Khadijah Queen homes in on her selections by following three keywords through the archive: disobedience, Detroit, and joy. She introduces Rachel Zucker’s lecture on the confessional mode in poetry (“What We Talk About When We Talk About the Confessional and What We Should Be Talking About”), francine j. harris’s lyric dense with complicated emotions (“katherine with the lazy eye. short. and not a good poet.”), and Monica Sok’s poem of gentle power in the face of trauma (“The Woman Who Was Small, Not Because the World Expanded”). Queen closes by reading “Declination,” which approaches her chosen keywords through the lens of making art.
You can also find a reading by Khadijah Queen on Voca, which was given in 2016.
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:03.33] You're listening to Poetry Centered, the show that brings you recordings of poets reading their work selected and introduced by a contemporary poet. These recordings come to you from Voca, the online audiovisual archive at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson. And as always, I'm thankful to be here to welcome you and introduce our host.
[00:00:25.59] Today our host is poet and professor Khadijah Queen, author of six full length collections of poetry. Her most recent collection is Anodyne, which won the 2021 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America.
[00:00:40.44] Khadijah made her selections today from the archive using the keyword or tag feature on Voca. Following the words disobedience, Detroit, and joy, she shares recordings by Rachel Zucker, francine j. harris, and Monika Sok. She reads a poem of her own which parallels these themes to close. Khadijah, thank you so much for being our host today.
[00:01:04.93] My name is Khadijah Queen. And I'm recording from Paris, France. This lecture by Rachel Zucker is from January 28, 2016 and focuses on confessional poetry. I found it using the keyword disobedience, the first word I encountered in the mass of words on the Voca home page in lowercase.
[00:01:26.33] Fitting, because I just listened to Zucker talk to the poet Judy Grahn on her podcast, Commonplace, the day before. Spent a Sunday expanding my mind around gender and creativity and the importance of accuracy, archiving, and conversations about humanity to include disobedience.
[00:01:45.95] I was also on Zucker's podcast in 2018 in Newark, New Jersey during the Dodge Poetry Festival. And it was so validating to speak with her about literary criticism and theory and motherhood and being a body in a hostile place. And at that festival, I met Ntozake Shange for the first and last time, because she died only a couple of weeks later. And she'd mentioned Judy Grahn as a white woman whose work she loves. And now I am writing about them both for an anthology co-edited by a dear friend and poet, Alicia Mountain. And now I am talking about Rachel too.
[00:02:24.08] At that same festival, Sharon Olds said that as a young poet she received hate mail because of her confessional poetry. Zucker in this lecture breaks down the root of resistance to what she calls I-ness, contextualizing the demonization of this vein of poetry and offering new ways of thinking about personal stories made public in verse.
[00:02:44.66] I love the immediacy of this lecture, that she finished writing it on the day of its delivery. That adds an urgency that fits the theme. And we do well to pay attention to the rethinking Zucker encourages us to really understand the context and meanings behind the terms we take for granted.
[00:03:02.50] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:03:08.54] As some of you know, this lecture is really, really hot off the presses. I finished it today, just in time. The working title is, "What We Talk About When We Talk About the Confessional and What We Should be Talking About."
[00:03:24.62] And I'm going to start just with a little bit of context about how I came to write these lectures and where this lecture fits in with the other two lectures that I've written. And I think maybe it's appropriate in particular with this lecture, because my context or introduction has, as you will very soon see, a rather confessional flavor to it.
[00:03:52.85] In late January of 2013, I told my mother that I was going to publish my memoir, called Mothers, despite the fact that she told me she did not want me to. And that if I did, terrible things would happen to her, to me, and to my children.
[00:04:10.04] A few hours after receiving my email and forwarding it to several friends with a note saying that I was breaking her heart, my mother, who was in Taiwan at the time, was rushed to the hospital. She suffered an aortic dissection and never regained consciousness after an emergency heart valve replacement surgery.
