i think i dreamed you by Aryanah Haydu (2017)

day 1
We met and though I was elsewhere involved, I knew that he would be the sweetest thing my eyes would ever reach. He had a long term girlfriend but still I couldn’t take my eyes from his toiled blonde hair those anesthetic blue eyes. He looked full to the brim with secrets and his full lips were set in a line, slipping up into a smile every so often. He had a jawline chiseled by the finest ancient Grecian sculptor and his deviated septum humbled his bone-shaking appearance.

bone-shaking: when I saw him I went cold to my core with a deep insatiable craving

And I knew then I wouldn’t stop until I had him. I knew even before hearing him speak that at some anonymous point, for some duration of time, I’d have him.

soft eyes melancholy eyes lingering–
sex sadness exposed under a lagoon pale blue
lips slightly parted, asymmetry imperfection
I’m going to skinny dip in those water eyes,
I’m going to know him I want to know all of him
to understand him inside
this mysterybeing this sultrysoul

day 67
The next scene takes place one stereotypically perfect summer day in August. The boy – a man really, 23, with broad tanned shoulders and disheveled bleachy hair – leads me up the winding staircase of a dilapidated building that stands tucked between a beachside city in Rhode Island and the sea surrounding. As we reach the top, I understand why those who’ve been here have maintained the spot’s secrecy. The rooftop appears untouched for what seems like decades, a private hideout for curious lovers. I look out and revel in the work of art before me, unparalleled by any photograph or any painting. This art is tangible; I want to hold the landscape in my hands, shake it like a snowglobe and watch the shades of green blend together like impressionist brush strokes, the waves crashing delicately as if set in slow motion. The sun hangs in the sky, dipping its toes in rippling water. Graffiti adorns the speckled buildings around us and plays psychedelic tricks on our eyes. I stand leaning on the rusted rail of the abandoned rooftop and the image seems to be holding the universe together. It seems that if either of us move, if the peace of the moment is disturbed, the whole world will unravel. Chaos will ensue.

I live for that ephemeral presence of air poetry
the moment itself worthy of a museum wall–
sentimentality painted into the strands
of this one fleeting masterpiece
this temporary traveling exhibition
it is a clichéd take from a poorly-funded indie film:
camera shaky liquor sharp / spirits high lighting low

the smell of salt
the sound of waves
the taste of sweat
the feeling of his skin
the view from the open rooftop of
a forgotten skeleton (this building).
when eventually the moment slips away in secret
like a one night stand tip-toeing his escape
no goodbye.

lost in conversation lost in you
voluntarily trapped in my subconscious I’m not confident in my ability to escape – even if I tried even if I wanted to. high ideas of you; green clouds hazy images of your body over mine lingering like smoke… floating above reality with you / in another galaxy with you. I trace all the constellations of your skin with my tentative tongue, connecting dots lost in the chaotic cosmos of your eyes. let’s smoke again.

The star-spangled sky lay above the seaside city, leaving a dim air of light just barely illuminating your features. We sat side by side, legs dangling off the pier hanging above calm waters. Your tattered flannel feels like home over my nicest dress; it subdues the subtle chill running down the spine of the summer evening. We tilt our heads toward the starscope, breathing in deep enjoying a buzz from the Dark and Stormies we sipped at dinner. I was 19; you made me feel old and young at the same time.

“I think that’s Jupiter right there. That tiny speck is an entire planet.” You spoke the periods that ended your sentences each an intimate silence.

“The Universe is crazy, isn’t it? We’re so small.” I always thought you looked so sexy when you stumbled over your thoughts, your words sending my mind on marathons and my libido chasing its tail in circles.

“It is crazy – kinda freaks me out if I think about it too hard. It’s scary how much we don’t really matter, ya know?”

“Yeah. We do matter, though, relatively. You matter to me. Don’t think you don’t.”

Blood to my cheeks. Although I put all my effort into suppressing my dorkish smile, I slip. You smirk back the way I like.

say goodbye to the too-good-to-be-true kind of love     oh, i could die

/ACT CHANGE/

day 123
I am nomadic in my pursuits. I move from hell, to purgatory, on to paradise (if I’m lucky). nothing is permanent and I like it that way. I crave chaos, the burning satiating sensation Hell brings—substance abusing sexual arousal, a complete lack of regard for anyone other than myself. I think it’s healthy to let selfishness consume you – at least for a few hours. days. weeks, maybe. until you reach purgatory— when the guilt consumes you and you recognize that you cannot live a balanced life fueling the fires of Hell. you scold yourself this isn’t the real world… you tell yourself I’ll be better… And you are. Better by the standards of our hypocritical cookie-cutter society. I do what I am told, completing the chores of pious monogamy and modern domesticity. finally, I arrive in paradise. I am agreeable, I’m whole and simple.

