The Embodied Poem: On Writing “Palace” by Hadara Bar-Nadav

Hadara Bar-Nadav‘s poem, “Palace,” appears in our Spring 2012 issue, guest edited by Nick Flynn. “Palace” opens with these lines:

When they run out of meat

men disappear. I chew
my hair, a kind of fullness

that is kind, a thread

soup. A nest gathers
its strands inside me.

Here, Bar-Nadav describes her process:Continue Reading

Matthew Thorburn

Matthew Thorburn’s poem, “A Field of Dry Grass” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “A Field of Dry Grass” opens with these lines:

Hard to imagine Bashō
died here in a rented room above a flower shop
in 1694, as I pause today
on Dōtonbori Street, shoppers brushing past
on either side, to gaze
at the giant red mechanical crabContinue Reading

Nicholas Samaras

Nicholas Samaras’ poem, “I Like to Live with Hermits,” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “I Like to Live with Hermits” opens with these lines:

Let me practice silence with you.

You have an extra room in your hut
and a wooden balcony overlooking a ravine in moonlight.

I can sleep in this bare corner, on the floor-planks
with a blanket and a stone for a pillow.

Here, Samaras describes his writing process for the poem:

Honestly, this poem literally began as a total joke. I was serving as a summer Faculty member at the Frost Place Writers Conference:  while giving a poetry reading that evening in Robert Frost’s Barn, I began to introduce a poem from my new manuscript focusing on pilgrimage and a personal confrontation with silence, with one’s self. Out of nowhere, I spontaneously said, “Everyone has hobbies. I confess I have a hobby:  I like to live with hermits.”

I never expected the entire audience to crack up laughing that hugely. It must have been one of those not-to-be-repeated, perfectly-timed moments. Everybody but my wife thought the ad lib was hysterical. Since then, I’ve always remembered the line and, recently, finally had the chance to use it as a poem-title, prompting me to be able to address the concept of what it might actually be like to share a hermitage with an ascetic (which I’ve done numerous times during my literary research in the monasteries and sketes of Greece—the silver rain and blue air of that century coming into this century were very real). I loved the tension of the line, the oxymoronic truth.

To me, the poem is a transformation, as all poems must be. The poem becomes transformed from humour to the depth of seriousness. And I found myself deeply transformed by the experience of this poem. In my heart, the implied dialogue of the poem speaks of shared struggles, shared solitude, shared strivings for expression, connection, contemplation, achievement, personal confrontation for any silence of truth. If we are alone in our struggles, can we then be alone together? I designed the form of the poem and its laden white space to embody that silence, that confrontation, that focus on each thought and progression. It’s hard to put into words, and I can only trust the silence of the poem to say it better than I may do so here.

Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy’s poems, “Baggage,” “The romantic getaway,” and  “The night has a long hairy pelt,” appear in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “Baggage” opens with these lines:

It surprises me that immigrants brought
rootstock of roses in their baggage.
Scots roses, spinosissima, Eglanteria,
the briar rose that spread out into
New England: bits of thorny fragrance
that smelled like home.

Here, Piercy reflects on the inspiration for each of her poems:

BAGGAGE: I was struck by how many plants immigrants have brought with them, sometimes in the form of seeds as for tomato plants that are heirlooms where they lived; sometimes herbs; sometimes as in this poem, certain rose bushes. They not only brought them across the ocean but also carried them West in covered wagons. Roses were precious to the women who cherished them. I found this fascinating. Since I also love roses, this was meaningful to me. Besides all the vegetables and bush fruit and tree fruit I grow, besides the perennials, I have probably 45 or so rose bushes – no hybrid teas, just roses that thrive on an organic diet and don’t live on poison. Therefore my roses are much like the roses that immigrants carried to their new homes.

ROMANTIC GETAWAY Ira and I live in a place where other people vacation, but here we are always working. It struck me that we seem to need to leave Cape Cod that we love in order to escape our daily grind.

