my student asks...; i won’t conceal & bury; soliloquy: brother
By: SE Waters
my student asks if audre lorde & lorde are the same person
love songs exhaust me, they do, they diminish my credit
score, keep me from healthier pursuits, such as taming
a mechanical bull, kicking my heels to the ceiling
in a fringed vest, or anything else really; trouble is,
dead tongues drift in the air & i’m allergic to orgasms.
i’d rather order a club soda alone & stir it with a rusted
spoon, pin thumbtacks around my lids like twiggy’s
lashes— which is to say, i know enough tragedies. here’s one:
my aunt, nun & my uncle, seminarian; meet, eschew their vocations,
get married—he dies from cancer when their children are so young,
they don’t remember his tobacco-rind scent. audre said,
“i’m deliberate & afraid of nothing,” how i plot such statistics
on the x axis, like listen. i ask my student if they are serious as
i make chalk dance and bow on the board, how i’m always naming
things up there, a violent usurper of language. i’ll level:
one’s all gumdrop, throaty sadgirl anthem, another needs
no introduction, like bell or octavia. i try to parse these threads
out but they are all on their phones now, texting. i think,
there is a gulf between audre & lorde so big, it contains
the terror of all that’s already been said.
i won’t conceal & bury
but the bone-handled pistol,
brash carves the air, tells me
the barrel remembers
don’t forget this
there’s a handgun in
every american bedroom
a dalliance with the beasts of war
a special key opens the locker
to the index of bullets
in my throat, but watch
me cock & tilt
needle down the center
of two prongs
my daddy says
i’m a good shot
& it’s fucked i know—
but there’s no finer praise
the split second his eyes
make some plazas
full of roses
don’t forget this
the electric roar
i make the silver disc
target grip its guts
want this feeling
i want my own
around my chest:
rorschach tests | we took in therapy
when our mother was | on a bender
made cobalt | alchemy of our wounds so that we could speak
finally/ with conviction | watch our contused manners
undo themselves at | the wrong times
akashic livers to | f i l t er by whatever
we | trued
was miscons | trued I read
a wrinkle in time |
10 x |
because I was lonely | learned to memorize
| in order to bluster against b l i s t e r
there is | one psychologist’s office
at the center of the | universe bin of spit-soaked
figures to hold aloft | and square off against one
| another as two prizefighters
gumby vs | ninja turtle
brawl until their green | slides off
| leather chair creased in sweat
the pulsing under | this poem
blotted psycho | pyrrhic
for those pictures | I got wrong
brother (still even | still) brother bat winged wonder
folded in half held in | the mouth of a quasar
poised to bloom | (still)
you’re in your house |
| and I’m somewhere far behind
SE Waters is a poet and essayist based in Bloomington, Indiana, where they are pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Indiana University. Their first chapbook was a small-run collection, They Offer You a Name Then Take It From You, which was published by the now defunct Monster House Press. Their work is concerned with the inevitable collision and mirroring which occur between the natural world and our interior lives, fragmentation, loss, lineage, and memory. Their writing is also interested in satire, irony, and the supernatural. SE is a parent of a fourth grader, and they live in a little yellow house.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
SE: I started to write poetry with real focus about eight years ago. I dabbled in my creative writing classes in college, but I got serious sometime after that, when I became a parent.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Well, it may be a corny, but I first fell in love with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”. I say corny because perhaps it’s a cliché piece that folks read in college or high school or whatever and come to see some of themselves within the lines. For me, I first learned about poetry as the work of men, something other bodies/genders didn’t have authority over. But reading Rich’s poem in college, in a weirdly stuffy Contemporary American Poetry course, I saw for the first time a writer like me. Although I identify differently now, her womanhood felt electrifying to me. I found her writing better than the boys club we had been reading. I think about the line “I came to see the damage that was done” often. When my mom passed away, I thought a lot about diving into the wreck of my subconscious mind, of my childhood, of our generational trauma. It’s a very Ars Poetica sentiment for me; diving down into the worst, hardest, and most complicated memories and truths of ourselves, to then bring them back up and out onto the page.
My second experience of succumbing to poetry’s power was one of the first readings I attended, where Ross Gay read from “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”, I think before it had won the National Book Critics Circle Award. I had been to local and regional readings, but that reading was the first time I understood why people stand in front of one another reading their words. I felt his voice in my body like a metronome. It felt like Poetry Church.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
SE: Well, I have quite a few favorite poets, and it seems like a seasonal cast of poems I love which rotate. Some perennial favorites of mine include Lynda Hull, Ada Limon, Diane Seuss, Juliana Spahr, CAConrad, Harryette Mullen, Phillip B. Williams, Natalie Diaz, Sophie Robinson, Devon Walker-Figueroa, and Yusef Komunyakaa (a very much not comprehensive list). I am into an eclectic jumble of writers, and I like to read widely and in as many styles and forms I myself don’t currently engage with as a way of stimulating possibilities in my work.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
I am a big believer in always starting off writing by hand. For me, I tend to carry notebooks around everywhere I go, then write thoughts down as quickly as I can after they have entered my mind. After a few weeks, I go back through the fragments I have collected in order to pull out anything that speaks to me or feels really “loud” or “bright” when I look at it on the page. I know that seems kind of odd, but it does feel like certain words or phrases kind of direct me. I compile those fragments into the beginnings of poems, usually still handwritten at this point, looking for entrance points to expand on themes, topics, sounds, repetitions. After I have a very preliminary draft, I move to my laptop to continue rearranging and expanding. I have an inordinate number of Word Docs open and half-complete just hanging out on my computer, which is probably not a very organized method, but oh well.
