Boundless Energy: My flash review of the new poetry collection My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree by Yi Lei, translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi (Graywolf Press, 2020).
Tracy K. Smith via Zoom, sponsored by the Smith College Boutelle-Day Poetry Center on 10/21/20
How wonderful to have Tracy K. Smith read her poems in your living room. While in-person poetry readings are special — the poet projecting from podium or stage, the feeling of community with fellow audience members, the excitement of shared experience — there was a real intimacy to this online reading which was captivating.
Smith kept her gaze outward toward the listener as she read, something not always possible when reading pages from a podium at an in-person event. And despite the digital distance between the poet and audience, she easily established a shared space.
Smith’s selection focused on recent pieces, several of which are found poems (see links below). “I make use of what’s around me,” Smith explained, “what startles, illuminates, and consoles me.” Working with historical texts, the poet had an epiphany “that history, which I felt was behind us and represented closure, suddenly felt undone, in progress, and very, very near.” A deeper examination of our past, with fresh eyes and insight, can shed light on our present predicament. Hers is a process of uncovering the text beneath the text, by paying close attention and hearing other, hidden voices.
For example, while she worked with the Declaration of Independence to create the erasure poem “Declaration,” Smith said the historical text “presented facets of itself I hadn’t recognized before.” The resulting poem, stitched together from phrases several hundred years old, speaks to today’s continuing struggle for Black lives and equal justice under the law. Smith then read “The Greatest Personal Privation,” a found poem mined from the family papers of Charles Colcock Jones, a mid-19th century slaveowner and minister. Out of letters composed a century and a half ago that exhibit an acceptance and promotion of enslavement comes something new, spoken in the voice of a slave.
Smith read several other found poems, the starting points of which were an essay by Woodrow Wilson that celebrated Robert E. Lee and the correspondence of Helen Plain, president of The United Daughters of the Confederacy and Klan sympathizer. The cumulative effect of the found poems was indeed a startling sense of history’s nearness and all its unfinished business.
Smith then read “Rapture.” An after-image of the last lines, which depict a woman lifted up and carried away, stays with me. In “The Wave After Wave is One Wave Never Tiring,” the poet wonders whether movements for justice ever end, or are instead crucial parts of one long, arduous movement.
She read a new poem inspired by a recent news article about the mysterious elephant die-off in Botswana, titled “The Elephant in the Poem.” There are silences written into the poem, missed beats that stand in not only for the noun “elephant,” but the elephants’ very vanishing.
Lastly, Smith read a few selections from her forthcoming volume of translations of Chinese poet Yi Lei, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree. A line from the translated poem “Black Hair” stood out: The story of black hair is my story. Smith explained that the image of black hair in Yi Lei’s poem has to do with youth, sensuality, and aging. But the translator’s voice is unmistakably there, too, coming from beneath the text, or perhaps even nearer, in chorus with it. Pay attention to the multitude of voices around you, Tracy K. Smith encourages. Train your ear to pick up hidden frequencies. Turn up the volume.
Links to poems and books from this reading:
I went to see Thomas Lux read the other night at Smith College. I hadn’t read much Lux before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I figured it’s the last night of summer and the chill of fall is in the air, so why not go to a poetry reading? It was a whim, so I was surprised to discover a voice I’m eager to explore and learn from. I learned something, too, about how poems actually unfold as they’re being spoken—I experienced them in a physical, concrete way I seldom do at readings. It was enough to keep my hands warm in the chilly air on the walk across campus back to the car.
It had something to do with the way Lux read. He was focused deeply on the poems, the experience of them. I witnessed a poet not reciting poems, but living them. They had flesh and breath. He read them slowly and naturally, with a certain amount of emphasis for flavor, but without affectation. He held the book with his right hand, his left hand often moving freely with the sound and action of the poems. It gave the poems body. Sometimes by accident he’d knock the microphone—no matter, it only underscored how ridiculous and unnecessary microphones are.
Lux read exclusively from his forthcoming (2016) collection, To the Left of Time, which contains poems that are mostly odes, he said. In the poems there was hay dust flying, and all the little cuts that get your arms when you’re haying and which sting suddenly hours later when washing up. There were swords settling at the bottom of river beds and kids venturing out onto untested ice. There were those pigeon-holing high school aptitude tests and the summer job painting fire hydrants red, the summer everyone asked about your bloodstained clothes. What struck me is that Lux is in perfect control–of voice and pacing, syntax and image. There’s nothing extraneous, nothing to distract. Every word lands just right. A spare directness is elegantly braided with more complex mysteries.
I’m looking forward to the new collection, and I look forward to becoming better acquainted with Lux’s oeuvre. Here’s a brief introduction to Lux and his work. Here’s a poem he read at Smith from the forthcoming book: “Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming.” And here’s “Empty Pitchforks” from New and Selected Poems 1975-1995.
I am sometimes asked to recommend resources for students of poetry and for poets looking to hone their craft (or pull out of a rut). Collected here are just some of the books and links that I have found particularly helpful over the years for myself and my students.
“Advice for Beginning Poets” from Wesley McNair’s Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry
The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser
Creating Poetry by John Drury
Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield
The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo
Claims for Poetry, Donald Hall, ed.
A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Friebert et al., eds.
The Art of series by Graywolf Press:
The Art of Description by Mark Doty
The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach
The Art of Attention by Donald Revell
The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt
Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, Michael Thuene, ed.
Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly
The Practice of Poetry, Behn and Twichell, eds.
The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (exercises for artists in all genres)
General Writing Advice:
Writing With Power, Peter Elbow
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Poetry Anthologies, etc.:
The Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman, ed.
The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (two volumes), Jahan Ramazani et al., eds.
The Book of Luminous Things, Czeslaw Milosz, ed.
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
As always, the best education for a poet at any level is to consume poetry widely – in journals, books, online, and at readings. To write poetry, one must also read and listen to it.
Image: Learn, Learn, Learn by Evgeni Katsman