I.” Many of the poems are “I did this. I did this. I saw this.” I wanted the “I” to be the possible reader, rather than about myself. It was about an experience that happened to be mine but could well have been anybody else’s. That was my feeling about the “I.” I have been criticized by one editor who felt that “I” would be felt as ego. And I thought, no, well, I’m going to risk it and see. And I think it worked. It enjoined the reader into the experience of the poem. (emphasis mine)
and later stated “there is no nothingness” I found an edge of where I had been wandering disassociated these tangled smoky days.
I, too, posted a flurry of orangered sky photos on Wednesday, a sky Australia experienced during their “Black Summer” the final months of last year. I did not want to believe what was in front of me—what was real and happening.
I am, now, acutely conscious of feeling triggered by the mere recognition, now a pattern, of that very specific hue of red and orange mixed with smoke and sunlight. When that extraordinary color and any adjacent approximation catches my scrolling eye and peripheral sense of self, I am physically reminded how saturated a lived experience can be.
During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.
As these days surge on sensory overload, I am suspicious of receiving and having to interpret new information like “unhealthy” versus “very unhealthy” air. I understand how conspiracies comfort the masses by creating gaps in perception. I surrender thoroughly (to borrow from Lorde), when I realize all of this—this living, this breathing, this give and take—is a radical synopsis of cognition, dear possible reader.
“Instead of becoming preoccupied by the extraordinary things the deluded individual believes, we should turn our attention instead to the ordinary things they no longer believe, the absence of which have allowed the bizarre to flourish.” — Huw Green, “Deluded, with reason”
I was born on the east side of the Missouri River. U.S. Route 12 segregated town into north and south. If you drove west, time moved backward one hour from Central to Mountain. A sign on the bridge let you know you were crossing the threshold when you reached the middle of the river. Everyone west, within a certain driving distance of town, set their clocks to Central. Awareness of time in this way, coupled with growing up immersed in seductive Evangelical promises of attaining an afterlife, shaped absolutely how I perceive time and place.
Living in a community that so willfully defied authority (whoever put that arbitrary line of what time was) and persistently yielded to a prophesy that believed you were doomed unless saved, was ordinary—normal—to me. Technically, every day was urgent and distorted.
What was delusion and what was habitual enough to thrive in that unique cultural echo?
Learning so young to measure time as both borrowed and flexible expanded my ability to conceptualize reality, an immense landscape of what I knew and what I saw. It also helped to construct a very specific concept of suspension of disbelief. I recognize and am familiar with waiting as an anchor of suffering and its twin—earned anticipation of endurance.
As the contemporary drags hot and dangerous, I wonder if these times, right now, are worse than other times of war, protest, fire. To pull an image from the last line in William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other…the darkness around us is deep.
What revelations lay at this undulating edge?
I don’t know. For now, I’ll keep translating evocations into poems and finding pleasure in trying to answer unanswerable questions. Where I come from, we call that feeling for miracles.
“Some days in late August at home are like this,
the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar…”
— William Faulkner from The Sound and the Fury
Its salience starts inside you —
an intersection, a portal, a punch.
Greed is an expression of fear,
that kind of penetration measured
by depth, loss contextualized.
A landscape of insatiable memories
bordered by anodyne forgiveness
and tectonic imperfections.
Take comfort in knowing
plants turn light into sugar.
Tell me what you notice, and why.
I want to cross reference
my slanted smoky sunlight
with your details to create
time stamps, a rescue map
dispersed into winks of blue.
—June Jordan, excerpt from “Intifada Incantation: Poem #8 for b.b.L”
Maybe what we really want is hero stories
that also reflect happiness, where joy is
contextualized during epic and courageous
suffering. This desire, a creative impulse,
a strategy to have complementary thinking
break binaries. A knowing that innocence
can be misremembered. Behind the fog, bright light.
Remember when obsessive attachment became slack
from devotion? Of course we resisted our differences,
as much as we could, starting over —
again and each time evidence repurposed itself
to the contrary. A reciprocity of loss or maybe
more simply the effect of a parallax.
From a certain distance, we are all drifting along.
Idle in mood and expansive in perpetual conflict.
Every day since March 13th, I have written something. Some days only a string of words, bursts of breath, or an image find their way through and out. It is my commitment to pay attention.
On March 22nd I wrote that almost 400 people had died from COVID-19, and started to track the pace of American death on April 2nd (over 5,100). I stopped consistently tracking on May 31st (105,000 dead), an arbitrary deadline because the notebook I started on March 13th ended there. I was also experiencing cognitive dissonance between my values around attention as action and my writing practice which centers curiosity. I could only integrate this morbid number on a jagged graph as an abstracted affect of weight, like the moon’s gravitational pull on Earth or the resonance of unmasked grief. I had been lying to myself that I was curious about death, in this quantified way.
