Process Notes: Browsing White

84º (no heat index!) ~ a beauty of a day, the lawn begs mowing, enough rain and then sun to make every living thing grow

The father poems seem to have slipped my grasp as I’ve been consumed with the turmoil of the world again, with Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, the London high-rise massacre, the UPS facility shooting, the Pulse memorials, the capitalist zeal for repealing the Affordable Care Act, and so much more.  With these events heavy on my mind, I am also prepping for classes this fall, and one of those will be a special topics course on writing political poetry. We will be using Carolyn Forché’s anthology, Against Forgetting, as well as Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, Brian Turner’s Here, BulletPatricia Smith’s Blood Dazzlerand Danez Smith’s Black MovieI am excited to teach the class, but also conscious of the fact that UCA is in no way a homogenous institution (student-wise anyway). There will be students from both political parties in the room, and students with differing religious and cultural views. I will have to work hard in the first few weeks to establish a sense of community and trust.

When thinking about political poetry, I always come back to the idea that the personal is political. Because of this, I fall in the camp of “all poetry is political.” However, for this class, I’m shifting my attention to poetry that is overtly political, something we will question and explore as a group over the semester.

All of this being said, when I sat down to write today, I was struggling with the idea of privilege, and with the question of what I can do to help right the wrongs going on all around me. Of course, my first stop was The Oxford English Dictionary database and a thorough reading of the entries for “privilege.” I was struck by the first entry, which had to do with the “privilege” one could buy in the past from the Pope, a practice I knew about thanks to having to take British Lit and having to read The Canterbury Tales. After that introduction, I found criticisms of the practice sprinkled throughout most of Western literature of the Enlightenment. And so, this line appeared in my journal and started the poem:

I purchased this privilege with my skin

Then, the two ideas, privilege and commerce came together. As the title of the poem indicates, it’s topic is shopping while white and the privilege that affords. In the poem, the speaker (yes me, but also, I hope the white reader of the poem) is allowed to browse at will and then becomes woke (again…the idea being that with privilege it is easy to “fall back to sleep” and close one’s eyes against injustice) when she sees a woman of color being harassed by the store clerks, and ends with the speaker’s white guilt for doing nothing. Yes, the poem is based on a slightly similar personal experience, but it’s highly fictionalized.

I found myself writing this poem differently than the father poems or any of my poems in the past. In this case, I had a big-picture idea hovering over it all, driving the poem down the page. Yes, I was still writing to discover my own thoughts and emotions, but it was a more-focused process. I was surprised to find elements of sound developing naturally within the lines (no form here), and I was surprised to find the poem developing into a single stanza (20 lines). Frequent readers will know that I love myself a couplet or a tercet. This poem seemed to eschew white space. It seemed to need to be connected all the way down the page. I will let it sit and reconsider the form when I return for revision, but it’s feeling pretty whole at the moment.

Here are my worries: 1) clichés seem an even bigger concern when working with political material, how do I make the language specific and new when dealing with such well-known material? 2) in writing about my own whiteness, I have included a person of color, am I further “colonizing” that person’s experience by “using” them in the poem? 3) is this poem necessary, isn’t it more necessary to have poems from people of color, people who are actually experiencing aggressions both micro- and macro-? 4) will I ever write a poem about which I have no worries?

Luckily, the grass is tall and mowing = time to contemplate.


Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Reading Notes: Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair

86º feels like 96º ~ in the thick, summer soup of it, 3+ inches of rain yesterday, the whole world muggy, swamp-like

I had to read Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair over two separate days. This is a book packed with highly charged lyric poems taking on the colonization of Jamaica and the realities of something we like to call “post-colonial” times. Heavy material dispersed into poems made of imagery that unsettles and sound that haunts.

