Poem-A-Day: Fady Joudah

So we come to the end of another National Poetry Month, and I’ve loved sharing these thirty poems with you, and I realize I haven’t included enough prose-poems, a form I rather like.

Here is one by Fady Joudah, a poet who is also my friend who also lives in the same city I do (more or less) whom I also don’t see very often for long stretches at a time and then we find ourselves in the same place over and over again for a few weeks or a few months. I love that.

He and I were both coincidentally featured at a reading in February. Then both coincidentally featured on a radio program last week. Who knows what will be next or when?

Here is his poem “Palestine, Texas” from his latest collection Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance — which, by the way, is absolutely wonderful, if not his best thus far.

Palestine, Texas

“I’ve never been,” I said to my friend who’d just come back from there. “Oh you should definitely go,” she said. “The original Palestine is in Illinois.” She went on, “A pastor was driven out by Palestine’s people and it hurt him so badly he had to rename somewhere else after it. Or maybe it goes back to a 17th century Frenchman who traveled with his vision of milk and honey, or the nut who believed in dual seeding.” “What’s that?” I asked. “That’s when an egg is fertilized by two sperm,” she said. “Is that even viable?” I asked. “It is,” she said, “on rare occasions, though nothing guarantees the longevity of the resulting twins.” She spoke like a scientist but was a professor of the humanities at heart. “Viability,” she added, “depends on the critical degree of disproportionate defect distribution for a miracle to occur. If there is life, only one twin lives.” That night we went to the movies looking for a good laugh. It was a Coen brothers’ feature whose unheralded opening scene rattled off Palestine this, Palestine that and the other, it did the trick. We were granted the right to exist. It must have been there and then that my wallet slipped out of my jeans’ back pocket and under the seat. The next morning, I went back. With a flashlight that the manager had lent me I found the wallet unmoved. This was the second time in a year that I’d lost and retrieved this modern cause of sciatica in men. Months earlier it was at a lily pond I’d gone hiking to with the same previously mentioned friend. It was around twilight. Another woman, going in with her boyfriend as we were coming out, picked it up, put it in her little backpack, and weeks later texted me the photo of his kneeling and her standing with right hand over her mouth, to thwart the small bird in her throat from bursting. If the bird escapes, the cord is severed, and the heart plummets. She didn’t want the sight of joy caught in her teeth. He sat his phone camera on its pod and set it in lapse mode, she wrote in her text to me. I welled up. She would become a bride and my wallet was part of the proposal. This made me a token of their bliss, though I’m not sure how her fiancé might feel about my intrusion, if he’d care at all. “It’s a special wallet,” I texted back. “It’s been with me for the better part of two decades ever since a good friend got it for me as a present.” “He was from Ohio,” I turned and said to my film mate who was listening to my story. “Ohio?” She seemed surprised. “Yes,” I replied quizzically. “There’s also a Palestine in Ohio,” she said. “Barely anyone lives there anymore. All of them barely towns off country roads.”

***

photo credit Cybele Knowles

Fady Joudah has published four collections of poems, The Earth in the AtticAlightTextu, a book-long sequence of short poems whose meter is based on cellphone character count; and, most recently, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received a PEN award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.

Poem-A-Day: Emily Dickinson (again)

If there has been one constant refrain in our most recent history, it’s that we must not lose hope. In the face of outstanding stupidity, intolerable cruelty, and just garden-variety meanness, our endurance is what will allow us to outsmart the extraordinary nonsense and significant peril that has become the waters we swim in. If I had my choice, I would fly above that muddy river. I am growing wings.

Here is one more poem by that unmistakable goddess of poetry, Emily Dickinson, and in the video linked below you can see a child signing it while a celebrity reads it aloud.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers (314)
.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
.
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/video/77372/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers

***

For some really interesting speculation on whether this image does in fact depict Dear Emily, go to https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/05/emily-dickinson-new-photograph.

You can click here for an official biographical statement about Emily Dickinson. In short, she’s widely considered one of America’s top five historical poets, alongside William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes. Her poetry confounds some, much as her life must have, but as far as I’m concerned she’s awesome and way ahead of the minds who attempted to dismiss her. She is, perhaps, a shining example of a woman who did not conform to what society expected of her.

Poem-A-Day: Rachel Rosenthal

Rachel Rosenthal was one of my Creative Writing students when she was in high school. (She graduated about a decade ago.) She did beautiful work, and one of her poems recently came up at school — or rather, the subject of it did — when one of the student community groups decided to make their service project this semester a campaign against using the r-word. First published in 2009, Rachel’s poem against this word was rooted in her personal convictions. I’m glad to say I have noticed a decrease in its usage among our students.