Yesterday my source [google: “covid 19 us deaths”] told me 142,000+ were gone.
Risk assessments are strategic investments: four walls and one door to escape. Subtext is its own elegy. Sometimes only metaphors can help me decipher a world where death is sold as the inevitable cost of doing business, which has been conflated to mean the only way to have a life. Metaphors are a clever method to take up space and complicate our mutual knowing. How might I displace our assumed common language and still connect to you?
If I’m feeling lucky, I might be able to translate my curiosities to you beyond the distance of pencil to paper. I recognize energy lost in between contact eventually fades like a bruise found but not remembering its source. William Stafford might name this felt experience.
Long ago, I replaced god with something bigger — an awareness there’s no precision in the prescriptive phrase “let go of the past.” For now, I reclaim there’s pleasure and possibility in waking up to an anticipatory life. Otherwise, a paranoid reading would lead us to believe that depravation is the norm or something far worse, complacency as impulse.
“Pears cannot ripen alone. So we ripened together.” — Meridel Le Sueur
I remember when we would go with you to feed the owner’s cattle.
You’d shovel hay from the bed of a slow-moving pickup,
driverless and pointed in the general direction of home.
In the summer, we would pretend to be left behind
and race each other back to the truck.
The first one to jump onto the tailgate was the winner.
In winter, we would sit bundled up, heater blasting,
in the cab and watch as the cattle’s eager breath
etched a chorus of hungry moos into the frozen air.
The chore was done when the hay was gone
and we were witnesses to the wavy furred lines
spread across the barren prairie landscape.
I remember how the weight of your loudest threats
mapped to your hands. You hit us to teach us a lesson,
to be quiet, or because you couldn’t hit the boss.
As we got older, and bigger, you perfected your words
into weapons, making invisible your impact.
Then came the tender gaps of amputated time
when your anger spilled over into vengeance
against those you had declaimed to love so fiercely.
I remember you forced us to move
to the deepest parts of nowhere,
packing your temper and always at your testimony
that this time would be better than the last.
Starting over was the goddamn point when all you have for a legacy is your name.
That may have been one reason why
no one knew us where we were headed.
Our legacy now an extension of mutual reputation,
much like how only female cottonwood trees
shed their obnoxious cottony seeds
to the most distant, wind-driven places.
“…and that is the sentence on repeat in the tapedeck of my chest: How do you go about finding the heart?
I am amazed by how much people can survive, endure—and how they can go on living, laughing. After thorough devastation, indescribable loss, people’s hearts still beat. People can, still, live. This is perplexing, bewildering news to me. Defies all sense and gravity to me. And yet.”
Thick bands of clouds scroll by — unbothered. The poetics of narrative: landscaped yards with lavender, slow growing Japanese maples, bushes of rosemary, hissing palm trees, roses, fuzzy foxtail grasses, vine tendrils straining toward the brightest light, jade trees, announcements of jasmine. Please mute yourself when entering a virtual space. Passive voice writes headlines. Who deserves punishment? A voice reminds us to be careful about seductive victim scripts, leaches of energy. Is having power worth its traded value? For the first time in a long time, we want to continue at the current pace; light holds on longer.
It is June and the radiator is still spitting.
“Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is lustful relationship to things that exist.” — Mark Rothko, from Mark Rothko From the Inside Out
Not quite epiphany
associations of pink
or orange to flesh
or tender resignations
Such inconvenience filters the odds
into other’s perceptions, luck, or madness.
When our fists equal the size of our hearts
there’s recognition in that sovereign drama.
Beginnings blindspot endings.
All rhetorical approximations
Transitions, as in not yet.
Our histories are programmed errors
marked like rings inside trees
plastic as the immediate future.
Mystery strikes then bends
absorbing the unrecognizable
when opposites compliment
more than divide
I’ve been here before.
I am sure of it.
A year-day that has
no beginning, no middle
and no benevolent end.
Some argue this absence
must be lived, that it
is more of a felt sense,
similar to elaborate escape
routes dreamed nightly
and soft as bodies
You’ve been here before.
You are sure of it.
By bending, the grass develops a surface. — William Stafford
How I show up today, here, and the muted space in between is a search for synergy.
Growing up epistolary warnings were all around me, and the strongest broadcast signals were dedicated to reactionary talk radio or static aesthetics. I heard language through the filter of parables, manipulation, and transience. The voices that carried are a study of displaced metaphors.
Averse to specifics, maybe this is the best I can do.
I moved the tangerines into their own space, letting the lemons spread out.
How quickly can one dispense with the old bargains between defense and desire, adapting to a regime whose rules provide no felt comfort?
— Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism”
Inside this temporal state,
habitualization is the climax.
To date, public misery
is not officially worthy
of monuments or accurate measurements.
Finely stratified, your and my collective
future—active emptiness—is its own
embodied aleatory performance.