While I did not set out to read books in any order this summer, it turns out this is the third book in a row that I’ve picked up that reminds me of the importance of being woke. Sinclair traces, in broad strokes, the colonization of Jamaica, its place in the slave trade, its current cultural being (including the tensions associated with the tourist industry), and the more personal issues of being a Jamaican woman now living in the U.S. That’s a lot to take in, but all of it is necessary and urgent.

Cannibal begins with a crucial epigraph that tracks the origin of the word cannibal to its Spanish origin which comes from the word “caribal,” referring to the aboriginal people of the West Indies. We can thank Columbus for the idea that these people ate human flesh. Sinclair sums up: “By virtue of being Caribbean, all ‘West Indian’ people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.”

At its heart, this book chronicles the very process of Othering and the results. Sinclair often alludes to Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in an attempt to unpack what it means to be labeled “savage.” The poems also revolve around womanhood & ideals of beauty, which are inextricably complicated by a history of racism and white, male rule.

In “Prayer Book for Vanishing,” Sinclair addresses the pressure to attempt skin whitening. Here’s an excerpt.

Approach the angels
to efface this blackness,
another tar-baby, self

I am scorching. In the night
find nothing but a dagger of teeth.
Pitch-black marrow, vile

pigment unwanted,
set fire to my undesirable.

The poem lists common practices such as drinking small amounts of bleach, scrubbing with Epsom salts, baking soda, and peroxide, and using copious amounts of face powder. When I read poems like this, and in fact, all of the poems in this book, I’m struck again by the idea of empathy. Why do I so easily slide into the perspective of a woman of color trying to vanish herself, so easily that I can’t help but see and feel the pain, the harm of racial imbalance the continues to exist today, and yet, so many others can’t see & feel? Was I taught empathy, or is it a part of my nature? (I pray it is the first and not the second, for we are hopeless if it is left to nature.)

Finally, every once in a while Sinclair touches on the fact that she (veiled as the speaker) is a poet writing about her family (especially her flawed, violent father). These poems touch me, in particular, as I’m working through some difficult family material as well. Here’s the opening from “Incorrigible”:

All night I wrestled with it–
the onerous verse, trying to salt the wound;
there are worse things one could fix a gloom upon, I suppose.

But I fight to tack it down,
the indefinite I, I, iamb; to tease this venom out–
its cerasee vine grown thick as my hair,

pulling at my limbs, the fur of my mouth.
Opening my hand in the fissure of my throat,
a gutted fish, I am raking rut out.


You can read a selection of the poems from Cannibal here, but I highly recommend reading the entire book.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: A Being Admitted as Heir

74º ~a line of pop-up storms moving north to south, an oddity, radar-indicated rain non-existent on the ground, our days are reaching the 90s now

Yesterday, I started reading Safiya Sinclair’s amazing book, Cannibal, and I hope to post reading notes about it in the next few days. (I’m only halfway through.) Born in Jamaica, Sinclair looks closely at postcolonial identity and focuses both on the personal and the historical. As I was reading, I was struck by an early poem, “Pocomania,” in which the speaker addresses her father, using “father” as anaphora. It opens:

Father unbending father unbroken father
with the low-hanging belly, father I was cleaved from

In Sinclair’s poem, the speaker deals with a tense, difficult relationship, just as I have been doing. In fact, at one point in the poem she writes, “Father / and his nest of acolyte women” … “Mother and I were none of them.” I had to stop reading for a minute to catch my breath.

Even as I read the poem, I knew I wanted to write one using the same repetition, but this morning, approaching my desk, it struck me, again, that I’ve written little of my mother. So, I sat down to write a mother poem, using the structure Sinclair presents. Sinclair’s poem is one long stanza filled with long lines, and jam-packed with electric images that expose a flawed man who caused his own child to hurt. I tried for the same long lines, the same electric images, but I was working with a healthy relationship, and that changed a few things.

