April – as I’m sure you know – is National Poetry Month. And in Seattle, a city known for being the most literate in the country, we like our poetry diverse, often humorous and plentiful. The city probably has more skilled poets per capita than any other city in America. That’s right New York, Minneapolis and Iowa City: we’re not scared of you!
To celebrate National Poetry Month, I thought it appropriate to reach out to some of the city’s best, including poets whose work has appeared in the Best American Poetry series, people who run literary presses, and people who’ve published books of hilarious and moving poetry to see what they’re working on and who inspires them.
Plus, scroll down for a list of Seattle poetry events in April where you can enjoy poetry out in the real world!
Julie Larios, whose poem "What Bee Did" made me a lifelong fan, has had work featured multiple times in the Best American Poetry series. Larios has an uncanny ability to fuse a sense of play with a sense of the delicate – her work both nursery rhyme and death march. She dances nimbly between moments of mortality and play. Her poem “As For ‘Sooner or Later,’” from a recent series she calls “As-For Poems,” carries on Larios’ signature style and, like the prize fighter she is, levels the reader with a BOOM, concluding with magnificent wordplay:
As For "Sooner or Later"
As for “sooner or later,” lately
it’s been sooner, and sometimes sooner
than that. The here and now, you hear it,
then don’t hear it, click,
it’s over in a minute. Later,
most of us know, is usually too late,
it’s a long-gone thing, you sing a tune
and right as you sing it or even sooner
it's a sung thing. Go figure.
But not just yet. “Go figure” usually
happens later. Or even later than that.
The poem that inspires Larios: “Kerr’s Ass” by the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh
Why: “How could a poet not love this wonderful ars poetica? Just look at the specificity (so important to poetry): that the ass belonged to a fellow named Kerr, that the speaker was headed for Dundalk in the morning, that he was to deliver butter, that the night before is spent someplace called Mucker. In addition, there’s the music of Kavanagh’s rhymes and relaxed iambic rhythm, so there’s technical precision worked out alongside the emerging metaphor. We name the names, and our imaginations wake, God-like, from ‘the Mucker fog.’ That’s a beautiful moment for a writer.”
We borrowed the loan of Kerr's ass
To go to Dundalk with butter,
Brought him home the evening before the market
And exile that night in Mucker.
We heeled up the cart before the door,
We took the harness inside —
The straw-stuffed straddle, the broken breeching
With bits of bull-wire tied;
The winkers that had no choke-band,
The collar and the reins . . .
In Ealing Broadway, London Town
I name their several names
Until a world comes to life —
Morning, the silent bog,
And the God of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.
Maged Zaher has a sensible piece of advice for writers, “Edit out unnecessary material. Edit out any explanations in a poem.” The Egyptian-born poet reads with a booming, confident voice as he prowls the stage. His work cuts, dips, turns and bites. Throughout much of Zaher’s work is woven his frustrations. Lines become fists waving madly back at the demons who architected this world of pain and suffering around us with so much fragile beautiful. Here, Zaher shares a small untitled poem:
Oh dead bird
Come live here
Next to this dictionary
We will take walks
By the edges of trauma
The poem that inspires Zaher: "THRALL" by Lissa Wolsak
Why: “Lissa Wolsak's poems are described as squeezed light. And they are. Here you have language ordered in a way that was never done before, but it should be the way it is done. In Lissa Wolsak poems the fragmented is not Academic, it is spiritual."
…when obscenely further back, malefic
democracy broken open,
optionally steps through you
disappearing in the dips
and the bourgeois body
pursued to the limits of faded money
to jump its shark
impressed into the radiation
a single torrential fusion
draws aside panoptic
collapse of time and space
exacted with more rigor
we, who go through the day
as yet unmingled in ceaseless flux
all the dead darkness
skyward...working the vault
others in ersatz, gibbous sanctums
fire inversions of fear gleaming
dieu le veut! god wants it!
to favor vicious prelates
defence itself a
seemingly invulnerable lie
feeding upon entropies
and that labor..
there as here
delightful at death
strip us out
through effort and cunning
and no other manacle than logic
we think we state the cause,
wandering the halls of any science
as if orgies of naming
shimmy the body
chaotic as an egg
all at sea snatching
esprit des bagatelles!