THE NIGHT I think this is self explanatory to anyone who has ever lain awake fussing, anxious, lying with their worries as if on a bed of nails.

Jennifer Militello

Jennifer Militello’s poem, “Antidote with Placebo,” appears in Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “Antidote with Placebo” opens with these lines:

Pit yourself against gutted ships, against
the lips of those you love the least, against
the hollows where quails spend their lives.

Here, Militello describes her writing process for the piece:

In its writing, “Antidote with Placebo” came on as a catalogue with its own gathering force and energy and phrasings, growing out of itself like Hydra heads, snaking around and biting itself in the tail, doing whatever it wanted even as I tried to saddle it into some stanzas and rein it in. As I wrote it, I could see the whites of its eyes. I could see the fangs it wanted to sink into the reader and hear all its venom humming through the veins: Continue Reading

Thomas Lee

Thomas Lee’s story, “The Gospel of Blackbird,” appears in Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. Lee was the 2011 Emerging Writers Contest winner. “The Gospel of Blackbird” opens with these lines:

As John hurried to the resident locker room after doing his rounds as Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, he noticed a sixtyish Korean lady in red sweats cautiously stalking him from about twenty feet away. At first, John thought the wrinkly woman might be a figment of his overworked brain, as he was always tired to the point of incoherence and often talked to himself during the second year of his surgical residency. He hated his daily demands so much he wouldn’t have been surprised if hallucinations were the next step in his unraveling.

Here, with regards to his story, Lee discusses Asian identity.

I started writing “The Gospel of Blackbird” over two years ago, before Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” created a national controversy about the merits and pitfalls of an “Asian” upbringing.  After I learned of winning the Ploughshares contest, I re-read the story, and realized how the “Tiger Mother” debate changed even my authorial view of the story.

I became concerned.  Will readers see this story (about a Korean American, Yale-educated overachiever) as a commentary on a strict “Asian” upbringing that demands academic achievement?  That’s certainly not how I intended it.  My writing does not have a political agenda.  I have no desire to define what is “Asian” or compare “Asian” to what we conventionally view as “American.”  In fact, I find the whole controversy a bit contrived, and, now, quite tiresome.

I intended the characters to be individuals who are Korean American, not representations of anything or anyone.  The themes of loss and connection, I hope, resonate with people who do not look like me or have any personal connection to Korea.  In the end, I really just wanted to tell a good story with strong characters, and I hope I’ve done that.

You can find Thomas Lee’s posts as a guest blogger through April

Rachel Kadish

Rachel Kadish’s short story, “The Governess and the Tree,” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “The Governess and the Tree” begins with these lines:

Once, in the woods, a tree.
Once in the woods there was a tree with the power to tell the future. The children of the household yearned for its verdicts on their lives, but their governess was wiser.
Give me your tokens, the governess said to the children, and I will take them to the tree and ask your fortune.

Here, Kadish considers her inspiration for the short story:

I sometimes find that a hypothetical question catalyzes a story. What if Albert Einstein had accepted the invitation to assume the presidency of Israel in 1952, instead of declining it? What if Judith Shakespeare hadn’t died without writing a word, as Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One’s Own, but had decided to do anything—beg, borrow, steal—in order to be able to write as her brother did?

Last fall I was invited to teach a class on Anna Karenina. It had been years since I’d read the book, so I set to re-reading. Of course I noticed different things this time through…and one of the things that most surprised me was a detail that had made no impression in my earlier reading: as Anna nears the end of her downward spiral, it’s mentioned that she’s writing a book for children. Anna describes her writing fleetingly, but in terms that now riveted me: My writing is like those little carved baskets made in prisons

Somehow I couldn’t get past this line. At this point in the novel, Anna is considered by all Society to be an unfit mother and worse, and she herself has begun her opium-hazed descent to suicide. What sort of children’s book might Anna Karenina possibly write at this moment in her life?

