Sing This One Back to Me by Bob Holman (Coffee House Press, 2013) begins with a poem called “[Title of Poem]” which lays out some of the things to follow in the book. Here’s the beginning:
Body of poem
Tail of poem
Refrain from poem
There’s humor here, to be sure, but there’s also a clear love of poems. Holman is a poet who is constantly looking for the “Neverending poem, the other poem, yet another poem[.]” He’s a poet who actively looks outside his own experience of the world to find inspiration in visual art and in the songs and poems of other cultures. Sing This One Back to Me includes a “special guest appearance by Papa Susso,” a West African singer and poet, as well as poems in the ekphrastic mode, translations of sorts from the visual work that inspired them.
There’s a risk of appropriation when someone from a dominant group uses language and stories from another culture. Holman, thankfully, avoids this trap, and is incredibly respectful of the source material he’s working with. The third section of Sing This One Back to Me, “Jeliya! (or, Griot Poems, As Sung by Papa Susso to Bob Holman)” features poems that are performative and energetic, filled with exclamations and digressions. Holman allows Susso’s voice to come through, never editorializing or annotating the poems. “This story begins long long long long long long long long ago” begins “How Kora Was Born,” hearkening to English fairytales. “Jeliya!” begins:
Alaleka Jaliyaa Daa!
God created the art of music
This music! This song!
This song is a celebration!
These lines demand to be read out loud, they demand to be read to an audience. It’s clear that Holman has learned much from Susso.
Not all of the poems here are translations from another language. There is also a series of ekphrastic pieces translated, as it were, from paintings by Van Gogh and Rothko. A typical “Rothko” poem reads like this:
Quest amber tease
Test amber breeze
Anchor azure still
A “Rothko” poem is, according to Holman’s notes, “three lines, three words per line.” Three of the words should be colors, and they should form a tic-tac-toe pattern in the poem. Holman does concede, however, that these rules can be broken, though do so “at your own risk.” As short as these are, they too seem to want to be performed. The sound of the words becomes a new dimension and helps to create a more complex picture in the mind of the reader.
The most heartfelt poems in Sing This One Back to Me come at the end of the book, which contains a collection of lovely poems about family. “Love,” in particular, is a beautiful little piece dedicated to Holman’s late wife, painter Elizabeth Murray. “Your hand throws out / As you sleep[,]” the poem opens, and this intimate moment is compressed suddenly and stopped in time. The poems that follow touch on Murray’s death from lung cancer, making the small moment when her hand “[l]ands and settles” on Holman’s body heartbreaking in retrospect.
While the last section of poems contains less bombast than the previous poems, they are no less performative. Indeed, it is the final poem that the book is named after. “My feet on the lotus?” Holman asks, before answering,
[…]No, my feet are the lotus!
All God? Gosh, I was looking over at you—shh.
No need this talking, this poem so obvious, shh.
But Holman’s poems are never just obvious. There is always, in his own words, a “[p]oem behind the poem[.]” These poems are colloquial, honest, and sure of themselves, which makes reading them a pleasure. Reading them, though, is only part of the experience for Holman. To fully experience these poems, I imagine one would have to see and hear them read out loud, either by the poet or by someone else. These are poems to share with friends and family until everyone is singing them back.
Patricia Smith easily sits at the top of my favorite performance poets list, and this book embodies everything I love about her poetry (this book was a National Poetry Series Winner). I first started reading Smith’s work after hearing her perform at a Coffee House Press reading in Northeast Minneapolis last year. Her presence was a vortex of poetry, pulling the audience forward in their seats. Like many slam or performance poets, she writes about a lot of social issues, such as AIDs, sex, abuse, marriage, and much more. However, it never feels like Smith is preaching to us, because she prods and pulls apart these subjects with intense emotional heft.
This collection is a rich, dense feast of poetry, impossible to digest in one sitting. Instead, I suggest reading a few poems at a time, then taking a break to come back later, in order to let each poem settle in. The poems beg to be read out loud, each morsel of a fully tasted in all areas of the tongue. However, unlike many slam poets, Smith’s work still holds its power on the page alone. Her word choices, rhythm, and playfulness have a physicality to them that made me feel each word in my mouth, even while reading them flat on the page.
The poem “Women are Taught” exhibits Smith’s creative, refreshing turns of dialogue and thought, even while working with a heavy subject.
On the day I married, I was such porcelain,
delicate and poised to hatter. I was unflinching,
sure of my practiced vows,
already addicted to the sanctity of bondage.
I was an unfurled ballad in a scoop-necked
sheath carved of sugar. And him on my arm,
grinning like a bear, all sinew and swagger.
