Graceful & gripping: “Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love”

Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love (Copper Canyon Press, 2019) is, in my opinion, very underappreciated. It’s two months old and I’ve not seen a single gushing post, share, or write-up on it, which is a damn shame, as it’s easily in my poetry top five for 2019. Keith S. Wilson’s debut is graceful and gripping, descending into territory of Greek myths, racial tumult, and birds. The highest praise I can offer for Fieldnotes is that I want to write like Keith after reading it.

I finished this collection at the beginning of last week and have been revisiting a few specific images from these pages, including this powerful observation in “Augury“: “I remember being told I should never touch / a baby bird in its nest. That afterward, // the mother would rather let her children starve. / It isn’t true. But how many eggs // has the fantasy kept safe, / how many feathers made elegant, my hands clean and far away / to fold snowflakes or cranes?” Keith’s poems unearth small, succulent truths and set them rolling inside my heart.

This collection hovers over big questions like “what is the rest of me but a daydream / of angles?” and “how can black be // the absence / of all color?” In “God Particle,” Keith examines the molecular importance of everything, how we’re all “built [on] a hearth”, whether we’re rabbits or galaxies. In the spiritually-moving “Undine by the Drowned Cross,” he writes of the want that an outside observer might feel when thinking of the Bible or Christianity: “I try / to catch meaning in my mouth…” Yet the piece doesn’t travel the familar path of ‘finding Jesus’:

Rise. Please.
I cannot read your Word, I’ve only in passing
heard of
salvation…
Don’t give me that. Instead, I beg:
please. Please.
Let my soul be.

Goddamn. What a poem.

In “I Find Myself Defending Pigeons,” Keith pens a love letter to these oft-dismissed friends: “How all the / world is here with them in hate, since they are rats / adorned with angel wings, and the children down / the street are free to chase their drag… / I love the pigeons’ / shoulders, tongues, and wedding nights… / I love the pigeons, the revolution of wheel to sky.” It takes a special person to write actually poetic nature poems, and Keith does it with joy and excellence; pigeons return in other poems to add emotion, advice, and warning. A pigeon-lover myself, I thrill to see Keith handling the overlooked birds with a tenderness and reverence often withheld from animals, plants, and even other people. keith s wilson

I often can’t choose a single favorite poem in five-star collections, but “Mob” stands out for its absolute mastery of content and lyric and “Heliocentric” made me cry. “Mob” is a praise song for folks of color, weaving the longing for a different reality where fear of violence is nonexistent into a retelling of the Icarus legend, replacing the hero with a flock, a congregation, of people of color, of crows, of canaries. “I want to widen the eyes of God… // Icarus leapt. We will fly, be black together in the sun.”

Heliocentric” is a glowing love and love-lost poem, the final piece in the book. Without ruining the magic of the piece because really, everyone should read this fucking book, I’d like to highlight Keith’s linguistic prowess: “Who could love you / like this? Who else will sew you in the stars? // Who better knows your gravity and goes / otherwise, to catastrophe? // I’ve schemed and promised / to bring you back a ring // from Saturn.”

I wholeheartedly recommend picking up this collection. You’ll smile and ache and admire Keith’s creative use of language. You’ll want to write, and you’ll want to reread it. Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love is available from Copper Canyon Press or your local (indie first!) bookseller for $16 or from your local library for free.


A special thank you to Laura at Copper Canyon Press for the review copy. My apologies to Keith for the formatting not carrying over for the excerpt from “Undine by the Drowned Cross.”

“Sky Country” helps slacken the knots inside us

Christine Kitano’s Sky Country, published in 2017 by BOA Editions, Ltd., is one of my favorite gently moving collections; I read it in the fall and reread much of it in December. From poems about divorce and enduring to pieces that explore the pains and sufferings of Christine’s family who “fled Korea and Japan” and lived through internment camp incarceration “during WWII”, this collection tackles heavy content with grace, thoughtfulness, and hope. Take this gorgeous line in “Insomniac in Fall,” for example: “If I prayed, I’d pray: let me leave you, let you / leave me.”

And in “Insomniac in Winter”: “Your breaths slow and multiply, each one / thickening the air between us.”

