The Last Lecture; Penance; Women’s March
The Last Lecture
За Здороров mumbles the pill
Beneath my tongue
As I press it against my teeth.
Life is a plum, moans mama’s ghost,
Stolen from between the lips
Of an absent schoolgirl.
Life is a vulture, sighs papa’s succubus.
Brilliant. Rampant. Extravagant. Sharp.
It will catch you while you sleep.
Whenever you are lost,
It will find you. My daughter,
Remember your lessons.
Diagram. Box of bones!
Dark circles, sallow skin.
The first taste is free.
My tribe is cloying
Within my stomach.
Make sure to set them loose
Before you go.
I am memories
wrapped in dark skin
absorbed by tissue and bone.
The notes I take serve as branded
relics of my tribulations.
Like a mural painted on quicksand
the mind cannot
When there is no palette with oils to mix,
When God recalls
the art I choose to display without praise,
the whip’s lash as steel-brushed strokes
across wrought iron flesh from fire,
learned from my parents,
in turn from their mammas and daddies,
handed down from the plantation,
what will I say?
This is my art.
Inspired by God’s flood.
The bruises were his marks upon Cain
the blood – the pain – upon Eve.
I will not ask forgiveness for denying him,
Just as He will not ask for mine.
There are signs for miles
“History has its eyes on you”
“Real men stand up for women”
“Love trumps hate”
“We the people are greater
I carry no sign
in the business of words
I could come up
I have no words
for my daughter
as to why a man
who laughs at
sexual assault runs
I have no words to
console my son
when 60 million people
dismiss the racism
I have no words
So I carry my body
I carry my body, which
carried children and
bathed my dying
mother in soothing tears
I carry my body
hundreds of miles
against a reality
that feels like a nightmare
I carry my body
with other hands
I carry my body
into the day
into the night
Katerina Canyon grew up in Los Angeles, and has two children. From 2000 to 2003, she served as the Poet Laureate of Sunland-Tujunga. She has been published in The New York Times and Huffington Post. Her latest book, Changing the Lines can be found on Amazon. She currently lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband Geoff.
“The Last Lecture” is my newest poem of the three. I wrote it after reading Human Hours by Catherine Barnett. I like to think of it as a response poem except that I use my own experience and themes. I really admire her ability to turn one word into a complete thought. I’m hoping to develop that ability within my own work. I use Russian to introduce the poem because I minored in Russian in college, and my mother named me after a character from the Brothers Karamazov. My parents greatly influence my work because a lot of the trauma I experienced in my life had to do with them.
I cannot say much about “Penance”. I wrote it after I got out of the hospital during a time when I was suffering from deep depression. As with “The Last Lecture”, “Penance” is influenced by my parents. I cannot say much beyond that. During that time, I was writing several poems a week. It was like I was in the middle of a fever dream.
“Women’s March” I wrote while marching in the Women’s March after the 2016 Election. It was also right before my depression. Sometimes the words just come to me quickly. That’s what happened with “Women’s March.” I wrote the poem down as it came to me. That march overwhelmed me with emotion and feeling. I could not wait until after the march to write it down. I had to write it while walking then and there."
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
When I was about 7 years old, my mother gave me a diary. I used to write in it about the times my father abused my mother. One day my father read it and got upset with me. After that, I turned to writing short stories and poetry. My poetry writing began seriously when I was 13.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
I cannot. I feel like I came out of the womb in love with poetry. When I was about five years old, my mother gave me a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems. My favorite poem by him is Dream Within a Dream. Around the time I was seven, she gave me a set of Childcraft books. One of the volumes was a book called "Poems and Rhymes." I read that book repeatedly. The Purple Cow by Gelett Burgess was my favorite poem from that book.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
Alive: James Evert Jones, Poetri, Jack Bowman, and Nikki Giovanni
James Evert Jones has a poem entitled "Cocaine" that just shakes my soul. I also like Poetri's Krispy Kreme poem.
Dead: Edgar Allan Poe, John Donne, Wanda Coleman, and Mahmoud Darwish.
For Poe, my favorite poem is Dream within a Dream. For John Donne, it is Air and Angels. I love Wanda Coleman's Jazz series, and for Mahmoud Darwish, it has to be I Don't Want this Poem to End.
Can you share a bit about your writing process?
I write when my mind is quiet. Lately it has been with the sunrise. When I lived in New York, I often wrote poems while on the bus or subway. Sometimes here in Seattle, I will write poems while while looking out toward the water. When my mind is still, I will come up with a piece of a poem or a phrase like, "She wears beet juice like blood", and then I will think about how I can build a poem off that one phrase. Usually, it means thinking about why that phrase came to mind. Another morning, the sunrise reminded me of my mother's rose garden, and I decided to write a poem about that. Many times, I will be struck emotionally by something, and I will come down with a need to write about it. For instance, right now I have a thought in my mind regarding a person's skin looking gray and angry like thunder clouds. That will likely integrate itself into my next poem.
How do you decide the forms of your poems?
The form is decided by the mood of the poem and by my own mood. If I am particularly upset when I write a poem, or if the poem has a bit of emotion, or if the poem relies a great deal on sound, the visual form of the poem is often very loose. If I'm trying to convey power, the poem can be more structured. All my poems are different because I'm different every day.
Regarding Penance. My memory isn't too great regarding this one, My mind was not in the greatest shape then. I recall that I was thinking about whips and ropes and beatings, and how it all goes back to God's punishment of Cain, and that African Americans are considered the race of Cain, and that the abuse that was perpetrated upon me was the result of the abuse perpetrated upon my parents, etc. I wanted the shape of the poem to be sinewy like a rope. I also wanted each line to be an individual statement.
Regarding Women's March: With Women's March, I was at the Women's March in D.C., and I was walking around looking at all the signs, and I was thinking about how I should have come up with a sign, but I had missed the sign painting party because I was too achy and tired due to my lupus symptoms. I then thought that I could not come up with a sign that could sum up everything I was feeling at the time. I was so exhausted, but I knew that I had to march. I felt the importance of that day, and I knew I needed to be there. When I saw a sign I liked, I pulled out my phone and wrote it down. At some point, I said, "Hey, I think I have a poem here." And I wrote it down while marching. There was no thinking about structure. It was just emotion.
Advice to other poets who have yet to find a voice: The best advice I ever received was from Poetri at an open mic about 25 years ago. He said, "You have an amazing voice. You just have to have confidence in it." And that's pretty much how you find your voice. You have to write with confidence and without fear. Once you're able to do that, you're able find your voice.
My editing process: When I write a poem, I write it and set it aside. I will then go back to it and I will review my word choices to see if they are working for the concept I want to convey. I then think about the sound of it and the flow. I then work on the shape and line breaks.
I love the juxtaposition of image and pace in stanzas 2 and 3 in “The Last Lecture”. The dichotomy of views is really highlighted by the several forced stops in “Brilliant. Rampant….” Its a risk that really pays off in this tercet form. What was the editing process for that like? Did you ever second guess that choice?
This is one of my latest poems, and it is a part of a theme that I've been working on lately regarding my parents and my hospitalization. I use the dichotomy of views because drugs played dual roles in my life. Right now, drugs keep me alive. In the past, my parents drug addiction hurt my life. I was really inspired by Catherine Barnett's hard stops, and I wanted to write a response poem. The tercet form was a risk, but that's what I felt the poem needed to differentiate itself from Barnett's couplets. I paced the floor a lot with this poem. I still do.
When do you know a poem finished?
When I'm dead. A poem is a piece of my life and thoughts at the time. I am always changing. I'm always learning something new, so I can never truly consider a poem finished. Life and poetry are about creation and re-creation.