Tucked Away

If I try to casually shout the word,
toss the syllables away like popsicle sticks with bad jokes,
down a hallway warped
by teenage hormones, my half pursed lips choke
on the R and swallow the E without chewing.
Failed math tests are not retarded,
not living people with minds brewed
just a little differently, just slightly deviated.
Biology fails to bring the word to life
with lectures on chromosomes and mutation:
Despite the high-definition, the laptop’s pixels of lifeless
DNA can’t capture the sensation
of passing time with my twenty-three-year-old
sister by singing Raffi, watching Toy Story, and tucking her into bed.

***

Rachel (with her hair hanging down) and her oldest sister and their friend

Rachel Rosenthal grew up in Houston, Texas, with three sisters and lots of good trees. She likes to split her time between parks and bookstores, drinking lots of Earl Grey in between. On the side, she just finished her first year of University of Colorado’s MBA program.

 

Poem-A-Day: Mary Wemple

Today I’m sharing the last of the new Mutabilis Press anthology poems for this year’s series. Make no mistake, there are many other poems from this most recent book that I would like to curate into my annual Poem-A-Day, but some of them will have to wait for next year, because April is drawing to a close.

I cannot express enough how much I love today’s poem by Mary Wemple. It continues this year’s informal and occasional continuum of sowing and nurturing, and it speaks to us in language both accessibly plain and elegant.

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me well that I have trouble keeping plants alive, but I’m not so terrible so far (knock on wood) at growing animals. I have two adolescents and three cats in my house, including a ten-week-old kitten named Feyruz rapidly ingratiating herself into the household. She gambols about all night and then finally settles down on top of my husband or me to purr herself to sleep; she’s so loud I’ve given her the nickname Iron Jenny. During the day we’ve been letting her interact with our adult cats, Salaadin and Sheherazade, and they’ve slowly started becoming if not friends, at least not enemies, most of the time. One day Feyruz will be big enough to hold her own in a wrestling match with Salaadin and won’t seem like just a miniature version of Sheherazade.

One Day You Will be Tall Enough

We found you in the backyard
at the edge of the path to the garage.
You had pushed your way out
of a layer of gravel.

We decided to dig you up
and replant you a little closer to the fence
where you wouldn’t get stepped on
so easily.

The remains of Bunny and Harry
are just south of you now.
As you grow up, you’ll get closer to them,
touch their shrouds,
maybe curl into their soft fur.

They say it’s like winning the lottery,
the likelihood of a seed to root.
We think you came from the cypress
across the street.
One day you will be tall enough to see her,
wave back at her in the wind.

Look up. The sky is open for you here.
A mocking bird trills a car alarm sequence,
The freeway moans in the distance.

***
Mary Wemple is a poet, artist and creator of Words & Art, a reading and workshop series inspired by the art in Houston.  She holds degrees in English and Studio Art from the University of Houston and an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art.  Her poetry has been published in DiVerseCity 2015, Houston Poetry Fest 2005, 2009, 2014, Harbinger Asylum and she was featured in the 2014 Words Around Town! poetry tour lineup.  Her art has been shown at the Inman gallery, DiverseWorks and Lawndale Art Center.

Poem-A-Day: Varsha Saraiya-Shah

I first met Varsha Saraiya-Shah in the early 2000s, I think, when we both landed in a poetry workshop at Inprint House. It was being taught by either Derick Burleson or Alan Ainsworth, if I recall correctly. That was a long time ago, and I remain to this day grateful for the whim that made me sign up for the session in the first place.

I see Varsha now and then, usually at a reading. (Houston is a big city, you know, and there are so very many writers here.) Earlier this year our paths crossed at the launch party for Mutabilis Press‘ most recent anthology The Enchantment of the Ordinary, and she graciously agreed to share her poem from it with our series this year.

Perhaps I love this poem because I love numbers. Perhaps it’s because Varsha radiates warmth and good cheer every time I see her. Perhaps it’s because this is such a lovely poem. Perhaps it’s all these things.

 

IN THE HANDS OF NUMBERS

I ran into the whole of you this evening––
your blue onion-skin letter in jet-black ink
I urged you to write every July 17––
a reminder, I’m getting older
just the way you were.

Last year I had a foreboding––
I may receive it no more.
Me 59, you 89, number 9 our common
denominator we hi-fived in the air from afar.

How you and I talked of numbers as if people,
a mutual passion. And, their permutations––
5 and 8 add to 13. 8 and 9 make 17, my birthday––
loved the way you enunciated ––
sattar, in our mother tongue.

Lucky, you exclaimed when I broke the news of
my new home #1309, needless to say
the four digits tally to 13, of course you blessed
it with one more letter.
The Zero didn’t need explaining, our tacit referee.

We could zero in on any problem that plagued our heads,
on paper, in our pockets, on our finger tips after all
Zero is the beginning of us all, you’d say
and I would nod.

