We Are Magic Talking to Itself

by Rachel DeWoskin

Frank Bidart once said about “confessional” poems, that “art, not candor, makes a poem.” He was arguing (rightly) that Robert Lowell’s seeming candor was artful, and poems should be read for their art, rather than the value of what may be shocking in them. This seems an important distinction when reading Sexton and Plath, women considered groundbreaking for their “confessing.” My poem “Without” (in AGNI 87) is an homage to Sexton and Plath, whose work is shaped by brilliant artifice and technical care. They employ confessional voices and fictionalized I’s, in order to address a you at once personal and public. In my favorite poems, “You, Doctor Martin,” and “Morning Song,” Sexton and Plath (ostensibly) address a therapist and a newborn baby, yet those variable and elastic you’s also imply, invite, and implicate readers. Their poetry translates material potentially too taboo to be discussed in any way less lyrical: sex, suicide, illness, madness, and motherhood.

In the acts of Sexton’s and Plath’s poems, each poet is both the I and the you, doctor, patient, baby, writer and reader. This synthesis permits a more powerful POV and position than any possible without the trick of first and second pronoun work. Confessional poetry gives women a way to align our lives, full of the particular difficulties of any individual life, and also the shared contradictions and complexities that are the substance of all human endeavors.

As readers and addressees of second person poems, we are at once confided in and made vulnerable in a way that mimics that in which the poets are simultaneously confessing and obfuscating with their poetic uses of “I.” We must hide and own up, too. The real Dr. Martin, Sexton’s therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, distinguished fiercely between Sexton as a poet and Sexton as a person, favoring “the real Anne Sexton,” whose work he considered distinct from her person. He described writing as what she did, in opposition to what or who she was. She, on the other hand, considered her poetry collaborative work (with Orne) and part of her identity.

Orne argued against blurring the boundaries between Sexton’s poetic and real selves, but fusion may in fact be the purpose and transcendent magic of confessional poetry. Both the content and form are subversive, and it is precisely the studied, intentional intimacy that forces readers to look directly at the subject matter and subjects of confessional poems. And, importantly, to consider ourselves as possibly among those subjects. Confessional poems, maybe counterintuitively, enforce literary empathy.

Sexton opens her asylum poem with the line, “You, Dr. Martin, walk from breakfast to madness,” and we are voyeurs, eavesdropping on their conversation. But by the time she adds, “There are no knives for cutting your throat,” we are still you, no longer Dr. Martin, but patients with our own throats protected by the absence of tools with which we might slice them. This threatens our tenancy in the land of the unscathed and reliably sane, connecting us to Sexton even as it reveals her multiple faces: you, I, we, and us. She is confessing not just what sets her apart from either Doctor Martin or her reader, but what – more disturbingly and profoundly – connects us all.

Poems shoot doubt and contradiction through our identities, as we resist the possibility of narrowing ourselves to any single identity. Confessional poems liberate explicitly, letting us reveal and hide, hold contradictions in our minds and lines, inhabit and align multiple versions of ourselves. They issue powerful invitations to readers to do such work, too. “Without” let me be both I and you, vulnerable boss of my own poem, yet also fearful subject and object. I am the I and not the I, the you and not the you, multiple versions of myself connected by the magic of writing and reading—to you, whoever you may in fact be.

AGNI Monkey

Author Photo BeijingRachel DeWoskin is the author of the novels Second Circus (Penguin, 2019); Blind (Penguin, 2014); Big Girl Small (FSG, 2011); and Repeat After Me (The Overlook Press, 2009); as well as the memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton, 2005). She is on the core fiction faculty at the University of Chicago, and is an affiliated faculty member of the Centers for East Asian Studies and Jewish Studies. Her work has been published in magazines including Vanity Fair, Ploughshares, and The New Yorker. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

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North

by William Archila

…los que nunca sabe nadie de donde son/…/
los que fueron cocidos a balazos al cruzar la frontera/…/
los eternos indocumentados/…/

…the ones no one ever knows where they’re from/… /
The ones burned by bullets when they crossed the border/… /
the eternally undocumented/…/

Roque Dalton, Poema de Amor
May 14, 1935 – May 10, 1975

Back in the fall of 2010, while strolling around Echo Park Lake in Southern California, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, a reporter for KPCC, an affiliate of NPR, asked me after the interview, “Do you know of any other published Salvadoran poets writing in English?” I was stunned. I quickly scrabbled the bottom of my brain for a face, an image, some sort of anecdote that could lead me to a name, but I had none. My lack of response said more about my knowledge and isolation than the presence of Salvadoran poets in this country. I mean I’m not on FACEBOOK. I don’t even have a Twitter account. I knew they were out there teaching, getting their MFAs, taking care of their families, but I just didn’t have the contacts.

