Beating; Charity; Words Like Ours
By: Joshua Kulseth
After Robert Hayden
My father cups his hand in the way we were taught
to cup our hands to make a stroke through water,
or how we would when we made instruments
with our mouths by taking hands and clapping
together in front of our mouths rounded O’s,
the wooden sound something similar to the hard
and measured smacking he puts me through.
But it’s never too much, even when taking clippers
to the yard I cut the bamboo he never uses, thick
shoot I think might hurt less than the wiry others.
To scare me he keeps it hanging in his shed
where maybe half the time threat turns into real beating.
It’s no purge, no sweating hunched over
to catch his breath after. It’s a spanking,
preceded in this way by the unbelievable
its gonna hurt me more than you, and followed
with an embrace—his walking through of ritual,
like something he thinks all fathers do.
But it was summer when I must have done
something terrible which I’ve forgotten, when
my mother laid on thick threats of my father’s
coming home to use the posed bamboo shoot, or cupped
hand, or gnarled leather belt whose buckle I still hear
in the fidgeting to have it off—and I took from drawers
all the underwear I had, layering until my pants
bulged and I waddled all day waiting for the spanking
that never came—he just sat me down, padding
bunched against couch cushions, riding up my legs
sweating and red in however many pairs I wore.
It was over. The fear, he said, was enough.
walking 45th and Lexington toward Grand Central
I spot splayed across the subway steam grate
a man soaking up heat on the first cold morning of fall.
Not a bad idea, I say to my friend, the guy within earshot
but passed out, or seeming so, wrapped in steam
dreams. If I were homeless, yada yada yada
something about the ingenuity of street people.
Not ten feet further there’s woman sitting on the concrete stoop
under a storefront window, leaning on a release valve:
she’s got bags of who knows what stacked around
and beneath her like a throne; she’s all made up
like a child’s idea of royalty: thick pink eye-shadow,
pink lipstick, pink everything, and these fake jewels draped
from her neck and wrists. Seems like a lot of work, I say;
at least she’s trying to keep up appearances, my friend responds.
What are these annotations we feel the need to lay on the margins
of their lives like stamps of approval? Later I slip a Metro
card in some guy’s hands asking for a swipe. He turns
through the stile and mouths, God bless—I point and nod,
lips pursed like I’m relating some shared predicament;
like this guy’s my brother, and what wouldn’t I do to help my brother?
Words Like Ours
In the dark of the bar we were the words we were saying
to one another, maybe not fully
aware of what we were saying
while it was being said. What was spoken between us
became what we were to each other
in the downpour
of words that kept us together, drowning out
what was being said
at other tables
between others maybe like us, lost to the vocables
that meant being unalone awhile,
even if all we managed
was lost speech, broken to bits by later, half-
remembrances, drinking-in what
was bound to be said.
In the barroom it was raining what was being said,
and maybe we held some of it cupped in hands,
or mouths shaped in O’s,
catching what we could, soaked in hair and running
over skin. Later we could still wring
on the floor
whatever might be left from what was said: drops, halved
and quartered, endlessly discovered, soaked up
to be drained and lost again
in the dark of the dried-up bar talk, waiting for later others
who would be saying before long
words like ours.
In the past Joshua has served as the editor for Clemson University’s literary magazine The Chronicle as well as the president of Clemson’s English Majors Organization. He placed as a semi-finalist in the Norman Mailer Collegiate Poetry Competition, and a finalist in the Cargoes Poetry Competition. Joshua graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts in poetry from Hunter College, and is currently a PhD candidate in poetry at Texas Tech University.
He has been published in the South Carolina’s Best Emerging Poet’s anthology, Pilgrim, Tar River Poetry, Rappahannock Review, and The Windhover.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press: How long have you been writing poetry?