The collection also explores immigration, opening the all-too-often impersonal issue to a moment between lovers or an exchange between parents and their children. In “Gaman,” she writes, “But what we don’t anticipate / is how the dust of the desert will clot our throats, // how much fear will conspire to keep us silent. / And how our children will read this silence / as shame.”

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “A Story with No Moral” which is broken into “Los Angeles” and “South Korea” subsections. The LA poems examine the fractured relationship a young daughter has with her mother, namely by comparing herself to her friend Lauren, whose hair is “buttery blond, fluffy and soft” and who is “completely absorbed in her own image”, an image that the girl yearns to be herself. My heart goes out to her and to the young women in the South Korea poems, who have their own desires and struggles.

I interviewed Christine last week about these poems and her next plans.

Who is the speaker in “I Will Explain Hope” and why did you write it?

“I Will Explain Hope” is one of the last poems I finished for the collection. It began as an ekphrastic poem after the work of Chiura Obata, a painter who was incarcerated at Topaz Concentration Camp. The poems in this sequence of the collection take place at Topaz, so I wanted to use Obata’s work to help fill in the landscape, both physically and emotionally. When I first started drafting this poem, I envisioned the speaker as a bit of an outsider, that is, a contemporary person looking at a painting by Obata. But as I kept writing and revising, I found myself returning to the mind and voice of the speaker I had been working with, a persona who is loosely based on my grandmother. Working through this speaker, I found my way to the word “forgive.” It surprised me, but it also made sense.

Thanks for sharing that. I wasn’t aware of the depth of influence behind those poems. How deep — and how heartbreaking.

“Monologue of the Fat Girl” was one of my favorite pieces; not only did it explore the strains and desires of marriage, but it also celebrated and lamented the body and the hardships when one is confronted by the body’s imperfections. I find this poem immensely comforting because it feels like womanhood solidarity. How does this poem relate to the other mother narratives in Sky Country?

Many of these poems were drafted in my first two years in Lubbock, Texas, and I was interested in telling the stories of individual female personas. I experienced a bit of culture shock when I moved to Texas; I was surprised to be surrounded by women my age (mid-twenties) who already had two or three children. When I was invited to someone’s house for dinner, I learned it was customary to ask to “see the nursery.” At the time, I had not even considered whether I wanted children or not, as it simply was not on my mind. Coming face-to-face with assumptions about my gender influenced many of the persona poems in Sky Country.

I’m also finding that people my age — I just turned 25 — are starting families, even though I feel only marginally older than I did at 20. It’s a little strange feeling like a parental outsider, even though I nanny for seven families. 

Anyway, back to your book. I enjoyed the different places these poems centered on, and I thought a lot about life-in-motion while reading. Where do you write? Is the “on-the-road” feel of “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” a poem about your own travels?

I usually write in my office, which is un-Romantic, but I’m a practical person when it comes to my writing. I like routine, I like quiet, and I like having most of my books within arm’s reach. But it’s in this space that I have the time to remember moments when things weren’t as comfortable. “Choose Your Own Adventure: Go South” comes out of a road trip my partner and I took when moving from New York to Texas. It was the middle of July and we were in a Jeep with torn windows, so it was hot and dusty the whole trip. I remember driving through Roanoke, Virginia and passing through a stretch of shade on the highway, which gave me a fleeting moment of peace. The poem grew out of this memory.

I love the freedom in poetry to be able to tell the story however it needs to be told; “This is not the whole story, / and yet, it is true,” you write in “1942: In Response to Executive Order 9066, My Father, Sixteen, Takes”. I’ve heard some poets campaign for only telling ‘your own stories,’ but I think that kind of policing is detrimental to what poetry can do and is for. How do you approach the non-fiction/fiction elements of poetry, and what advice can you offer other poets who write about cultural and social issues?

It requires a great amount of responsibility to write about cultural and social issues. Doing so requires research. In the introduction to Beloved, Toni Morrison explains how she based the novel on the real-life Margaret Garner, but then had to move away from the historical record. She writes, “The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space there for my purposes. So I would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual…” (xvii). For me, writing about the Japanese American incarceration required years of research. But at some point, I had to move from “fact” to “truth,” a move I wouldn’t have been able to make if I hadn’t done the necessary research.

Mmm. That’s powerful.

So Sky Country came out last year. What’s next for you?

