Wanda Coleman died on the twenty-second of November. I’d been introduced to her work roughly a year ago and hadn’t been able to let go of her long poem, “African Sleeping Sickness.” Some months ago I found her email address and contacted her. She gave me this stunning poem, which Asymptote published in its annual English Poetry Feature.
I knew Ms. Coleman had been ill, and you can find many instances of her thinking on her mortality in this poem:
My urine keeps getting darker, I must be passing.
But that very brief, personal admission is followed by a response—the poem is structured as a dialog—written in an entirely different register: a less inward-looking voice, a voice that opens out to a world of small, happy objects: a voice seeking, offering a sad pleasure, one could say.
Twenty-two cents, and a pack of mints
a rubber band and a paper clip.
Pass the bourbon and give it a kiss.
The title of the poem is “Tremors & Tempests: A Poetic Dialog.” The shaking, the sign of future destruction or pleasure, the barely perceptible movement, and the storm—that’s how I read it. And it’s a useful way to characterize the various natures of speech as well, or what are privately known quantities and what is gathered from public witnessing. Then, how these speak to each other.
I’ve also been thinking, via this poem, on the tension between the local and the international. Most descriptions of Ms. Coleman’s place in American poetry describe her as an LA poet, the unofficial Poet Laureate of LA (she had twice been nominated for the position of Poet Laureate of California), a seminal figure on the LA literary scene—Los Angeles was her place. But when I began to make a list of poets I might write to about this feature on English poetry for a journal that is “international,” I instantly thought of her. And maybe that’s just me. But this poem that she sent us is so far-reaching. I don’t mean just the references to particular places like Tel Aviv or Haiti; I mean also lines like the ones that begin the poem: “When we can no longer walk / will the earth move beneath our feet?”
The other poets in the Asymptote English Poetry Feature are Siobhán Campbell, Mark Anthony Cayanan, Ryan Collins, Eva Heisler, Idra Novey, and Danniel Schoonebeek. It’s a wonderfully diverse set of poets, aesthetically and otherwise, and I hope you’ll read them.
I’m saying this all belatedly, of course, but the October issue is insane. We have an interview with Anne Carson and Robert Currie, one of the smartest reviews I’ve read in a long while on Jonathan Franzen’s Kraus Project, an excerpt from the new Mircea Cărtărescu novel (tr. Sean Cotter), poems and an essay by Uljana Wolf (tr. Shane Anderson and Katy Derbyshire, respectively)–an embarrassment of riches, overall.
I just re-read the Uljana Wolf essay and it’s outrageously good:
Doesn’t every text have its own zugunruhe, a sense of migratory unrest, no matter how firmly installed on its page? And the traces in the eye of the reader, who opens cages when she deciphers the marks and the apparently empty space around them. Any and every flight direction.
. . .
Translation too makes paper liquid.
. . .
Erasure can awaken energies in a text that have not been previously accessed. Everything is in motion, smell, breathe in, breathe out, breathe errors, clouds. The white spaces on the page; Mary Ruefle calls them “little white shadows,” after the nineteenth-century bookA Little White Shadow, its name perhaps given new meaning via white-out fluid: The dead. / borrow so little from the past /
as if they were alive.
. . .
In 1979 Liquid Paper was sold for 48 million dollars—to Gillette. From typos to stubble. Finding a way through the weeds of signs, symbols, bodies. Another parallel etymology, this time a scratched score: in erasure the hidden German Rasur (shaving) and in razor German’s Radierung for etching. All share the same Old French root raser, from the Latin radere oreradere: to scrape, scratch, remove. Or to remove oneself, frantically, between the languages.
Often, erasure becomes, like “fragmented syntax,” a sort of shorthand for experimentalism–yet another way to place a writer in this or that camp. But this essay treats erasure as a much larger process–a historical process, a natural process, an industrial process–with fundamentally greater implications than mere procedure. Besides which, I had no idea liquid paper was invented by a woman. How strangely apt.
The reason I have time to write this blog post is that I just finished up with my first quarter of doctoral studentry at the U of Denver.
The quarter system = weird.
In publishing news, my chapbook, The Robing of the Bride, is out from Dzanc Books, and I’ve had poems appear in the following excellent journals: Better: Art & Culture, The Missing Slate, and Blackbird.
I also wrote a blog post for Asymptote about publishing poetry translations bilingually, inspired by a round table discussion I was part of at the ALTA (American Literary Translators’ Association) conference this year. It got picked up by the Harriet Blog, which was a nice surprise.
The last book I read is Graham Foust’s To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems (Flood Editions, 2013). I recommend it highly.
The last movie I watched is Vladimir Bortko’s Heart of a Dog (Russia, 1988), based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. I recommend it highly.