A little over 8 years. I started writing poetry during my Sophomore year at Clemson University. CNP:
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Absolutely. It was the poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was a Sophomore in undergrad, and only marginally acquainted with poetry (mostly the metrically and linguistically complex verse of the Romantics, or the labyrinthine experiments of the Modernists), and this was the first time I realized that language could be fun to play with; that someone could write in such a way that could be both meaningful and whimsical. I was hooked. CNP: Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
My favorite poet is W.H. Auden—his verse is sonically and metrically diverse, and spans over four decades, covering a multitude of subjects (both historical and personal) with an absolutely masterful command of language. I’m particularly fond of his poems “Homage to Clio”, “The Shield of Achilles”, and “Sonnets from China”. I’m also quite endeared to W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, David Ferry, Sylvia Plath, and C.K. Williams—Williams’ poetry collections Tar and With Ignorance greatly influenced my current style. CNP: Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
My writing process is pretty hit or miss these days, though it was much more consistent and rigorous when I was first starting out (which I think is incredibly necessary). I am an observant person, so I’m always on the lookout for inspiration—it could be an observation from nature, a “memory recollected in tranquility”, an incident at the grocery store, etc. When I sit down to write I almost always hand-write my first drafts in one of my notebooks, and it’s usually a raw, getting-it-out-of-my-system type writing; just to get something on the page. Gradually I transcribe my work onto the computer, and then the revising process kicks into gear. CNP: How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
The form almost always defines itself. It’s difficult to describe this process, as it’s somewhat mystical in nature. It comes from years and years of intense reading/writing, and I suppose it’s a kind of habitual/instinctual process. Usually though, I will write out long lines of verse (typically 12-16 beats per line) until the thought feels fully fleshed out. From there the pruning and revision process begins, and whatever shape the poem feels like taking is how it will iterate itself. I think of it like architecture—what is the purpose of this room/building I am constructing (for a poem is room)? Is it an office building, an apartment, a home, a storage space, a gym? What subject matter best suits this particular room? Will the form heavily compliment the meaning of the poem, or will it merely contain the elements of creation? These are all rattling around in my brain as I consider form. CNP: Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Read everything and write all the time. First, I would begin with more classical works and move forward through time so you have a firm foundation in your own history as a poet, and gradually you will begin to fall into a niche of poets/styles you resonate with—from there you will need to imitate. Again, I suggest experimenting with form and meter at first, and moving from there to free verse if you so desire. Most aspiring poets start writing in free verse because it seems easier, but then they have no idea why free verse was pioneered to begin with—how will you break the rules if you’ve no conception of the game you’re playing? Try writing a sestina, a villanelle, a pantoum, a haiku, a Spenserian sonnet, etc. Try writing in anapestic tetrameter, or trochaic hexameter. Try rhyming. Try writing as if you were a 17th century lord of a manor wooing your future mistress. Try writing from the perspective of a horse. I used to take the word of the day from dictionary.com and write a poem (every day) with that word somewhere in it—one of my favorites was hemidemisemiquaver. You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a voracious reader, and you’ll never write anything of lasting value if you don’t know the history of poetry like you know your own personal history. CNP: What is your editing process like?
Torturous. Revising for me is a bit like killing your darlings, so I can only tolerate 1-2 hours at a time before I feel physically sick or mentally exhausted. For me it’s visceral, and there are few things worse than a poem you feel like you’ve failed to revise successfully. For the most part though I am meticulous about word order and choice of language, as well as enjambment and line length. I’m also always reading out loud and listening for the musicality of the words and how they work together. Again, this is a process that requires some honing, and I often look back on my earlier revisions with some embarrassment at the amateurishness and tone-deaf quality of my lines. I guess you could say I’m my own harshest critic. CNP: When do you know that a poem is finished?
I’ll let you know when I find out! Seriously, I don’t know. It’s a gut feeling more so than anything, and at a certain point I’ve just got to step away and allow the poem to be itself. I could easily prune and add and prune and add endlessly until the poem is completely different/ruined, so I generally try to adhere to Heaney’s advice about revision, which is “don’t kill the miracle” (or something like that). My job as a poet is to trust in my experience and vision, and at a certain point, to allow the poem to take on the life it was always meant to have. In other words, don’t be a helicopter parent to your poems! Allow them to major in art therapy and get a nose ring; allow them to live abroad; allow them to date the drummer from the experimental ska noise band if it means they’ll grow up to flourish one day. Are we still talking about poetry? Haha.