As far as rituals, I do like to write in the morning when possible. My brain is at its most sharp early in the day. I have a 9-year-old, so often when they are with their other parent, I try to set aside larger chunks of time to get more in-depth work in on whatever poem or essay I am working on. I like to keep a little altar beside my writing desk, and I rotate objects and images as I feel moved.
Oh, I also find inspiration in flipping through journals or collections before I start writing, because sometimes I see a word or an image in another person’s work which I can’t get out of my head, and I need to think with on the page. I always read poems before I start longer writing sessions because I think maybe we connect into a universal creative unconscious as artists, and we inspire one another through our work. Whether or not that is real, I benefit from feeling that sense of awe that happens when I read incredible poems.
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?
SE: I notice that when I start with very strict parameters of what I think I am writing about, whether strictures such as form, structure, length, even theme, the end result is often not very “alive”. Like, I can’t come to my poems or any kind of artwork with expectations about the outcome. After I get the heart of things out on the page, I can then start to mess with form, lineation, shape, etc. As an anxious person, it’s hard to trust the process, but time and again it seems my best work happens when I get out of my own way and let go.
Right now, I am very interested in prose poems, so I have been very engaged in experimenting within that form. I find that as much as I say I don’t like rules, or guidelines, sometimes I feel my most safe and creative within prescribed frameworks.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
SE: Yes. I would say that in the beginning of a writing practice, no one really knows what they are doing. Don’t believe the people who tell you otherwise. In my opinion, if we are doing the work of engaging with our deepest selves while simultaneously practicing the vulnerability of putting words on the page, we are bound to get somewhere that feels true. I have a greater sense now of what approaches/techniques in my writing ignite me and genuinely feel authentic, but I know that I will continue to evolve. I would recommend trusting yourself; if after editing, sharing, workshopping, and otherwise experiencing a piece, you feel like a part of your innermost thoughts have found their way onto the page, then you are finding your voice. It’s not an immediate, overnight process, at least not in my experience. Saying it plain is often the best way of learning about your voice. What are you trying to say, without decoration? Get that down, then work from there. Sometimes, what we think needs embellishment can stand alone quite well.
Also, it can be tempting after a tough workshop to decide your work is trash and that you are a trash poet. The weight of other people’s suggestions and opinions in a workshop environment can feel very heavy. Generally, I try to take about 5% of the suggestions I receive as far as feedback, then I go with my gut on keeping what feels true. I think the workshop can be a really transformative space, but I also have seen talented writers doubt everything about their artistry after a rough workshop (myself included!) If a writer were to take every piece of advice doled out in a workshop, well, the original poem would kind of be lost. Instead, you end up writing the poem that ten other people would write, as one poem, which never works out well.
Keep trying new things until you make something that makes you think, goddamn! That’s the path to your voice.
What is your editing process like?
SE: My process really varies from poem to poem and seems to be dependent on form. For example, if I am working with a pantoum, I am obviously going to need to pay close attention to the rules of that form in my editing process. I don’t want to undo too much on the line level if the meter and pattern is working well. Small changes made at the line level can create a domino effect of other areas within the poem that must be rewritten.
However, when I work in free verse, I notice sometimes that I am afraid of the freedom I have; the freedom to make an infinite number of choices. While that should be empowering, it can feel paralyzing, like I won’t get it “right”. When editing poems in free verse, I often will completely rewrite a poem, maybe retaining a line or three of the first draft, feeling out what is working. I might do this several times. I whittle away, draft after draft, until I think I have my working draft, which even then, sometimes I run into walls and put the poem away. I do recommend putting a piece down for several months, approaching it again with a fresh, rested mind, and maybe a change in perspective or knowledge, too. When I fiddle too much with a piece that isn’t cohesive or making sense quite yet, I notice that I start hyper zooming in on the details. It’s kind of like if I started decorating a house that lacked dry wall or insulation; I am just going to have to redo everything later once the base is solid. Resisting the urge to tear the poem apart can be hard for me, so I do find the most success with just setting a poem down for a while. I trust that when the time is right, I will come back and keep working.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
Honestly, I only have like one poem out of the many I have written that I feel like, “yes, this one is finished,” and that I have pushed that particular form as far as I think it can go.
I believe that while I may struggle over certain poems right now, someday I might have the tools to address the technical problems or just emotional blocks the piece presents. Each poem offers unique, complex challenges. I have a certain set of tools right now through my experience writing and my time in a writing program, but I don’t yet have the skills or insight needed to address certain issues within my poems. I think that as I continue reading and practicing in my own work, eventually I will come to a place where I can look back on old pieces with new eyes. I know I am kind of harping on this, but I do think the best strategy for me is to set some poems aside. All the time, I learn something in a new poem that I can apply retroactively to a stumbling block I experienced in an older piece.
This may not be the answer other writers would give, but it’s how I feel about it. Also, as long as I am alive, I’m evolving, so shouldn’t my poems do the same thing?