I’ve been working toward my next collection, which I envision to be a prose/poetry hybrid. I’ve been thinking about inheritance, about land, about the responsibility humans have for the land we live and work on. I’m not sure where this is going yet, but I’m enjoying the process of embarking on a new project.  

I look forward to keeping tabs on your next works! Thanks so much for your time and thoughts.


Sky Country is available from BOA Editions, Ltd. for $16.

“Madness”: A history of mental illness through poetry

sam sax’s Madness (Penguin Books, 2017) is a thorough exploration of mental health and its historical context in the U.S. This book is heartbreaking, showcasing the extremes of health and lack of and pinning the grief and discrimination those who have struggled (and are still struggling) with disorders, stigmas, addictions, and diseases. You will find yourself “damn”ing aloud with most of the pieces, zigzaging back and forth between astonishment and despair.

If, like myself, you have your own battles with one of the categories of the book, you ought to find solace and companionship in these pages. These poems are spiritual – and shouldn’t they be? Aren’t our very existences and perceptions created out of a spiritual interaction with the physical realm? This book argues that they’re intertwined: “On PREP or on Prayer” discusses the physical risks and spiritual consequences associated with being HIV-positive; “you either love the world / or you live in it…” sam writes in “Warning: Red Liquid”. “don’t ask me why i kept it / the bottle // i’ll lie…”

The mastery of this collection is evidenced in the range of ailments sam discusses with precise detail and emotional depth. Poems that are written about therapies that were practiced generations ago hit hard because sam creates a relevancy in each piece; he humanizes what so many have tried to forget.

I could keep advocating for this book, but first, it’s sam sax; what else can you expect but excellence? Second, I’m not qualified enough to talk at length about mental health. I’ve taken four psychology classes and three sociology classes and seen a cognitive behavioral therapist for over a year now, but this collection taught me in a way those things haven’t; these poems are the difference between “facts” and “people”. There’s a reason it was published by Penguin – it deserves to be held and reverenced and poured over and mourned and put down and read again.

Madness is listed at $18 and is available at a variety of online booksellers for between $12 and $18.

Queen of Herself: “I’m So Fine”

Khadijah Queen’I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (2017) is a collection of prose poems detailing encounters with men, men she had crushes on, men who ogled her, men who get away with treating women poorly, men who give her hope again. While the poems follow a similar format, starting with an introduction of which famous person she saw / met / talked to / almost met / her sister met / talked to, etc., they don’t get old. Their format strengthens them; the poems become the content, not the form. Khadijah has a lot to say and describe, and it’s a journey that explores the confines and loopholes of gender roles, sexuality, cultural expectations, and how these things are impacted by class, religion, and race.

She exposes a number of famous men as being undeserving of their fame because of the way they treat others; readers are left to wonder why the patriarchy serves them in the first place, “fangirling” them for derogatory, exploitative behavior. “I almost didn’t tell this story but sometimes it’s important to name names…” she writes in a poem about how she hasn’t met Donald Trump but she has been “grabbed by the you-know-what…”

The poem that made my stomach churn (the most) detailed the set of 1/2 Dead a music video shoot that Khadijah and her sister appeared in. “1/2 Dead’s degenerate entourage” tried spying on the women while they dressed, touched the women without consent, and “1/2 Dead himself” tried bribing her to party with them after the shoot. The scene here is problematic in so many ways, from the “dirty” behavior of the men to the premise that to get work in the acting / modeling / music industry, this kind of scene is expected. This is just part of the job.

author headshots

The biggest reason I recommend picking up this collection – besides just marveling at the content and enjoying the conversationalist tone that these poems carry – is that it’s so relatable. Well, maybe not the famous aspect, but the situational relatability is so present it hurts. While it isn’t exactly a comfort to hear Khadijah’s stories, it is empowering; life as a woman is fucking hard. We put up with some shit. We are so often made to feel powerless, but voicing our stories, as Khadijah bravely does, is part of the solution; these poems – while doing their part to critique and provide accountability for the named men – serve as a embrace, a reminder that we have so much in common, and therefore, must change society together.

In the collection’s postscript (the final poem), she writes, “A man can break you with your own love if you don’t remember who you are among the nonbelievers. All praises due to the part of me that listens to herself first.”

I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On is available in softcover from YesYes Books at the current sale price of $16.20 plus shipping.