When gallows humor didn’t succeed in deflecting the question (See the nice choo-choo coming?) I realized that it bothered me enough that I needed to write something to sort out why.

At the same time, my second-grader was coming home with Baba Yaga books from a Russian folktales unit they were doing in school. The darkness of these folktales—and the figure of the evil, child-eating, isolated Baba Yaga—somehow meshed with my image of a desperate Anna sitting down to write.

So I sat down to write a children’s story Anna Karenina might have written, deep in her downward spiral, yet somehow—and this, for me, was the key element–still able to imagine a defiant future. Just as I sometimes try to imagine a surreal Einsteinian Middle East, or a prolific Judith Shakespeare, I wanted, if only for the space of a few pages, to write Anna free.

You can find Rachel Kadish’s posts as a guest blogger through April.

Joshua Howes

Joshua Howes’ short story, “Run,” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “Run” begins with these lines:

This is a story about pretending. Imagine my father, a boy, not the old man who bought this shuttered house I have just cleaned out, here at the the tropical tip of Florida, but a boy of six, seven, eight, in a one-room school with snow-bent eaves, with another black eye, another chipped tooth, pretending he’s fallen from a tractor again or was kicked by a horse.Continue Reading

William Giraldi

William Giraldi’s short story, “Hold the Dark,” appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “Hold the Dark” opens with this passage:

The wolves came down from the hills and carried away the children of Chinook. The village lay wedged into a horseshoe beneath those white hills, twelve winding miles from Norton Sound. First one child was taken at the start of winter as he tugged his sled at the edge of a slope; another was snatched the following week as she skirted the homes near the frozen pond.

Here, Giraldi talks about his inspiration for this piece:

“Hold the Dark” began in 2009 after I wrote an in-depth assessment of the fiction of William Gay for The Southern Review. Gay, like Bellow, is one of those maestros who makes another writer feel as if he’ll never scribble another sentence. His tar-dark genius cast a kind of spell over me, and I wanted to emulate his grim gems, especially his story “The Paperhanger,” which is the most horrifying story I know in the American canon. So “Hold the Dark” turned into a kind of homage to “The Paperhanger.” At the same time I was working on the Gay piece, I went back to revisit those early Cormac McCarthy novels, Child of God especially, because they had had such a forceful impact on Gay. Late McCarthy has all the fame but it’s early McCarthy that will echo across the eons. Some of his Old Testament language crept into “Hold the Dark”: I could feel it happening and embraced that infiltration. And I can’t really explain this, but the whole time I was writing “Hold the Dark” I kept thinking of Macbeth, the mythos and occultism of that powerhouse play. It’s a fever dream, and that’s the quality I wanted for my story: a narrative that feels as if it’s happening simultaneously in this world and in some alien land where devils hold sway.

William Giraldi is the author of the novel Busy Monsters. He teaches at Boston University and is Senior Fiction Editor for AGNI.

Maia Evrona

Maia Evrona translated a poem by Anna Margolin called “The Years.” It appears in our Winter 2011-12 issue, guest edited by Alice Hoffman. “The Years” opens with this line:

Like women who are loved to the fullest and are still unsatisfied,

Here, Evrona chronicles her experience translating Margolin’s poem:

When one sets about peeling back the first layer of best-known Yiddish language writers—Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Moykher Sforim, Bashevis Singer—it is not long before one comes across Anna Margolin. She was one of the first Yiddish writers I read after I began studying the language, though, of course, I read her poems with a dictionary, slowly. It was later a revelation to bring them into English, the language in which I internally articulate my thoughts and feelings, where poetry reaches me with the most immediacy.

The one exception may be “The Years.” With such a heart-stopping line as the one describing landowners “who will seize an uprising by its throat,” not much was lost reading the poem in Yiddish before translating it. It was also one of the first poems I read that convinced me of how very much Anna Margolin, though obscure to English language readers, was the real thing: a gifted, powerful poet. I hope that not so much has been lost in my translation that readers encountering her for the first time in English will not agree.