But what are we supposed to be
doing with this time?
Such insinuating can feel negative,
counterproductive as misdirected desires.
Overstimulated, I beg for revision
rather than tempt resolution.
These present hours unknowing.
“For the alert body, the useless interval becomes a plenum.”
— Francis Richard, Gordon Matta-Clark: Physical Poetics
I obsessively check the feeds and the timelines like a salt lick. Distracted bait draws the largest crowds. People are bored. The death toll rises. Profiteers are euphoric for high demand drawn from historic lows. I look up the word “disinter” [verb: dig up (something that has been buried, especially a corpse)], then notice the grass in the park is ankle deep. Clouds break blue. Home becomes hysteria—a boundary state—shape shifting into the space in between, wrecked. In these unique times, it is best to rehearse worries to scale. Memory and risk are their own parabolic textures. Voided feelings now so very retro.
“The number of people here [New York City] who think they are alone, sing alone, and eat and talk alone in the streets in mind-boggling. And yet they don’t add up. Quite the reverse. The subtract from each other and their resemblance to one another is uncertain.
… It is the saddest sight in the world. Sadder than destitution, sadder than the beggar is the man who eats alone in public.” — Jean Baudrillard, America (trans. Chris Turner, 1991)
Nearly a year ago, I carried America by Jean Baudrillard around the Bay Area and all the way down to the most American of places, Los Angeles.
I wanted to capture Baudrillard’s idea that eating alone was the saddest sight in the world.
And of course nothing and everything can change in a year.
Contemporary America is at an epic and fevered hyperpitch with an advancing crisis of reality. What is refracted is what will be. Our ascetic online lives more fake than ever. Asepsis is an arousing and obsessive state in this quarantine simulacrum. Hygiene a cult. The habitual repetition of survival, an amplified fascination of being alive, its own seduction.
But one day soon—in the scheme of weeks or as quick as when you notice your neighborhood trees blaring their blooms—restaurants will open for sit-down meals and I will prove Baudrillard wrong.
Listen—this is a faint station
left alive in the vast universe.
I was left here to tell you a message
designed for your instruction or comfort,
but now that my world is gone I crave
expression pure as all the space
around me: I want to tell what is. …
— William Stafford, TUNED IN LATE ONE NIGHT, first stanza
We were told to get extra, but not hoard.
All professional sports, including NASCAR,
and all mass entertainment cancelled.
Church and work shifts to virtual platforms.
Even the Pro Football Hall of Fame
shuts down for “at least two weeks.”
Tourists won’t hear the bronze busts
speak in stiff-lipped whispers.
Witness begins to require recalibration.
An Italian doctor corrected the British talk show host –
bomb metaphors are inadequate for this pandemic.
A bomb implies “one moment in time and space.”
The doctor begged viewers to grasp spacetime physics
as Florida’s spring break beaches swell.
I scrolled and
for good news
Freeway traffic flows in east/west lanes
like ants on a crumb score.
I’m waking up later each day,
blending home and work
into a double-stitched seam.
It is the first day of spring.
I beg you to prepare for the future you want.
Yet nothing has really happened
Place has even more significance
than we can consciously hold
now cracking open at its weakest points –
where we are isolated and approximate distance.
News moves relative to a wide margin of incompetence
and displays itself as curved lines.
I bless the bus drivers keeping their ghost routes.
New leaves spread wider each passing day.
I am hyperaware of my phantom wants:
a balcony and family. A dopamine loop fueled
by anticipation. The future now a fermata.
walking through high waisted
grass sprouted hills
our faces slack with hustle
we laughed like stuffed animal heads
over stories about how snow has energy
shedding syllables as we hurried along
this resistance against recursive nature
(we walk upright for a reason)
not remembering how much our bodies work for us
only sensing how much we fight against it
knowing drama and karma can feel differently
bent backwards until fragile as blue
we maintain stillness
despite insincere throats
affecting the slant of our inner lives
these threads connecting codes
native realizations that community
now definitely includes you
The rhythm of an endless human-centered conversation.
To feel the space between our next collective breath.
The sky split in half with the trail of an early flight.
Orange morning light, a long exhale, and the sound
of pencil on paper filling a page. I appreciate
clouds temporary status and apply that truth
to my own temporary life.
I want to find a way to open
from the inside,
safely and slowly,
with pleasure and wonder.
Put your weapons down.
The sky is the same as yesterday: blue and uninterrupted.
“I pray in words. I pray in poems. I want to learn to pray through breathing, through dreams and sleeplessness, through love and renunciation.” — Anna Kamienska, from “In That Great River: A Notebook” (tr. Clare Cavanagh)
There is anger, again.
It is a fear of waste.
There is nothing left
to do but wake up,
make coffee, write.
Salt, a mineral.
Soft truths with edges.
It is also true we lived in temporary houses.