Angela Cluley: Poetry, PeaceCorps, & Past

Kelsey May | September 18, 2017

Throughout your life, you meet people who stand apart from the crowd in their consistency and honesty. Angela Cluley and I became friends about two years ago and slowly realized that we have a lot in common, from struggling with anxiety to our shared experiences serving. We did this interview online, as Angela is living in Costa Rica, working for the PeaceCorps in child development, as part of her Masters in Social Work program through the University of Michigan. I hope you enjoy reading this interview and the poems that follow. 

Tell me about your childhood.

Favorite childhood memory is playing football with my dad. It was my younger brother and I and my dad would finger draw out football plays on his shirt and then I would execute exactly the play and always win against my brother. (since I was older) We would then play football video games on the Nintendo after so that we could have additional practice. I loved it!

Least favorite childhood memory is being in foster care from 7 to 9 years old. I lived with different families, some related to me and others not. One of the random families I lived with were horrible to me. They had many foster kids they were taking care of, and it was too much. The kids bullied us, and one actually slammed my head into my birthday cake to be funny. Luckily, we didn’t stay very long.

When did you begin writing? Why do you write?

I began writing when I was in high school. I had a teacher who introduced us to poetry and I started to like putting my life on paper. I write for my own personal reflection and healing. When I began writing, I did not write from a personal standpoint, which didn’t feel genuine. When I perform poetry now, I am able to express myself and heal with the audience.

Favorite interaction after a performance?

The best reaction was when one of the audience members came up to me after reading a very personal poem that I had broke down after reading and not only did they give me a hug, they told me that they had gone through that same experience and thanked me for putting it on the stage for the world to hear, since the subject is usually stigmatized.

What’s important to you?

Family and friends are really important to me but also serving others. I want to dedicate my life to making the world a better place which is why I am currently serving in the PeaceCorps and studying for my Master’s Degree in Social Work.


Imperfect Pictures

Why do we delete blurry photos? Hit the trashcan when we see red eye or an extra flab of skin? We should love mistook photographs. Undocumented moments. Moments that cannot be tamed by the lens.  The blurry laugh line of your grandpa’s smile as he sits back in his rocking chair telling stories of back in the day mischief and wander.

the camera knowing that this moment was too great to be staged. The grasp of your mother’s hand intertwined in yours as she takes her last breath. Tears uncaptured falling onto your hands.

A child dancing in the wind, dandelion seeds swirling around, their laughter touching your cheek. Daring you to put down your phone and dance. Children are more knowledgeable than adults. They know that technology cannot replace interaction. They understand how to live life, to enjoy the sunrise, soak in the scents of flowers of grass and earth. Imperfect photos remind us that the screen cannot replace people. The night sky cannot be felt in a Facebook post. Dreams and aspirations will not be contained in 140 characters or a hashtag. Fears and regrets cannot fully be expressed or heard in a 4 walled plexiglas solitary confinement. Love cannot be shared the same without the touch and hug of a friend. Active listening without distraction.

20623612_10214193117806986_1926574328_oDon’t be mistaken, photographs are beautiful, we are able to capture a percentage of a moment through a mechanical apparatus that soaks in  light… that is magnificent but realize that there’s always a place and time for everything and though the camera can be an amazing tool it can also be the knife that stabs us in the back as we lose moments with distraction. And if you must capture then don’t pose, don’t delete post the photos with the least amount of preparation. The ones with extra hazy laughlines, wrinkles and too much or too little makeup.

You never know when this moment will be captured and ruined.


Contemplation

I was 8 years old when I wrote my first suicide letter At 8, I wanted to die, found that life was too difficult and wished for a time machine

Shaking pen hand, trembling my goodbyes across construction paper, shouting silence to the world I don’t belong, never belonged. Tears smudging letters, creating thumbprints evidence of my existence. Existence I  want to wash away. Moments flood the mind, moments alone at this table with thoughts and a pen.

As a child I watched my family drown themselves with poison and addiction so they didn’t have to feel anymore. Everyone was slowly committing suicide so I decided to write mine.