…soon though the demons lure me down, a brown haired distraction
with a strong jaw and a golden bottle of liquid courage…
back to Hell I go, smiling ear-to-ear the entire ride.

now i’m strangled by guilt
squeezing into a corset that’s a little too tight
i can’t commit, i guess i should’ve told you that before
i could be should be quiet and wholesome
but where’s all the fun then?
(i’ve surrendered myself to exquisite men).
an inner monologue between the devil on one shoulder
and an angel on the other
Satan over there suggesting all seven sins
while the angel apologizes for interrupting,
but I “really probably shouldn’t”
although I usually do…
flirtation whispers in my ear
and the allure of deception seduces me

eventually the devil wins, as he always does.

dissolve to: separation
day 182
a letter

writing “dear” felt unnatural… how do people start letters now? Shit this whole thing is strange, speaking to you through a fucking letter. Anyway, thinking back it’s funny how curious I was about you from the second I laid eyes on you. Walking around campus in your glasses a mess your books almost tumbling out of your hands. I hoped they’d fall just so I could’ve had the chance to pick them up for you. It’s funny how we found our way to each other. What we had (whatever we had) was real but it wasn’t.

It was real but I couldn’t fill all that was missing. I think you just wanted every experience and every feeling you could feel. I know that and I forgive you even though you don’t need to be forgiven really. I hate how things happened but I get it. It’s just we could’ve been great, you know. We could’ve really loved each other one day. Fuck you.

Sorry — this is hard. The past is the past and I wanted to send you this because what we had was worth more than some bullshit texting conversation. I wanted to tell you I loved the summer we spent together and I loved making love to you. Of course I’m mad and I’m sad about everything that happened, but I hope you find all you’re looking for. Fuck I hope I do, too.

sincerely,

yours

always

the next summer: about one year from the beginning
day 372

eyes closed, I dream your ghost next to me
frigid winter night turns back to lush summer mornings
tangled in your sheets legs tangled in each other’s legs

your sunbleached hair is pulled back messy eyelids flutter open, bleachedblue
shining with the albedo of the daylight spilling through the open window
you utter something in your sleep, subconsciously pull me closer by naked waist.

i wanna steal the clock – dissolve time
stretch the moment on forever.
i dare you not to move.
We could lay in this bed forever.
let’s never move.
blink awake, back to reality this time
and it’s another cold morning
i’m alone now
— you moved.

The Things He Taught Me
I. Clear your mind often – It is easier than you think.
II. There is nothing a nicely rolled spliff cannot cure.
III. Sharing everything with another human being is exhilarating.
IV. Do not confuse commitment with confinement.

Giuffrida park on
E year sin
Ce I’ve seen you
R face
And I think
I stil
Love you
R memory
But you
‘Re different n
Ow I am too
How poignantthe park
stayed the
Same.
The death of
Love is n(ever)
n(atural).

but when I see you again I reach for my scars
familiar lips now unfamiliar face
the same eyes (same same but different)
my soul falls into sinking i’m sinking
deeper between fumbling hands that hold me like i’m
glass fragile and i’ve never felt so fragile
swimming in a glass of champagne and lost time
so many nights i felt the ghost of your
fingertips ridges on a blank canvas
strokes over lonely linen so lonely
for you i fill the empty spaces with hollow bodies
back beaded sweat and i never listen to the words
they say i just play your laugh over on repeat
till the record spinning between my eyes skips
the sound lost as i am

all is lost until i’m back in this
moment.

An excerpted version of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents a full, unedited version of this piece.

Guilt Treatment by Noah Bukowski (2017)

Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award Undergraduate Winner (2017)

The form said that every article of clothing we wore that day had to be white, even our undergarments. My dad wasn’t into this kind of thing, so he had normal clothes on and was going to drive around for most of the time we were there. My mom had been looking forward to it for months and had been wearing the appropriate white slacks and white blouse since sunrise. I was afraid of seeing too much, so whenever I talked to her, I stared at her heavy-set chin. Don’t look down. Everyone seems more vulnerable when they’re only wearing white, but it doesn’t magically make you see-through.