[00:04:30.68] For months after my mother's death, I organized memorials, cleaned out her apartment, managed her literary estate, and mourned her, all while feeling that I'd killed her, that my actions, my writing and my decision to publish my writing, had, in small or large ways, caused her sudden death.
[00:04:50.15] I stopped writing. Perhaps I was in shock or afraid of my own writing. Or perhaps I imagined that never writing again was penance.
[00:05:01.31] Two years after my mother's death, I began to write these lectures. I started reading and writing about two topics-- photography and confessional poetry. When I completed drafts of these lectures, I realized that they were both about my mother's death, although neither of them mentioned her directly.
[00:05:20.18] Looking back I see that I was trying to exculpate myself. I was searching for antecedents and justifications for my practice of writing accessible, autobiographical poems and prose about my mental emotional state, my body, my lived experience, and for including in that writing-- real people-- my mother, my children, my husband, my friends, other poets who I named or otherwise identified with or without their consent.
[00:05:50.66] My work had always had a kind of photographic relationship to the real, to truth, to truth telling, and has relied on the excitement and/or discomfort of revealing too much. I was trying to align myself with artists and movements in order to find protection and permission.
[00:06:10.52] I ended up writing a third lecture about all the ways my writing had hurt others. I made a list of everything I'd ever written that had hurt someone, my most provocative and offensive lines and poems.
[00:06:23.57] I came to realize that none of these three lectures was working. I started over again and wrote three new lectures. The first is "The Poetics of Wrongness," in which I define the poet's role as calling out her own and others' wrongness and subverting hierarchical power systems.
[00:06:42.72] The second is called "A Very Large Charge-- the Ethics of Say Everything Poetry." in which I search for a code of ethics for writing about real people. Tonight's lecture is the third lecture that I've written. And it is about confessional poetry-- the origin and evolution of the term, the problems with it, the pleasures of it, and how a re-examination of confessional poetry might be useful in 2016.
[00:07:12.21] Part of the confusion around the term "confessional" is that it originally referred to a few poets writing in a specific time period. But the term quickly began to be used to describe a mode, a style, a quality of poems written by many poets across several decades. If that were not complicated enough, "confessional" became a derogatory epithet, inherently white supremacist and later overtly misogynistic, and was used as a gatekeeping strategy.
[00:07:45.45] Maybe we should just retire the term. But to reject the term altogether is to overlook the extent to which contemporary poetry is profoundly influenced by the legacy of confessional writing and the extent to which we, who are both drawn to and repelled by this legacy, are newly in need of a poetry that employs the elements of what is often called confessional.
[00:08:11.04] Like all literary movements or schools, confessional poetry contains unlikely bedfellows, none of whom wanted to be called confessional. All of whom wrote in a range of styles and modes across their writing lives.
[00:08:24.24] Still, while rereading the work of the five poets most often associated with confessional poetry-- Robert Lowell, WD Snodgrass, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath-- and the criticism of the period, I attempted a taxonomy of attributes. Poems that are called confessional rely heavily on sound and repetition, use simple syntax, remark on the passage of time, and are less interested in condensation than most lyric poems.
[00:08:55.02] They are narrative, relatively accessible and often include a mixture of verse and prose. They are often emotionally shrill, self-absorbed, hysterical, messy, and traffic in shame. They tend to be long, often written in series, have a strong awareness of audience, and are preoccupied with religion. Many confessional poems are written by non-Jews about Judaism or Jewish history, and have a particular fascination with the Holocaust.
[00:09:25.62] Some so-called confessional poems contain most of these attributes-- others, very few. I'm not interested in developing a confessional or not litmus test. But for the term to mean anything at all, there have to be shared characteristics, and there are.
[00:09:41.76] Let's go back a minute. The term confessional as it relates to poetry was coined by the critic ML Rosenthal in "Poetry as Confession," his 1959 review of Robert Lowell's book Life Studies.