whose nature it is to be one long want
dartle along the surface of a
not as casuistries’ pulsation nor as fashions of ruling accidias,
it is this inanity, this tenacious feces
deciding for the world
behind custodies of
small and large sadisms
as if we could…
through the agency
of moral incontinence..
and to then
o, takers-in of the sublime
some call sheer lifelessness,
do not give way,
wild-rice flourishes in slow-flowing streams,
and summer lightning..
matutine.. knowing the cause of beauty in fruit,
or the bliss of melting love,
thoughts have mass..
any of this dogs the XYZist, cacophonies and
boffo intellectual franchisees
can be but lobby-fodder
exuders of poignant helplessness
will the scapegoatee never triumph or
shame the obliterating bloodier?
even some poets
gently hate the world
blurring the dignities
ipsa manu, ignes fatui
while isomorphic to capitalism-imperialism
does first embrace manifestations of
apish ditsy chichi gauzy glib tacky puerile profundities even if ungermane…it lifted you
who pluck the word wasp from a lexicon
when the same is untouched by
the sap of a thing in snowy waste
in the stumbling that speaks for me
I say death to vanity,
let the pyrrhic
Mercy is above Justice
Sarah Galvin ensures one, or all, of these three things appears in her work: a joke, sex and food. And we adore her for it. Where would the Seattle writing world be without her keen eye for the odd detail, her penchant for drinking a bit too much and her appreciation for butts? Galvin is also a former cover person for City Arts magazine and writer at The Stranger. Here, we thought we’d share a prose poem by Galvin, titled, “THE HUMAN BUBBLE BATH” below:
THE HUMAN BUBBLE BATH
I don’t feel very comfortable wearing makeup, but I also don’t feel comfortable when a blood-covered clown comes out of the shower drain. I don’t know who I am, but sometimes I feel like a human bubble bath, and sometimes I feel like a priest. I was making out with a girl on the bus once, and a drunk guy yelled “Get a room, you priests!” I don’t know why he called us priests, but I hope I am one, just because of how it felt on that bus, where the fog of collective heat on the windows barely muted deep blue air that shows nothing, to imagine that I might be something, and that there might even be two of us.
The poem that inspires Galvin: an untitled piece by Ben Lerner
Why: “Like many of my favorite poems, this one has a logic that's cohesive but exclusive to the poem. A world in which absolutely anything can happen is boring because it's too implausible. The physics of this world is unfamiliar, but so consistent it creates a sense of discovery. And its mixture of humor and horror is one of my favorite things. Basically, I like poems to be as surprising as possible.”
NO MATTER HOW BIG YOU MAKE A TOY, a child will find a way to put it in his mouth. There is scarcely a piece of playground equipment that has not been inside a child's mouth. However, the object responsible for the greatest number of choking deaths, for adults as well as children, is the red balloon. Last year alone, every American choked to death on a red balloon.
Kelli Russell Agodon, co-founder and editor at Two Sylvias Press, often writes with a solemn, slowed voice. It's as if she's writing them while watching the world creep through an unwashed window. Her poem, “Letting Gatsby Out at 11 pm” was published in BODY, and is below:
Letting Gatsby Out at 11 pm
Only sleep could help me
sort out the glitter on the staircase,
or what it really is—shredded
cabbage on the steps from the kitchen.
There’s an old dog limping in the yard
and it’s my old dog. Bless the sweet
fog he roams through and call that that sweet
fog God, or grass, or indeterminate years.
In the physical world, we are just bodies
losing our structure, my composition
from breadstick to cinnamon loaf,
honeycomb to just the drip of honey.
Gatsby has changed from dog
in the waves, dog in the field to dog
needing help when his back legs don’t hold.
We’re all trying, my dog slowly
returning to the bluesmoke
he came from, while I chop
cabbage and watch the moon
begin its slow circle into another
time zone. In my head, I am Zelda
and this is my party, but the truth
it’s almost midnight, truth is
I’m the worker bee and not the queen.
The poem that inspires Agodon: “The 4 ‘o’ Clock News @ House of Sky” by Susan Rich.