That day in early October of my sophomore year of high school, my parents took me to a Catholic miracle healer that was making his rounds on all of the daytime talk shows of a few years ago. His name was John of God, and he was said to have miraculously cured anything from cancer to Alzheimer’s. My dad started looking into it after a distant relative went to go see him, and after the process, her brain cancer went into remission. But he didn’t schedule the reservation for me to see John until after he saw the Oprah Winfrey special that showed actual footage of the man operating on somebody with lung cancer. I was born with complications resulting in a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy, which in my case affects my muscles and how I walk, talk, and exist in our very physical word. My parents had always been looking for some sort of cure for my incurable condition. They mean well, but I’m surprised I’ve yet to receive snake oil as a Christmas present.

I didn’t have any strong feelings for or against taking part in this ritual I knew none of the specifics of. My biggest concern at the time was figuring out how to destroy, in a way that looked like an accident, a laptop given to me by the high school that I had used at home to watch porn on. Unfortunately, my time was up and disability services wanted it back now. But from the few genuine questions I had about seeing John, my parents largely assumed I was against them. They made it seem like I was being immature for not believing that some weird Italian guy could repair the ruptured synapses in my brain. He wasn’t even going to be “working on me” as far as I knew.

My dad said, “I think you should at least give it a try. He probably won’t be able to fix everything, but maybe it could help with your walking or your right hand.” The absurdity of this reasoning didn’t fully hit me at that age. I also didn’t want to smother that flickering light of hope in my parents’ eyes that has remained stubbornly alight for my entire life.

Both sides of my family mesh together into one mass of thoroughly Americanized Polish people. The biggest cleave to occur between generations lies in the early nineties, when all of my cousins and I were born. Pushed towards the brightest of futures by immigrant parent guilt–the motivator that knows no reserve–all of us are now pursuing doctorates as a way of rectifying the sacrifices that have been made. With this, some of us have come to harshly deny our Roman Catholic roots. Our parents speak candidly of spirituality and we try to intellectualize its rhetoric to critique it like a seminar paper.

My older brother Brandon went to a Catholic school until eighth grade. When it was determined that there was enough going on for me upstairs, I was denied the chance to join Brandon in the pew each morning because the school was not required by the government to provide accommodations so that us cripples could be fully immersed in a religion that overly symbolizes our struggles. Public school afforded that the biggest cross I had to bear was my game-losing play on the kickball field in second grade. As we got older, our faith became inversely proportional; Brandon wanted a science program that was actually rational, and I started staying awake for more masses.

Before I could analyze the philosophical inconsistencies of the Old Testament, I enjoyed being a body in church. Robotically turning my head around to the parish, I’d see so many warm faces mouthing prayers directed towards me. Like a game, I’d pretend their words were having a visible effect on me, and like some macabre sci-fi creation I’d slowly straighten up and look back at them in wonder. You cured me! I could take as long as I’d want in the line for communion, purposefully making each step more labored and uneasy than the last, and the deacon would just beam at me. Everyone makes it at their own pace.

I came to hate faith because of the unnecessary weighty meaning it gave to all aspects of my life, starting with my survival. Everything had a reason for happening that I couldn’t rightly claim as my own volition. It was God’s will that I survived complications that kill or severely disable millions. No. I did that. My newborn body with only a heartbeat to call its own was able to endure and heal. People chalk these things up to God or miracles because they can’t conceive of a human of their own measure doing them unassisted. But it happens, and I think it’s healthier to err towards narcissism than placing faith in unexplainable outside sources.

However, it’s easy to forget that the mess I caused doesn’t end with me. My whole family is wrapped up in it, my mom the most tightly wound. October 10th is a day that is almost entirely a celebration of progress, but my parents can’t help but localize it back to 1995. Every birthday dinner conversation has this stilted patch when my mom’s eyes tear up when she looks at me all dressed up. My dad tries to save her and recounts his perspective on that day:

Concentrated panic. Terri and you unexpectedly on your shared deathbed. Brandon puts a racecar in my hand and I’m trying to figure out how I’d explain all of this and parent him on my own. Guilt. Terri’s mom is blaming me in between prayers. Who did you sleep with? You’ve killed my daughter and my new grandson.

This has the opposite effect and sends my mom into a meltdown of tears. She was out of it for days after the birth and so she remembers only the aftereffects. I’ve never asked her about specific times or events during the three-year period after I was born when my mom didn’t work. I can only see the difference in old pictures of her. There’s one of her and Brandon at Chuck-E-Cheese for his second birthday, almost exactly a year and a half before I was born. Brandon’s trying to flee from the man in the Chuck-E suit while my mom laughs and goes after them. She looks just like her sister who’s one year younger than her with a thin face and sharp eyes. The pictures at my first birthday party are very different. I’m planted securely in a high chair with a blank expression on my face as I cautiously eye the man in the rat suit. My mom leans in and smiles, but we both look equally deflated. I did that.