[00:09:56.35] Here's a quote from the Review. "The use of poetry for the most naked kind of confession grows apace in our day. We are now far from the great romantics who spoke directly of their emotions but did not give the game away, even to themselves. They found, instead, cosmic equations and symbols, transcendental reconciliations, in the course of which the poet lost his personal complaint in the music of universal forlornness."
[00:10:24.57] Eliot and Pound brought us into the forbidden realm, yet a certain indirection masks the poet's actual face. Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself. And it is hard not to think of life studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor bound not to reveal.
[00:10:50.23] So poets had always written about feelings. This was not new. The romantic poets had big feelings. But according to Rosenthal, the romantic poet lost his personal complaint in the music of universal forlornness. The modernist poet was writing from an impartial distance about and from a self that was fragmented and ontologically unsure, and employed a persona or a mask of the self. Poetry, as Eliot wrote, "is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from personality. The emotion of art is impersonal."
[00:11:27.67] What came to be called confessional breaks from the lyric tradition of both the romantics and the modernists. Confessional poetry is personal poetry that stays personal, rather than becoming universal, and in which the speaker of the poem is unequivocally himself. I call this quality I-ness. And what happens when Lowell removes the mask and becomes unequivocally himself?
[00:11:54.19] About half the book, Rosenthal writes, "is essentially a public discrediting of his father's manliness and character, as well as of the family and social milieu of his childhood." We hear the poet's psychological problems as an adult and spy, as Rosenthal calls them, "grotesque glimpses into his marital life."
[00:12:16.21] So originally, confessional poetry was poetry in which, 1, the speaker is himself. And, 2, the poet brings what should remain private or personal into the public sphere. 3, the poem's contents disrupts the social norms of its time. For example, the poem contains content that was or is considered grotesque, insane, gendered, impolite, subversive, overly sexual, suicidal, or shameful. And 4, the poem feels dangerous, in part because it causes the writer and/or the reader shame.
[00:12:55.75] When Rosenthal wrote, Lowell seems to regard poetry as soul's therapy. He was remarking on something new in Lowell and in poetry. Lowell was disobeying his inherited Boston-Brahmin mandate to be discreet and inconspicuous, and was defying the tradition of modern poetry which he had previously exemplified.
[00:13:17.68] Lowell was a practicing Catholic. He had converted from his Episcopalian, and a diagnosed manic-depressive who had received treatment in and out of mental institutions for most of his adult life.
[00:13:31.99] Perhaps Rosenthal, an avowed humanist who grew up speaking Yiddish in a religious Jewish home, was trying to understand the full weight of what it meant to Lowell to sully his family's reputation and undermine his straight, white male Protestant privilege by writing poetry in which he emasculated himself and revealed himself to be emotionally unstable, a lousy husband, a failed father, and a pretty unpleasant person.
[00:14:01.57] But the choice of the word confession to describe Lowell's poetry and of the phrase, soul's therapy, confusingly allied to the Christian practice of confession with the secular practice of therapy and poetry. Confession, or the sacrament of reconciliation, requires one to examine one's conscience, confess one's sins to a priest, express contrition for these sins, and ask forgiveness.
[00:14:29.86] The priest may then suggest penance, and will then absolve the confessor. The process of confession returns a person to a post-baptismal state of righteousness.
[00:14:40.93] Therapy, and I'm speaking of Freudian psychoanalysis which was predominant in Lowell's time, is a process in which a patient works to bring unconscious material into consciousness in the context of a therapeutic relationship. Conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind arise in response to repression. And this repressed material manifests as neurotic or psychotic behavior and mental disturbances, such as anxiety and depression.
[00:15:09.70] On the surface, confession and therapy may seem similar. One speaks one's sins to become good again. One speaks one story to stay sane and healthy.
[00:15:21.53] But the Freudian notion of illness or madness as being caused by repressed thoughts is antithetical to the Christian notion of thoughts as sinful. There are no good or bad, sinful or godly thoughts in psychoanalysis. It is only the repression of thoughts, a kind of unthinking of thoughts, especially thoughts one thinks of as bad that cause illness.