Bibles were everywere. Dizzied by rote,
I started at the gold rope around my finger.
He owned me.
And that felt nice.
That felt right.
the first time i hit her
I thought the loose tooth a temporary nightmare
the second time i hit her
He cried himself to sleep, and that was nice
that was right
the third time i hit her
He counted my scars and whispered never again
baby never again
Using multiple voices blurred together to tell the story makes it hit home in a powerful way. Yet, although she’s obviously mastered the big gesture poems, she’s also comfortable in smaller, quieter moments, such as in the poem “Little Poetry”:
I watch him undress, skin
unto another skin, and I turn
away to keep from craving that.
By the time his hands
touch my shoulders,
I am almost insane
and the thunder.
Each poem is comfortable in its own skin, for better or for worse. Honesty, however close and uncomfortable it can be at times, is the tool that Smith uses to reach out of the pages to her reader.
What other performance and slam poets are especially adept at writing poetry that jumps off the page and into the mouth?
Last minute shoppers, rest easy. We’ve got you covered for every wordy nerd on your list here at Hazel & Wren with these recent releases packaged up for your easy purusing pleasure. Behold, the Hazel & Wren Liter-nerdy Holiday Gift Guide!
For the outdoorsy, environmental reader: My Green Manifesto by David Gessner (Milkweed Editions)
Environmentalism is fun AND meaningful with David Gessner in his most recent book of nonfiction, chronicling his journey down Boston’s Charles River, to find a new kind of environmentalism. (Throw another book or two in your cart, and Milkweed will send you a FREE limited-edition, letterpress chapbook called Winter Fiction. Totally worth it for this letterpress nut. I got mine in the mail today, and boy-oh-boy, I almost started believing in Santa again.)
For the true fiction reader: Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper)
The 2012 National Book Award winner from well-known author Louise Erdrich is an easy choice for any true fiction lover. The main character, a teenage boy, grapples with the violence of his North Dakota reservation, including an attack on his mother.
For the graphic novel-devouring reader: Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon)
From the guy who penned Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (which Timothy reviewed here), we get a box (yes, a box, not a book) of 14 different comics in different formats: magazine, newspaper, different sized strips, pamphlets, etc. Dig in with all you’ve got with this one, folks.
For the classic-with-a-twist reader: Dante Alighieri: Inferno, translation and introduction by Mary Jo Bang, illustrations by Henrik Drescher (Graywolf Press).
By far the heaviest book of its size on my shelf, this book is a piece of art. Printed on art-quality paper, poet Mary Jo Bang puts her stamp on the classic epic for our age. Publishers Weekly says “This will be the Dante for the next generation.” In her introduction, Bang describes how she lovingly broke down the original text and brought it into a contemporary space, with our vernacular language and idioms. Henrik Drescher’s quirky drawings on almost every page bring another element of beautiful irreverence to this translation.
For the bookstore-browsing reader: Read This! Handpicked Favorites From America’s Indie Bookstores (Coffee House Press)
I reviewed this book when it came out, and still can’t help flipping through the pages now and again. Initiated by Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawbers Books in St. Paul, MN, this is a collection of favorite books from bookstore owners, managers, and employees from independent bookstores around the nation. Take it with you as a tour guide on your next visit to one of the cities, or use it to figure out which book you’re going to pick up next. A gem among gems.
For the lit-mag drooling reader: Revolver
Eegads, there are just so many options with this. For smart, solid, new literary magazine, Revolver just came out with their first print issue, Oblivions, JUST IN TIME for the holidays. With the tagline of “rowdy reading,” the issue includes the fantastic likes of Alex Lemon (a personal favorite), Lightsey Darst, Laird Hunt, Bao Phi, and more.
For the Minnesota-loving reader: Thirty Two Magazine
I just reviewed this beauty last week here. It’s the perfect blend of proud-to-be-Minnesotan culture, arts, literary, current affairs, and more. Smartly designed and written, it also features a variety of formats, including longer, investigative pieces alongside shorter blurbs, or page-long creative essays.
Do you see any books that are plainly missing? What books are on your holiday wish list?
Psst. Need something for a letterpress-lover? Check out our Hazel & Wren 30% off sale on all sassy limited-edition letterpress wordy prints!
Editor’s Note: Sun Yung Shin‘s second collection of poems, Rough, and Savage, was published last month by Coffee House Press, who also published her first collection, Skirt Full of Black, in 2006. Sun Yung was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work and process. Timothy’s thoughts on Rough, and Savage appeared yesterday in the What We’re Reading column.
Timothy: I was struck by your use of academic research to craft the poems in both Rough, and Savage and your first collection, Skirt Full of Black. Can you talk a little about research as it relates to the process of writing your poems? How do you integrate found text with your own?
