By Abriana Jetté
Staten Island, NY, USA
In many ways, I enjoyed a summer of silence and introspection. I traveled from the Sierras of Northern California to the Sewanee Mountains of Tennessee all to read, write, and study poetry. But, in other ways, it was a summer I decided that I needed to take action. I began to recognize the limits of my own voice, and in discovering that, I began searching for poets who said what I was unable to say.
As I reflect on the poets I want you to read this Fall, I can't help but think about their distinctive voices, their recognizable tones and modulations, and how far away their structure, content, and rhythms are from another. And yet they are part of the same club; the club that understands that to put the words down on the page is the bravest act of all.
Stay Thirsty Magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary with this issue, and I hope that the poets featured in this column speak to you in the spirit of that celebration. David Ishaya Osu, Analicia Sotelo, Brianna Albers, and Ruth Jean-Marie have little in common except for their talent, but their talent is a strong unifier. They write about creation, about myth, about love, and about destruction. Reading them, I've learned how to break down the boundaries of language that limit me from writing whatever it is I want to write. Reading them, I've re-learned what it means to be a young poet in an old, tangled world.
Our species heard language long before we understood language. Before the precise sounds of "mama" and "dada" meant anything, we heard the soft hums and watery echoes of the womb. This connection between language, fluidity, the body, and rhythm isn't just something the poet David Ishaya Osu knows, it's something he never forgets. Osu's poetry persistently links itself to language that evokes creation of land, creation of body, and creation of sound. That the body is the land seems to be resounding truth. Especially in his poem "Languages":
"i do not chew fruits
that i cannot pronounce"
begins "Languages." Words serve as the first source of bodily fulfillment, words able to push from the throat and tickle the tongue upon leaving. Not the difficult or tongue-tied but the sounds easy to swallow. "Languages" puts to words the poet's version of the whole history of becoming. The poem conjures images of the universe, of time, the unknown, and of new beginnings. It begins with the act of ingestion, of picking and choosing what to put inside the body, and the theme of fulfillment follows by insisting that "whoever made my body / first drank a moon." Scholars of comparative mythology will suggest that all the heavens and all the hells rest within the individual. The speaker of the poem seems to think like this, too. After all, he is made of the moon.
The speaker's mythical body is a paradox. It opens and closes. It fails and flourishes. In thinking of the sheer delight of bodily experience, the speaker begins to question time, thus mortality: "it is written on bodies / that clocks will / not age." In the poem, observing the body closely offers an indication of time; how many years it has already served, how many years it might have left. Readers might feel that the speaker of the poem knows just about everything when it comes to unlocking the mysteries of the unknown, until, of course, the speaker addresses the undiscovered sisters, the "shadows / in the attic." In a poem that assuredly states its abstractness, an acknowledgment that there is still so much to be discovered goes a long way.
"Language" is interested in lineage as much as creation. The speaker begins with the insistence that his creator sipped the moon and ends on the words "a quiet family." As the poem closes, the tone becomes less grandiose and more hushed. There is rest. Osu writes: "sleeping / changes every / body."
Osu's craft relies on an avoidance of chronological narrative and an embracement of structural and semantic cadences. The result is writing that wishes to reach across cultures. Consider Osu's short, four-stanza poem "Tales." In keeping with the tradition of the poet, the poem resists standard syntactic expectations. Written in lower-case letters, even at the beginning of sentences, Osu reverses hegemonic paradigms because there are no boundaries with which to contain the poet's language. The first stanza of "Tales" begins:
The image of the road as an eight-legged creature produces the idea of option and choice. Which way to read the images? Which road to follow? The poem challenges the metaphor of travel through alternating perceptions: that of voice, of light, and of people. A tale travels, too, we know, so when the second stanza informs readers that "her / voice no longer / enters their shoes", we get to understanding the distance between the "her" and the "their"– so distant they can no longer feel one another.
"Tales" ends on the image of "people" planting "apple eyes / in their prison yards", a strange and violent image. In a poem of little narrative clarity, pronouns speak volumes. The reader must wonder if the "their" from the second stanza is the same "their" appearing in the final stanza. If so, how far have they gone? What is it they aim to grow? The mystifying imagery of "Tales" lends itself to the clarity of the poem's final intentions, which is to symbolize the absence of a thing, of anything.
David Ishaya Osu is one of Nigeria's rising poets. He is a board member of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation based in Uganda. His poetry appears in publications including: Chiron Review, Transition, Cutbank, Vinyl, The Nottingham Review, RædLeaf Poetry: The African Diaspora Folio, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, Maintenant 10: A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing & Art. He is currently poetry editor at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, and he is at work on his debut poetry book.
When it comes to poetry, I am charmed by the unapologetic. I am taken in by the voice who offers no rationale or reasoning, who just speaks what she wants to speak. If you, too, find pleasure in encountering authenticity, you'll revel in the work of Analicia Sotelo. In general, Sotelo's poetry is skeptical of female identity and gender, and she expresses this skepticism by finding commonalities between the mythical, the biblical, and the contemporary. Connected to this resolute voice and poems is Sotelo's musical terrain, her soft, unpredictable rhymes that continue to pull readers through each poem.
