Presenting The Past: Emerging Poets To Read This Spring
By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
I want to tell you that in order to articulate the feeling I get after reading a great line of poetry I must start in the stomach. After all, that's where the sensation occurs, that thin knot of anguish or thrilling wisp of empathy. But the experience is not only corporeal; after all, it begins in the mind. Exploring what makes a poem successful is like taking a tour through the body, the full body. Whether I am dissecting the carnal or enjoying the familiar turn of phrase, focusing on the inner workings of a poem is an examination of my own self: What images intoxicate me? What rhythms do I cling to? What is it, exactly, that turns me on?
Aristotle once suggested that the art of rhetoric and the art of poetry were two different things; it is why he created separate manifestos on the two respective subjects, Rhetoric and Poetics. I think, here, regarding this particular idea, Aristotle was slightly wrong. Perhaps in the civilization of which he wrote there was a possibility for rhetoric to exist without poetry and vice verse, but too much has changed. Aristotle valued philosophy, as did his society. Do we? We must also consider that in the present world the arts and sciences have merged to create beautiful theorems and possibilities that may have been considered absurd to the antiquated imagination.
Today, rhetoric is everywhere and poetry is everywhere. I find them inseparable. The poets I want you to read this spring remind us of the value of our literary past. Amber Atiya, Karen Craigo, and Nomi Stone merge classical techniques with modern concepts. They traverse time by joining the rich past of the art of language into the rhythms of contemporary verse. Their poems, even when they stray from the confinements of traditional form, accumulate a sense of intense poetic knowledge. In their work, they are able to transform private experience into public concern. They are so good, they leave readers with that ineffable feeling in the stomach. They are poets who twist expectations, delight in oratory wonder, and who make me, reading upon reading, sit in awe of this tremendous creation, of this art called poetry.
Amber Atiya once said she was "a New York poet knee-deep in blessings." In fact, she credits New York's performance scene, where she began reading her work seven years ago, for her success. And out of the big Apple, Atiya has taken a crisp, hefty bite. The New York School of Poetry erupted in the 1960's, and is stylistically recognized for its hip syntax and urban allusions. Its genre of poetry acquires oppositional nature. There may be a focus on modern concepts with influence from the surreal, or a serious criticism of the politics of the time with unrelated rambling moments of playful language. When Atiya claims herself as a "New York poet" she is, even without recognizing it, joining this legendary group. And not for nothing; Atiya's poetry embodies the people-driven pulse of the metropolis.
Time in and time out, Atiya's purposeful orthography and conjugations further embrace the jargon of Brooklyn slang. This technique is masterfully executed in "fatima, the one in the photo." Character driven, the poem follows the relationship between the speaker and the woman whose mysterious strength and sexuality seep out from every syllable. The fragmented form, similar to the remnants left of the imitable Greek poet, Sappho, evokes a sense of peitho, a style of rhetoric known for its persuasive sensuality. Because of the disjunctive nature of language in the poem, the reader's curiosity is sparked. The second stanza reads:
"i lay up wit
not the pop-eyed hussy
I am actually most intrigued by Atiya's refusal to heighten her diction, a deliberate ignoring of aureation. This is not the poetry of the high-culture. This is the poetry for the extraordinarily ordinary. If readers are to assume that Fatima is "she" who lifts "coconut's scraped skull / to her lips", we know she is intoxicating. She even makes sipping the island's milk seem exotic. Yet something enrages the speaker about the woman. The speaker dreams of "hearts / gone bad", feels threatened. These tensions are balanced delicately through the tercet form. Finally, the speaker can't let up, she confesses:
"dream i break off
the part of her in me
to feed my wild dogs"
By the end of the poem, the speaker wants to devour the "blue kimino" Fatima "wear like an aura / everywhere."
A certain danger lies in abandoning standard rules of English and grammar. It is a risk to write with such liberty. Consider "Brooklyn", Atiya's ode to the multicultural melting pot of "bruised lips blooming lisp & click, kimchi—", in which compared to the power of the place everyone, even the speaker, appears invisible and isolated. It strikes me that I might enjoy Atiya so much because I hail from Brooklyn; I, too, have claimed the jargon of "dollar vans" and understand fully what the "D or B41" are and where they'll get me (train – Coney Island to the Bronx; a Flatbush Avenue bus.) But Brooklyn is for everyone a concept and an image. Its history is rich and reputation still growing. Atiya understands this, too. She writes of Coney Island:
"…your signature dish
Oh cyclone of bone, bubble goose & loosie"
To the tourist of Brooklyn, the lines acquire a musical playfulness, an intoxicating beat that keeps readers moving from word to word; however, to the Brooklyn native, the cyclone clearly echoes the landmark rollercoaster, the bubble goose an indication of how one might stay warm (bubble jackets with goose feathers), and the loosie is an obvious nod to the sale of loose cigarettes on street corners. And the double entendres triple depending on whom one may speak to. Spirited though the rhythms of an Atiya poem may be, reader, be warned, they are always multi-faceted. To learn a language is to understand concepts and innuendos: Brooklyn is a language Atiya knows my heart.