Your letter slept this whole year inside my piano bench.
Tonight I ramble on its chords. You gone,
major feels minor at the moment leaving
me in the hands of numbers, full of
promise yet nonchalant.

***

Varsha Saraiya-Shah is an Indian American with roots in Gujarati language and a financial professional. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals such as Borderlands, Cha-An Asian Journal, Convergence, Echoes of the Cordillera, Right Hand Pointing. Her poetry has been featured on local Public Radio and presented on stage by “Poetry in Motion,” a multi-language, multi-century dance program by Silambam, Houston. Her chapbook, “VOICES,” was published by Finishing Line Press.

 

Poem-A-Day: Um…Me :)

Tonight my cousin Justin and I were interviewed on KPFT’s LivingArt show — which was super fun, by the way — to talk about poetry and our respective books. If you missed hearing us live, you can click here and listen to the archive for April 25th and hear the whole show (which included several other poets, too, including Fady Joudah, who will have a poem in this series as well) for a few more weeks.

Since I have a new book of poems out, I wanted to share one of those with you as part of the series this year. This is from The Sharp Edges of Water (Odeon Press).

New Love in Dead Cornfields

Memories quicken my pulse
when I think of how we strode
through the funhouse of artists and thinkers
that year the corn didn’t grow.
They beat out rain-dances on the walls
with paintbrushes, charcoal, and empty-paged books
while we marched past each closed door
and every muffled prayer. The mirrors
were hung with towels as if death
had taken everyone by surprise, and even
the writers couldn’t figure out how to cope
with this dry spell.

I felt old and familiar when you led me
out the back door and onto the rows of plowed dirt.
The tall joys of sitting cross-legged
in those hesitant, sown fields of fecund not-yets
were our thrown-to-the-sun discoveries,
the most ineffectual revelations
on a most ineffectual harvest.
We made a gift of feeling
in this pursuit of strained giving,
begging the ground for food
and from each other, our stare-eyed patience.

The craze of collecting surprises,
one kernel in each pocket and a
love-letter in your shirt,
started to involve the very dirt and sky,
and the haunting, used principles
of withholding, withdrawing, and retreat
shrieked and screamed the wild west of our planting
until I said, No more, and it was back,
back, back to the east, and your tender verve died, too.

***

You don’t really need a biography of me, do you? If you really want one, click here.

author with journals, photo by Lauren Volness

Otherwise, let me tell you about this book. It’s a collection of stories as much as a series of poems. In it, the characters swerve between the rain-drenched, tree-lined, concrete plains of Houston and the voluptuous, dynamic terrain of Los Angeles. They face multiple realities, and though they’re earnestly grounded, they sometimes swim in the waters of magic realism. Their story is both relatable and a little bit surreal.

And here’s some advance praise for The Sharp Edges of Water:

“For Jamail, loss is the fecund territory complicated by the travails of geographic movement, emotional upheaval, and cultural dissonance and where the poetry sings its best.” — Sarah Cortez, Vanishing Points: Poems and Photographs of Texas Roadside Memorials (editor and contributor)

The Sharp Edges of Water is a collection of superbly crafted poems…poems of faith and freeways, of lies and longing. Angélique sees the details of Los Angeles and love, with a necessity of details we locals have forgotten. As the title implies, you might get wet reading them. Wear appropriate clothing.” — Rick Lupert, author of Beautiful Mistakes and God Wrestler, creator of http://www.PoetrySuperHighway.com

Poem-A-Day: Justin Jamail

My cousin Justin is in town this week from New Jersey, and we’re going to be interviewed together on the radio tomorrow evening (Thursday) on the LivingArt program on KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica radio station. The show starts at 6:00 and goes for an hour, though I don’t know what time our segment will be. If you can’t hear it live, you can hear it later for a while on their website. I hope you can tune in; the show is always lots of fun.

Here tonight is one of the poems from Justin’s book, Exchangeable Bonds, which came out last year from Hanging Loose Press.

Four Negronis in Singapore

When one thinks that recorded human history
has taken not more than seven or eight weeks,
and that even our sun, though an immense ball
of party talk, is a pygmy beside most of the furniture,
the figures of remotely viewed people begin to dwarf
this country’s houses into comparative insignificance.
The farthest source of commentary
that can be seen with the naked eye
this afternoon is a faint splotch
available in a few university libraries
so far away that its import takes a million
episodes to traverse the intervening glasses
of cool relief and fan-conditioned conquests.

***

photo by Amber Reed

Justin Jamail is the author of Exchangeable Bonds (2018, Hanging Loose Press) and has published poems and commentary in many journals and online publications. He is the General Counsel of The New York Botanical Garden. He studied poetry at Columbia University and the UMass Amherst MFA program. He grew up in Houston, TX and now lives in Montclair, NJ.