There is a place in Sinclair’s poem where the speaker implores, “Father forgive my impossible demands.” I didn’t draft my poem line by line to imitate Sinclair’s, but I knew I wanted to include such an asking for forgiveness. In my draft, this occurred in line 7, and I wrote “Mother forgive my silences.” Because of the content of that line, it begged to be set off by itself, so I ended up with a 6-line stanza, followed by a single line, then another 6-line stanza and another single line of asking for forgiveness. Then, I started in on another 6 lines and I came up short. I have no idea where this poem wants to go or how it wants to end.

Here’s the issue: poems about difficult things have built-in conflict, which means they have a built-in need to end, to resolve, even if they are largely lyric (image based) rather than narrative. This poem about my mom is a poem of praise, an ode (although not in the formal sense), and I’m struggling with how to resolve it. It is pure lyric, so there is no narrative to wind to a close. I confess that I hit the wall with this draft, and today, the wall won. I had to save & print the draft unfinished, which takes a bit of the shine off the moment.

I’m going to seek out some poems of praise and check out how they end. I’ve always known that “happy” poems were harder to write than difficult ones (for me at least), and here’s the proof, again.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Miscellany: What Speed Rejection, Grit, Reading Beloit Poetry Journal

83º ~ feels like 87º ~ all bright sun, calm winds, birdsong, freshmown grass, a full moon waiting

One of my goals for the summer is to submit work for publication to literary journals. Publishing poems is one of the criteria on which I’m judged as I make my way toward tenure, but the weight of prepping courses new to me, building a national conference from the floor up, doing my other service work (committees, volunteering for campus activities, etc.), and keeping up on professional development activities prevented me from sending much out this past academic year.

As with reading and writing, I’ve re-engaged with the “po-biz” side of things. As I explained in my recent post about how the poem “A Coward for a Daughter” came to be published, the usual route is to submit work and then not hear anything for months. On the other hand, there are some well-established journals that have perfected the quick turnaround. This week, I submitted poems to The Threepenny Review on Wednesday. By Friday afternoon, I’d received the rejection, which yes, always stings. As Threepenny does not take simultaneous submissions, I appreciate the quick response, but, yikes!, I hadn’t even had time to “forget” about the submission (forgetting sometimes blunts the sting of a rejection just a tad).

I’ve been thinking about grit (regarding the stick-to-itiveness it takes to be a writer) as I’ve been drafting more poems lately. In working on my last poem, I noticed, again, that there came a point when I felt the urge to just stop and drop it. Here is the moment of either persistence or giving up, a moment when one’s grit is called into question.

In general, I get this feeling at one of two points. The first opportunity happens when I’m scribbling longhand in my journal. I might get three or four lines to come together and then nothing. When this happens, I tend to let it go. However, the more crucial turning point is when I’ve gone from journal to computer, and the “meat” of the poem is beginning to appear, word by word, line by line. Even with the energy behind that movement, there is usually a point where I’m confident in the opening salvo of the poem, but then become uncertain of where its going. In this uncertainty is the opportunity for me to waver and lose my grit. In that last poem, I remember sighing; I remember thinking I should just quit. But, then, I had to think about hitting “save.” Seeing that the poem had not reached a critical mass, I knew from experience that hitting “save” was the same as never finishing the poem for me. I had to take control of that little voice inside my head and tell myself, “try again, figure it out, keep your butt in the chair, tell the truth, write it.” Thankfully, I listened to myself and stuck with it to a finished draft.

(Working in forms makes this extra important, as I can save a free verse draft knowing that it is nearly “there,” but not quite. In a formal poem, I’m not sure I could come back and complete an impartial draft.)

This morning, I grabbed the lit mag waiting on top of my to-read pile: Beloit Poetry Journal (67.3) Spring 2017. I confess that the number of books that I own but haven’t read yet is overwhelming, and having the lit mags arriving on the regular simply adds to the overwhelming. However, as soon as I open a cover and begin to read, all the other books drop away.

