21 August 2012

Turns Out We’re Doomed: A conversation with Glenn Shaheen

By PQ Contributing Editor Brian Russell

Glenn Shaheen is the author of Predatory (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). He lives in Michigan where he is the editor of NANO Fiction and poetry editor of Third Coast. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Republic, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He serves on the board of the Radius of Arab-American Writers, Inc. Buy his book here. Check out his website here.
BR: Location is a prominent feature this book, on multiple levels: America (both named and implied) and Houston (where you wrote many of these poems), specifically. To what extent is location simply a setting, a place for the poem to exist, and to what extent does location dictate the content/scope/direction of the poem? Now that you've moved from Houston to Kalamazoo, have you noticed your poems taking on a different personality? Fewer beetles, more snow? 
 GS. Predatory is meant to evoke a more general sort of urban location, a microcosm of America that can work as an avatar for the present mode of thought in this country. Houston works great that way; it's got everything that's good and bad about America turned up to eleven. Fears, dirt, insane wealth shadowing incredible poverty, art, love, hate, etc. I tried not to mention it too many times, though it sneaks into... three poems by name? If you count "The Rothko Chapel," which is only in Houston if people know it's in Houston. I tried not to make them too endemically Houston, you know?

Strangely, I started writing poems to try to replicate Houston in verse only after I moved to Kalamazoo. People do that with New York or LA or Chicago, but I can't think of a book, despite all the great poets who've done time in Houston, that tries to enact a vision of Houston. Correct me if I'm wrong! Of course, once it started snowing here I actually did start writing about snow. I felt so stereotypically "poetic!"

BR: Predatory begins with a howl that reverberates through the rest of the book, ending with the shots of a mobster's gun. Most, if not all, the poems in this book play off our fears, both real and imagined. To what degree are the poems meant to genuinely scare us—horror poems, so to speak—and to what degree are the poems a parody of fear? At what point does love and fear intersect?

GS: I think that our fears, the fears that the media and politicians warn us about endlessly, are supremely unfounded—that we will ALL BE DESTROYED or that ALL LOVE IS ABOUT TO END FOREVER IF WE DON'T FOLLOW THESE SIMPLE INSTRUCTIONS (vote for this, buy this, stay away from this). It benefits the rich and powerful if the rest of us live in terror, because a fearful society is one easily manipulated. It seems such an obvious ploy to me, though it's worked for a whole lot of years. Everything isn't so awful here in America, the richest country in history. We tend to lean toward thinking it's all about to end because we have literally everything to lose, because we have literally everything. In the book I try to start out with the fears being legitimately translatable to the reader, but then make them so outrageous by the end that they collapse under their own weight. It's tough to manage readings though because if I only read, say, six poems, then it all just seems so dire, whereas after ten poems or so with severed arms and collapsing buildings and cats being drowned, the parody becomes clear. The speaker of the book is still a victim of living in terror, and I don't want the terror to be completely evaporated, but I think that's the strength of parody—it only works as humor if it can also work as the thing it is lambasting.

Fear is the idea that we will lose the things we love, the people we love, right? If we're scared of death, it's partly because of the unknown (is faith right? is lack of faith right?), but it's also because the people we love won't be around anymore, no matter if it's oblivion or some kind of afterlife. In America, I sometimes think that the loss of love that compels fear is often the loss of things that we love—things like cars or Blu-Rays or other objects that our loads of money can buy us. So much of our present fear is economic, and there's a lot to be said for comfort and convenience, but even if the "stock-market" crashes or we aren't the richest country in the world anymore, we'll be fine!

BR: I'm tempted to read Predatory as a kind of argument against knowledge—the more we know the worse it gets. The constant stream of information serves only to stoke our anxiety. Many of the poems echo the voice of the 24-hour news cycle bringing us the global atrocities in real-time. Technology makes violence more efficient. Scientific advances seem as likely to end in biowarfare as in a cure. Was this your intent? Or is fear simply a necessary by-product of progress, of stepping endlessly into the unknown?