No one was home so we self-supervised.
Neglect and despair kept us full.
Competition thrived. Like ocean waves,
we conformed to the landscape
beneath a rough water’s surface.
I remember when the city air smelled like summer,
longing and loss. Trees were shaped
by ocean breezes, bald on the west side.
Country twang bled past Mission bar doors opened early.
That moment, its energy, left an imprint.
like the breath
just beneath this prayer.
Yet listen well. Not to my words,
but to the tumult that rages in
your body when you listen to yourself.
If it is true we are floating through space
& each of us contain the stardust of a million galaxies
then the sun glittering receptive is our asylum.
Exuberant in this signification,
we propel beyond daydream nations.
Expressive attraction becomes its own tender gravity.
Change is accelerating
is feedback looping.
What do you believe in: violence or power?
It is our right as poets to be suggestive
to value a secure spirit & apply logic of affect.
We know why the grace of a curve invites.
“What is secret never has total objectivity.” — Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Am I repeating lies? The Australian wildfires were started by humans and we live in a democracy or you can say no, which is a choice. I read an audacious headline and followed clicks and threads shiny as trolling lures. In the thick of seduction, I confess I may have shared images without acknowledging an artist because I wanted the frame of reference to reverb. I’ve posted songs that had no accompanying album, which means its context also wandered unattended. I have repeatedly liked things I never read, and never will. I’m exclusive, in a trapped kind of way. Eulogies for the cancelled are stored in clouds stacked miles deep. An echo wags the dog. Empty space occupies sound. We are pixelated into our own repetitive concepts of an othered likeness. Are you repeating lies? Please remind me tomorrow that non-knowing is stasis, sacred affect, and a series is a pattern is a sentence.
“She peels an orange, separates it in perfect halves, and gives one of them to me. If I could wear it like a friendship bracelet, I would. Instead I swallow it section by section and tell myself it means even more this way. To chew and to swallow in silence with her. To taste the same thing in the same moment.” — Nina Lacour, We Are Okay
My dreams were unpleasant so I changed the subject.
Crooked clouds, galloping waves, open sky, rapid heart beats,
30-mph curves, a quiet moon. I feel invited to be in witness
differently. Superstitions abound this time of year.
Ebb, the movement of the tide out to sea, is a noun.
It is also a verb, to recede. A delicate pull to want
complexity in concrete form and a desire to contract,
its own learned impulse. This withdrawing is not quite grief
but something deeper—like prairie grass roots growing
fourteen feet into rich Northern Plains soil or inversely
the stretch of centuries found in straight-as-arrows Coastal Redwoods.
I want nothing but that kind of time to observe the unfolding
of our revised lives. How far will I let this instinctive incantation
take me and what existence can we carve out in the shadows of endless wars?
Maybe the answer is where our holy and mundane days adjust into
a darkness soft as our breath subsiding and just as gracefully rising.
“Walking on the land or digging in the fine soil I am intensely aware that time quivers slightly, changes occurring in imperceptible and minute ways, accumulating so subtly that they seem not to exist. Yet the tiny shifts in everything – cell replication, the rain of dust motes, lengthening hair, wind-pushed rocks – press inexorably on and on.” – Annie Proulx, Bird Cloud
I’ve learned enough to be dangerous. I’ve failed enough to feel successful.
Lessons learned, in the order they showed up:
Expectations are different than boundaries.
Shame is a form of self-abuse.
Distinguish the difference between meaningful work and paid work.
The stories I tell myself matter the most.
Maintaining a conscious awareness of abundance is the work of being open to inspiration — being fascinated feels good. Acceptance is eternal work.
Establishing new routines takes time.
Trust in self is a sacred commitment.
Patience is its own desire and trust in myself is sacred energy. Learning stimulates: both focus and curiosity are required.
Creating poetics inquiries deepened my capacity for patient discovery.
Breathe through the urge to have answers.
Staying present and having curious inquiry is the process of accelerating joy.
It matters how you show up.
2020 is one of those future-forward years, like 1999 and 2000. Every year has its own biography of echoes. The list above are some of my loudest.
“Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent – live fully, live passionately, live disastrously [if necessary].”
— Violet Keppel, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West (1918)
Monday’s sky rolled out baby blues and soft power pinks with creamy lilac contrails. Yesterday’s news was the same as today: promotional micro-divisions, myopic hyperbole, and regrets familiar as hard-coded hegemonic language.
Cloud banks wander wistfully south where it is summer.
For almost fifteen years, I’ve willingly come to this empty, open place. This returning is one of my most illicit love affairs. Responsible only to self and the swells of intuition, I may decide to write passively because that shadowed edge has the most depth or I show up with a cathartic vendetta that has begged for its own release. This virtual space a catalog of conversions, an alchemy of early-morning meditations transmuted into an ever evolving contemporary poetics. Here, time is measured as equal parts fumbling through curated distances and urgent absolution. This is a sacred practice that I’ve revised, distilled, and kept wild.