[00:15:46.33] Psychoanalysis aims for integration, understanding, wisdom, and maturity. Confession aims for absolution and a return to grace or a state of innocence. The conflation of the Christian practice and therapy results in a great many contradictions and confusions as to what poetry as confession is.
[00:16:06.55] When Rosenthal writes, "It is hard not to think of life studies as a series of personal confidences rather shameful that one is honor bound not to reveal," what is the location of that shame? Is it in the nature of the secrets Lowell reveals, or in his use of the poem as a public space for private material? Is it the shameful content of a poem or the expression of private content that makes a poem confessional?
[00:16:34.93] And if it is the first-- shameful according to whom? To God, to the state, to the mainstream? By this measure, any poem written in America in the '1950s or '60s that included homoerotic content should be considered confessional. But Allen Ginsberg is only sometimes considered confessional, and Frank O'Hara almost never.
[00:16:59.77] And what is the role of the reader. In poetry as confession, is the reader a psychoanalysis priest who offers absolution and provides a therapeutic context? Or is the reader a voyeur witness, intruding upon what should be a confidential exchange between poet and priest therapist.
[00:17:19.60] These confusions matter. The poem in one case is a sign of health, and in another a catalog of sins. The poem is either a site of communication between poet and other, or it is an intercepted, broken confidence.
[00:17:35.02] One thing that confession and therapy have in common is that both require the presence of another human being. In this way, Rosenthal's metaphor is apt and useful. Confessional poems are often addressed to someone-- a priest, a therapist, a lover, a friend, a child, or the reader-- in ways that break with traditional apostrophe in the lyric. In the lyric, apostrophe, which comes from the Greek word, to turn away, meaning that the orator turns away to address an individual, is most often a trope of address to a dead, absent, inanimate, other, or self.
[00:18:11.86] Most confessional poems are narrative, which is to say, they describe a sequence of events told by a narrator. In confessional poems, the narrator or speaker is almost always the poet.
[00:18:23.41] Lyric poetry, on the other hand, doesn't usually tell a story about what happened, but is itself the event, the occasion. Narrative, like folk tale, is how we explain ourselves to others, and is therefore inherently a public enterprise. Lyrics, from the tradition of singing or anything that can be accompanied by the lyre, are concerned with the private, and are how we explain ourselves to ourselves.
[00:18:50.83] In a lyric, the poet is a prophet or oracle, a voice overheard. In a confessional narrative poem, the poet most often speaks to a specific real person, and thus breaks from the lyric notion that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. This is part of what gives confessional poetry a sense of realness and intimacy. It is also part of what can position the reader as a voyeur.
[00:19:17.68] Anne Sexton's poems are..
[00:19:19.36] [AUDIO OUT]
[00:19:19.84] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:19:24.59] I clicked on the keyword Detroit to find this poem. My family is from Michigan, so I couldn't resist. And of course, I had to choose francine j. harris. We are both Cave Canem Fellows. And I know francine's work very well. Storytelling intensity, strangeness alongside intimacy, and interrogations of the ordinary fill harris's poetry. And I teach one of my favorite poems of hers, "You old meenie," to undergraduates often as a poem of place, as a litany, and an example of the vast range of emotions that a poem can contain.
[00:20:03.95] This recording is from September 3, 2015. And Detroit lurks in the background. I saw francine perform the poem, "Katherine with the Lazy Eye-- Short and not a Good Poet," many years ago and it brought down the house, painfully.
[00:20:19.10] It's a tough lyric, documenting the death of someone, the speaker has complicated feelings about repeated insults of the subject. "Katherine" turned a characterization of perceived ugliness back onto the speaker as a kind of mirror. And then undoes that repetition to fantastic effect.
