Corners, by Enzo Silon Surin

My conversation with Enzo Silon Surin appeared in the The Rumpus in August. Here’s one of the poems from his book When My Body Was a Clinched Fist, out now from Black Lawrence Press.

Here’s a poem from the book.

Corners

Outside Papi’s Bodega, young boy in
summer’s native garb—white tank-top,

doorag’s a smooth blue crown garnishing
the stubbles of a week-old fade—regulates

a stereo knob while sitting shotgun
in a chromed-wheel Escalade—the ghost

of Tupac Shakur magnified in a subwoofer
like an opus—as long as

music’s kept all’s good where we come
from. If only a glare didn’t easily stumble—

if only manhood wasn’t tenured with black
powder in metal capsules, brown boys, free

to chase arcade mortality, wouldn’t have to
warily long for a ghetto’s heaven or if grief,

inherited each day they step into the a.m.,
would follow them into an afterlife.

But corners often treble the soul, a cold hope
in the fold & on Winthrop and Thorndale

the sidewalk pleats, stumbles a man in hooded sweatshirt
and blood-sodden jeans, fresh breaths

breaching his lungs—if only keeping eyes off
the karma and on the prize was what made this

world go ’round, it would be what was always
wanted—any landscape better than what’s here

—where on most nights, a native glare renders
a chamber empty as winter flower boxes.

From When My Body Was a Clinched Fist. Black Lawrence Press, 2020. Reprinted with permission from the poet.

The Deep Longings of Emigration: A Conversation with Poet Carol Hobbs, Author of New-found-land

Carol Hobbs carries herself with a quiet competence that I associate with Canadians. The fisheries collapse of the Maritimes in the 1990s forced her and many other Newfoundlanders to emigrate, but she carries her homeland with her, in her mannerisms, and in her poetry. Newfoundland, her debut full-length collection, is a testament to perseverance and an continued commitment to honing her craft. This has been a difficult year for Carol–the COVID pandemic found her scrambling to adapt lesson plans to the new realities of online learning, and she has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In spite of these difficulties, she found some time to talk to me via email about her craft, her book, and the writing life.

Continue reading “The Deep Longings of Emigration: A Conversation with Poet Carol Hobbs, Author of New-found-land”

Justice for George Floyd: What I Can Do to Help

I don’t post nearly as much personal content on this site as I used to, but from time to time I feel the need to veer off the poetry path. Now is one of those times. I feel like I’ve been watching my country slowly disintegrate since 2016, but I know that the underlying conditions that have led to today’s crises far predate the Trump administration. Overpolicing of Black communities — and in particular Black men — dates back hundreds of years. The Black Lives Matter movement dates back to the Obama administration, and the George Floyd protests make it clear that we still have a lot of work to do as a country. Trump’s not-so-tacit endorsements of white supremacist groups hasn’t helped, and neither has the continually growing wealth gap. The COVID-19 crisis and its resulting effects on the economy have created even more stresses for communities of color, who have been hardest hit by them.

Continue reading “Justice for George Floyd: What I Can Do to Help”

June Generative Workshop via Zoom

Photograph of a hand writing in a notebook.

Creative expression is a balm in troubling times. Take some time for yourself and your work and join a writing workshop I’m hosting on Wednesday evenings (7pm to 9pm Eastern) in June. We will use all five senses and plumb our memories and imaginations to sprout seeds of new writing. A few seats remain. All genres — poetry, fiction, memoir, or combinations thereof — and all experience levels welcome. Open to teens and adults. Sign up here.

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Final Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the final packet.

Dear Adrian:

I tend to have mixed feelings when sending in the last packet of the semester. It’s a relief to come to a break in the work. But once I’ve turned in the packet, despondence overcomes me as I realize the end of the semester means no more school for a while. School has generally been a refuge for me. And this work I’m doing has such intrinsic value that even when I’m on the edge of burnout I prefer it to my non-poetry, non-academic life. Without a school deadline, the future appears like an unbroken line of dull days clocking into my corporate job, writing status reports and functional specs, hiding my artistic side in favor of businesslike necessity.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Final Packet”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Third Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element-–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the third packet.

Dear Adrian:

What a relief to be able to change the thesis of my craft essay. Our conversation on Friday helped all the pieces of the puzzle fall in place. My early thesis just didn’t stand up to the light when it was time to do close readings, especially in the case of Morgan Parker. Connecting Parker with Brooks’s voice makes so much more sense than trying to argue that her work was more regularly patterned—it’s just not. I expected to have to rewrite the entire paper from scratch, but I found that most of the close readings I’d already done worked well with new argument—I just needed to tweak a few of the arguments.

The extra couple of days have given me an opportunity to polish up the whole thing. Hopefully it meets with your satisfaction. I’m sure that if I revisited it, I could find further tweaks to make, but as my poetry-sister Wandajune says, it’s never going to be perfect.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Third Packet”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Second Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the first packet.

Dear Adrian:

It’s worked out that the majority of my semesters for this MFA program are going to take place in the Winter/Spring term. I feel particularly lucky that you are on sabbatical next semester, since it means we’ve been able to work together. I have mixed feelings about doing actual academic work during the Winter/Spring term, though. My fondest memories of school are in September, when the world and the school year seem full of possibilities. As a grown-up living outside the groves of academe, I sometimes find a wave of melancholia overtakes me in the fall. A good friend of mine once said it’s because I’m sad that I’m not back in school. Regardless, my memories of the Winter/Spring term have more to do with gasping toward the finish line than setting off on a new, exciting venture. And late winter can be especially difficult. All this to say that the second packet tends to be rougher and thinner than I would generally like it to be.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, Second Packet”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Three, First Packet

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the first packet.


Dear Adrian:

 Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my emails this month, as well as for the additional reading suggestions.

It’s funny—my first semester, I did the craft annotations ahead of the poetry revision and writing. This semester, I did my revisions and new writing first, all while stressing out about the craft essay thesis and outline. Either way, the critical work still stresses me out more than the writing and revising. I suppose this is why I’m getting an MFA instead of a PhD in literature.

I was surprised at how quickly I managed to work my way through the stack of poetry books. Some of the collections definitely spoke to me more than others. As you know, I was immediately taken with Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. I went ahead and order her first book as well, but I just couldn’t connect to it the same way. Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia was a quick read – the language is so beautiful, the narrative so clear and sequential, and the forms of the poems so similar that it reads almost like a novel in verse – in fact, it was an easier read than David Rakoff’s novel in verse.

Reading theory about poetic line was tougher going. I got through the Longenbach in about a day, mostly through extreme effort of will and because it’s a relatively small text. My main takeaway was the notion of the annotating versus the parsing line. He argues that enjambment “annotates,” or calls attention to a word outside of the usual phrasing of a sentence, whereas a parsing line merely ends where there would be a natural pause. I discovered A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, a treasure trove of many different poets’ theories and opinions about poetic line. I rented it as an ebook for a few months rather than paying three times as much to own it. As a result the reading has been slow going. When I read on screen rather than on paper, I find it harder to absorb the material. I’ve been keeping a Word window screen minimized next to the ebook so that I can take notes while I read. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the thing now. The tone of the essays varies a great deal, some of the poets writing almost entirely from personal experience and others trying to make more general pronouncements about the line and what it means. In the introduction, Anton Vander Zee sums up the Levertov essay on the line better than I could: that the line tracks the stress of inner thought, and that the line is a script for performance.  Three other takeaways:

  • Annie Finch’s comments that lines that resonate the most with readers often have interesting meter, and that it would do well for contemporary writers to steep themselves in the study of meter as previous generations of poets did. She used an example from Audre Lorde’s “Coal.”
  • Arielle Greenberg’s concept of the hyperextended line, using Rachel Zucker as an example. I did an annotation of Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative last semester and immediately knew what she was talking about. She points out that the hyperextended line can take many forms, including enjambment or visual use of the whole page, but that “the effect is always once of muchness, of multitude … an anti-stream of consciousness: a careful but cluttered working through of a complex thought.” This is something that I struggle with as a poet: making an idea or a narrative clear to the reader while still working through a complex thought. I can think of at least one poem where I might try the hyperextended line as a way of evoking this complexity.
  • Camille Dungy’s beautiful metaphor of prose as a vista of the ocean, and poetry as a vista that includes the shore, with line breaks being “the predictable moment of physical return, the abrupt interruption, the edge, the beach, the tide break, the line-break, the shore.”

What my reading of both the Longenbach and A Broken Thing make clear is that the concept of poetic line is slippery. Like so much of poet-craft (and indeed of physics), the closer you look at the thing, the more slippery and ill-defined it becomes. A kind of quantum.

At your suggestion I did some more research on Rich and Brooks. There are lots of retrospectives about the arc of Rich’s career in the popular press but fewer about Brooks. I spent some time with the Lesley online library searching for academic journal articles. The last time I remember searching through academic journal databases was at Vassar in the 1990s. It’s odd – I can access some materials directly from my study at home, but if it’s not available online I don’t have the luxury of perusing the stacks for the paper article. My biggest complaint about the low-residency model is the lack of easy access to a library.

As instructed, I’ve included an aesthetic statement for each of the poems in this packet; they are included with the contents page of the main “poetry” document. Because one of the poems includes extremely long lines, I had to save it as a separate document with landscape instead of portrait layout.

While revising “On the Ferry to Spectacle Island,” I decided to use the stepped line as a cue that the narrative is moving back in time, and to signal the return to the present moment with new stanzas. In terms of lineation, I’ve been focusing on ending lines with stronger words and avoiding beginning them with prepositions. As I’ve said – and as you know – the rules of poetic line are slippery. But I feel as if I’m able to intuit more easily what makes a strong line versus a weak one.

I’ve been wrestling with “The Marigolds, the River, the Oaks” for years now. It was in my application sample, and I’ve worked it with both Sharon and Kevin – possibly worked it to death. I finally decided to explode it from a sort of ghost sonnet into this new cross-out form. I’d gone in the direction of saying too much, but the original seemed to say too little. So I figured I’d show my work this time. Let me know what you think.

Originally, I’d included “The Window,” another poem I’ve worked quite a bit, but decided to switch it out with something very raw. I wrote “thirty-five years later..” just a couple of days ago and this is only the second draft. Once I have more distance, it should benefit from the music-oriented revision technique from your seminar. I’m curious to hear what you think of the form. I’d like to experiment more with use of white space – in my teens and 20s I used stepped and triadic lines a great deal more, but moved away from it, mostly because it’s so difficult to get the spacing right with the new web content management tools.

As you can probably tell, “Assembly Square” is my paean to D.A. Powell. I was struck by how Morgan Parker managed to replicate the rhythms of his lines in her latest book, and thought I’d try for a similar cadence. It may or may not become part of my own voice, but I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor regardless. I recently reviewed some of my packet material from first semester and see that Sharon and I agreed that I should focus on line. It was after reading C.K. Williams that I began writing longer, looser lines. D.A. Powell also does such innovative things with it.

When I started this cover letter I feared that I wouldn’t have enough to say, but now I see that I’ve almost written a book. I hope that you find the craft essay outline satisfactory. I’ve revised it a number of times and am simultaneously anxious that it is too granular and that I’m leaving out something important. I look forward to your feedback.

Hopefully we will be able to speak on the phone – or better yet via video chat – in the next couple of weeks. Mark and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary the weekend of Feb. 16th to the 19th, so I will be traveling, however we can still arrange to speak during that window is that is what works best for you. In general, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are the best times for me to speak in real-time. I can also make a Monday or Wednesday evening work if necessary. Monday is Presidents’ Day, so perhaps we could try speaking that evening?

I hope all is well with you in Indiana (or on the road) and that you are accomplishing what you’d hoped to during your sabbatical.

Best,

Frances

May 2020 Online Poetry Readings Based in Massachusetts

NOTE: You can find an evergreen list of Mass-based ongoing virtual reading series here.

Many reading series have gone to ground during the COVID-19 crisis. A few have moved online. Many are hungry for poetry during this difficult time. I’m aware of the following events. If you know of others, please fill out my contact form or comment below.

Dire Literary Series, Fridays at 7pm. Kim Addonizio reads May 22. Read an interview with the organizer Timothy Gager here and connect with the series on Facebook here.

Lily Poetry Salon, Friday May 8, 7pm. Features: Valerie Duff and Jacob Strautmann. RSVP on Facebook or contact Eileen Cleary via her website for the Zoom link

New England Poetry Club, Sunday May 10, 3pm. Features: Cathie Desjardins, Susanna Kittredge, Eve Linn, Open mic to follow. Email president[at]nepoetryclub[dot]org for the Zoom link. View all NEPC events here.

Rozzie Reads, Thursday, May 28, 7pm. Features: David P. Miller and Dorian Kotsiopoulos. Open mic to follow. Email hguran@aol.com for the Zoom link.

On a related note, my generative writing workshop goes into its second session this June. If businesses are open, we will meet in person with appropriate social distancing. Either way, participants will also be able to attend via Zoom. Sign up for the workshop here.