The redwoods are watching, thinking, and breathing just like me — and you.
Even now this landscape is assembling. Neither melancholic beast nor hyperconsciousness of a benevolent god’s perversions could keep me away from this erotic ritual of pleasure making. It is glorious how I have taken, and keep taking, what is useful to me. The violence of past sins have not failed me. It is precisely this ancient chorus that has finally connected curious inquiry to my formerly disembodied soul.
“but i am running into a new year and i beg what i love and i leave to forgive me”
— Lucille Clifton, from I am Running Into a New Year
Always, an airplane in the sky. Our big, beautiful world is dying. We string colored lights in windows. This time of year requires letting go of what cannot be undone. The freeway flows forward, always. Birds sing in tune with worn out brakes of city buses. Today I will laugh. Where does the grotesque fall away and where is the real? Knees. Ribs. Pelvis. Hips a spacial reference to another’s manipulation. My body woke me in the middle of the night. I wasn’t sure if it was fair to tell you this truth. I disassociate enough to protect my sensibilities and made myself small to accommodate your vision of a world that owed you. I kept my mouth shut for fear of casting a shadow on your carefully carved out spotlight. I need new vocabulary to describe this headstrong ritual. Joy and excitement is replicable but they won’t be to scale. Yesterday I watched a woman kiss pigeons. Gently and respectfully, she kissed the bravest on their greedy beaks. In a sea of bread crumbs and feathers, she shared her love with those who surrounded her. Come back into it. My body won’t relax. I pick up the slack. Evening’s receiving light follows me home.
Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very depth of the last days…
-Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky
celestially speaking, we all belong to a restrictive social class
cumulative in our longings, we render dependency as emergencies
[how romantic to feel each other’s interdependent commitments]
we take our love-starved coordinates and plot collective orbits
moving at the textured pace of gravity’s grace, time fragments
do not worry, this scattering happens every year. remember?
what will you pick up and carry into tomorrow? the new year?
Answers are just echoes, they say. But
a question travels before it comes back,
and that counts.
— stanza from “The Research Team in the Mountains” by William Stafford
When I met Dev Aujla in April 2010, he asked me a simple question about a sandwich. Connections with such lasting integrity enabled the answers in the interview below to unfold so seamlessly. Dev enabled this excavation. I wouldn’t have wanted to plumb its depths with anyone else.
This interview occurred through email August-September 2018.
When did you first discover Audre Lorde?
I was in my early 20s. I discovered Audre Lorde through her Black feminist theory, not poetry. Her vision of feminism, shaped by her lived experiences, was accessible and provocative. I was drawn to her unapologetic and direct writing about race, sexuality, and difference. Audre’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, broke open my repressed queer heart.
Tell me about your own poetic practice and how it led you to the poetics inquiry that you pursued in Berlin?
I’m self-taught and forever a student. Over the last seven years, I’ve had an intentional poetics practice. I owe my technical knowledge of amazing contemporary poets and craft, and the confidence to claim a love of poetry to my partner Edward. The other major influence has been William Stafford’s You Must Revise Your Life. My poetics practice is a state of evolution and curious learning.
The poetics inquiry of Audre Lorde’s time in Berlin was catalyzed by being unemployed. My thoughts were my own and open to possibility. I had a different sense of time and connection to productivity, which allowed myself to trust and really practice Stafford’s artistic process. I believed my devotion to writing and learning would get me to Berlin, somehow. Those beliefs were refined and actualized because of the generosity of others – family, friends, and supportive community. I wanted and needed this poetics inquiry, my first, to be a collaborative process.
Audre Lorde’s concept of the ‘poet’s way’ weaves together emotion, self-discovery, and the act of resistance. How did your understanding of her life and this concept deepen upon spending so much time with her correspondence?
I read the personal letters between Audre and Dagmar Schultz when I was back home. The letters added texture and tenderness to the over 60 hours of audio recordings I listened to while at the archive. It was a privilege to witness how they shared their struggles of daily life and their love for each other. The letters spanned eight years of their relationship. Everything I knew about Audre was that she lived her life holistically, critically, and with integrity. When I learned she defined a radical practice of honesty and vulnerability as the ‘poet’s way,’ I felt a new sense of validation. A ‘poet’s way’ is an elegant strategy for creating and sustaining social change.
I love the idea that poetry as you define it is a creative structure where desire meets experience that shows effort. Talk to me about specific moments where desire met experience for you? What does that intersection enable?
That definition came from an attempt to describe what a “good” poem is: “A temporary place of collaborative movement where desire meets an experience that shows effort.” I wrote that before Berlin. It was a statement learned from Stafford and included all the thinking that had gone into planning the Audre Lorde poetics inquiry. The trip to Berlin was the most intense and immediate test of that kind of experience! I also feel that effort every Sunday when I post on cacheculture.
