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.

 

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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.

Poem-A-Day: Hafiz (Persia/Iran)

A second poem for you today (which will bring me to being caught up from my missed days earlier in the month) —

Here’s another poem from the collection Mala of the Heart, which remains one of my favorite books of meditative poetry ever. (Thanks again, Nicole!) This poem is by Hafiz of Persia (now Iran). Instead of my interpretation or response to the poem, though, this time I would love to read your responses to it in the comments below. What does it make you think of? Share an anecdote it reminds you of.

Even
after
all this time
the sun never says to the earth,

“You owe me.”
Look what happens
with a love like that–
it lights the whole
world.

***

Hafiz (ca. 1320-1389) was born in the garden city of Shiraz. It is said that after the early death of his father, Hafiz worked for a bakery, where he caught sight of Shakh-e Nabat, whose incredible beauty moved him to write and sing of his love for her. During a forty-night vigil to win this girl’s love, Hafiz had a vision of an angel, whose beauty led Hafiz to realize that God was infinitely more beautiful than any human form. The angel revealed where Hafiz could find a spiritual master. Hafiz then met and became a disciple of Attar of Shiraz, who led Hafiz to union with God. Like other great Sufi poets, Hafiz employed imagery to express his longing and love for the divine.

This biographical information is quoted from Mala of the Heart.

Poem-A-Day: William Shakespeare (and World Book Day)

Happy Shakespeare’s (presumed) birthday!

ALSO IT IS WORLD BOOK DAY TODAY! I wonder if there’s a coincidence? (See my note at the end of this post for more on this.)

Not gonna lie, I love most of Shakespeare’s work that I’ve ever read. (Except Titus Andronicus. Holy cats I dislike that play. And Julius Caesar. What a nightmare that was to teach.)

His sonnets are an absolute technical marvel. Sonnet 29, in particular, reminds me of what it feels like to be in mid-life crisis, or even just that No Man’s Land where you’re neither worth objectfying (thank goodness for small favors, right?) nor are you really even visible to most of the world (bah).

Except.

Except, except, except.

When you have wonderful people in your life. Stable relationships. Things to be proud of and happy about.

That’s just not such a bad place to be, after all.

Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

***

William Shakespeare is the sort of legendary writer who is so popular people don’t even want to like him, but who also makes cynics and skeptics think he couldn’t possibly have written so much awesome stuff because he didn’t have a fancy education. Poppycock, stuff and nonsense. Sorry, Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe and anyone else some dusty prof decides to sally forth out of jealousy. Imma go with that man was just a genius. Peace out.

***

Now, about World Book Day. In an effort to send more books out into the world, I am giving away copies of Finis. (up to ten) to anyone who asks for one and gives me their (U.S.) address. (I will send them out to other countries quite happily, but you’ll need to pay for postage on those.) You have until this weekend to do it. Cheers!

Poem-A-Day: Marie Marshall

Nearly every year I feature a poem by Marie Marshall in this series. I love the way she continually pushes boundaries and expectations in her work. I even teach one of her poems in my AP class. You can find my review of her collection Naked in the Sea here.

I particularly like this poem, “cursive,” which I read on her blog recently, because it has such music, and because it reminds me of how detrimental and ultimately self-sabotaging unkind or unhelpful teachers can be. How many times in my career have I read personal essays by my students about teachers they’d had in the past who were insulting or demeaning to them, who baldly explained they weren’t good enough for this or that, who made sure they understood their work was not enough, not good enough, not full enough of effort, not right?

And how often have I heard students say that those hurtful things inspired them to be just that much better, to show the haters up and prove how good they really were?

In high school I had one particular history teacher who was, hands-down, one of the best I’d ever taken a class from. I even took his elective seminar on the Civil War my senior year, not because I had any interest in that era in history and not because I wanted to do a college-level seminar class on it and not even because I needed another history class — none of those were true — but because he was just that good a teacher. And when the time came for me to apply to colleges and I wanted to go to William & Mary (his alma mater, incidentally), he said he would write me a recommendation letter but that I had two really big strikes against me. First, I was from Texas rather than Virginia. Second, I was a woman.

I didn’t go to William & Mary. I didn’t even apply. (If I had gone there, perhaps I would have met my dear friend and writing partner Sarah a lot sooner, because that’s where she was.)