This changed in 2014 when Kalina produced the anthology Theatre Under My Skin which collects not only the work of poets that reside in El Salvador and write in Spanish, but also the work of poets that have emigrated to the United States and write in the language of their adopted country. After receiving my contributor’s copy, I immediately sent Adolfo a copy and began not only to guttle the anthology but also to read the debut collections of some of these poets: José B. González, Leticia Hernández-Linares, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, Javier Zamora, and others not included in the anthology like Harold Terezon and Cynthia Guardado. I could go on, but there’s no point because the list will always exclude someone.

I found tremendous strength in these poems. They crossed the borders of diaspora; religious, political, war and migration stories that sometimes braid the dual language or the performative aesthetic. They underscore the experiences of Salvadoran identities caught between cultures and languages.

Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Javier Zamora, a poet whose experiences as a Salvadoran immigrant living in the U.S. is central to his poems. His first full-length poetry collection, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press 2017), describes his experiences with border crossing.

El Salvador

Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb
will clean your beard of  salt, and if  I touch your volcanic face,

kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.
Don’t let gangsters say: he’s wrong barrio. Your barrios

stain you with pollen. Every day cops and gangsters pick at you
with their metallic beaks, and presidents, guilty.

Dad swears he’ll never return, Mom wants to see her mom,
and in the news: black bags, more and more of us leave.

The poem personifies the country and begins a conversation that addresses the intricacies of the speaker’s relationship to his native land. It reminds me of the conversations we all have with our own countries; our countries as death, God, or our lover—a possible, pocketsize Canto General for El Salvador.

Here’s another excerpt, this one a quasi-sonnet, by Alexandra Lytton Regalado, a poet whose debut collection Matria, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), is a poetic sequence based on the Salvadoran Lotería.

La Cachiporrista

…the man’s hooded eyes, as he watches from behind the wire
diamonds of chain-link, the whirling wrists of a teenage girl
in a majorette skirt fashioned out of half-inch-thick strips
of cut newsprint, the fringe swaying with her hips
as she twirls a baton of broken broomstick
in circles, wrist over wrist, and tosses it high as she
turns to catch it fanning behind her back…

Regalado’s poem is a snapshot of everyday El Salvador. It’s one long sentence and in its form the piece comes across almost like a postcard poem; concise, imagistic and direct in the way it engages all our senses. It captures a measure of humanity, displaying the beauty and violence that resides in such a small country.

So why the sudden rush of Salvadoran poets? Back in the nineties finding another Salvadoran poet was like hitting the lottery. You couldn’t believe your eyes that there was such a thing as a Salvadoran poet standing in front of you. It was a rare thing. Unfortunately it takes the current Central American immigrant issue and the unaccompanied minors narrative that brings these poets to the surface. Now it seems it’s all about timing and accessibility. As the new administration in the White House threaten to end TPS, a humanitarian program that has allowed nearly 200,000 Salvadorans to live and work in the U.S., the work of these poets seems more relevant than ever. After all, if you want to understand a culture and its people, you go to the poets. You don’t go to their politicians or generals, or businessmen. You read their poets.

Although the foundation of Salvadoran poetry is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the country, the poets who emigrated and write in English have contributed their own experiences and styles to the art form as well. This contribution is a new branch to the Salvadoran tree of poetry. At the same time, but most important of all, these poets are producing quality work with a fresh look on our current political climate. They are establishing a presence in contemporary American poetry, especially at the local and state literary cultures and movements. They are also complicating the definition of a Latino poet. When I started reading Latino poetry back in the early nineties I fell in love with their words. When I started writing, for a long time, I felt I had to write the type of poems that I could not find in journals or magazines. There was no such a thing as a poem about the complexities of the Salvadoran experience. And now I get to sit down with their work and read of and about my experience. I love the fact that these poems are the firsts of their kind. They are the first of the Mohicans. These Salvi poets are perhaps the first known Salvadoran poets of the United States.