I feel joy at those intersections.
Today more than ever it feels like there is a sense of urgency in bridging ideological divides. How can the tools and ideas that you uncovered during your Berlin trip help people wrestle with conversations with the other?
Audre’s belief that identity is not competitive (an intimate and personal reflection when I think about being an identical twin) is a strategy of resistance in our consumer-centric culture and extractive capitalist economy. Identity is abundant, a creative expression, and a practice of self-preservation. A solution is sharing power and living a life of critical examination. I recommend reading Audre’s brilliant collection of essays, Sister Outsider, to get some of her best writing and vision around this work.
I like this quote from Audre at a poetry reading in Amsterdam (15 July 1984):
“The first step around difference: the parts within us learn to sit down together so that each of us can come to our work, as we define it, whole within ourselves – and then by extension reach out so we can do the work that we must share. That is a very long process. It must begin inside if it is to go out…”
What did the day-to-day feel like while you were in Berlin, spending time in the archives? What was your daily rhythm like while you were there?
It was incredibly important to treat my time at the archive like a job. It was work! I got up early and walked half a mile to the S-Bahn. Before I’d transfer to the next train, I had a strong cup of coffee and a croissant for breakfast. Then it was a short neighborhood bus ride to the archive. The computer was already turned on and set up to access the Audre Lorde files when I arrived around 9am. I listened to digitized analog audio recordings of Audre teach poetry in 1984 Berlin. I transcribed her lectures into two notebooks. The same kind I use in my daily writing practice. I needed an element of the inquiry process to be writing by hand – familiar. I didn’t know what I was going to discover since the archive guide was only in German. That physical movement helped me stay present (and it kept me awake, especially those first days of adjusting to the time difference). I took an hour lunch at the student cafeteria. Those were the only times I felt acutely alone and really far from home. I’d listen and transcribe more recordings until the archive closed around 4pm and 2pm on Fridays. Occasionally, I’d walk back to the train from the archive. The autumn air smelled sweet with rotting leaves.
I’d usually spend the last hours of daylight walking through Neukölln taking pictures of street stickers, graffiti, and whatever else caught my eye.
I did this routine for twelve days, each day the archive was open. The only days I wasn’t at the archive were weekends and two public holidays to celebrate Reformation Day.
Tell me about the relationship between the street art fragments and material you were engaging with in the archives?
I’ve been taking photos of street art for a long time but more consciously since I moved to the Bay Area. The first time I visited Berlin in 2014 I started taking photos of street art fragments of what had been and what was current. My friend Andrea’s reflections of her first time in Berlin influenced my awareness that most of Berlin’s architecture was an attempt to replicate what it was pre-WWII bombing. I was fascinated by what was replica and what was “real.” Time was nine hours ahead of what I was used to, and Audre Lorde was in 1984 – five years before anyone knew the Berlin Wall would fall. I wanted to try and capture that contextual experience of my time in Berlin.
You had a privileged view into the relationship between Dagmar Schultz and Audre Lorde both reading much of their correspondence and meeting Dagmar herself. Tell me about your relationship with Dagmar.
I love this question! It made everything more real. I was unprepared for how it grounded this experience. I was so honored (and so nervous!) to meet Dagmar. Her documentary, Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984-1992, was the reason this poetics inquiry and the archive even exists. There’s probably a German word for the particular feeling I have when I think about Dagmar’s generosity in taking the time to meet with me when I was in Berlin.
I have even more respect for Dagmar after reading the correspondence and then meeting her a few months later when she screened the documentary in San Francisco. When I watched the film for the second time, I was hyperconscious of how inspired I had been from seeing it years prior — and realizing Dagmar was at the first screening I saw in Oakland. It felt divine. Sacred in purpose.
What do relationships like that enable in a time like today? Where do they exist today?
I think it reflects a desire for openness and enables our need for non-competitive mutual experiences. These kinds of relationships can feel rare, but they exist in all of our daily lives. It exists in relationships where we make long-term and deep commitments of time and energy to others and in those magical fleeting moments of human interaction. It also exists in reading writing that makes you feel (versus writing that informs or sells you something).
What is that you wanted to come away with from your poetic inquiry and trip to the archives?
I wanted to experience what intellectual pursuit felt like for its own sake. I wanted no pre-determined outcome other than bravely learning more about Audre Lorde, poetry, and Berlin.
Audre Lorde’s way of living seemed to be so connected to the poetry, writing, and workshops she created. That tight weave between practice and theory seems so rare and powerful. Tell me about how that connection came across or was evident in the workshops and writing you spent time with?