Sun Yung Shin: It’s an approach I first learned from the labor poet Mark Nowak, who has been focusing on the cost of the coal industry on its workers, here and in China. His latest book is Coal Mountain Elementary, also from Coffee House Press. I also have learned a lot from the work of Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim, who teaches at SUNY Buffalo. Research, or really I would just call it reading, is important to me because I see writing as inherently collective and I try to foreground that in a lot of my work, for a variety of reasons. As far as integrating other text, I would say that the integration is really a conversation or dialectic between myself and the text, or between a multiplicity of voices I might attempt to bring into the forum on the page. The original text is often a place where I start; it might be something that I’ve read as an adult or something that has lived within me since childhood, such as a fairytale. Could you say more about what you were struck by?
T: I think what struck me was how far outside the traditional lyric academic research seems to me. Your method seems to be a balancing act between Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and the more rational examination of fact. Is this tension—if tension is the right word for it—something you’re conscious of?
SYS: Tension is a nice word for that. I think so. I’ve always been kind of cerebral and analytical, but not very linear or logical, I’m very associative, so I think it—the inclusion of fact—just comes naturally. And, a part of my longer-term project as a writer is to continue to exorcise the male, pseudo-objective, pseudo-scientific voice from so much of what I consume, just as an American in daily life, let alone as a reader and writer. That comes from a very deep emotional well of feeling subjugated, silenced, of living in a society in which almost always what is male and what is white valorized, normalized, made heroic, made interesting. So there’s a real violence, a purging, going on as well. It’s sort of like being in a kind of hell and trying to navigate through it without being burned continually.
I’ve just started reading Kafka: A Minor Literature by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1974). They adopt a tetralinguistic model by Ferguson, Gumperz, and Henri Gobard, which has been very interesting to think about lately, and I realized I often try to mix all four within one poem, to include many registers, to sometimes comment on a variety of readings of a certain sp(l)ace (such as the DMZ along the 38th parallel) or event. The four types are, and here I’m quoting an online article by Jana Evans Braziel, Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at University of Cincinnati:
- The vernacular language, also referred to as the maternal or territorial language, functions within the rural realm (and is a language of territorialization);
- The vehicular language operates within the urban, governmental or commercial realms (Deleuze and Guattari argue that is “a language of the first sort of deterritorialization”) (23);
- Referential language is the language “of sense and of culture” and entails “cultural reterritorialization” (23);
- Mythic language, also a language of reterritorialization, is involved in the spiritual and the religious.
I think for me, the emotion often gets expressed through mythic language, through working with archetypes.
T: Many of these poems are set in contemporary Korea, but many also hearken to a pre-colonial Korea as well. Aside from your role as poet, do you see your role as primarily an ambassador, documentarian, historian, or some combination of those, or as something else?
SYS: I don’t really see my role as any of those things, although a poet may of course embrace many of the tasks or opportunities of the roles you mention. I see part of the project of the book as being a way to enter into the beginning of human inhabitance on the peninsula…the colonial period was really so short and in the 20th-century and Koreans have been on the peninsula for thousands of years, so I would probably frame anything before 1910 as the dynastic period, pre-dynastic, etc. Does that answer your question? The question of the role of the poet, or how I see my role as a poet, is so huge I’m not quite sure how to begin without launching into a gigantic poetics digression!
T: At the risk of sounding ignorant, I suppose I’m thinking of a reader like myself whose knowledge of Korean history and culture is fuzzy at best. If you’re using the poems as an entrance to the beginning of Korean history, then I found myself following behind, entering Korea through your poems in a way that is obviously much different than your experience. I suppose my question is more about the way these poems serve as a guide, a Virgil, through a time and space I don’t know much about. Do you have the, let’s say uninformed, reader in mind when you’re writing?
SYS: Well, I think I actually have myself as a reader in mind for the first draft—like a lot of writers I think I write what I need to read, what I think hasn’t been written. But, that said, I do think of outside readers because I do want to communicate, and engage in a conversation, or bring something useful (or canny, or hallucinatory) to others. I am trying to invite others into an experience, a question.
So to answer your question, I think a person wouldn’t need to really know anything about Korea or Korean history. I think its history is part of a much larger human history of going from hunters and gatherers to clans to countries. And that history becomes riddled with war once metal was discovered and once trade was created. Then wealth was created, then striations appeared in societies, then contests over space and resources intensified. And our morality has continued to develop. And is still very much developing. It often feels that our morality as a species is quite primitive. It seems like we’re waking up to some new things as a group, though—such as factory farming being a disgrace, being torture. That’s something that I woke up to in high school and wasn’t sure if I’d ever see become part of a mainstream discussion in this country. But here it is. Due to years of activism by others.