BPJ is one of the most well-established, long-running, consistently-stellar poetry journals out there, and this issue lives up to that reputation. It was an extra delight to find that friend and fellow Little Rock poet Seth Pennington designed the cover.

I believe in Daniel Pennac’s Reader’s Bill of Rights, which stipulates that it is okay to skip and/or not to finish. When I read journals, I give each piece my full attention at the opening. If the writer can’t hold me, I’m gone. In the case of BPJ, I read all but three of the poems completely, and in about 50% of the cases, I read the poems a second time (they tend to be shorter than longer in this journal). Some of the poems that stood out to me were:

Doug Ramspeck’s “Winter Trance”
Martha Silano’s “I have to deepen my know
Denise Bergman’s “he opened the window’s slit and climbed in
Xandria Phillips’ four poems from Black Eyewitness Directory
David Salner’s “A Shift of Sand and Steel”
Lauren Camp’s “Father to Narrow then Stranger”
Michael Brown, Jr.’s “Freedom”

The whole issue is worth your time and attention.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: OED: Dutiful (arrow) Duty (arrow) Due

83º ~ feels like 88º ~ dew point 72º ~ we breathe in shallows

Today’s post must be quick, as I woke late and have other engagements. I fumbled about my desk and only half-assed my thoughts about drafting this morning, tho I had gone to bed with the goal of drafting on my mind. I flipped through a book on my desk and read two poems. Somehow, although not in either of those poems, my brain clicked into the word “dutiful.” Ah, I remember now, I got up to turn off the fan and was thinking about “dutiful writer syndrome” (wondering if I should let myself off the hook for drafting today) which led me to think about what it means to be a dutiful daughter.

When I got back to the desk, I knew I wanted to look into the etymology of “dutiful.” Of course, I knew it was a form of “duty,” but I wanted to read the various definitions through time. Thank the universe that UCA subscribes to the Oxford English Dictionary. (This is one of my favorite ways to get into writing a poem.). I logged in and started with “dutiful,” read on to “duty,” and then found the connection to “due” (which included debts, which ties in to a lot of what I’m exploring about my relationship to my father). I scribbled nouns & verbs, I copied quotes & definitions. Most importantly, in the “due” entry, I scrolled downward and found “to give the devil his due.” Shazam.

One of the things I’m struggling with is portraying a lot of negative things about my father. I fear the portrayal is lopsided, and the phrase “to give one their due” or “to give the devil his due” slips right in there as it means to admit something redeeming about an unfavorable person (I probably mashed that paraphrase with some quoting from the OED). So, I started thinking about how my father was not “the devil,” was not a monster, and I drafted:

I cannot give the devil his due, Father
as you were merely a broken man, no monster.

And then, I swore, for the rhymed couplet suggested form. Yet, the rhythm didn’t send me to the sonnet; it sent me to the villanelle. That common phrase “to give the devil his due” seemed to bear repeating and seemed to indicate song. With a little tinkering, these two lines morphed into the first stanza, and the refrain (lines 1 and 3, which are repeated throughout the form) became what I have here as line 1 and some additional language before “no monster.” I moved almost immediately to the computer with only the first stanza because the villanelle is regimented. I needed to put the refrains in place and write around them, all the while being willing to tweak the repeated language as the content unfolded. And then, Dear Reader, I confess it, I made a list of rhymes (hard and slant) in my journal for the father/monster end words. What have I become?

Again, the form provided me a frame to contain my difficult thoughts. In this case exploring my own complicity in my non-relationship with my father, and facing the reality that he was no devil, no person out to cause me harm on purpose. His faults are plenty, but they do not include malice. The tricky part is that when I write, “I cannot give the devil his due,” what I mean is “I cannot call you devil,” not that I can’t give you your due. So, that’s what the poem is trying to explore. We will see if it lasts on future re-reading. I’m thinking the layered meaning is getting lost. Time will tell.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: Wrestling My Father in the After

75º ~ the aftermath of a satisfying 20-minute downpour, the drip-drop sounds of trees shedding water

I hesitate to post, as the work of today’s draft imitates that of the last father sonnet in many ways. Yes, the sonnet appears to be the frame for this content, and again it was necessary because of the painful nature of the truth-telling, because of the need to address these truths in small measures. While these poems expose my father’s imperfections, they also expose me as an imperfect daughter. As someone born with the need to be “practically perfect in every way” (and with the required big ego as well), I’m always pushing up against my need to be liked. Yet, in writing these poems, part of my “tell the truth” mantra must include how I portray myself.