***

My mom and I arrive for our day with John. It’s nothing remotely close to one-on-one attention–there turned out to be a couple hundred people with us–but my parents told me there was always a possibility of being plucked out of the masses. We were getting corralled along with droves of other people into the entrance of this health and wellness center that seemed to be more of a hippie retreat. We all looked like a big cult. I had never seen so much whiteness before. We slowly churned forward like a hive mind, nullifying the sharp hues of the tribal artwork on the walls. White sneakers even.

I was finally able to get a good look at everyone else here to see John when we got onto the main grounds. There were some other people with disabilities, but the more disabled they were, the more loved ones they had around them. A man who looked catatonic had a whole group around him cheering and whooping, jackknifing through the slow moving crowd. “Colin’s Cure Convoy” on white t-shirts in black lettering. They even played it safe with plastic white crucifixes.

The two main groups of people that were there seemed to be old people and cancer patients. Both there to cling desperately to their lives, not willing to let go, even going so far as to get a TV spirit healer to push God’s hand away. I immediately felt like I had the wrong reasons for being there with them, especially the cancer patients. Here I was at the nubile age of fifteen–still thinking about trashing the laptop and alternative ways of watching porn without it–while a man beside me tenderly held his colostomy bag with as much dignity as one can. On the whole, their pale bald heads seemed to sprout out of their collared white shirts with no clear line dividing between the two. Others had fleshier heads with staples in U shapes that had dried blood on them, indicating excised brain tumors.

These people were probably here as a last resort. I imagined them getting the diagnosis, throwing out their alcohol cabinet, and drinking wheatgrass shots instead. At that point you’ll do whatever it takes. They had very hopeful looks in their eyes. You could tell they’d been waiting months for this. I took a deep breath and out of respect for those around me, I decided to take all of this more seriously. I still didn’t logistically get what John should be doing for me or for any of these people.

We were herded under this large white tent in an open field. There were fold-out chairs in rows that made me realize the scope of how many of us there actually were, easily over a thousand. There was some sort of itinerary, but I neglected to look at it, wanting to feel surprised by whatever inane activity they’d make us do. Once we were all seated, the main speaker from the venue organizing the event gave a few opening remarks. He seemed well versed in this perverse niche of emceeing; his voice soothed the crowd and we quickly began guided meditation or prayer, whatever floats your spiritual boat.

I had never meditated before. Pop culture had taught me to focus on my breathing, but I found it hard to do in the presence of so many people. My eyes opened and I looked over the faces of those around me, seeing a mixture of intense, screwed up faces, as well as some placid ones who were clearly in the process of finding their center. Whatever their countenance, they all seemed linked up to some grand unifying thought complex that I just couldn’t tap into. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mom also trying her best to no avail.

As suspicious I was of this whole situation, I can’t deny that I felt some latent presence under that tent. The air started brimming with a faint electricity. All of these decaying bodies from all across the world, unified together by a common goal. Silence.

***

They gave us a lunch of hummus and other dry, tasteless grain pastes spread on flatbread wafers. I can’t manage delicate finger foods or hefty sandwiches because my hand can spasm and crumble the whole damn thing to bits. My mom fed me so that none of it would fall on the white clothes that would very visibly bear stains. For twenty-one years we have had this unspoken acknowledgement of feeding. I used to be self-conscious about it in public, but eventually my love of the Chick-Fil-A Spicy Chicken Deluxe outweighed that. Now, when our errands are done for the day and we invariably end up at the best fast-food establishment to happen upon Wallingford, we eat and talk about what book she’s reading on the list that I made for her. She manages over fifty people and English is her second language, but she’s only a few books behind me. The first bite she gives me is still overambitious, and so I usually pull away with sauce in the corner of my mouth.

“Oops.” We laugh.

Our predicament seems to have supercharged my mother’s predisposition for caring. But it’s too souped-up and fueled by the wrong reasons. She’s never outright said it, but I can see that in my mother’s eyes I embody her greatest mistake that she had no part in making. Both of my parents have times when they either think longingly about how differently our lives would be if the complications had not occurred or theorize about how my life will be supposedly whole once I am cured. My dead grandmother’s voice still rings in their ears. It’s your fault. You did this to him. Rectify it. But my mother bears the brunt of this burden, since, technically speaking, it was her shitty uterus that did us both in. You almost kill your child, leaving him permanently disabled. How do you look him in the eye when you tie his shoes every day?

