On the flight back from Seattle, I picked up Neil Gaiman’s book of selected nonfiction, The View from the Cheap Seats. One of the reasons that I love Gaiman’s work (The Graveyard Book is one of my all-time favorite novels) is that he not only gives me a brief escape from reality but helps me understand the world from which I’ve escaped. While reading his speech on the importance of reading as well as libraries, I ran across this quote:
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armor: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
What I love most about this quote is that Gaiman says reading doesn’t just give us a means of escape: by reading we come back with tools and weapons to use in our own lives. Read that last sentence again: “Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.” Books help us understand the world around us a little better because the writer has taken the time to ask questions and offer a solution in the way only that writer can. It might be a slightly different answer than we expect, but it gives us a chance to think about our own lives and predicaments that we might not have if we never picked up that book. We learn more about how to fight for ourselves as well as for others.
This is also true for poetry. Take for instance Dan Albergotti’s poem, “No Freedom,” published in our column this month, which ends with the lines, “Prisoner, leave a trace / when you depart. / Make art.” This is a reminder that whatever our prison, we have the tools to remind others we lived. Albergotti is also our featured poet for July, and in his interview, he and I discuss the uses of form and the importance of self-examination.
Our Associate Poetry Editor Davon Loeb brings us three poems and an interview from Steve Burns. About this work he writes:
Steve Burns gently puts two fingers on his pulse, and it reverberates with splendor—creating poems with soft off-rhymes, subtle alliteration, and crescendoing line breaks. And not only is his poetic craft calculated by sound, these poems are vivid narratives; he writes, “He took one breath and held it/ his entire life. Carried that lump of gas/ in his throat, then his lungs/ which would transform into cancer…” Steve digs into himself, an excavation of sorts, to discover his family’s history, while also, inspiring readers to consider their own stories. Steve writes with not just his emotions on his sleeve, but also with his heart in his hand.
We also have four poems from Ösel Jessica Plante this month. I love the powerful complexity of these poems. In one, t he navy wife reveals about her wedding dress, “ I’d needed a dream stuck in a box taped shut // in my closet.” Years later, her feeling toward the dress changes, as it becomes “silent and full of air.” As they think back on their experiences, the speakers of these poems are self-aware and disclose that they desire what they want as much as they desire what they need. And even when these speakers think about what they need and who they are, the question arises, “ Do I / look like the soft, mute language of soil waiting for / something where nothing is?” These poems pull and tug at experience, revealing questions we ask about ourselves as we move in the world.
Davon also brings us wonderful work by two other poets:
Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s poems are versatile, flexing different poetic muscles—exercising form, structure, and sound. In “American Sacrileges”, her writing is concise as well as varied in line length to create a naturally cadenced lyric. However in “Cálida”, Jennifer’s poetic structure is narrative, as well, discursive—juxtaposing a non-American mother and daughter as opposed to American parents and children, and the expectations they all experience in a shopping mall. Jennifer brilliantly writes, “Quickly, I got lost and I was somewhere amongst/ scowling lady-faces and the fat kids on leashes who/ tried to run a circle around me…” These poems are elegant and courageous.
Carolyn Stupin’s poems read as if photographed with a wide-angle lens—panoramically capturing people, landscape, and weather. She writes, “When the Peruvian town of Pisco got hit with an earthquake./ Everything was leveled, the church destroyed and what was left was the aftershock.’ Out, just beyond the town, the ocean/ continued to roll its steady roll…” Though detailed, striking, and telling, Carolyn’s poems are also folkloric—taking on community, customs, and culture.
We close our column with two poems by Marilyn McCabe. I greatly admire poets who convey longing in imagery and sound, and McCabe’s poems are no exception. In one poem, the speaker waits to be named, to become more than “toad gone mountain.” I love McCabe’s use of imagery and language in these poems: “the molded o” of a tree trunk, the music of “my chasm, my ache.” I want to stay and swim in this beauty.
Thank you for reading. We hope these poets give you tools to take back into the world.