As you might have guessed, these poems have a lot to do with harms done, and I find myself wrestling with ideas of placing blame and of forgiveness. The content of the poems comes both from real life and from reading about the idea of forgiveness. In this way, I hope the poems open up from being personal to being public, if you will.

Today, I didn’t need to read much from others, and I didn’t need a word bank (as I haven’t for this type of poem). Instead, I needed to write a lot of really crappy lines in my journal. Crappy not for what they had to say but for how they said it. I stumbled on an image that resonated, but couldn’t get it to fit. I heard my squirmy internal editor say, “Stop forcing it. You’re done writing father poems. No one wants to read them anyway. You’re just whining.” So, I turned the page and tried to write a poem that would, perhaps, explain who my father was in my rounded details. Sure, I got eight semi-decent lines out of it, but they were lifeless.

I turned the page and thought some more about the whole situation, about where the pain resided & why. Then, I wrote:

What bothers me most, Father, is the silence
surrounding your sins, the way we were made to pretend

And then, I had my way in. Turns out, that image from earlier, the one I couldn’t get to fit, fell right into place by the fourth line. I’d say “magic, presto” but that’s not how I’m feeling. It was harder than that. I dug & I scraped to find the truth, gravitating to couplets and finding my instinctual internal rhymes (mostly slant). Then, I got to about 12 lines and realized I was nearly there, yes, working in the sonnet form. I went back and tweaked, condensed some so I’d have a bit more room at the end to get where I needed to go. Rest assured the only things deleted in the condensing were the overwritten bits (dear me, I love those adjectives! and still fall prey to over-explanation). Working in the sonnet form forced me to think in ways I don’t normally think about the purpose of the draft, of what I wanted to leave the reader with at the end. Of course, I think of this when working in free verse, but it’s a less focused thinking. Perhaps I’ve more to learn from this tried & true form; perhaps I’ve more father-daughter truth to explore within its frame.

Yet, there’s a weight to all of this. So why do it? Why bring up painful memories that hurt me and my remaining family? That’ something I’m wrestling with as well.


Posted by Sandy Longhorn

“A Coward for a Daughter”: From Draft to Publication in 2 Years

81º ~ feels like 85º ~ pop-up storms edging into West Little Rock, blue skies here in the Heights, a matter of only a few miles between us

This past week Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts published two “new” poems of mine. It’s always a rush when work comes out, but this time that rush was mixed with trepidation. The two poems, “A Coward for a Daughter” and “October Chorus,” are both “tell the truth” poems about my father. Because they reveal so much about myself and my family, when the news of their publication popped up in my email, I was flat out scared. I’d written other poems about myself and my family, of course, but this was the most open I’d ever been about our flaws, especially my father’s flaws and the consequences of them upon us all. Also, I wrote the poems before my father died, in fact, I wrote them so long ago and my work life was so busy this past academic year, I’d forgotten they were coming out.

After linking to the poems, I confess I was stunned by the response on Facebook. Normally, I get a handful of congratulation comments, but this poem resonated with many. That’s what happens when you tell the not-so-great truths along with the great truths—empathy forms. I’ve known this from the outside for years and years; this week I learned it on the inside, as a writer.