We all marched back to the main tent. We were arbitrarily separated into smaller groups and huddled together. The main portion of the day involved one group at a time being selected at random to go into the smaller chamber where John of God actually had resided all of this time. We would meditate in that room for about five minutes–his presence was supposed to strengthen our spiritual connection, and then we had to walk single file out of the chamber. He would be seated just before the exit. The idea was that if he felt something in your spirit, or had some higher indication that he could help you, he would make some sort of hand motion and you would be whisked away to some deeper examination room.

It was our turn. Our ragtag bunch went down the makeshift plywood boardwalk that lead to the chamber. One man was missing his arm up to three fourths of his bicep, his shirt sleeve proudly rolled up to the armpit. What would John do in this case, regrow most of a man’s limb if he felt he had good vibes? Would the new arm just sprout out of the stub, or would he grow it out in a piecemeal basis? One inch of bone, sinew, muscle, and skin for each three hundred dollar visit? These were the thoughts that I had while the others were appropriately mentally preparing themselves. We arrived in the dimly lit chamber that reeked of incense. I saw him way up at the front of the room, slumped over in a gilded chair. He was heavyset with a plain crew cut. His eyes were closed and they remained that way the entire time; I pictured them lazy and darting around in their sockets, like a wise blind man.

Throughout the day I had been trying to piece together the other peoples’ beliefs of this man and why I didn’t fall in with them. I would be forcibly reminded of our fundamental differences, their lust for life and my indifference, only to then be brought back by the allure of that electricity in the air, the uncommunicated communication between all of us and that man. When I walked by John, nothing happened. He didn’t even shift his posture. The same with my mom. I went through the rest of the day’s meditation exercises in a fugue state between utter disappointment and complete awe. I couldn’t figure it out. After we finished, my mom and I sat outside of an old mom and pop store way down the road.

We didn’t talk much. She called my dad to come get us and I heard them yelling at each other about directions as if none of the events of the day had happened. My mom was mostly concerned with what I got out of it–whether I felt different in any way or not–but she didn’t press like my dad did. I was irritated by her unwillingness to share her take on it. This wasn’t supposed to have just benefitted me. I thought about the symbiotic relationship we share. She had almost killed me, but I almost killed her too. I wanted to really ask about those three years after I had been born. Yes, I’ve heard all the stories about putting me in the earliest rehabilitation programs, which is likely what allowed me to be able to type this shit out instead of dictate it from a wheelchair. But what about her sleepless nights? The endless masses her mother bought so that people would pray for us. The guarantee that whatever my ability, I’d likely be dependent on her until the day she dies. Not knowing if I’d ever be able to walk, talk, or have the intellectual capacity to be stupid enough to watch porn on a school computer in the first place.

I wish my family could just shed the collective guilt we have for the circumstances that happened on October 10, 1995. We need a different yearly reminder to genuinely reflect. A time to say: We’re doing great things. We love each other. It was nobody’s fault.

But most importantly: a time to work through all of these silences that we have created for ourselves. To confront that electricity while still keeping it alive.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.

“The things that hold you back can often help you”: An Interview with Poet Allison Joseph, By Taylor Caron (2017)

From left to right: Parker Gregory Shpak, Sean Frederick Forbes, Allison Joseph, Breanna Patterson, Betty Noe, and Jameson Croteau. (Photo taken at UConn, February 2017, by Sydney Lauro)

It’s been said that expectations are best kept low when meeting a brilliant writer. This advice makes sense when one considers that a writer is presenting their best, most polished self on the page. The real thing should inevitably yield disappointing. I feel privileged in being able to verify that this is not the case with renowned poet Allison Joseph. The distinct idiosyncrasies and tonal qualities of her voice on the page are to be found in conversation. It became less mystifying to me how one poet could publish works as diverse as In Every Seam, Soul Train, Imitation of Life, My Father’s Kites, and the recent chapbook Multitudes after speaking with her. Her chameleon-like ability to speak in the most sublimely high register or slangy conversational tone is unique to her specific background and literary diet. She was born in London, England to parents of Gernadian and Jamaican heritage, and was raised in the Bronx, New York City. She lives in the Midwest where she is Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and is the editor in chief and poetry editor for the Crab Orchard Review. Her honors include the John C. Zacharis First Book Prize, fellowships from the Bread Load and Sewanee Writers Conferences, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry. While the subjects of her writing range from love poems, political poems on race, or the heavily imagistic, at least two commonalities remain: her abundant humor and generosity of spirit. She kindly agreed to be interviewed by me for the Long River Review journal during her visit to UConn in February, and I hope that readers can sense those qualities as she indulges my various questions.