I made that connection when I learned Audre was in Berlin for the first time. She admits she is practicing her racial and gender justice theories in real time: “I felt it was something I needed for my own honesty [visiting Berlin]. … I think of so much of what American civilization takes from Western Europe is a phrase I use frequently, and I thought at some point I cannot continue to use that phrase without knowing first-hand what I’m talking about.” [source]
The other moment was when I listened to her reading poems from The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems, 1987-1992. I read these poems on a sunny September day in San Francisco as preparation for this poetics inquiry. The recording was dated less than two months before she passed away. Weaving practice and theory – praxis – is a habit of integrity. Audre lived a life of authentic integrity.
In your collection [for the Sorted Library], the Poetic Forensics of Power you have chosen poetry that transports one towards the feeling of revolution. I was struck by the sense of immediacy in all of the writing. There is a lack of flowery language. They seem to do what they need to do and make you feel.
I like your description of immediacy. That’s my favorite kind of poetry: breathless and to the point. I wanted a collection of poems that were political but not didactic. Audre believed poetry was a weapon, or “tools of surviving.” It’s an active stance.
Is poetry the common ground or is it our differing reactions to the same poem that provide that starting off place for dialogue?
It’s both. I’m hesitant to claim one situation over the other since most of my engagement with poetry is alone and in conversation with a poem.
How do these poets speak to what Audre Lorde described as Poet as Outsider?
Audre said, “As we think of the poet as visionary, in every circumstance there will be those people who have begun to see beyond what has been defined as the place from where they must write from.” [source]
Audre believed poets are reflectors of the future. Outsider poets are poets who can envision what does not yet exist – what must change – while reflecting the contemporary history, politics, and social cultures of their time. The poets in that collection hold the future, the current, and the past seamlessly.
I want to talk more about the idea of sharing power and the power implicit in the positions that we talk from that we never see or notice unless we are the subject. How can we make these more visible? How was this dealt with in the workshops?
Making power visible is embracing the truth that power is complex and an adaptive process. It requires us to get really good at being active listeners. These kinds of conversations often make us nervous or uncomfortable, feelings we associate as negative, yet it’s within in those moments that we can practice sharing power. It’s about making subtle and profound choices of engagement. We do it every day, even when we’re not conscious of it.
Audre gracefully facilitated these kinds of conversations in her classes by requiring radical honesty, establishing a safe place to critically examine one’s own feelings, and staying grounded in personal experience. She was clear about her intentions for the class and the expectations she had of the students. She admitted she had only enough energy to bridge the cultural and racial differences, not gender, and requested the male students not return to the Black Women Poetry session. It was incredibly brave and necessary for her purpose and limited time in Berlin. She would not allow white guilt to be used as an unconscious defense or distancing mechanism when the students were challenged with feeling uncomfortable. She diffused it by confronting it. She showed how power is a learned behavior. There was no shaming (the idea you’re inherently a “bad” person). If the student felt ashamed, it was on them to understand why. It was their work to do.
Agnate Falk has a poem called otherness that came to mind when you were writing about the scarcity that we feel with identify. The threat that my identify can’t exist without taking away from yours.
OTHERNESS by Agneta Falk
It’s not because I don’t love you that I can’t see your face, It’s just that I can’t face your face without eliminating mine.
When you look at me, I turn away so I don’t quite notice your eyes. If only I could look at you without your looking back at me, I could begin to see you, discover the curve of your lips, resembling mine; that on the slope of your cheek runs a river as deep and dark as one I grew up near, as shallow and dry.
And maybe, if you dared look back at me and saw your tears filling my eyes, we could begin to replace that never-ending fear with love.
How can poetry help us see each other across difference?
This is a beautiful poem! Audre spoke a lot about how we can’t dismiss the poet’s experience, which is the “illumination of the poem.” Poetry is an opportunity to acknowledge feelings of intimacy in yourself and with another person (the poet) who you may never meet. It’s a moment to see both self and poet reflected and honor those differences.
If you become a committed reader and listener of poetry, you have a creative practice around understanding difference. I think it’s important to say that differences are never static. We always, every one of us, are in a constant state of change. Engaging with poetry is one method of staying flexible and open to multiple possibilities.
Poetry as empathy. Chance to feel what it means to be in someone else’s position. To understand the experience of the subjugated and actually understand the power implicit in my own voice that I may have never seen otherwise.
“You will never find the bridge until first you recognize what is different. Plumb that difference. Examine it. And examine the feelings that go with that. You will find in those feelings that there are very much feelings you have also. You may have them out of different experiences but you have the feelings. If you try to have an easy connection of similarity it’s not going to work.” [Audre Lorde]
Tell me about the differences you experienced and recognized in traveling to Germany today that you alluded to describing the practicalities of your poetic inquiry? What was informative in that difference?
I learned to practice being humble and feeling confident in decisions I had to make with limited information. I didn’t know the language, written or in conversation. I was forced to admit over and over to myself that I did not know the culture despite my childhood nostalgia for German culture. Because I came with an intention of having no pre-determined outcomes, it was an interesting experience to take in so much information with confidence. I was open to possibility. It worked at the archive exploration and when I wandered unknown streets.