As I talked about the poem with my mom (hi, Mom!), she did express one confusion. Given that I’ve been blogging about writing “tell-the-truth” poems recently, Mom thought that these poems had been written in the last two weeks and were already published, which seemed kind of quick. She was correct. For anyone interested, here’s the journey for these two poems.

They were written in July of 2015. I had apparently forsaken my bog notes about every draft, which makes me sad, but I can link to the inspiration for “Coward” at least. That was my re-reading of King Lear and struggling with my guilt over not being near my mom and my oldest sister who were getting into the very difficult months of caring for my father. The poems, written in the summer of 2015 went through some revisions and then were sent out for consideration in November 2015. I received word of their acceptance at Blackbird in June 2016, and now they have been published in June 2017.

This several-year journey used to be the norm to publication for writers working with traditional literary journals. The amount of time between submission and publication is still the case with most print journals and with the oldest, most established online journals like Blackbird. However, the time lapse can be much shorter with newer online publication. I’ve submitted poems, had one accepted, and have seen it on the screen in less than in month in some rare cases. The true X factor is the time it takes to draft the poem, revise it, polish it, and then find the time to send it out. So, when someone asks, “how long does it take to write a poem?” there is a multi-layered answer.

Given all of this, I’m thankful to everyone who read the poems and took time to comment. Knowing you are there, reading, fills me up.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Remembering to Recharge

88º ~ aaaaaand, we have a heat index: feels like 90º ~ it’s tiny, but it’s there ~ for those up North, this is like when you see the first report of a wind chill in the winter, a reminder of bigger extremes to come.

There’s an image in my head of the dutiful writer I should be, attached to my keyboard every free moment (confession: in my head I see a Bartleby figure in ratty clothes, fingerless gloves, shivering from lack of heat, squinting from lack of light). I suffer from “dutiful writer syndrome” especially once school is out, as this is precious time hard earned.

Yesterday, two great friends helped me remember the importance of recharging. We had a collage day at my house. All writers and professors by trade & calling, we spent five hours sifting through images, building collages, smearing glue, and finishing our tasty cheese-fruit-veggie lunch with the most delicious homemade strawberry-rhubarb cupcakes. As we worked, we often turned to one another for advice or simply to share a spectacular image or combination of images. More often, we joked and laughed so hard my abs feel like I actually did a workout. Not once did we get bogged down in shoptalk or venting.

Reader, it was glorious.

Today, I’ve been busy with my duties as the director of the C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference as we get ready to unveil our accepted panels and open up our registration. My summer of writing will be interspersed with work for the conference, but it is work I know will pay off royally in the end (and much of it won’t need to be repeated in future years, thank the stars & all the planetary bodies!). As I’ve worked, I’ve had renewed energy and a sense of well-being, thanks to a day of friends & self-care.

Here’s a look at my collage from yesterday; I’ve decided it’s not finished and plan to work on the lower 1/3 this evening.

Image description: stylized leaping cat in center of rectangular collage, portrait aligned; surrounding cat: one human eye, head & neck of a woman, books, jacket, a single die, butterfly, small lounge chair, curtains, leaf, button, fragments of a letter

Image description: stylized leaping cat in center of rectangular collage, portrait aligned; surrounding cat: one human eye, head & neck of a woman, books, jacket, a single die, butterfly, small lounge chair, curtains, leaf, button, fragments of a letter

I wish you all the time & space to recharge!

Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Reading Notes: Afterland by Mai Der Vang

76º ~ days of sun & heat followed by storms, the mid-south in all its late spring glory ~ we are well-watered and thick-grown

As a member of the Academy of American Poets, I receive a copy of the Walt Whitman Award winning book of poetry each year; sometimes they hit, sometimes they miss. This year’s book, Afterland by Mai Der Vang, was a definite hit.

Like Shirali’s Gilt from my last post, Vang’s Afterland brings us the poetry of immigration, this time from the Hmong point of view and with the added horror of being displaced by violence rather than by choice. Afterland was a difficult read because of its content, but a joy because of its amazing blending of craft and imagination.