GS Certainly the less we know the worse it gets, too, in a different way. You can be ignorant and be supremely gullible to all of the aforementioned fear-mongering the media thrives on, right? Fears of “The Other,” fears of “The End Of Comfort.” But the more you know the worse it gets because you realize as an American you are part of a system that creates death and terror, that you are culpable; or, as you say, to even participate more actively and consciously in the motion of this system as a creator. I don't think Oppenheimer lived a very happy life post World War II, and we're all minor Oppenheimers when we possess awareness of the awfulness we commit and do little-to-nothing about.

But this is all on an individual scale, what we each have to deal with. I'm for knowledge. We have the capability to destroy ourselves, yes, and it's "admirable" that we haven't exercised this capability yet, but we're also the most connected as a species that we've ever been, the most peaceful. The constant stream of information stokes our anxiety, is used for propaganda, but it also is used spread truth—look at the way social media and the internet was used in the recent revolutions in Arab countries in the face of government suppression of information and communication. I think you're right, yes—fear is a necessary by-product of progress—the unknown provokes fear, but to rest in comfort is to be stagnant and go the way of the Neanderthals.

BR: What's your favorite poem in the book? Why?
GS: I think, although it probably shifts around pretty frequently, it would be "Unlimited." It's got in miniature the right balance of personal and national insecurities I was trying to go for in the book played out in a crumbling litany.
Excerpt from “Unlimited”:
The doctor
was repulsed. He was also incompetent. He said I did not have cancer.
The internet begs to differ

my friend. My personal clutter keeps accruing. It’s not interest. It’s not
interesting. I’m discarding pieces of paper that I once thought

would save me when the time came.
It turns out the time never came.

It also turns out we’re doomed.

BR: Besides Predatory, of course, what else should we be reading? 
GS: A couple books I read recently that I was really into were Negro League Baseball (Fence Books, 2011) by Harmony Holiday and Handiwork (Slope Editions, 2012) by Amaranth Borsuk. Both are using a fragmented language (ok, that's all poetry I guess, to a certain extent), to emotional ends. Holiday's book seems like a collision of numerous voices to create a sort of meditational and emotional collage (and even comes with a CD of musical collagescapes) that reflects a speaker's struggle with familial and cultural place. Borsuk's book is like when you break the glass figurine and try to reassemble it, but there are lots of missing pieces and the ones you have stick out at angles that don't seem quite right, and it reflects a reconstruction of an ancestral story in a really fascinating way. I never do poetry books justice when I talk about them! They're both great though.

Brian Russell is the author of The Year of What Now, winner of the 2012 Bakeless Prize for Poetry, forthcoming from Graywolf in 2013. Brian has poems out now or forthcoming in Bat City Review, Catch Up, The Cincinnati Review, and Green Mountains Review.

12 August 2012

Professor. Poet. Fighter. Portuguese-American: an Interview with Carlos Matos

Interview by PQ Interview Editor Millicent Borges Accardi

To meet Carlo Matos is to view a dichotomy. A rare breed of what can be termed a Renaissance man in that his skills and interests are varied and broad, and like a stormy winter sky, constantly changing. The reach of Matos’s life leads him towards the violence and excitement of kick boxing and MMA cage fighting and then to the soft side where he writes poetry, plays and teaches literature. His days are well-rounded on the home-front as a devoted family man to his wife Nichole and young son Alex.
 Originally from Fall River, MA, Carlos is a first generation Portuguese-American writer whose family roots started in São Miguel island in the Azores. Weekdays find him in the classroom, teaching. Weeknights he coaches and fights in the MMA league as “Tim the Professor.” Most weekends, he can be found reciting poetry at the Chicago Poetry Bordello, a theatrical troop who hawks their wares at various venues throughout the second city. Matos dons a top hat and bold plaid pants pandering not elicit favors but poetry. The bordello, where poems are sold for cash and the ambiance is red velvet and on the sleazy carnival side of 1700’s Chicago.
 Matos’ published books include two poetry collections, A School for Fishermen and Counting Sheep Till Doomsday and a literary criticism book entitled, Ibsen's Foreign Contagion, a ground-breaking discussion about the connection between contagious disease and the London stage during the birth of modernism.