I like the idea that it isn’t in finding common ground that we find true bond or connection or bridge but rather it is in plumbing the depths of difference and understanding our corresponding feelings to that. It is such a different way of building relationships than we are taught today. Find common ground, ask questions, build a relationship. Did Audre Lorde facilitate people through these types of interactions during the workshops? How did this idea show up with her students coming from different backgrounds?
I love this question so much. What makes this observation so beautiful is that it assumes it is ongoing. There’s an expectation and honesty that it’s going to take some work. Not all relationships should be or can be forever, of course.
My favorite moments from the audio recordings are when Audre is facilitating conversations of difference! She shares German is not her first language, which she admits makes her vulnerable around discussions of interpretation. In tandem, she took considerable time to politically educate her students about the American welfare system and disenfranchised Americans – Black, lesbian, poor, women, Asian, Indigenous – all through conversations woven through a curated collection of poems.
Tell me about your experience of holding a question, or pursuing the question so thoroughly through travel, visiting source materials, turning to poetry and creating a collection? Why is this type of thinking and inquiry needed today?
Almost a year later, I’m still learning and integrating everything I saw, heard, and felt from this experience. It was an incredible immersion. I went to an edge of what I had internalized around risk, woven from my own identities and experiences, and was conscious of that dismantling. The value of this work was made even more clear when I heard others reflect their own learning and emerging ideas from this inquiry.
Having a critical examination of our daily experiences, especially those shaped through normalizing culture, is always needed. It can feel like that’s more the case today, but every generation has faced or denied their differences – and made choices about what tomorrow could look like. Audre’s essay, Poetry is Not a Luxury, outlines why it’s important that we feel as deeply as we analyze: “It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”
Opposites are abstract concepts belonging to the realm of thought, and as such they are relative. By the very act of focusing our attention on any one concept we create its opposite. … Since all opposites are interdependent, their conflict can never result in the total victory of one side, but will always be a manifestation of the interplay between the two sides. — The Tao of Physics
her dreams were filled with spooked horses and rabid wolves
allegories of courage or danger or obsession
shallow interpretations, her repressed energies a spark
threads of eternal poems with narrow slanted voices
waking, she stuck pins in her eyes to filter in more light
Do me a favor this morning. Draw the curtain and come
back to bed.
Forget the coffee. We’ll pretend
we’re in a foreign country, and in love.
Raymond Carver, last stanza of “The Road”
There’s an urgency when you wake up in darkness. Instinct tells you to trust that light is coming. The sky opened a hazy lilac. Morning shadows sharpen. I’ve misinterpreted the danger inherent in matter cannot be created nor destroyed. Navigating productions, stilted formations misunderstood as lyrical responses, becomes a performance. Often, soothing a distraction.
I learned early that soft touches were to be saved for moving someone to confession, then towards salvation. For all those end-of-days Sunday warnings, I am not prepared. This is a special kind of denial, an abject version of faith.
“We should have known” has signaled subtle shaming. Didn’t you hear all those rumors?
The moon is new. At the moment, there is no wind. My body remembers this fear. My sense of distance expands in the pink layered light.
I’ve kept this on the tip of my tongue, at the rim of my mouth, inside my lungs sweet like a curated secret. I tried to write around the noise but this is the silence that found me.
Who will touch me in the middle of this war. — Zaina Alsous, from “On Longing,” A Theory of Birds: Poems
in the darkness, I whisper red sky at night
this ancient prayer breaks
its positive predictive power
when the sun rose red, again
highly sensitive weather machines
translate falling ash as snow and rain
smoke spreads heavy in the amber colored night
in the darkness, I whisper red sky at night
“They are not allowed to distract the attraction.” The Tao of Physics
your hands wrote notes on the arch of my back
a syntax of bruised blues
confusing the map with the territory
you left elegant traces of comparative expressions
a relatively exalted possession
to sublimate time unspoken as gilded pleasure
a glitch forsaken, tender undulation
Police found nothing but pairs of empty shoes inside abandoned cars stopped on the freeway that carved edge lines between city and suburb. Stereos were still playing upbeat songs or blaring ads for insurance, spicy chicken sandwiches, eradicating skin rashes, and a cloud that promised to secure memories. Coffee left warm in secure cup holders.
I have my own, obvious, working hypothesis for the dispossessed.
I can feel you wanting more. More analysis, more details, more quantifiable truth. I recognize that desire. If left unchecked, it is a serial and extractive response.
Instead of getting stuck in that kind of particular production, what spiritual inclinations were you born with? Will your future prove the past?
The ending is coming. How wild is your hope?
title is reference to seven years and a day is often the period of trial in fairy tales (Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World, page 13)