"Ariadne's Guide to Finding a Man" covers such territory. The first three lines of the poem read:
"First, you must feel that no one could love you ever.
Let the feeling become a veil of black paper.
Let the paper become papier-mâché."
When readers are offered dating advice from Ariadne, a labyrinthine structure is welcomed; her reputation in Greek mythology is associated with the maze, after all. And "Ariadne's Guide to Finding a Man" is a maze, a maze of preconceptions turned on their head. At the poem's start, Sotelo sets up a soothing sonic atmosphere through the soft rhymes of "ever" and "paper." The use of repetition, of words turning upon and into one another, is a tool used throughout the poem. One word often sparks a new thought, and this new thought sparks a new turn in the poem.
The poem locates itself in the trenches of fable. We are told to turn the papier-mâché that once was a veil of our inability to be loved into "marionette monsters", and instructed later to scold those monsters once they begin to love. Readers are told to "make a face like you ate something tart" when we overhear friends talk about looking for husbands. To look for a husband, according to the poem, is a beastly, frightening act.
This fright energizes the poem; the fact that love is dangerous, love is tough. Love can lead one down a path of destruction. Throughout the poem, the speaker does all she can to resist the standards of her community. She reads a book "about a girl who rejects god"; she reads a book about "a girl no one believes." When the speaker describes how she has grown up so much that nothing fits, readers understand we are not only talking about the physical. Former ideas and beliefs are now difficult to swallow as accepted truths. The speaker goes to a "young doctor" who she doesn't trust, but listens to.
As the poem closes, the tone switches from didactic to narrative. The speaker's "brother is howling." The howling brother is repeated twice. The brother is howling because the speaker's "mother chose love and look where it left her." Love, according to Sotelo's Ariadne, according to the poem, is never the right choice.
The idea that love can be torturous also appears in "Do You Speak Virgin", a poem whose first line reads:
"This wedding is some hell:"
Unlike "Ariadne's Guide…", "Do You Speak Virgin?" does not evoke the voice of the mythic female to do the instructing. Readers have no choice but to assume the speaker of the poem is 21st century, a bridesmaid, maybe, as she describes "a bouquet of animals wilting" in her hand. The poem confronts themes that seem akin to Sotelo's repertoire, though now more corporeal and human. Instead of the veil working as papier-mâché, the veil is now her "tongue and chicken wire." The speaker asserts, "I am a Mexican American fascinator. / Let me cluck my way to an empty field", which is sarcasm, as the speaker will do anything but conform to the standard set of actions dictated upon her because of her gender. As she states, "I am not afraid of sex" because sex is the ethereal. Love is the animal.
What's most tantalizing about "Do You Speak Virgin" is the double movement of the subject matter. Anyone who has been a bridesmaid/groomsmen over and over again can empathize with the dread of attending a wedding. But that dread is simply the tip of the iceberg. The heart of the poem rests in the fact that there are fates none of us can ever predict, and the "frigid female mind" can go "far and wide", "dark and "deep." The heart of the poem rests in the fact that the speaker fears what she doesn't know she will do.
Analicia Sotelo earned her MFA from the University of Houston. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2015, The Antioch Review, Forklift, Ohio, The Collagist and Meridian. Her chapbook, Nonstop Godhead, was recently selected by Rigoberto González for the Poetry Society of America's 2016 Chapbook Fellowship. Analicia has received scholarships from Squaw Valley and Image-Text-Ithaca, and is the 2016 Disquiet International Literary Prize winner in Poetry. She currently lives in Houston, TX.
The poet Brianna Albers also turns towards ancient characters as a means of configuring the present. However, what makes Albers unique is the structure of her poetic line. Rather than break down her lines into smaller, structural units, the poet often adopts the prose form of poetry, indicating breaks in rhythm through the use of a slash. Condensing the line and rhythm into paragraph form further manipulates the reader's expectations. The use of slashes also unapologetically confronts the poet's manipulation of the breath.
"When the apocalypse comes, Jesus asks you / to dinner."
Such heavy words for the start of a poem. And because of them, the reader prepares to embark on a journey of Biblical weight. Ah. But no. Jesus is the son of the speaker's mother's best friend. "Naturally,/" the poet writes, "you can't say no." What seemed like a meditative contemplation on the end of world turns out to be a first date. The pleasures of poetry.
In many ways, "Delilah" communicates as confidante. The speaker reveals to the reader that she "has been on worse dates", and describes how they drive in Jesus's "Dad's Cadillac" clad with leather seats. "The sex is phenomenal", she writes, "except there is no sex." Alber's has a way of continuously surprising her reader. The intelligence she displays through poetic structure is second to the energy of her language. A kiss occurs between Jesus and the speaker. Alber's describes "the sky is / orange." The poem ends on the sound of the car radio buzzing with the words of the savior: "This is Delilah / avert the mortal / eyes."