Amber Atiya is the author of the chapbook The Fierce Bums of Doo-wop due out this fall from Argos Books. A proud native Brooklynite, she is the recipient of a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellowship and is a member of a women's writing group celebrating 13 years next spring. She was nominated for Best of the Net 2014 and for a Pushcart Prize and has performed at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the Museum of Modern Art, Theater for the New City, New York University, and many other arts and cultural institutions throughout the city.
If you are reading this and you have read contemporary poetry for the past decade, then you most probably have already allowed the name Karen Craigo to enter your mouth. Craigo's popularity in the literary world derives from her time as Editor-in-Chief at the Mid-American Review where she offered some of the kindest, most inspiring rejection letters to submitters, often encouraging them to continue with their craft (I'm proud to say I'm a recipient of such a note.) During her time there, she raised the bar for creative nonfiction, allowing the genre to blossom into the lyrical, disoriented, antiformal craft that it may be today. Though she's no longer at Mid-American Review, her voice is ever-present.
Aristotle stresses the importance of the speaker's voice when utilizing the art of rhetoric; he even nods to poets as masters of this trait. The right voice is everything. Craigo's voice is the familiar type you feel you've read before; she is the light, conversationalist who, out of nowhere, smacks you in the brain with a thought and suddenly transforms into the meditative, philosophical wise one whose words must be reread.
Out of the mundane, Craigo's work ekes tenderness, empathy, and humor. Her poetry embodies a medley of familial vernacular, ironic domesticity, and striking intelligence. From the moon, to the inner-workings of a poet's life, to the realities of motherhood, any demonstration of human experience is susceptible to Craigo's musings.
Queen of the evening sky, the moon commands fear and awe from onlookers. She is never stagnant, stunning whether full or sleek, and, as I've said before, there is no other thing in our universe more connected to the female spirit. Craigo's "After the Blah Moon" begins when the speaker's friend describes the moon as "nothing special." Before we continue, I want you to recognize the playfulness evident already from the title – no blue moon here, rather "blah." Craigo's purposefulness with language is just one testament to her linguistic intelligence.
Speaking of knowledge, "After the Blah Moon" offers a tautology of lunar mythology. It explains why "The indigenous people" termed the "white moon, hanging over wheat stubble / like a bulb" "the Beaver Moon" – because "the almanac says—time / to set traps." The etymology gets the speaker thinking. She "is skeptical", and recognizes that one "can trap a beaver any time of year." This turn of thought propels the poem forward. The question of whether we've gotten it all wrong consumes the speaker's thoughts. She writes:
"Sounds like we've made
a muck of things, or a mockery, some truth
lost in our twaddle."
As much as the poem is about the grandeur of the Earth's natural satellite, it also emphasizes the importance of naming ("Last night's moon / deserved an honest name"), heightening the significance of the terms we administer onto things. Towards its end, the poem also grazes the concept of acceptance ("friend, the moon hasn't changed").
Craigo's work confronts typical, commonplace phenomena, too, revealing the miraculous absurdity of human nature. Take the first lines of "The Poet Looks for Work":
"I type eighty words a minute, but only
the beautiful ones"
The sharp wit is at once hilarious and honest. It is the perfect definition of the poetic struggle, of balancing a full-time job and finding time to write something worthwhile. It is a short poem, and one that plays into the fantasy of the poet's life as one of relaxation, sitting "on the porch swing" and observing. The slight rhyme of "jerk" and "work" that occupies the reader's soundscape at the end of the poem is just another example of Craigo's cheeky poetic voice.
Craigo has a remarkable capacity for incorporating complex philosophical quandaries into the vernacular of contemporary poetry. "The Toddler Is Overtired" situates readers into the consciousness of a mother, a caring mother whose toddler is
"so bone-weary, all he can do
is hop up and down in his crib,
and sing out syllables, and pull
the cat's tail…"
It's a judgment free poem; the mother is not annoyed or irritated. Rather, she empathizes with the remarkable perseverance of the small human. The mother/speaker admits that she "has never been that tired", and connects the little boy's exhaustion to the "electric eel", who, even when "he tries to rest amid reeds", always has "a hum in him."