Editor’s note: The text below is the unedited, full transcript of Allison Joseph’s interview.

TC: Yesterday when you were reading “Pedestrian Blues” and “To Wanderlust” you mentioned being a “handicap walker,” but as you were reading I could sense the movement of the poems. There’s a sense that when engaging in walking you are able to discover new things but also reflect on events past?

AJ: Yes, I run and I walk a lot. And I became a runner basically for health reasons, but walking is really meditative for me. It opens up my mind and as I’m passing through new places. In those moments I may have a line or reflection come into my head. I think I’m just taking advantage of that. More recently I’ve been thinking about my late father-in-law who had Parkinson’s. His ability to walk was taken for him and that was horrible, having to witness that of a loved one. So lots of time when I walk or run I think about him and how many of us abled body people take the capacity of motion for granted.

TC: Yeah, you seem to bring a consciousness and intentionality to the activity that I think eludes most able-bodied people. It reminded me of Thoreau’s essay which is just called “Walking”. For him, being able to move through nature was essential for writing. Do poems come to you during that time?

AJ: Not so much when running, usually because I’m on a treadmill or with music on, but definitely. I was just walking around here and [UConn] is a great walking campus. I saw a lot of lovely people running and walking about so when the weather isn’t punishing you this could be a great place for regular walks (laughs). And you mention Thoreau, that’s a very New England kind of idea which I feel quite comfortable with.

TC: This might be a somewhat related question: I was thinking of your poem “Sleepaway Camp” while you were reading “The Black Santa” last night. I was wondering how you view the role of memory in your poems. These are sometimes distant memories from your childhood and yet you’re able to conjure this vivid detail of the moment. Do you feel memories are partly constructed or even created when writing?

AJ: Yes. I am very cognizant when writing nonfiction, and I’ve published some nonfiction, that it has to be verifiable. I wrote an essay about my father and his relationship to 70’s television shows. One of his favorites was All in the Family, which was peculiar to me because Archie Bunker was a stone cold racist. Everything I wrote in that essay I felt I had to research. But when I’m writing a poem a sort of reverie takes over. In the moment of creation, I’m convinced that somebody’s sweater was blue. There’s no way for me to verify that, but for the purposes of that poem it’s going to be blue. That’s the distinction for me. Poetry is a kind of fiction, it’s a fictive activity. A world is created in the poem, but when I’m writing it I think to myself “This is the God honest truth.” But who knows? I always don’t. I feel that what I’m invoking is true even if it isn’t literal truth. I always tell my students: if in your poem you want it to be a rainy day but it was actually sunny, you can make it rainy.

TC: I’ve been thinking about this recently. How much does a poet identify as a memoirist or a fiction writer? I help edit LRR’s nonfiction panel and we’ve received some autobiographical poems which led to an interesting debate.

AJ: With “The Black Santa” poem I looked at the photo of him, and I think I made him look a little sickly looking. I went back and looked at him and thought: Hmm, Black Santa doesn’t look too bad! But I swear to this day that he either smoked too much or drank too much or both. But hey, it’s a department store Santa job, I probably would do the same (laughs).

TC: I was thinking last night during your reading, you know some poets can be captivating on the page but the reading can be a bit sort of droning…

AJ: Narcoleptic?

TC: Yes, exactly!

AJ: This is an area I’ve gotten more interested in. Bringing in videotape or audio tape. Sometimes it’s inspiring and really throws you. In my graduate class we heard some recordings of Sylvia Plath who as a poet I deeply admire, as a person I don’t think I would have liked her that much.

TC: Or be like her?

AJ: Right. But her voice was so off-putting. It sounds like a put-on to us. It’s this overarching New England, Boston accent that sounds like a parody of itself. It sounds contrived. And after she married Hughes, you know, and made recordings for the BBC. There, it sounds like she’s putting on an England on top of the already New England accent (laughs).

TC: I’ll have to find those tapes and give them a listen. I have to say though, when you read it sounds very authentic. It almost reminded me of a kind of slam poetry in the way you were engaging with the audience, making eye contact, or making a side comment. And it was very funny, there was a lot of laughing going on.

AJ: Well a lot of people are convinced poetry readings are supposed to be very somber. When I did a reading from my book My Father’s Kite which are a series of elegies for my late father. The first time I read from that book I read them all the way through and people were crying by the end and I thought, oh God.