[00:20:38.93] [MUSIC PLAYING]
francine j. harris:
[00:20:45.49] I had three poems in the book, because I mostly want to read your new poems. But so I'm thinking about this poem right. it gives me a lot of grief. And I have a very weird relationship with this poem. So I'm going to own it, and read it.
[00:21:05.00] You have to really love your poems. I think, you have to decide that you love them again. Love is like an act, so you have to act, I'm going to love this poem again.
[00:21:15.66] "Katherine with the Lazy Eye-- Short and not a Good Poet." "This morning, I heard you were found in your McDonald's uniform. I heard it while I was visiting a lake town where empty woodsy highways turn into waterside drives. I'd forgotten my toothbrush and was brushing my teeth with one finger.
[00:21:35.96] A friend who didn't know you said, he'd heard it like this-- you know, Katherine, short, with the lazy eye, poet, not a very good one. Yeah, well, she died. The blue on that link isn't so frank. It fogs off into the horizon, like Styrofoam. The picnic table is full of white people. I ask them where the coffee is. They say, at Meijer.
[00:21:59.60] I wonder if you thought about getting out of Detroit. When you read at the open mic, you'd point across the street at McDonald's and tell us to come see you. Katherine with the lazy eye, short, and not a good poet, I guess I almost cried.
[00:22:12.95] I don't know why because I didn't like you. This is the first time I remembered your name. I didn't like how you followed around a married man, that your poems sucked. And then I figured they were all about the married man.
[00:22:25.67] But sometimes you reminded me of myself, boy crazy. That sometimes I think people just don't tell me that I'm kind of, well, slow. Katherine with the lazy eye, short, and not a good poet, I didn't like that you're lazy eye was always looking at me, that you called me by my name.
[00:22:42.05] I didn't like you since the first time I saw you at McDonald's. You had a mop and you were letting some homeless dude flirt with you. I wondered then if you thought that was the best you could do. I wondered then if it was.
[00:22:55.25] Katherine with the lazy eye, short, and not a good poet, you were too silly to wind up dead in an abandoned building. I didn't like you because, what was I supposed to tell you-- what, don't let them look at you like that, Katherine. Don't let them get you alone.
[00:23:10.34] Katherine with the lazy eye, short, and not a good poet, what was I supposed to say to you? You don't get to laugh like that, like nothing's going to get you. Not everyone will forgive the slow girl.
[00:23:22.25] Katherine with the fucked up eye, short, poetry sucked, must have knew better. I avoided you in the hallway. I avoided you in lunch line. I avoided you at the lake. I avoided you, my lazy eye, Katherine with one hideous eye, shit poetry for boys again.
[00:23:41.15] You should have been immune. You were supposed to be a cartoon. Your body was supposed to be as twisted as it was going to get short and not a good poet. Katherine with no eye no more, I avoided you. Hated it when you said my name. I really want to leave Detroit.
[00:23:58.88] Katherine with the lazy short, not a good poet and shit, somewhere someone has already asked, what was she like. And a woman has brought out her wallet and said, this is her. This is my beautiful baby.
[00:24:14.66] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:24:22.32] Another keyword I entered is joy. Several poems came up, but I clicked on Monica Sok, since I recently read her book, A Nail the Evening Hangs On. I don't know this poet, but feel awed by the incisive grace of this work.
[00:24:39.27] Joy may seem counterintuitive to poems that discuss trauma, but it is not. Joy is how we survive. The poem is from February 13, 2020. And it's called the, "Woman who was Small, not Because the World Expanded."
[00:24:55.98] I felt drawn to it because it has echoes of the fable or dream in its tone. I love the gentle power in this poem.
[00:25:06.32] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:25:10.62] "The woman who was small, not because the world expanded." The elephants came out from the fields and carried me toward Chambak, toward a village doused in fires so that in the pond fish had fried. And looking at that dead water was a woman I had seen running home each evening with a bucket in her hand. Always her speed was the hair that flew in my face. Always her feet sounding of tanks, which made dogs bark and flee, footprints deep as trenches in the grass.
