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Video Reading Series June 2014: Eight Emerging Poets and Fiction Writers Read From Their New Work

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These eight poets and fiction writers have all been making waves lately; they represent some of the best in indie publishing, the cutting-edge of today's literary world. I hope you enjoy listening to their readings, and will share your comments about their work!

Poet Wendy Chin-Tanner

I started writing Turn after a ten-year period of not writing poetry at all. I had been on a steady academic track in Sociology and then I had my first daughter. After her birth, in the bleary haze of new motherhood, memories, images, and "the music of the words" started bubbling up in my head. A portal opened up between the present and the past and I was able to see them interact and overlap through the prism of parenthood. I started to write into that space and out came poems about my childhood in Brooklyn, my Chinese American family, my husband, and my daughter. The constant negotiation between the self and the other in parenting became reflected in the negotiation between the self and the other, or the personal and the universal, in the poetic process. Over the course of about nine months (appropriately), I found myself with a sheaf of paper that constituted the core poems of the book.

The poems in Turn are concerned with some of the big questions I've struggled with: how we reconcile childhood, race, the legacy of immigration, gender, abuse, love, sex, motherhood, betrayal, forgiveness, and death. The word turn has multiple meanings. In turning, we can revolve and we can transform. We can turn away from something, turn towards something, turn back to something, and turn from one thing into something else. Turn is about life cycle and emotional evolution, using my own life as a context and touchstone for speaking about how certain areas of change and transformation might be common to us all.

When I was a kid at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, we were given a somewhat classical education complete with enough Latin to get past the grammar and start reading the good stuff. We translated the poems of Horace and Catullus, Virgil's Aeneid, and Ovid's Metamorphoses, and then I did my BA and MA in English Literature at Cambridge University before moving on to Sociology. As a result, the personages of classical literature are very present to me. They are old friends. In Turn, I draw on many of those classical tropes and characters as a way of finding, as Eduardo C. Corral says, "the mythic in the personal and the personal in the mythic."

All those years of studying Sociology didn't go entirely to waste either. Turn is divided into three chapters, or movements, each of which represents three stages of life. These three stages are erected on the philosophical basis of Hegel's Dialectical Materialism: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. I have always found this idea to be particularly moving when applied to our emotional lives and how we might grow as human beings. We begin at a certain place, we react against it, we try to come to a resolution, and then, if we are lucky, we may begin again.

Poet Melissa Broder

Scarecrone contends with holes, spiritual holes, and what we use to fill them. I don't write my books with a cohesive concept in mind. I only write poems. I write from a place of obsession, and over a given period of time I will obsess about the same things over and over and the poems written during that time will have similar themes. In this way, they become a collection.

Some Scarecrone obsessions include: sex, death, hunger, satiety, god, light, darkness and time. These are not exclusive to the Scarecrone poems, though. I will probably write the same poems until I die.

One more recent obsession is youth. I am totally mourning youth. I am mourning a youth that doesn't even exist. I want it a lot. In waking life I scheme and I daydream and I find ways to get my imaginary youth. But the results don't match the fantasy. There is nothing more heartbreaking to than the disparity between reality and fantasy. This leads to suffering.

Scarecrone is the art born out of that suffering. It's the grace.

Fiction Writer Garry Craig Powell

Stoning the Devil is the fruit of the eight years I spent in the United Arab Emirates. For five of those years I taught on the women's campus of the national university, and heard so many stories, many of them incredible in the most literal sense, that I felt someone had to tell them. I am aware that as a westerner, and what's more, a man, I could be subject to charges of cultural appropriation. But since Gulf women have not yet told their own stories, except through some awful ghost-writers, I decided to have a go, bearing in the mind the dangers, and trying to tell the stories from a consciously post-colonial perspective, with all the irony that demands. (Intertextuality is a feature of the book: the echoes of Conrad and David Lean, for example, are deliberate.)

So what was I trying to do? I wanted to try to capture the essence of the very complex Gulf society, especially as it impinges on Arab women's lives. In recent years there has been a bit more of a nuanced portrayal of Muslim women--for instance in Anis Shivani's own The Fifth Lash and Other Stories--but at the time I started writing these stories they were generally shown as submissive, passive, rather pathetic creatures. My experience of Arab women didn't tally with that at all. I wanted to tell stories about sex, not in order to titillate (though there is some pretty graphic sex in a few of the stories) but because I believe the bedroom is the place par excellence where power relations are revealed. This is a book about women struggling to find love and fulfilling loves, and about men who are so intent on domination that they miss the chance for intimacy that could have made them happy.