Now I know there are more Salvadoran poets whose fine work has appeared in various literary journals, chapbooks and anthologies, such as The Wandering Song; Central American Writing in the United States, the first-ever comprehensive literary survey of the Central American diaspora. However, it’s a fact I should have known back in Echo Park Lake when Adolfo posed the question. After all, it is a common saying or knowledge that El Salvador is a land of poets and volcanoes. These poets have not only spread that knowledge, but have kept it burning.

AGNI Monkey

W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Recycling Neruda

by Stephen Kessler

The cardboard slipcases of the three-volume Obras completas and the four-in-one Libro de las odas have been through a lot since I bought them in Madrid in 1976 at one of those dilapidated bookstalls across from Atocha, had them wrapped in layers of brown paper by the ladies in the basement of Correos who expertly, with just string and hot wax, would prepare your package, not even a box, for the voyage to California, and unwrapped them intact at home in the Soquel hills a few weeks later.

Since then they have survived several moves and have not been left behind for the next residents or sold or donated like so many others, and up on the coast the carpenter ants found the uncoated cardboard just the tasty texture for their paper hunger, and the old glue in the cases’ corners was coming loose in places, and if you picked one up it would start to come apart in your hands.

Today, when I was moving some books around, their decrepitude was evident, so despite what should have been a sentimental attachment to such seminal items in my library, and despite the faded photos on the cases’ backs of the great poet I once admired so much and loved so much that I learned to translate on the training wheels of his odes—despite or perhaps because of his iconic stature, the only Hispanic poet anyone knows besides García Lorca, the brand name everyone recognizes and adores no matter how much of the poetry reeks of self-congratulation and communist bromides and pride in his prodigious gift and gloating about his great sex with Matilde—I decided I’d had enough reverence for the old man and my small way of smashing his icon was to throw those cardboard slipcases, photos and all, into the blue recycling bin alongside the driveway.

The red leather Obras and green leather Odas look better, less dust-encased, less artifacty, less iconic, more accessible, more readable. But I have read quite enough Neruda, much as he meant to me in my twenties, and amazing as the Residencia en la tierra poems remain, so much stronger and more imaginative and more authentic in their alienation than the political speechifying of the later years and his voice-of-the-people persona. Those commitments to justice and revolution may have been for him historically necessary but they didn’t do his poetry much good and have set a bad example for the kind of finger-pointing agitprop and feel-good righteousness widely practiced today across a land politically contaminated by the most grotesque presidency this country has ever suffered. Poetry may be one way to address this crisis, but who is listening?

Neruda’s most lasting work will be the early love poems, the existentially angst-soaked surrealism, a few of the odes, and Canto general, greater than Pound’s Cantos as “a poem containing history,” when Pablo’s political vision was fresh and embodied in narratives and had not congealed into slogans. I keep him on my shelf as a marker along the way and an occasional point of reference, a poet worth revisiting from time to time, but mostly a father figure, as Whitman was to Pound, whose authority it is time to question—just as I have long since rejected Pound. As Whitman wrote, “Who learns my lesson best learns to destroy the teacher.”

That’s why I’ve recycled the rotting slipcases of the Obras and the Odas, and why those books look better now on the shelf beside the equally important Borges and Aleixandre and Vallejo and Paz and Cernuda, not to get into the poets in other languages. I’m sick of old Pablo being the only name out of the mouth of anyone who learns I’m a translator—I’ve translated him, but so what, so has everyone else. He was promiscuous with his permissions, permissive with conflicting translations, and posthumously Carmen Balcells, his Barcelona agent (and practically everyone else’s in Hispanic literature), bargained hard for every new lucrative edition of even his most marginal work, which even he, who published prodigiously, didn’t choose to publish when he was alive.

But the Neruda brand has legs, and even though he was bald and built like Alfred Hitchcock, so he doesn’t have the glamour of García Lorca or Frida Kahlo, nor their tragic stories, he sells like Coca-Cola on a hot day in the tropics, and all his various publishers hear the cash registers ringing in his verses like perfect rhymes.

Down in the blue bins the cardboard slipcases are mingling already with the cereal boxes and office paper and empty bottles and plastic containers, Pablo’s picture mashed indifferently against the rest of the remnants the truck will come to pick up later this week, crashing us awake before dawn as it dumps the plastic barrels into its maw.

Why does it feel so good to recycle Neruda?

AGNI Monkey

SK photo by Christina WatersStephen Kessler’s most recent book is Garage Elegies, to be published this spring by Black Widow Press. His translations of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, and the PEN Center USA Translation Award. His version of Neruda’s “Heights of Machu Picchu” appears in Machu Picchu, a book of photographs by Barry Brukoff. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, where he writes a weekly column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Card, deNiord, and Lavers: New Work up at AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—a story by Maisy Card, and poems by Chard deNiord and Michael Lavers. Check it all out!

 

AGNI MC“Let’s say that you are a 69-year-old Jamaican man called Stanford, or Stan for short, who once faked your own death. You have never used those words to describe what you did before. At the time you’d thought of it as seizing an opportunity placed before you by God, but today you have gathered all of your female descendants in one house, even the daughter who has thought you dead all these years, and decided that today is the day that you will tell them the truth: You have spent the last twenty years of your second life living in a brownstone in Harlem, running a West-Indian grocery store.”

from the story “The True Death of Abel Paisley” by Maisy Card

 

 

AGNI cd“He was already flying with invisible wings
in his chair, staring ahead as I wheeled him
into the hall.”

from the poem “The Lake” by Chard deNiord

 

 

 

 

AGNI ML“One hardware warehouse, one mink farm
gagging the clouds, one curling rink, one park,
its kept swan floating like a plastic bag.
What could be simpler?”

from the poem “Field Work” by Michael Lavers

 

 

 

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Trains

by Rick Bursky

Trains are the most literary form of travel, other than walking, of course. Old automobiles come close, only close. As much as I love airplanes they’re thin in literary emotion. There was a time ships were literary. That time has sailed, pun intended.

Somewhere in a box, perhaps at the bottom of the hallway closet, there’s a photograph of Patrick R. Ballogg on a train. We were travelling from Vicenza, Italy, to Garmish, Germany. It was a long time ago. Patrick is smiling. A bottle of Tanqueray on the table beside him. I was sitting opposite. Soft winter light illuminates the side of his face. I haven’t seen the photograph in years but seem to think a young woman is sitting next to him. Trains. Another young woman sat next to me, and like me, is not in the photograph. Trains.

Trains muscle their way through distance. Trains are best experienced at night. I should have mentioned it earlier, but electric trains are not as high on the literary ladder of resonance. The exception are subways when the train struggles through a tunnel and the lights go out.

George Stephenson was born in 1781, on June ninth. Years later he invented the steam locomotive engine. He named his first one “Blucher.” It pulled eight loaded coal wagons weighing thirty tons four hundred and fifty feet at four miles an hour. The men who shoveled the coal must have been buried with the black dust of that day.

Men working on railroads seldom go to hell once they die. Yes, some are horrible, sinful people, so there is no explanation for this. Nor for the reason that Frank Sinatra collected model electric trains. Actually had a cottage devoted to them on his Rancho Mirage property.

Moonlight pulls the smoke from steam engines at night. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

I’ve never written on a train. I have on an airplane but it wasn’t a very good poem. I often think of taking a journey on a train just to revise that poem. The fact that more poets have died on trains than airplanes is not preventing this. Other things are. Destinations are often a triggering event for travel, trains. In my version of the world they are not a requirement.

Every time a ship sinks there will be a train crash in nine days within eleven hundred miles of that ship’s port of departure. Harold L. Watson convinced me that this is a proven fact. He spent many years as an executive in railroad companies and was in three emergency meetings to discuss precautions after a ship sank. Railroad companies try to keep this secret. But when I told Harold L. Watson I was writing about how trains inform poetry he thought it would be a fitting way for the public to learn of this danger. Poetry has always been good for this sort of warning. A thought from me, not Harold L. Watson.

AGNI Monkey

BurskyRick Bursky‘s most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By The Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions. His next book, Where the Ocean Spills Its Grief, is also forthcoming from BOA. His poems have appeared in many journals including Field, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Conduit and Iowa Review. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Call and Response: Two Questions with Alicia Elkort and Jenn Givhan

Aanchal Narang for AGNI: I would love to hear about the process of co-writing poems. What does that look like? What inspired you to co-write these two pieces specifically?

Another thing that struck me was the mirror-like structure of “A Small Metamorphosis or The Power of Seeing” (AGNI 86). I’m curious about what drew you to this structure. How did you pick the order of the words as the mirror structure was developed?

AE and JG: We have been giving each other feedback on poems since we first met in an online poetry class, seven years ago. When the idea of co-writing came up, it seemed like a natural conclusion. Our distinct themes and language offered an opportunity to create a fresh voice united by our similar understanding of life and beauty.

Some poems were written much like a call and response with one poet responding to the outline of a poem by the other poet. For instance, in “A Small Metamorphosis or The Power of Seeing,” Alicia responded to the despair and decay of Jenn’s images by recognizing beauty in the decay. The form as mirror image demonstrates that, in every image or experience, there is another way to see. Jenn’s line “I am the broken swing set near collapsed” is mirrored by “I am broken wounds filling with gold.” In Jenn’s line “I am a knob of roots waiting for someone to pull,” pulling is an action of removal or being uprooted, taken. The “I” is passive. Alicia mirrors this with “I am a knob on a door to a celestine attic,” which reads as an invitation. Pulling the knob on the door would reveal heaven. From a metaphysical point of view, great challenges can be a doorway into greater self-compassion and awareness. And yet the poem as a whole encapsulates the human experience, how we live with joy and despair, sometimes in the same moment.

Other poems written together developed in a more organic manner, emailing one line at a time back and forth (we live in different cities) and editing as we progressed until we had arrived at the end—a completed poem. “One by One” (also AGNI 86) was written in this manner, but the final poem does not equate to one line for each poet because, as the poem found its bearing, we removed entire lines or rearranged the order and edited out words to create the forward momentum and crux.

All of the poems written together were given time to settle; then edits would be made.

In other poems we’ve written, themes that are more reflective of one of us or the other would stand out, and still the poems are relevant for both of us. The synergy between poets can work like a real time cut-up tool, discovering new expressions, word choices. On a deeper level, writing together demonstrates how narratives can coalesce.

AGNI Monkey

ElkortAuthorPhotoAlicia Elkort edited and contributed to the chapbook Creekside, published by Berkeley Poetry Review, where she also served as an editor. Her poetry was featured in the Ishaan Literary Review and has been published in, among other journals, Elsewhere Lit, Menacing Hedge, Stirring, and Rogue Agent. She works as an accountant for film and television and is currently producing a documentary on global traditions of prayer. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

 

 

 

Jenn purple crabapple (resized)  (resized).jpgJennifer Givhan, a Mexican-American poet, is the author of Landscape with Headless Mama (Louisiana State University Press, 2016), winner of the Pleiades Editors’ Prize; Protection Spell (University of Arkansas Press, 2017), winner of the Miller Williams Poetry Prize; and Girl with Death Mask (Indiana University Press, forthcoming 2018), winner of the Blue Light Books Prize. Her honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellowship. She is editor-in-chief of Tinderbox Poetry Journal and lives with her family in New Mexico. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

IMG_3627 Aanchal Narang is an MFA candidate in Boston University’s Creative Writing Program. She is an intern at AGNI and a Boston native.

What a Poem Is

by David Ebenbach

For a long time I didn’t know what a poem was.

I mean, I would read a thing and have a feeling that I was reading a poem, or sometimes I’d read something labeled a poem and would have a feeling I wasn’t actually reading a poem, but I couldn’t really explain why.

Of course this might make you ask Who cares? Do we really need to be able to draw lines between poems and not-poems? Why do we have to DEFINE everything? Which, as questions go, are totally fair. That said, (1) I’m a teacher, so I am frequently called on to define things, and (2) it’s just about to be National Poetry Month, so maybe we should know what that even means, and (3) I find it a little off-putting when people just throw up their hands and say that anything can be a poem. A sunset can be a poem! A bear can be a poem! A pair of underpants can be a poem!

And anyway (4) I like defining things.

(If you don’t like defining things, you might want to stop reading. Or if you dislike definitions, but you do like being irritated, you might want to keep reading.)

There have been times in history when it was easy to decide what was poetry and what wasn’t. These were times when poetry followed formal rules about, say, syllable count, alliteration, stressed syllables, rhyme—or at least when poems insisted on having line breaks. But we’ve had free verse for a long time now, and prose poetry is pretty mainstream, too, so the fact is that we just can’t rely on those markers of formal rules as indications of what kind of thing we’re reading. And yet poetry is not dead. I don’t care what Robert Frost said about playing tennis with the net down—we still have poems. You can feel that, right?

That said, faced with the truth that we’re in a post-rules period, for a long time I figured that there was no way to define poetry with any reliability.

There was one thing I did know, though: reading poetry is, for me, a different kind of thing than reading prose. When I read prose—or at least literary prose—I pay pretty close attention; I’m alert for metaphors and nice turns of phrases and crucial plot points and significant dialogue and so on. When I read poetry, on the other hand, I pay extremely close attention. I’m watching for all the same things I watch for in a short story, for example, but I’m also taking in the sound of the words, the visual pattern of the piece on the page (including stanzas and line breaks, if there are any), repetition, the choice of each word and punctuation mark, and a lot more. My face is practically pressed to the page, trying to get every drop of fantastic into me. So there’s a difference there, at least in the reading.

For a long time that was all I knew.

And then one day I finally realized what was right in front of me: this approach to reading also leads inexorably to a definition of poetry. Specifically:

A poem is a piece of writing that rewards you for reading it as though it’s a poem.

That’s it: A poem is a piece of writing that rewards you for reading it as though it’s a poem.

Do you see what I mean? A poem, a real poem, gives you significant things—a rich experience, pleasure—when you read it with the focus and alertness to words and sounds and punctuation and everything else that a poem demands.

This definition rules sunsets out, and underpants. (They’re great, in their respective ways, but I’m telling you they’re not poems.) It also rules out a good deal of writing. An illustration: Go get a copy of the latest tax filing instructions and read the booklet extremely closely, paying attention to every aspect of the language—word choice, word length, spacing, vowel and consonant sound, rhythm, etc.—and squeeze those details to see if they yield any emotional and intellectual power. You will probably not find this activity rewarding. That’s because you’re reading something the way you would read a poem even though it isn’t a poem. And how do you know it isn’t? Because reading it like it’s a poem is such a waste of time.

Unfortunately, there are also some “poems” that turn out this way, too. Let’s say you read a particular “poem” with devout attention and discover that the thing is only skin deep. Some okay ideas with random line breaks, let’s say, and nothing else of note. I’m telling you that’s not a poem. Or maybe the “poem” is full of lots of ornate language choices everywhere—constant alliteration! punctuation explosion!—but at the end you don’t feel like anything significant happened as a result of all that ornamentation. You took in all the detail and found the detail self-indulgent and unrewarding. I’m telling you that’s not a poem, either.

But one of the things I like about this definition is that it doesn’t just rule stuff out—it also rules stuff in. Take the case of the “found poem.” By “found poem,” I mean some theoretically prosaic text—hand-washing instructions, a car’s owner manual, a memo—that the author didn’t mean to make so interesting, but (by accident or unconscious inspiration) the thing did turn out interesting. The typo in a menu’s “Hummus and thyme warp [wrap]” is unexpectedly delightful; the repetition of the word “don’t” in a list of instructions becomes hypnotically rhythmic; punctuation and a line break allow for multiple meanings in this great January headline about Donald Trump:

Doctor: No Heart,
Cognitive Issues

Indeed.

And of course a lot of poems—things that the authors meant as poetry—are rewarding in these ways, too. That’s why it’s a pleasure to read them. They ask us to be attentive and thoughtful, and when we oblige we get something great out of the experience. In fact, a poem, if it’s really a poem, is inherently a pleasure. A poem is a risk that turns out well, an attentive labor (by the writer and then by the reader) that leads to bounty.

As writers we might keep this in mind ourselves when we hunker down to write a poem. For this National Poetry Month and beyond, let’s make every little thing matter. It’s okay for our work to be demanding—really that’s part of what makes it poetry. But our job is to make sure that meeting those demands is worth a reader’s time. If not, well, it doesn’t matter how many lines we broke, or semi-colons we dropped in, or rhymes we slanted; we’ve written something, but we haven’t written a poem.

AGNI Monkey

2017-03-23 03 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.