However, I do want to learn more history of my ancestors and I do want Americans to consider U.S. foreign relations in Asia and what all of our complicities may be, wherever the U.S. puts its foot down. It’s not that whatever the U.S. does is bad, and I hold so many things that we value as a people sacred (the First Amendment, for example) it’s just that the mainstream media, even public media, does not really go deeply into the impact on the people being occupied (militarily, economically, etc.) by the U.S. and other wealthy nations.
T: It seems to me that the fractured and layered nature of the poems parallels the fragmented history of Korea. This is especially apparent in poems like, “REDACTION: United States Central Intelligence Agency | The World Factbook | East & Southeast Asia :: Korea, South” and its sibling, “REDACTION: United States Central Intelligence Agency | The World Factbook | East & Southeast Asia :: Korea, North.” How does form and content interact? How conscious of this are you as you’re composing?
SYS: I’d say that I’m quite conscious of form/content when I’m composing, although first-draft writings are very intuitive or trance-like. To me, these poems are not fractured and the history of Korea is not fragmented. I would say that these poems are trying to highlight in/visibilities and erasures. Fragments mean pieces broken off a whole, and that’s not how I see these poems, but I can understand that type of reading or framing. I would describe Korea as divided (as opposed to unified). Fragments are generally not re-integrated into an organic whole—they might be foreign objects (e.g. shrapnel fragments…). But again, it’s easy to use those kinds of terms when considering Korea’s ongoing proxy / civil war.
T: I like the idea of erasure and visibility rather than fractured or divided. I was thinking of the gaps, especially in the two poems I mentioned, when I wrote fragmented. Are these poems, then, a way to try to reunite or expose?
SYS: Reunite or expose is a great way to put it. I was on a panel called Poetic Witness last night and Ed Bok Lee, who was also on the panel, said that he feels his job as a poet is to make the invisible visible, and the visible invisible. In those two poems I wanted to strange-ify these very strange documents—these Central Intelligence Agency dictionary entries. The sense of scale—two countries formerly one country—encapsulated into these two little blocks of text, written by some nameless analyst or technical writer or historian for the CIA. Surreal. How does one reconcile that with the living, breathing Koreas? And then visible white space in a poem is often a signifier of what is not being said, what is not told or exposed.
T: As an adoptee you’ve been very active in working for adoptee rights and the rights of parents who put their children up for adoption. You’ve also worked toward building community for adoptees within the larger community. Does Rough, and Savage add to the conversation about adoption and racism in Western culture? How so?
SYS: Thank you, but actually, I haven’t been all that active in the adoption realm. I did co-edit an anthology on the topic and have had many occasions to speak about adoption, but I don’t engage in much direct activism in the adoptee world, especially these days. I have been working on a media advisory regarding reporting on adoption. My co-editor Jane Jeong Trenka is doing tremendous public policy work with her organization TRACK in Korea. And many others are doing important work, for example organizations such as AKConnection and AdopSource right here in Minnesota. I did not grow up in Minnesota so it’s been a surprise and a marvel to witness the flourishing of all of this adoptee-led scholarship, social services work, art, and community building.
T: The title Rough, and Savage comes from Robert Pinsky’s verse translation of Dante’s Inferno, and each section of the collection features a quote from Pinsky. What drew you to Dante’s text and specifically to Pinsky’s translation when you were working on these poems? How familiar should the reader be with the structure and plot of The Inferno?
SYS: Pinsky’s translation is what critics call muscular—it’s very rhythmic and non-fussy, which really appealed to my sensibilities. I think he really exploits the resources of the English language with its Latinate and Anglo-Saxon wellsprings. It felt fresh and conveys the story as an urgent and also bewildering vision quest. The aspect of dual worlds (pagan/epic/Virgil and Catholic/medieval/Dante) coming together in these nine circles within the earth is so intriguing.
T: What other contemporary poets are you reading? What other writing and art is inspiring or obsessing you right now?
SYS: I’ve been reading a Korean poet Kim Hye-soon and her translator, an American poet Don Mee Choi. I also just bought a copy of Road-side Dog by Czesław Miłosz. I’ve just taught The Metamorphosis for the umpteenth time and became obsessed with it all over again. I just ordered Deleuze and Guattari’s books Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and Difference and Repetition so I can further my obsession. This weekend I watched Mother by the Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho—and I highly recommend it. If you take three of his movies, Memories of a Murder, The Host, and Mother, together you have a very revealing glimpse of contemporary Korea.