Poet Tyler Mills

Tongue Lyre explores Ovid's myth of Philomela, the woman transformed into a bird after her rapist cut her tongue out so she could not speak about his crime. It also explores Homeric epic. This collection is a book-length sequence, which means that the poems interlock and reference each other. When I was writing them, I was deeply invested in "irresolution," or poems that might reach their end without issuing a final statement about their emotional arc. I was hoping that this would be suggestive of trauma, and also how memory can be recursive and even unstable. Lee Ann Roripaugh, who selected the book for the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, has said that the poems are like reverberations from an "epicenter, a wound." I was obsessed with Joyce's Ulysses when I was writing these poems, so I wanted to try out what it might mean to enact Homeric myth as a field of relationships without creating an allegory of one-to-one correspondences between mythological figures and personal events. "Cyclops" is one poem that does this. The reason why I worked so closely with Homeric myth in this book was that I wanted to take the male epic tradition and over-write it with a story of a journey where "home" becomes the psyche's return to the female body, post-trauma. These poems are also meditations on the lyric poem. Orpheus, the mythic poet and musician, could sing his way into or out of anything with his instrument, the lyre--essentially, transforming things of the world into image. However, he could not enchant his way out of the bare fact of death. I once trained as a classical violinist, so the violin often appears as a lyre in these poems. Many of the poems also explore visual art (and artifact). I am intrigued by the tension between mortality and representation. Philomela wove her story into a tapestry and was then transformed into a nightingale, Keats's "immortal bird" of poetry.

Fiction Writer Justin Sirois

White-collar Henry wakes up one morning to an offer of a lifetime: abandon his secure job to become a partner and manager with his friend's successful start-up named kidnApp. The app and social network literally allows users (nicknamed Waiters) to schedule their own kidnAppings--all they have to do is submit. The only hitch is, Henry has to become a kidnApper first to prove he is qualified. Unfortunately, he knows he doesn't have what it takes. Dani Hardly is a broke bartender who has been getting kidnApped for over a year. Socially, she and Henry couldn't be more different. Dani and Henry meet during one of his botched kidnAppings. Once they hear each other's stories, Dani convinces Henry to team up together, in secret, so he can be promoted to manager. For her services, Henry will pay Dani half of his generous salary. It's impossible for Henry to realize how easily kidnApp's administrators can manipulate the network. As Henry and Dani grow as friends and business partners, so does the sinister side of the app. Glen Haymaker, the company's star kidnApper, has been manipulating the network more than anyone can imagine. Because of his celebrity status, he can kidnApp who he wants, when he wants. His ego and ruthlessness will push kidnApp to its breaking point. So Say the Waiters explores what we, as technology users, give up when we hit submit.

The novel is a contemporary critique of privacy, power, and the potential for abuse when an app's founder puts himself before his community of users. In the end, it's the human connection between Henry and Dani, not the online network, that will save the start-up.


Poet Jenna Le

My first collection of poems, Six Rivers, is a book where I try to make sense of a displaced, disconnected existence by mapping it onto a landscape of rivers. We all know there is something comforting about looking at a river: every river, no matter how turbulent, has a single direction in which it flows. Every river has a place to which it is going, a place that we can be certain it will succeed in reaching, simply by leaning in the downstream direction with all its weight. The six rivers from which the book takes its title are: the Perfume River, the Mississippi River, the Charles River, the Hudson River, the aorta, and the River Styx. The Perfume River is a body of water that flows through central Vietnam, the land of my ancestors, where my parents lived until being displaced by the U.S.-Vietnam War. The Mississippi, Charles, and Hudson are the dominant bodies of water in the American cities of Minneapolis, Boston, and New York, respectively: the cities of my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. The aorta is not so much a body of water as the water of a body: it is the largest blood vessel of the human body, the one that carries blood from the heart to the extremities. In addition to being a poet, I am a medical doctor, and I take the aorta as the emblem of my work as a medical doctor, my daily trafficking in death and disease, in healing and health. Finally, there's the river Styx, beyond whose blackness wander the shades of some of the most fascinating human beings ever to live: the poet Sappho, the tender madwoman Lady Caroline Lamb, the mathematician Ada Lovelace, the sculptor Louise Bourgeois. I feel an uncanny strong affinity with these dead women, and I tried to channel the spirits in this book.



Poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi

I wrote these poems to the sound of memory: bomb blasts, jazz, Urdu poetry, bag pipes, traffic, hill mynahs, the rusted seesaw, the sewing machine's crescendo, the reed flute, my children's heartbeats on the Doppler. The nostalgia beneath this music is an immigrant's nostalgia but more significantly, it is the nostalgia for an autonomously sketched, personal picture of history-- my urge to return to, re-examine, and recast history in a female voice.