Here’s to all those who are made, even if unintentionally, to feel less than. And dear gods, I hope I’m never the one who gives you that impression.

cursive

When we practiced our cursive, the sea

was white and the wave-caps were blue,

the ocean effectively in negative; Ws

were shore-break ripples, while the run

of lower case Rs were Triton’s anger.

I refused common Es and Ss, became

alone a celebrant of rollers, breakers,

priestess of the breath of endless brine,

I knew only the hiss and heart, the salt.

Teacher told me in fact I wrote nothing;

page by page, I wrote till I drowned her.

***

Here is Marie’s bio, which is most charming in first person. No picture available.

Hi, I’m Marie Marshall. I’m Scottish, middle-aged, and on a good day I bear a slight resemblance to the Log Lady in Twin Peaks. I didn’t start writing until my late forties, I’ve had three novels and two collections of poetry published, one of the latter getting a nomination for the T.S. Eliot Prize, but that’s as far as it got. A whole bunch of psychological stuff makes me a very private person, so I’ve tried to use my pathological reclusiveness to create a kind of mystique about myself – I want my poetry to speak for me, to tell you anything you need to know about me. If that sounds a bit pretentious and po-faced, then I guess I’ve only got myself to blame. ’Scuse me, I have a date with a gin bottle, the moon, a Cossack, and a Kickapoo…

Poem-A-Day: Adam Holt

If you’ve followed this series in years past, you’ve seen a few poems from Adam Holt before. He’s one of my colleagues and critique group members (we usually work on fiction in that group), but he also writes some really lovely poetry.

His poem “Cerulean,” tonight’s featured poem, was recently used as inspiration for a piece of visual art in the Color:Story Exhibition.

Adam Holt with artist Marlo Saucedo, who used “Cerulean” to create a visual narrative piece of Adam’s work for this year’s Color:Story Exhibition.
https://www.marlosaucedo.com/

Cerulean

When the poet grows older
He can no longer tell the girl that her eyes
are the color of old world cerulean.

He must instead drink cerulean
And lay in the noonday sun
Until it glistens on his skin.

Or he must run steam through the color
And drink the rich effluence
Until his heart nearly explodes.

But if he were to try to tell the girl of her eyes, he would say:
Your eyes were a color but I will not say its name.
Your eyes were the weight of fog.
Your eyes were the Mediterranean the morning you left
And did not want to.

The ancient Greeks did not have a name for this color,
So why should I say it?
They could not process indigo to create it
So their painters, who knows how their mosaics looked?
And the poets?
They called the water wine-dark,
And they did not mean the Mediterranean was the color of wine.
No, it was the motion and feeling and texture,
and anyway,
no one in any era needs to speak the true color of the wine-dark sea.
It is not the same from one beach to the next.
Two people stare into the water —
the billionaire on his yacht
and the refugee boarding a raft —
Opulence and desperation are the colors of their seas,
And those are not the color I see.

Therefore I will never name you nor the color of your eyes
To another living soul.
They drown me in dreams
I wake up gasping for breath.
Smiling.
Glad I do not have to board any boat
but this memory.

That is how the old poet thinking young tries to say the color of her eyes,
Wide and wonderful as they were and are and ever more shall be.
It would be nice, I think sometimes, to go back to the way it was before
when I employed words
rather than today
when I allow words I never speak
to repurpose me for their own goals.
They’ve taken on too much power,
Or I’ve given it to them willingly because I know
Their beauty outshines my purposes.

Still
when no one is listening
in the deep watches of the night
On a train ride down the coast
A train, not a boat, where we both do our best thinking
I may someday whisper
Into the still air
The color of your eyes. Listen for it, dear.
Only I trust
You will hear whatever color you most need to hear.
Whatever you heard, here is what I spoke:
Transient blue.

***

Adam Holt is a novelist, singer-songwriter, and poet. He was a featured poet for the

photo by BA Moye

Houston Public Library’s Public Poetry Series, and most recently his work was featured in the Color:Story2019 art exhibition. Lone Star Rambler is the name of his band, and their album Stars and Wonder was released in 2017. The Tully Harper Series, his YA sci-fi series, is a near-future novel meant to inspire young readers’ interest in human space exploration. He is as an instructor at Writespace and The Kinkaid School. He lives in Houston, Texas. More info on his work: http://adamholtwrites.com