For those who need a refresher, as I did, the Hmong people were first indigenous to the Yellow River valley of China some 3,000 years ago. By the mid-19th century, most Hmong had migrated to Laos and were living in the highlands there, in an often contentious relationship with the French colonial powers. In the 1960s and early 70s, the Hmong people aided the CIA in “The Secret War,” by fighting against Laotian communists with CIA supplied weapons and goods. When the US withdrew from Laos in 1975, only a small group of Hmong were evacuated and many were killed. Others fled to Thailand on foot, crossing the Mekong river. Some of these refugees came to the US in 1976, with many “re-settled” in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, among other major metro areas. I’m no longer sure if I first read about the Hmong people in the Des Moines Register when I was still in high school, or if I later learned of their community when I was attending the College of St. Benedict outside St. Cloud, MN, but they are a people who have been in my consciousness for decades.

Even with all of this historical knowledge, I do not think that I ever fully processed the tragedies experienced both on an intimate level and on a cultural level until I read Afterland.

Vang’s poems illustrate the intense connection of a people to a land and what happens when that connection is ripped away not once, but over and over again. First, the Hmong were forced south into Laos by Chinese oppression, and then they were either massacred or forced to flee that “homeland.” With this history, the poems concern themselves with ancestry, rituals, and the idea of home. Thus, “afterland” comes to mean both the afterlife and the land to which one has been displaced. As a member of the newest generation of Hmong, of those living in the U.S. Vang offers a sweeping view of this troubled history.

Consider the opening of “Another Heaven,” the first poem in the book: “I am but atoms / Of old passengers // Bereaved to my cloistered bones.” In the fourth section of the title poem (which appears last in the book), Vang writes (in indented lines I can’t get to replicate here): “To meet the end is to go back / through every dwelling, // return my footfalls / to yesterday’s land.” Then, she lists the following cities of her own family’s history, back to her origins in Laos with her grandfather’s family (perhaps, my assumptions are based on Vang’s bio): Fresno, CA; Merced, CA; Lansing, MI; St. Paul, MN; Ban Vinai refugee camp, Thailand; Long Cheng, Laos; and Sayaboury, Laos. As I read the book and went back to individual poems, I couldn’t help but think of the current refugee crisis in Syria and wonder about the poets who will emerge to tell that story, too. Again, this was a heavy, difficult book.

That heaviness arises as I try to explicate Vang’s precision in language and diction, creating images that don’t just move the reader, they shove & jostle. In the discomfort zone, we have images like this one of two brothers: “It was scalpel that day they captured / you both. They sliced off / and boiled his tongue, // forced it down your throat” (“Dear Soldier of the Secret War”). And in “Yellow Rain” of chemical warfare, Vang writes, “a furnace flared // to hollow / your face” and

Another cow dies
from breathing

as you swallowed
from the same air.

The added touch of tying the body of the cow to the body of the person is exemplary of the way Vang works, highlighting the connection of the people to the land and its flora & fauna. Through all of this, the images are never gratuitous; they are carefully sculpted to tell the truth. Through this truth-telling, Vang creates empathy, at least in me.

And, there are poems sprinkled through the book that offer solace, especially the poems that honor the long history of the Hmong and of the dead. In “Terminus,” Vang offers, “I hear condolences / from the eclipse, // light the hidden storm in my hands.” Finally, in “Your Mountain Lies Down with You,” the speaker addresses her grandfather who has died in the U.S.:

Grandfather, you are not buried in the green mountains of Laos
but here in the Tollhouse hills, earth and heaven to oak gods.

Your highlands have come home,
and now you finally sleep.