Why: “Not often do I find myself in poem, but in ‘The 4 ‘o' Clock News @ House of Sky,’ Susan Rich turned one of our writing dates into a poem. What I love about this poem is how Susan finds the sacred in everyday moments and how the only ‘news’ that matters are peonies arranged like astronauts. For me, finding the poetry in our regular lives is the gift in this poem and in many of the poems Susan Rich writes.”
The 4 'o' Clock News @ House of Sky
In the beginning we wanted
to cast ourselves
as opera stars, to break apart
like gorgeous women
palm reading at the piano bar ~
music stinging like salt from the sea.
We were spiraling ridges, dust-darlings
We were peonies ~ cut
and arranged like astronauts
in flight. We soaked in syllables
not water; rode the Southern
drawl of the wind
over cobalt glass ~
backlit by a disc of sun.
There are often ghosts in the work of Shin Yu Pai. They may be explicit or implicit, but they’re there. There’s a wistfulness of trying to reclaim something in mind or in the world. There’s an urge from Pai to keep that which is moving through her fingers: friendships, memories, a particular tiny object. This is what loss – and, thus, poetry – is like for her. Below is her poem, “Equivalent,” which is of this style:
At an exhibition of Felix Gonzales-Torres
black and white
clouds on paper
bleed to edge
the slow drift and pull
of clouds soaring across the horizon
over Stieglitz’s Lake George
overcast with breaking
stacked half a foot high
the removal of cloud layers
What you touch,
a piece of hard green candy
pulled from a spill
on the gallery floor,
portrait of a friend
the qualities he gave those
transposed into sweet pile,
with you this
The poem that inspires Pai: “Egg Tarts” by Koon Woon
Why: “Much of Koon Woon's work explores the grittiness of life and his experiences in Seattle's International District. Koon's poem speaks to me about toying with and resisting the trappings of cultural identity – recognizable tokens like egg tarts and buddhas, lanterns, or bamboo convey sentiment and cultural symbolism, but the greater theme seems to be one related to embodiment of a much deeper signifier – i.e. the literary tradition from which the poet descends and the modern, urban context within which the poet and his images operate.”
Once talking to Maria, she's Greek, worried
About bi-cultural adaptation, she asks me
If I like Chinese girl or American, tells me
When she doesn't feel Greek, she'll buy baklava.
I squelch diary, querulous birds in hell &
Go to Ten Thousand Things Have Mothers Bakery
While Chinatown rust travels from building
To building, shop to shop.
It's a trick to feel Chinese even in Chinatown,
Where tour buses inch along, the driver pointing out
Its exotic features while winos slump -
Street people, tattooed guns and knives,
Benevolent orders tight-lippedly banging
Mahjong. It'd take some articulate she-poet
To slit my bamboo frame - opaque, hard, and abuse-
Resistant outside, but inside, a cavity,
Flip-flopping to dissonant winds, to needs.
Yellow lights of pagoda lanterns,
Unabashed verses, not wind through sparse bars,
Not winds through bamboo groves,
Papaya-ginger breath. I am no bamboo but arrows.
Now, Maria, I go for egg tarts to feel Chinese.
Little sweet buddhas behind beaded curtains
At 3 am, fashioned by Fushi, the god of creation,
Received by yellow hands and minds,
Belly-Filling as verse translated from the Tang.
And now that you’ve had your Master’s course in poetry for the day, here are some poetry events in April:
On April 1 at Town Hall, poets age 13-19 will compete in Youth Speaks Seattle to represent the city in an international slam.
Tin House magazine co-founder, and literary hero, Rob Spillman, will be reading at Elliott Bay Book Company April 4.
April 12, hear the works of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson read by Seattle poets at the Hugo House.
April 19 hear previously unseen poems by the great Pablo Neruda at McCaw Hall.
April 22 hear the poetry of Alan Lau over the sound art of Susie Kozawa at ArtXchange.
Poet Shin Yu Pai will be curating a small poetry display for the Redmond Public Library on display from April 1-30. It will include work from her and the three past poet laureates (Michael Dylan Welch, Jeannine Gailey, and Rebecca Meredith) of the City of Redmond, plus titles and materials drawn from the Library's collections.
April 30 is Independent Bookstore Day and there will be a celebration at Elliott Bay.