TC: You didn’t feel good about that?

AJ: I did, in a way. It is kind of a rush to know you can manipulate people’s emotions like that (laughs). But the next couple of times I read from it I would intersperse more comments to give people’s emotions a break.

TC: Well last night was interesting in that regard because many of the poems were quite compelling. But I found, not just at the reading but when I was alone going through your work, I would laugh in the most beautiful kind of way – the kind of wholesome laugh that as you’re laughing something profound is activating.

AJ: There’s a poem I wrote called “Weeping at Someone’s Funeral” which is the kind of phenomena of people going to funerals as an athletic event where they’re crying more than the bereaved. I read it recently and people approached me saying they didn’t know whether to life or cry. And I thought, that’s it! That’s exactly what I’m trying to evoke.

TC: How do you find that tone? Does it have to do with wordplay?

AJ: Yep. I think of writing in general as playing with words. For some writers writing is definitely work. And I definitely feel that when I write prose. I think to myself: This writing in sentences business is really work. But poetry allows you to play with language not just from the figurative side, but sonically. If you spent a lot of time, and I know there are lots of elegant prose stylists, but if you spend so much time you’ll never get to the plot or characters. With poetry you have more latitude.

TC: Interesting, this might not be relevant but I heard Joyce Carol Oates once say that she couldn’t be a poet because when she thinks of an idea it’s a character or story.

AJ: Right, and she’s lying because she’s written a lot of poetry. Many prose writers have, like Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich. A lot of people who people think of as just prose writers have written poetry. Erdrich was a very fine poet until she committed more fully to prose.

TC: Does that have something to do with the Faulkner line that novelists are failed poets?

AJ: Perhaps. But there are writers who I have claimed as poets that are not literally poets. Like Tennessee Williams, who did write poetry but it was dreadful. However, there are passages in his plays that are so charged with beautiful language that you let him in the poetry club.

TC: I wanted to ask you about issues of formalism. I was reading your book of sonnets called The Purpose of Hands in which all poems follow the strict rules of meter and rhyme that a sonnet requires. But then there are other books in which a lot of the poems are more free verse. There seems to be a debate right now that poetry is becoming to formless and then there’s the new formalism trying to combat that notion.

AJ: Well I know poets who essentially are prose poets. They don’t even write in lines. I think you have to figure out what it is you’re willing to teach yourself. I did write a lot of free verse early in my career and then I started teaching a lot of poetics courses. The course I’m teaching right now is on forms of poetry. I’m the kind of person that in order to teach something I have to do it myself. What became obvious to me is that the more formal verse I wrote the more free verse I wrote. It wasn’t one or the other. I could formal verse to generate ideas that I could use in free verse and vice versa. For me it’s all poetry. I will say I don’t write much prose poetry because when I wrote prose I want to write a character or about an issue that might be too big for a single poem. The essay on my father and television made me realize it was not going to be one poem. I wanted to talk about the various aspects of him as a black man being attracted to these negative issues. It was more idea based.

TC: So when you do write more formal poetry, whether it’s a sonnet dedicated to your husband or an elegy dedicated to your father, do you set out to write a poem in those forms? Or does it slowly become apparent which form is the most appropriate?

AJ: With My Father’s Kite, after his death I found that I couldn’t write free verse. That the elegy was a kind of mechanism to control the emotions because it was a painful death. And I did a lot of work cleaning out the house, settling his affairs, so there was something about the mechanism of 14 lines giving me a kind of control I began to rely upon. And there were other forms and poems in that book, including some free verse.

TC: But the restrictions helped?

AJ: Yes. The things that hold you back can often help you.

TC: You mentioned that you would assign your students to write a poem about the most insignificant subject possible. I was wondering if you challenge yourself to do that because, for me, your kind of writing is almost superior to reality. Time becomes slowed down in your poems and you see objects in a clearer way, almost as if for the first time.

AJ: I’m going to risk sounding like a broken record. But part of the reason I don’t drive is the world offers you the best materials in bus stations, airports, on the train. You see people in transit emotionally. I also believe in eavesdropping. I hear phrases and steal pieces of dialogue. I believe that if we are aware to the world around us — you know some young writers believe you have to suffer this terrible life or hardship in order to be able to write. There have been writers that do things like go off in search of adventure to have something to write about. I never felt that way. I always trusted the universe would provide for me, poetically speaking. You can ascribe religious meaning to it but I’m convinced that if I keep my eyes open there will always be enough.