[00:25:47.65] This is the woman who has shrunk so small when the planes came. Nobody could ever find her. And since more planes. She stayed as small as a spoon. And the world seemed to enlarge, though nothing had changed.
[00:26:01.47] And when she saw me, she hid, threw pebbles at my ankles until I bowed down and easily picked her up, folding her inside a banana leaf. She slept. She slept well. She who is my mother, sleeping off the world again, whose person I hold in my hand when she wants to be held.
[00:26:33.61] The poem I'd like to share with you is called "Declination." This poem appears in Anodyne, my most recent book, published in 2020 by Tin House. And it's written after Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day. And in conversation with the other recordings from the Poetry Center archives that I chose, I thought I would read something sort of in the confessional vein that's also narrative, and adjacent to those key words of joy, disobedience and even Detroit.
[00:27:07.13] Even though it's not set in that city, my family is from there, and our relationship to that city is related to work. Since a lot of my relatives work and still work in automobile factories, including my grandfather who worked in the Ford factory his whole life, but in the case of this poem, there's a lot around making when it comes to art and writing, which is my chosen work.
[00:27:34.88] "Declination." The truth is I am lionhearted-- dreaming, no match for the waking flame. We fell asleep smelling smoke placed damp towels on all the sills.
[00:27:52.41] Now the ground is frozen. And in the dream, distance evaporates. I say every word held back, Bold in touch 2, Lengthening in spirit. The mountains shadow the rest of the cold day breaking. And we hum with energy. Winter keeps us lucky, rested like suns.
[00:28:16.35] Are you an eagle yet? Serpents, they say, can't keep lies from breaking their tongues. In the dream, I resist to your silence protects me from my own. One touch to eradicate all sense, except electric-- what you know you control.
[00:28:35.65] On a day like this, mottled gray blue with threats of yellow, eye watercolor until hunger overtakes. I might write, but words don't feel brave enough. Do you draw upon waking? Do you first spike a coffee or rent dreams from your skin with wet heat?
[00:28:56.77] I dare not ask I make, I make messes I delight in. I draw to darken my small hands with charcoal, blow its dust off the paper, use up shammy after shammy, deep means shadows, black is lust.
[00:29:15.01] Deepening shadows, black is lust or Inc. Sleek lines improvised across the cotton rag. Why can't this work to make me not want you drawn over me? A dream in rowdy fragments-- impossible.
[00:29:32.89] Midwinter the day thrills frozen, denatured minute by minute into a graveyard for night and dreams. I could want you or hate that want. I hate last night's plate just as light sneaks in. I add lemon to the cool water in a faceted glass, set it down, heavy, ringing the wood.
[00:29:57.36] My sister would tell me I need to stay focused. I do. I'm writing this in the creeping dawn strokes having made my list and folded the white paper into crude fourths.
[00:30:08.74] I have to manage-- foolish, I know, to try so many times after a spectacular failure. But I refuse to fight the urge to rise from my low camouflage, letting hunger quicken the hunter and me shattering pretense. I make a show, don't I, blushed and modest. Even as I etch, your departing silhouette in gold.
[00:30:35.97] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:30:44.57] Khadijah, thank you again for those great selections and for weaving your own work together with them. I really enjoyed approaching the archive through disobedience, Detroit, and joy.
[00:30:54.20] Listeners, thank you so much for being here. We hope you'll visit voca.arizona.edu see that cloud of keywords that Khadijah picked from. What keywords might you want to follow through the archive? Two weeks from now, we'll have our final episode of season 2, hosted by Matthew Zapruder. Until then, we hope you're staying safe and healthy. And we look forward to being with you again soon.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:31:17.96] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center Library and buildings are housed on the Indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson, with support from--
[00:31:48.20] Sarah Gzemski.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:31:49.58] Explore Voca-- the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive on online at voca.arizona.edu.