At the end of "Delilah" readers might wonder if we are supposed to puzzle over what the poem might signify, the deeper connotations of the apocalypse, Delilah, and Jesus. But my take is that we are supposed to enjoy the poem's cheekiness and anecdotal charm. The way I see it, only myth knows why.
While "Ache in Three Rivers" omits references to mythological characters, it still takes on language of mystical allure. It begins with the speaker rising early to "wash her hair in the after- / currents of yesterday's thunderstorm." From the start, the poem makes the seemingly impossible possible. Like "Delilah", the poem's narrative is simple to follow. The speaker and her company are at a farmer's market. Around her, the bounty of vegetation and fruit, of what grows from the roots. Except there, surrounded by fresh produce and consumerism, the speaker feels she is a "lost / commodity." She describes how her partner "haggles" while she "sings." The poem continues:
"For three hours, the language of others / is all I know. I sell my
voice / for a mouthful of peaches."
"The language of others is all I know", writes the poet. And while she is describing the scene of the farmer's market, the negotiation of price and the weight of items, she is also talking about poetry. The language of others is all we can ever know. And more often than not, we are more attracted to voices and sounds unlike our own. The speaker of "Ache in Three Rivers" recognizes this. That's why, at the poem's close, all she can do "is eat peaches."
Again, there is a connection between the bodily fulfillment and language. At times, both of these are insufficient. At times, they are all a poet needs. Much of Albers work explodes the ordinary into the curious, and the curious into certainty, all within a simple turn of phrase or a delicate placement of a slash.
Brianna Albers is a poet, writer, and storyteller, located in the Minneapolis suburbs. In 2016, she founded Monstering, a literary and cultural arts magazine for women and femmes with disabilities; she currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief. Her work can be found in Guernica Magazine, Word Riot, and Winter Tangerine Review, among others. She was named one of 30 up-and-coming writers Under 30 by Phosphene Literary Journal, and her debut chapbook, Why I'm Not Where You Are, was a finalist in Where Are You Press' "Where Are You Poet" contest; it was published in 2016 via Words Dance Publishing.
Sometimes the only thing a poet needs is curiosity and certainty. The poet and cultural reporter Ruth Jean-Marie is certain about one thing: promoting Black culture and arts. Many readers may be familiar with Jean-Marie's work for the website Black Girl Fly, a platform dedicated to providing a space for articulating authentic experiences of Black Women. The website encourages education through trustworthy information and investigation, and promotes conversation amongst a community who are often silenced. In her "Untitled" poem, Jean-Marie confronts this silence as well as the violence faced by the Black community. The poem begins:
"write they said
but how am I to form the words
that you've denied me
for so many centuries"
Because the poem rises against American standards, it has to avoid punctuation. In this way, the speaker refuses to conform. Because of the speaker's struggle to find the right words, it makes sense that the poem is untitled. What title would do? What type of title would rightly contain the internal and external battles of the Black female experience in America in 2016?
The speaker describes how she has "written until [her] nails have bled", and within two lines she demands, "Cut my wrists America / because you hang me / every / day." In a way, Jean-Marie's "Untitled" links itself to Langston Hughe's "Theme for English B" in which the poet was told to "write a page tonight…and that page will be true." Except, in Jean-Marie's poem, there is no camaraderie at the poem's close. The speaker says she awakes "just to die / again."
There is no need for myth in "Untitled." Though history influences the speaker's emotions, it is the present mess, the incarceration of Black youth, the shootings of unarmed Black men, women, and children, and the consistent bigoted rhetoric shouting from the television that sparks the speaker's rage. None of these issues are specifically mentioned in the poem. The truth is, they don't have to be. We are not talking about the poet's curiosity here, but her certainty.
Still, there are things we can never predict. Poetry can only do its best to put into words the current atmosphere of individual emotion. Jean-Marie plays with this idea in her poem "Things My Daughter Will Say."
The poem participates in a tradition of imagining what children think. It begins:
"My daughter will tell you
I talked to myself"
What's so intriguing about the poem to me is that it does not continue on with what the title and the first two line promise, an imagining of the daughter's thoughts. Instead, the speaker decides it is necessary to answer the claim that she speaks to herself. She insists that "sometimes who you are / is all you have." Set up in the guise of an imaginative musing, "Things My Daughter Will Say" actually speaks to the importance of what we say to ourselves, what we believe about ourselves, and how we love ourselves.
Ruth Jean-Marie's poetry embraces the vernacular, the everyday language of the community, because she is writing for her community. Her work makes no false promises, nor does it answer to standard regulations of grammar or content. She will write what she wants to write and how she wants to write it, even if that means writing about not being able to write because of the suffocating racism present in her world. When I read her work, I'm reminded about why we write in the first place. In sharing our struggles, the world becomes easier to bear. To paraphrase Czeslaw Mislow, when we share our sadness, the world becomes less sad.
Ruth Jean-Marie is a graduate of New York University with a Masters in Global Affairs. She is a founder and editor at BlackFlyGirl.com.