TC: So is paying attention the best advice you can offer a young poet? Do you think being glued to one’s phone impedes that kind of concentration and participation required?

AJ: It can. And it’s very seductive, we all do it. But sometimes people will say something online that will trigger something for me into a poetic idea.

TC: That’s interesting. Something unrelated I wanted to ask you about has to do with two things you’ve mentioned in your writing and yesterday: Odes and Pablo Neruda. Neruda seemed to write an ode about practically anything: numbers, bees, etc. Did he expand the possibility of the genre for you?

AJ: It stands in stark contrast to Keats who had a very set rhyme scheme with specific movements. I do teach “Ode to Autumn” just so my students know where this notion of praising comes from. But I do an exercise with Neruda’s collected odes, and I’ll assign them a certain number in the book and make my students write an ode about whatever he wrote about. So yeah, in addition to being deeply involved in politics and having his own literary spats with poets.

TC: My question is about your odes being directed at, not necessarily yourself, but a part of yourself. It’s sort of an expression of self-love. Did Neruda open that up for you?

AJ: Not necessarily, you know his sonatas really helped me in that way. It’s just trust that anything the world shows me is worthy of praise, I am going to go there.

TC: We were talking about wordplay earlier, and at times it can be very whimsical and fun but also quite serious. There’s a line from your poem “On Being Told I Don’t Speak like a Black Person”: “Now I realize there’s nothing more personal than speech.” I wonder exactly what you mean by personal.

AJ: It’s like an imprint the way that you speak. I speak in different accents a lot as a Caribbean immigrant and then living in New York, and now I’m married to a Southerner. I’m just interested in the human voice, period. And if we don’t maintain interest in the way we sound and try to mute everybody and smooth off all the difference, how boring will that be?

TC: That line about the importance of the individualized nature of speech, but some of your poems have more of a political or social bent. Many do not, but considering the actions of the current executive administration, I find it interesting to track the way language is being used.

AJ: Yes, it’s been driving me nuts. And it has been driving me to write. I wrote a poem that people have been spreading around, and it was the day that Kellyanne Conway invented the phrase “alternative facts.” It started as a kind of joke like, well, now cake is celery. Laughter can be a good way of getting through these things. Anyway, the poem ended up on Lit Hub, and then I was contacted my NPR and they asked me for a recording. That proved to me a couple things, there are people who are interested in language as it should be used, and they don’t to be deceived. It also let me know language is going to be crucial for our political survival. And I don’t consider myself an overtly political person, but it’s a matter of what pushes buttons and what I can do with humor. There were a lot of writer’s resistance events and I didn’t immediately join those because I was still stunned and waiting to see what was going to happen. It’s interesting though, growing up in New York everybody hated Donald Trump for one reason or another. He was ruining the New York skyline with these gaudy buildings and taking out ads against the Central Park Five.

TC: So he’s almost the part of the milieu of your childhood?

AJ: Yeah, I mean we all knew the Trump Tower was this gaudy eyesore. And you know the way that people defend things from him that they would not accept from other politicians is something that mystifies me.

TC: But that’s what interesting in relation to political language. Because as you know some poets are more explicitly political while others are less so. But does there comes a moment when a poet has an obligation to language in public discourse. You think of Auden’s poem after Poland was invaded for example. Do you feel that duty?

AJ: (Sighs) I think people are going to be asking themselves that much more than they are used to. I taught a class on poets as world figures and I asked the students whether they thought of themselves as political poets and nobody said they did. There was a kind of stigma that political poetry didn’t have literary value or was just propaganda. But toward the end one of my students wrote a chapbook all mocking Donald Trump. I don’t think he would have written those if we hadn’t read those poets who were killed and jailed for wiring poetry. We talked about Dennis Brutus who was in the same prison as Mandela. I said to my students, think about this: His punishment was to break big rocks into smaller rocks. I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet him when he was at the University of Pittsburgh years later. And there was no sense of bitterness. There was just a desire to want to continue to write. When he was in prison they didn’t want him writing at all, so he write letters to his sister Martha, in poetry. So in times like these, I think of someone like Dennis who under the worst possible circumstances still found that identity as a writer and a poet and found it absolutely intrinsic.

Interview by Taylor Caron

It’s Here: the 20th Anniversary Issue of LRR!

It’s finally here, and it’s fluorescent. Our 20th Anniversary Issue is now available at the UConn Bookstore. We are so proud of this issue. Keep an eye out for the bright orange cover, and pick up your copy today.

Thank you so much to our contributors that made this year’s issue possible.