 Q. What about being Portuguese-American informs your poetry, your writing?
 Many of my obsessions over the nature of work come from being an Azorean-American.  Even as a young boy, work was something that was on my mind.  My parents both worked in the last remaining textile mills in the small New England city of Fall River.  Fall River, as you may know, has a large Portuguese community. My parents, along with most of the people they knew, worked in these mills, and they used them as a way of terrifying us. They would warn my brother and I that if we didn’t do well in school, they’d force us to work with them.  Long hours, terrible pay, back-breaking work.  I was truly scared.  For me, destiny, fate (very important words for an Azorean) was a question of whether or not I could escape the horrors of a soul-killing job.  It didn’t have to be just the mills.  I worked in a donut shop, a gas station, a movie theatre (OK, that last one was actually kind of fun) but it was never an inevitability that these were only part-time jobs like it was for my American buddies.
Any of those jobs could’ve been it for me and I just wanted something else, something more.  The problem was that I would have to go get it from the American world—a world I belonged but did not belong to.  This obsession has grown as I have watched our entire country utterly lose its mind when it comes to working conditions.  And maybe it’s not just our country.  No job is safe now from those hideous factory-floor conditions.  We are a country that does not value time—the one true thing we cannot get back, the one thing we cannot bargain for more of.  This concern has only grown more pronounced in my work as I have aged.
 Q. What is your literary background?
 Literature and theater. As a young boy, I wrote poetry. Some part of me always wanted to be a poet.  Some of that has to do with the fact that my father wrote poetry in Portuguese—although he has never published any of it.  So I’ve written poetry basically for my entire life, although it isn’t until 1998 before I would write any poetry worth reading.  I tend to count that year as year 1. 
 But in high school, I really got into theater.  I was getting all the leading male roles in the musicals and I thought I wanted to be a performer.  There was and is a lot of music in my family.  My father plays the trombone, I play the clarinet and the guitar, my brother plays the bass, all of my dad’s brothers and their children play musical instruments.  (I was in a Portuguese band from fourth grade until my junior year in high school.) 
 I went to UMass Amherst for college where I double majored in English and Theater.  It didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to be a director and playwright rather than a performer.  I liked the big table.  When it came time to go to graduate school, I had to decide if I was going to pursue an MFA in playwriting, an MFA in directing or a Ph.D in literature.  So what I did was apply to all three.  It was a hellish process.  Basically I let destiny choose.  Whoever gave me the best deal, that’s where I’d go.  And, interestingly enough, UMass gave me the best deal, so I stayed there and got my doctorate.  My dissertation, which was recently published by Academica Press, focused on Ibsen, contagion and the London stage.  At the same time, I continued to pursue my playwriting career and that is how I landed in Chicago.  I spent ten years pursuing scholarly, poetic and theatrical ambitions, and once again, I let destiny choose—not consciously, of course. This wasn’t my plan; it’s just how things played out.  And poetry ended up being the thing.
 Q. Can you describe your family’s heritage?
 It’s hard to unravel. I’ve heard so many stories. Few of them add up, so I will give you an account of the family that may have little to do with reality, but it is the only complete story I have of them.  Both of my parents are from São Miguel.  My father is from the village of Mosteiros and my mother is from Pico de Mafra.  My mother’s family moved to the States when she was 12.  Supposedly, on a trip back to the Azores when she was a bit older, she and my father fell in love. They had known each other in the past, but they were not romantically involved.  My mother returned to the United States with a promise from my father that he would come for her after he got out of the military. In the states, this would sound melodramatic and ridiculous, but anyone who understands the power of saudade on the Portuguese psyche will not find it surprising that he followed through on his promise.  He came to America when he was 21 and they got married.  I followed shortly after.
 Q. Who are your favorite writers? Can you share a memorable line or passage?