At 14 I took razor blades to my arms trying to cut the hurt off, trying to get rid of the evidence of my failures. I took scissors to my legs and stomach trying to cut my fat away. Shaking scissors interlaced in defiant fingers, cutting the moments away, ridding my body of ugly of laughing, pointing children mooing in the hallway

Hoping to be my own lipo-surgeon

At 15 I found my uncle’s suicide letter, written on canvas so elegantly, telling everyone it wasn’t their fault and not to blame themselves. I spent hours at my uncle’s grave, contemplating why, justifying his reasons then justifying mine. I imagined his moment-
Staring down the black hole barrel of a gun, the smell of dumpster death lingering, contemplating the moments that came to this.

Counting the bullets in the chamber, 1, 2, 3.

Each a different tragedy leading to this. One click into position-raise the black hole where an outstretched  hand should be, a heart should be. He goes unnoticed, he leaves like the silence of a tree in the woods that nobody hears. With one click.

At 23, I wrapped a belt around my neck. The belt a noose to end the nuisance of breathing. I pulled, playing tug of war with my breath. before collapsing to the floor and clutching the dying inside me. wheezing in and out of a self induced asthmatic attack. Each belt notch marking a tragedy, a devastating moment coming to where the belt loop meets the strap.

At 25, I learned that my brother drove his truck at a tree. 20623250_10214193117886988_1237800995_oKey burning in ignition, foot on the pedal revving the engine to life, he never felt so alive. Shifter in park, just two shifts down and the moment of adrenaline

the moment of impact. Fingers caress the button contemplating the moments
2 shifts down, engine charges ahead

tree in sight as he closes his eyes. My brother wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t gotten stuck in the mud right before the crash.

That’s when I stopped dreaming of my own death, when I realized that someone I cared about was dreaming of theirs.


Apologies

Dear Friend,

I got accepted into grad school! I’m so excited…don’t I sound excited?

I guess I’m not as excited as I should be because I only have 3 months to say I’m sorry, I apologize.

3 months to make amends to take back all the words that I said that slithered through your ear canal, leaving remnants of poison in your cranial cavity, acidifying your blood stream and finally sucking the blood out of your heart…leaving it cold. Colder than bitter frostbit ankles on long winter hikes through Antarctica. I left it below freezing.

And now I have 3 months to unthaw freezer burn, to defibrillate your heart from cardiac arrest, repair puncture wounds and warm your soul with hot cocoa. I’ll let you have the marshmallows.

I’m sorry that’s not enough, not enough time because I caused more than 3 months worth of damage and instead of healing your wounds I’ve been blanketing them in bleach, whitewashing them to agonizing thresholds, digging into your skin deeper and deeper beyond what any skin graft could repair. 20628961_10214193117086968_808854416_o

I apologize for not being genuine, for pretending everything was Alice in Wonderland shoveling all the pain down the rabbit hole and now…Where’s Alice? Searching for her in a Where’s Waldo portrait. And finding that she doesn’t exist, or maybe she’s in costume.

I apologize for sounding condescending, when I said I was proud of you, I meant it. I am so fucking proud of you. I hope that sounded heartfelt
it was, it is.

I apologize for taking jokes too far, not understanding boundaries or understanding but still crossing the line. Every time. Treating you as a finish line in a marathon race, I shouldn’t have crossed. But I did. Life’s not a competition but sometimes we still treat it like it is.

And now I have 3 months to shred the tears on pages in your book of pain, turning them into confetti pieces thrown on your birthday. Each becoming a wish for the future that could come true after you blow out the candles.

I wish you happiness, I wish you love. I wish you healed wounds. Scabbed over turned to scars that I can only hope go away eventually.

You’ve always meant the world to me and I still love you. Take out that piece of paper that I gave you..  I still love you.

20623379_10214193126247197_1988855172_oThese next three months I will help craft our resentment into paper airplanes named X and O and we can fly them in our spare time. Every Time they crash will be the last line in a goodbye letter XOXO from me to you.
P.S. I’m sorry that I wrote this into a poem but this was my only way of knowing that you’d hear my apology.

Sincerely, I hope you forgive me.


What advice would you give to other creative people who feel insecure / stuck in their art?

Keep writing, be in spaces where creativity and writing happens, practice makes perfect and if you get stuck…change your environment or people around you. Share your work with different places and avenues, with schools, publications, and open mics.


Interview and poems edited for grammar, clarity, and aesthetic / spacing.