So the bride, that most vulnerable, conflicted and voiceless persona in the culture--comprised wholly of "image" not "vision," and surface, not depth-- make-believes, at the moment of marriage and impending departure, that her hometown will fall apart without her. In imagining her as more than the shadow she actually is, I challenge her powerlessness. In the "no-man's land" between two families, this woman begins to assemble herself as an entity: it's the birth of a voice, a consciousness, a materfamilias. Unlike the typical notion of feminism, this ideal has less to do with hostility towards tradition or the male-dominated culture, more with mercy, creativity and self-determination-- a spirit to undo the terrible knots with perseverance and a larger-than-life imagination. What is axed is not male influence but violence in all forms, including self-sabotage. This bride claims a pivotal role, and takes ownership of her heritage, of the wounds and the healing. For me, this persona is a metaphor for identity in the phase of Pakistan's history I've found myself in--the raw drama of an emerging identity, a country wedged between.

Kohl & Chalk is about "between-ness," the splitting of the self in marriage, childbirth, immigration, the splitting of the creative self as a writer and mother, and the energies that make and break each of these bonds. The minutiae of everyday life are loaded with questions political and civilizational in nature-- the colors of war and colonialism in a pencil box ("war cries of the Greeks in plume red/Mongols in horse-leather red"), asking for two "tongues" at the butcher's window, flying through the window of the Chinese ideogram for happiness, hearing the cacophony of a US airstrike in "the kettle's sharp whistle," and so on. The collection chronicles my earliest observation of war trauma, as a child growing up in the border town of Peshawar during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, as well as my experience of being a young immigrant writer raising a family through the messy, conflict-ridden post-9/11 times. There is an obsessed dialogue between windows and mirrors--both involved in making identity--the former a source of light, a symbol of the vast external that I long for, the gaze on an unnamed future, the adopted country; the latter, a reflection, a private study of origins. My windows float across history in multiple places, and my mirrors hang on the walls of my first home in refugee-filled Peshawar as well as unfamiliar city squares. The making of identity is enlarged, pluralized, exposed to questions; it is the making of "we"--in the voice of a kohl-wearing, chalk-wielding Muslim woman, a "dangerous," endangered voice.

Poet David Rigsbee

Since the death of my brother by suicide back in the 1990s, my work has increasingly looked at what it means to have a voice that pits itself against the eventual silence to which we are all headed. I have often thought that the elegy has replaced the epic as the most vertiginous rock on Mt. Olympus. It is a form that has made its way through the centuries by making special deliveries of meaning, even as it throws off all consolations, one by one--religion, philosophy, hope, language itself. As a result, it tries a poet's chops and, at times, gives back a meaning you hadn't anticipated, that is in fact incapable of anticipation. Because the elegy speaks to the fact of absence, it in some way acknowledges absence as its subject and enabler, including most especially the poet's own absence. My mentor Joseph Brodsky used to say that every elegy is a self-portrait. Nothing could be more persuasive than words that, as they go about saying truth to power, also bring power to the truth. What truth is that? The truth that our mortality, by bringing us low, brings us in the presence of humility. It is our most fundamental truth: it shows aesthetics to be a moral imperative.

In School of the Americas, I have tried to write poems that don't spend your time making conundrums or feed you on impossible verbal desserts. They don't assign paradoxes any higher place than the lowest truth that we, as humans, both are and are not at the same time--because of what we know. When someone asked me recently how my new poems differed from my old ones, I said the new improved on the old by becoming more superficial. By that I meant that, by often being narratives of how we intersect with some half-known events or distantly recalled cultural mile-markers, they try to guide you all the way through the first time, without your having that doomed feeling that you have to go back again and see what you have missed. I want them to exercise the doggie-bag option: you can get it, and also take something home. For example, my poem, "Roy Orbison, New Orleans, 1984" takes up the question of the "posthumous" voice, what we also call the voice from beyond the grave, versus our desire to be heard in full, while living. The title poem takes up a particularly small cruelty that was visited on my brother when he was young by our aunt, who was married to a powerful colonel who taught classes in history at the infamous School of the Americas. We know how that school developed, and I suggest that it was not without complicity in the journey of my doomed brother. In yet another, I recount being introduced to the notorious Senator Jesse Helms when I was a child and shaking "the hand that made Gorbachev tremble." He was also, as we were to learn, the enemy of art.

Anis Shivani's recent books include My Tranquil War and Other Poems and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, while books forthcoming in 2014 include the novel Karachi Raj and Soraya: Sonnets.