 This, as you know, is an impossible question.  But since I do not like it when people duck this question, I will answer it if we keep in mind that I would give a completely different list tomorrow and the day after.  The poet who has influenced me the most in the last ten years or so would have to be James Tate, especially his prose poetry in Return to the City of White Donkeys.  Ted Hughes, because of his epic vision, is always on my mind.  And Simon Perchik—because of his unmatched control of language—is the most important influence on me now.  His Hands Collected is a masterpiece.  I am also influenced by the novels of Murakami—Kafka on the Shore is unreal—Richard Powers and, not surprisingly, José Saramago [Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature].
--Hughes: from his poem “Crow’s Elephant Totem Song”
And the Elephant sings deep in the forest-maze
About a star of deathless and painless peace
But no astronomer can find where it is.
 Q. Is there a word or song or Portuguese phrase that speaks to you, in your life or your writing? For me it is “poor thing” it makes me work harder.
 Com Que Voz (what with a voice) by Amália Rodriguez is one of the most powerful songs I have ever heard.  It speaks to all of those things, those passions, those yearnings and desires that I associate with the Azorean part of my temperament.  All of those decidedly un-pragmatic, un-monetary, un-conventional feelings.  Azorean-Americans, in my experience, are a weird contradiction.  On the one hand, they are salt of the earth.  They are people who know how to do things, how to get things done.  They are adults!  They understand responsibility.  This is something I deeply respect about them.  But, at the same time, none of those things seem to negate the fact that they are all poets, singers, musicians, storytellers and even sorcerers.  It works.  I don’t know why and that’s what I love about them, about us.
 Q. What did you or do you hope to accomplish in your book Counting Sheep Til Doomsday?
 Doomsday is a collection of prose poems.  The way the book is organized is that the prose poems slowly count up—paragraph length-wise—until we get to “Insomniac’s Cookbook.”  That is, two line poem, three line poem, four line poem, etc.  I broke the counting in a few places because I didn’t mind if there was a little inertia in the system because some poems just needed to be in other places.  I think every reader will get the gist of the conceit.  It’s not that big a deal to me that it isn’t perfect.  I’d rather have the poems in the right place than slavishly keep to a simple conceit like that. 
 Actually, I was listening to a ton of Fado while writing the book.  It’s not a coincidence that the first nine poems are all titled “Fate.” If one looks closely, Portuguese themes are there—just not in the same way as Fishermen.  The book ends with a poem ostensibly about insomnia, but it’s really about breakdown and it’s a breakdown brought about by a baby.  The book is loaded with baby images, none of which are cute or reassuring or any of those things.  It’s not about babies; it’s about finding oneself in a place one had planned for meticulously only to find that you are utterly, totally and completely not up to the challenge.   It’s about the moment when you fear you are not the person you have worked so hard to become.  It’s about finding out that you may not believe in fate but she believes in you.  The musical composition that ends the book is both serious and a joke.  The poem is serious—farts or not farts.  Again, the old world table, this is Portuguese hospitality, a thing of great and dire importance.  I asked my old friend, the composer Stephen Jean, if he’d score it for farts and burps, which he did.  It is Gabriel blowing his horn to bring in the judgment, just not with his lips.  I want to go out laughing.
 Q If there is one line or title in your work that you would like to be remembered by, what would it be?
 This came to me right away.  It is from a poem I wrote way back in 1999 when I was a senior in college.  It is in my first book A School for Fishermen, from a poem titled “Work.”
And for every patch of summer dry skin
there are lovers’ fingernails to scratch late into the night,
scratch your scalp with a grandmother’s notice
when you were a child on her lap demanding nothing.
Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books: Injuring EternityWoman on a Shaky Bridge and Only More So. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the arts, the California Arts Council, and Canto Mundo.
Carlo Matos is the author of two poetry collections, A School for Fishermen and Counting Sheep Till Doomsday and a critical book Ibsen's Foreign Contagion. He teaches English and writing at Truman College in Chicago.