I confess that while it took me a long time to read the book, from the opening poem in Afterland I felt a kinship to Vang in her poetics. Her diction is sharp and unusual. She blends an advanced vocabulary with plain speech, but more importantly, she makes language new in a way that had me questioning whether I knew the definitions of words I’ve know most of my life. For example, one poem is titled “Heart Swathing in Late Summer.” I had to read the title three times and check the definition of “swathe,” which of course I knew. Still, it was such an unusual use of the word that it sent me slightly off balance (as all good poetry should). Then, there is the way Vang often turns nouns to verbs, effortlessly. There is a body that “baskets fatigue,” a tree that must “cathedral its roots,” and book pages that “widow my way.” With syntax that moves from fragments to complex-compound sentences and adjective-noun combinations that startle, all alongside the often heart-breaking content, I read these poems slowly and filled the pages with marginalia. All of this felt very familiar, and when I got to the acknowledgments page at the very end of the book, I simply nodded “yes,” when I saw Lucie Brock-Broido’s name there. It takes years and years of reading and re-reading, but eventually, one does begin to understand poetic lineage on the page, without having to be told it first. I’m thrilled to have added Mai Der Vang to this strand of my own, personal poetics, and I know that Afterland will remain with me for a long time to come.


Posted by Sandy Longhorn

Process Notes: Petition ~ after Malinda Markham

73º ~ bright sun, but the house so well-shaded that it remains on the verge of chilly most mornings like this

This morning’s desk time was a bit hither & thither. I did not do such a clear job of setting my goal before bed last night and repeating it this morning. I let emails distract for a bit, and truth be told, let a few emails, a text, and a phone call interrupt in the last few hours, but still, I have a new draft.

No father poem today, although I did start a really terrible, forced draft about the death of the father of one of my best friends, a sudden death that happened about 6 months prior to my dad’s well-forecasted dying. I was even counting beats, but the poem petered out after the first burst of energy, and I dithered. I decided I would simply word gather from a favorite book, and I wouldn’t make it a goal to write a poem. Given that I’m freshly back to drafting, I wanted to let myself off the hook for churning out a draft. Instead, I would just sink into the words.

I’ve said this before, but for me it bears repeating. When I want inspiration to jumpstart my writing, I must go back to a book / poet I’ve already grown to love, a trusted source. Of all those books on the to-read shelves I mentioned yesterday, a very few will make it to that inspirational stack. This does not mean that I won’t find poems to enjoy and admire in most of them. I will; however, inspiration requires a much deeper connection fostered over many re-readings for me.

Today, I turned to Malinda Markham, a poet gone from us far too young, and her 2nd (and last book) Having Cut the Sparrow’s Heart. To word gather, I read a poem slowly, usually starting at the beginning of the book, and revel in all the reasons I am inspired by it. Then, I steal 4 – 5 words and smatter them across a blank page in my journal. I intentionally separate words from an individual poem. I do this for multiple poems until the arrangement of the words on my journal page begins to suggest connections (I circle and arrow) and lines begin to form. Here’s a picture of what today’s page looks like.

Usually, I need about twice this number of words, so that there is very little white space left. Yet, today, I was inspired by a specific poem of Markham’s, “Petition,” and my word gathering had already suggested my own direction. Markham’s poem ends, “On the day I am narrow as glass, / you be the sun do not let me grow cold.” I heard “On the days I am heavy leaden, / bid me swallow the chemical thorn” and began to draft. No, I don’t suffer from the same kind of debilitating depression as Markham did, but I do take an SNRI for a milder case of depression and anxiety. The idea of an antidepressant as a “chemical thorn” meant to “wake” the speaker is the heart of the poem.

Today’s draft is back in my comfort zone of free verse with plenty of intense imagery & sound and no shackles of pentameter. Okay, the shackles serve their purpose, I admit, but it was great fun to simply let the lines expand and contract organically while I measured pace and sound with white space and end-stopped versus enjambed lines only.

It’s interesting that the father poems seem to be rooted in the plain speech of my first book, and of my youth, while this new poem today reverts to the lyricism and conversational baroque of my third book. Content drives form? Yes.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn