"I Open the Door and Invite the Wind Inside"
Frances Justine Post
[a line from Sherman Alexie's "The Exaggeration of Despair"]
I am a poetry geek. I didn't quite realize the extent of my geekery until this year when I started teaching my first workshop. As I was trying to come up with a syllabus, I tried to think back to what moved me when I was an undergrad. I racked my brains, I un-alphabetized all my books, I found old handouts from my MFA. In the end, surrounded by the poetry that taught me how to be a poet, I could not contain my joy. I grabbed my dog (she was the only one around, and she is used to being manhandled) and cried into her ruff "Oh, Maddie, all the beautiful poems; I can't stand it." The poem that caused the outburst was Pablo Neruda and his green knives in "Walking Around":
It happens that I am tired of being a man.
It happens that I go into the tailors' shops and the movies
all shrivelled up, impenetrable, like a felt swan
navigating on a water of origin and ash.
(Does it get any better than "a felt swan / navigating on a water of origin and ash"? No, not in my opinion.) Surrounded by all these books and papers, I realized I have been moved by all kinds of poetry. Pablo Neruda was cozied up to Emily Dickinson's Master Letters
. Wallace Stevens was telling me about a pineapple. John Berryman was fighting with Henry. Gerard Manley Hopkins was drowning in spondees. Paul Celan was crying to Margarete. Wislawa Szymborska was talking to a ghost. Carl Phillips was climbing down the ladder of his syntax. Mark Strand was wryly assessing himself in a mirror. James Dickey was fighting a hammerhead. (Excerpts from these poems follow this post.)
Next semester, I will start my tenure as one of three poetry editors at Gulf Coast
. As poetry editor, it is my job to be open to anything; to let work speak to me even if I don't expect it to because of how it looks on the page or where or where not the poet was previously published. As an editor and as a poet and a teacher, the point is I don't know what will speak to me. That is the most important, most exciting, most moving aspect of poetry. I start reading a poem and it slaps me in the face, and I start to sweat, and I get all teary and embarrassingly goose-bumpy and maybe I don't know what is going on right away, but the poem asks me back. It opens a door that, even if I am scared or distrustful or snobby or think I know what's going to happen, I don't let my preconceived notions about what I think I like hold me back from the surprise of a new voice (even if it's an old voice like Dickinson).
I know I have a tendency to be prejudiced against poems that rhyme or grandmother poems or poems with lower case i's. However, from reading poems all these years, I know that I will come upon a rhyming poem that kills me like Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art
," a grandmother poem that makes me want to write my own grandmother poem like Sherman Alexie's "The Exaggeration of Despair
," and a poem with lower case i's that earns it's i's like Carolyn Creedon's "litany
." Having previously been an editor and reader at various literary magazines, I know that one of the greatest rewards of being an editor is finding something that really speaks to you in the unsolicited submissions. So, send me your work. All I ask for is originality of vision and voice. Also, I like dogs and revenge and walruses in poems. Send me those poems, too.
Emily Dickinson, from Master Letter 3
Have you the Heart in
your breast - Sir - is it set
like mine - a little to the left -
has it the misgiving - if it
wake in the night -
Wallace Stevens, from "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together
8. The owl sits humped. It has a hundred eyes.
9. The cocoanut and cockerel in one.
10. This is how yesterday's volcano looks.
John Berryman, from "Dream Song 4
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
'You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.'
Gerard Manley Hopkins, from "The Wreck of the Deutschland
Now burn, new born to the world,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Paul Celan, from "Death Fugue
Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at dusk and at daybreak we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eye is blue
he shoots you with bullets of lead his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his hounds on us he gives us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and dreams death is a master from Germany
Wislawa Szymborska, from "Negative
Light shadows on your dark face.
You'd just taken a seat at the table
and put your hands, gone gray, upon it.
You look like a ghost
who's trying to summon up the living.?
Carl Phillips, from "The Kill
The last time I gave my body up,
to you, I was minded
briefly what it is made of,
what your is, that
I'd forgotten, the flesh
I hold in plenty no
little sorrow for because--oh, do
but think on its predicament,
Mark Strand, from "Old Man Leaves Party
It was clear when I left the party
That though I was over eighty I still had
A beautiful body. The moon shone down as it will
On moments of deep introspection. The wind held its breath.
And look, somebody left a mirror leaning against a tree.
James Dickey, from "Shark's Parlor
The shark flopped on the porch, grating with salt-sand driving back in
The nails he had pulled out coughing chunks of his formless blood.
The screen door banged and tore off he scrambled on his tail slid
Curved did a thing from another world and was out of his element and in
Our vacation paradise cutting all four legs from under the dinner table