06 August 2012

Grounded: Engaging the Spiritual in Poetry

by Sarah Wells for Poets Quarterly

I’ve used the phrase “engaging the spiritual” as if there’s some outlet I plug into in order to upload God. Or if I posture myself just so, with the right lighting and some incense burning, maybe then the environment will be suitable to properly “engage the spirit,” and then I am a vessel, a mouthpiece, a projector from which pours the cryptic, holy, inspired words of God.

But forget the candles for a while and rely instead on the shrinking sun to illuminate the earth beneath your feet, your now quite bare feet, because “engaging the spiritual” means getting the grit between your toes and then needing to clean it out. There’s nothing like running that spray from the hose over your feet, the blades of grass bending beneath the weight of water. 

After all, you don’t spend your day in the chapel underneath a stained glass window composing devotional poems. You are sweeping up Cheerios from underneath the table. You are balancing budgets in spreadsheets. You are sitting in meetings checking your Twitter feed. There might be times and seasons for incense, but in the world of databases and dirty laundry, sippy cups and playground swings, it is critical to remember that God is in the small things, that spiritual truths are not hiding away in cathedrals. They are here in the plain sight of day. 

This means living open to what the universe delivers. Maybe a field of dandelions, maybe a sparrow attacking a bluebird nest, maybe the scab on your shin… there is so much and every molecule pulses with spirit, every atom embodies an element of holiness, surely something interesting exists within your eyesight right now that deserves a little closer observation. Even the dirt and water and grass and your feet—consider it.

Write poetry from the ground up. Ask “Why this and not that?” or “What does this mean?” or “What else is there to know about this?” Rather than observe and then presume to know all of the answers, questioning propels the writer into the realm of mystery, questioning humbles the speaker down from the position of all-knowing observer to one who has eyes to see and ears to hear. Questioning opens up possibility. 

Writing spiritual poetry requires this repositioning because spiritual poetry is acknowledging that something greater than the “I” exists. This confession changes the entire perspective of the observer, and as the writer of a spiritual poem, I must aim the lens through which the reader sees my world at the proper angle. Through this repositioning, the ego of the poem takes a backseat to everything else, and instead of the poet declaring just how clever she is through the poem, she becomes smaller while her subject becomes greater. An effective spiritual poem probably won’t be didactic, because in order to teach, one must speak with authority. Instead, the spiritual poem speaks with its one small voice in relation to something much larger, it holds out its hand and says, see what I found? A pebble! A flower! Cheerios! 

This is partly achieved through the exploration of the questions that have been asked in the poem, and it is communicated through tone, rhythm, and spacing. Consider this poem by Franz Wright, which begins his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard:

“Year One”

I was still standing
on a northern corner
Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.

of Your existence? There is nothing

This poem is a poem of beginnings, of initial awe and awakening to some greater presence in the world. There is a tremendous amount of white space happening in the poem which seems to give it breathing room and emphasize the wintry emptiness of a “northern corner” and those dark clouds.  And then that final stanza, so simply stated, with that beautiful turn of the line. I can almost see the camera zoom out from the speaker of the poem to the whole world. All of it. Proof.

It is an effective spiritual poem, not just because Wright capitalizes “Your,” but because there is a clear issue at stake: the speaker is suddenly aware of his world and his place in it (that shrinking ego thing I mentioned), and because he is asking a question that opens up possibilities, that invites the spirit in with a flicker of recognition. Or sometimes it’s a strobe light, and because you invited, suddenly you see something new you hadn’t seen in that object or moment before, some truth or beauty or goodness or reality that was concealed until just now.

What excites me about spiritual poetry is that you can work on the macro-level and on the micro-level, zoom in, zoom out, ask for more, talk directly at God or just look for his thumbprint. As a poet deeply interested in spiritual matters, I find God turning up in all sorts of places where you wouldn’t think he’d be. That is the joy of writing and reading spiritual poetry, discovering something I’d never known or felt before, my body nodding, yes, yes, that is it, there it is, the divine indwelt. And then this greater joy: to share that experience with another human being through the written word, poet and reader, a small community of believers who are now gathered in worship around this little altar.

Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and the chapbook Acquiesce. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ascent, Christianity & Literature, Measure, New Ohio Review, Poetry East, Puerto del Sol, River Teeth, and elsewhere. www.sarahmwells.com.