In her work Karen Craigo focuses on the vital moments of human existence while exploring the connective power of diction. She is an architect of language, a poet down to the toes. There is much I admire about her work, but most inspiring of all are her determination and resolve. When we are finally graced with her first full collection of poetry the world will be hushed. We will all be busy reading.
Karen Craigo is the author of two chapbooks, most recently Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013). She lives and works in Springfield, Missouri, where she writes the daily blog Better View of the Moon.
What do you get when you mix rhetoric and competition? In Aristotle's day, orators poured their words into the air of the village square as part of their civic duty. Peppered along the streets they would recite original phrases or lyrics of yesteryear, vying to be the best in town. Poetry was a prized art, both public and private. Today, when the tools of rhetoric are properly used, it is often by the President or some form of government. In 2015, rhetoric and competition equals war. Luckily Nomi Stone has the skill to find poetry in the tensions of combat.
Stone's most recent manuscript, Kill Class, is a product of her time in the dense forests and open deserts of America, observing and focusing on the ethnographic effects of war games. Such simulations are standard protocol to train soldiers: put them in a mock situation, a dramatic one, one that they may very likely come across, in an attempt acclimate them to their fears. For two years Stone surrounded herself with fake mosques and mock injuries. What appeared to be a Middle Eastern village was just the vacant landscape of the United States. Stone's short poem "Mass Casualty Event" is a direct response to these living conditions. It begins:
"Watching from inside
the painting of war, our
Though aware that an attack might be coming, one is never prepared. When confronted with the "screaming and weeping in the distance" during the simulated attack Stone says, in an Author's Note to the poem, that she first thought: "I am in war. No, I am in a game of war. No I am in a painting of war." In the poem, as she did in the moment, Stone connects the faces to the face of the "Major's child", uniting the experience of shock and fear regardless of rank, color, or heritage.
Even with the image of the "white-gold torches" the poem is grim, a bleak look into the future. United and empathetic though reader, speaker, and "Major's child" may be, we are left "unstemming in the meadow." In the world of the poem there is no growth, no thing and no one rises. We observe, and we are silent. The period is purposefully abandoned at the end of the poem, leaving readers to figure out the uncertainties of battle on their own.
Stone has a talent for recognizing the color of war. In "Shock and Awe, Iraq, 2003", blind "bodies inside the yellow cloud" are recognized as a storm brews above. The first stanza of the poem is heavy with plosive language, mimicking the effect of dropping bombs. Following the haze of air, dust, debris, and bodies, the speaker offers a haunting description of annihilation:
"But the eyes
of the bombs saw inside the cloud into
the dark intentions of the bodies."
The personification of the bombs alters readers' consciousness just a bit; it lets us into the mindset of the speaker, who quickly takes the opportunity to relate the heinous act of warfare to the everyday murders we nonchalantly commit.
Placing the act of murder in the readers hands, Stone writes: "Like, if you slit a fish / longitudinally", imposing the image of the belly of a fish sliced, skin ripped, on a fragile plate. Readers now hold the knife, and it's a cut many may have made before.
But slicing a fish is not a sin, is it? In describing an act many would consider natural, a means to survive, the analogy of the fish becomes an analogy for the ethics of war. The focus on the fish continues as the speaker reminds readers that any "radioactive / tissue will expose on film" after it's belly has been sliced. The cells "blinking / gold, gold, gold." The final lines of the poem utilize anacoluthon, or a disoriented grammatical sequence, for dramatic effect: "How they snipped off its seeding head", she writes, phrasing the statement as a question. The last words of the poem, repeated, like a mantra or a prayer, are "These are those people."
I am almost at a loss for words when it comes to articulating Stone's striking exactness in capturing the temperaments of humanity. Her content is brave, and she has pushed herself personally to soak in all of the knowledge she possibly can in order to do such content justice. Her poems not only manifest her intelligence, but her sentimentality. Her elegant musicality, interspersed by harsh, scientific and political phrasing, and her dynamic attention to structure and form, expose the vulnerability of contemporary culture. We are lucky to have Stone, who has gifted us with unaltered poetic visions of truth.
Nomi Stone is the author of the poetry collection Stranger's Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008). She is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Columbia University and an M.F.A. candidate in Poetry at Warren Wilson. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Memorious, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry, The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere.