Undisciplinary writer and translator JD Pluecker curates recordings that circle around themes of return, transformation, history, and the future. Pluecker introduces Joy Harjo finding what remains in the wreckage (“New Orleans”), Andrea Lawlor considering how one thing turns into another (excerpt from “Paul Take the Form of a Mortal Girl”), and C.D. Wright turning herself into an ancestor (“Our Dust”). Pluecker closes by reading “Return Unsettlement,” which asks whether anything is ever quite gone or has ever quite arrived.
You can also watch a recording of JD Pluecker reading in 2019 as part of the language experimentation collective Antena Aire, in collaboration with Myriam Moscona.
Have you checked out the new Voca interface? It’s easier than ever to browse readings, and individual tracks can be shared. Many readings now include captions and transcripts, and we're working hard to make sure every reading will have these soon.
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:03.45] Thanks for joining us for Poetry Centered, which comes to you from the University of Arizona Poetry Center. We always look forward to this chance to share selections with you from Voca, our online audiovisual archive. These recordings are curated and introduced by contemporary poet.
[00:00:20.70] I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson here to welcome you. Today's show is hosted by JD Pluecker, who writes, translates, organizes, interprets, and creates, working with language in undisciplinary ways. JD is the author of Ford Over, a book of poetry and image, translator of numerous books from the Spanish. Their most recent translation is Luis Felipe Fabre's Writing with Caca.
[00:00:47.54] For this episode, JD introduces recordings linked together by the theme of returning to history, to the future through transformation, through the wreckage, and through delight. Look forward to recordings by Joy Harjo, Andrea Lawlor, and C.D. Wright. JD, Thank you so much for this look at the archive today.
[00:01:10.52] Hi, this is JD Pluecker, and I'm recording this from my apartment in the East End in Houston, a settler colonial on lands traversed previously and now in the present day by the Karankawa and many other tribes from here and from North and South. The first recording I'd like to share is Joy Harjo reading "New Orleans" recorded on Wednesday, September 16, 1987.
[00:01:38.47] To pick the poems for this episode, I spent many days and nights listening to poems in the archive, being overwhelmed by the number of poems and poets in the archive and finding different threads, following them for a while, and then leaving them behind. I thought about threads of memory, history, the South, emergence repeatedly coming out, Texas, and multiple returns, returning returns, repeated returns, ancestors and descendants.
[00:02:09.96] I got particularly interested in listening to poems from previous decades, especially the 80s and the 90s, times when I was alive but before I turned to poetry. I wanted to listen to what was happening then. Deciding who to include was incredibly tough and a seemingly endless process.
[00:02:29.25] But in the end, I decided to select three poets who were not featured in the previous seasons of the podcast. I wanted to bring some voices into this podcast who hadn't been here before. This poem by the Greek poet Joy Harjo teaches me about the longing for return, the perils of returning to look for something, the danger of finding anything at all in the wreckage, the voyage to look for evidence, as she says.
[00:02:57.18] I turn to this poem because it's the South, the Gulf Coast, the humidity because Harjo is listening to the story told by the river and by the monuments and by the trinket shops and by the mud and the low places and at the river bottom. I kept coming back to this poem because she dares to imagine what is unimaginable and to recognize how people continue to live and play and get drunk inside the memories and inside the materials of the wreckage unaware and always on the edge of being destroyed.
[00:03:31.33] I come to this poem because of its attention to drowning, the drowning of the colonizer-- de Soto here-- but also in the ways that the drowned colonizer keeps on going despite it all and unfortunately. As she says, blood is the undercurrent.
[00:03:48.34] Listen for the gold and the way transubstantiation happens, how one thing becomes another and then returns to its former state and then shifts again, how objects and children are spun out into the mud, into the dirt. So here is Joy Harjo reading "New Orleans."
[00:04:11.79] I'm going to read a few. The next two I'm going to read is from She Had Some Horses, and then most of the rest of the poems will be from a new manuscript called In Mad Love and War. I think that might be what it comes down to. We'll see, I guess, eventually.
[00:04:30.70] This poem is called "New Orleans", and I wrote it. It was, well, the first and only time I went to New Orleans, and I'm Creek from Oklahoma. I was born in Oklahoma, but my Creek side of the family is originally from Alabama, and this was the closest at that point that I had come to that homeland.
[00:04:54.34] So you better bet I was out there looking and walking around the streets looking to see what had happened. I'm still trying to figure out what happened. And so I was walking around New Orleans, and I walked to the Mississippi River and sat there for a long time. Rivers talk. And I learned quite a bit, and I started thinking, remembering the story about this guy named de Soto.
[00:05:21.34] And I heard this story when I was in about third or fourth grade during some kind of history. And what I remembered, which may not be what happened, is that de Soto-- well, of course, de Soto was looking for gold. They still are. And he was either killed in his body thrown in the Mississippi River, or he was drowned there.
[00:05:45.55] And I think the Chickasaws or the Choctaws did it, but I used my poetic license, and I said the creeks did it. Because I knew somehow they had a hand in it. And so this is New Orleans.
[00:06:05.23] "This is the South. I look for evidence of other Creeks, for remnants of voices or for tobacco brown bones to come wandering down Conti Street to Royale or Decatur. Near the French market, I see a blue horse cut frozen in stone in the middle of a square.
[00:06:27.04] Brought in by the Spanish on an endless ocean voyage, he became mad and crazy. They caught him in blue rock, said don't talk. I know it wasn't just a horse that went crazy.
[00:06:42.26] Nearby is a shop with ivory and knives. There are red rocks. The man behind the counter has no idea that he is inside magic stones.
[00:06:54.35] He should find out before they destroy him. These things have memory, you know.
[00:07:01.40] I have a memory. It swims deep in blood at Delta in the skin. It swims out of Oklahoma, deep the Mississippi River.
[00:07:10.88] It carries my feet to these places, the French Quarter, stale rooms, the sun behind thick and moist clouds. And I hear boats hauling themselves up and down the river. My spirit comes here to drink. My spirit comes here to drink. Blood is the undercurrent.
[00:07:31.87] There are voices buried in the Mississippi mud. There are ancestors and future children buried beneath the current stirred up by pleasure boats going up and down. There are stories here made of memory.
[00:07:48.73] I remember de Soto. He is buried somewhere in this river, his bones sunk like the golden treasure he traveled half the Earth to find. Came looking for gold cities, for shining streets of beaten gold to dance on with silk ladies.
[00:08:08.72] He should have stayed home. Creeks knew of him for miles before he came into town, dreamed of silver blades and crosses, and knew he was one of the ones who yearned for something his heart wasn't big enough to handle. And de Soto thought it was gold. The Creeks lived in Earth towns, not gold, spun children, not gold.
[00:08:36.38] That's not what de Soto thought he wanted to see. The creeks knew it and drowned him in the Mississippi River, so he wouldn't have to drown himself. Maybe his body is what I am looking for as evidence to know in another way that my memory is alive.
[00:08:55.78] But he must have got away somehow because I have seen New Orleans, the lace and silk buildings, trolley cars on beaten silver paths, graves that rise up out of soft earth in the rain, shops that sell Black mammy dolls holding white babies. And I know I have seen de Soto having a drink on Bourbon Street, mad and crazy, dancing with a woman as gold as the river bottom."
[00:09:29.20] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:09:37.08] The second recording I'd like to share is Andrea Lawlor reading an excerpt from their novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl recorded on Thursday, October 10, 2019. The book is a novel. It's prose, but I still really wanted to include it here.
[00:09:55.61] I read the book in 2020 during the darkest days of the first year of the pandemic, and it provided me so much light and fun and humor. Though the book was written recently, it takes place in the 90s. And it reeks of the 90s and the way gender and sexuality were handled in certain lesbian feminist and proto queer circles then.
[00:10:17.04] In this excerpt, Lawlor reads a section about Paul's first and narrates his coming out to his friend Jane as a shapeshifter. Lawlor talks about how Paul grates against this need to continually come out, how he has to endlessly come out in a world that assumes straightness and that assumes bodies cannot change.
[00:10:35.61] Listen for a Lawlor asking how does one thing turn into another and what does the observer do when faced with that shift. I love Lawlor's awkward banter about having to read a footnote. Something about awkwardness feels so queer and so shapeshifting.
[00:10:51.49] Also their banter says so much about intentionality, about apologizing, about making mistakes and letting those mistakes be visible, about explaining oneself and explaining one's non-normativity over and over again, the same questions Paul is grappling with in the novel.
[00:11:10.44] How do we explain ourselves? Why do we have to explain ourselves and how many times? It's worth mentioning that Paul isn't just gay. He has a special power to change his bodily form through a process of concentration.
[00:11:24.32] After Paul transforms his penis into a clit and then shows off his vulva for his friend Jane, he stops and then shifts back into his taint and his penis. He asks Jane not to tell anyone, and she promises not to.
[00:11:39.23] I love Jane's lack of surprise, the simple queer acceptance of her friend's shifting. Paul goes and gets a can of squirt, and they move on to think about summer plans without batting an eye. So here is Andrea Lawlor reading an excerpt from Paul takes the form of a mortal girl.
[00:12:00.80] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:12:05.79] There's a lot of you here. Thank you so much for that lovely introduction. I mean, it's so hard now to read because who could live up to that?
[00:12:16.13] But thank you, Emi and Kate and Patri and Ander and everybody for bringing me in. I'm just so excited to be reading with T Clutch's work I'm such a fan of. And it's so great to see all of you. It really is slightly nerve-wracking to see all of you.
[00:12:34.65] Hi, I am going to read-- can you hear me OK, or am I doing like the-- not that ASMR thing. Is that happening?
[00:12:46.63] Extra, that's the bonus material. OK, so I'm going to read a few short sections to give you a, sort of, ambient sense of what I'm up to in the book. And I won't start at the beginning, but the first section will be close to the beginning. And what you need to know is that it's 1993. It's Iowa City-- go Hawks-- and Paul is about to come out as a shapeshifter to his best friend Jane.
[00:13:21.03] "Paul chafed at the second coming out, at being in again at all and so suddenly. Was it endless, he thought, like Russian nesting dolls with tiny solid center.
[00:13:32.73] He'd begun to read Anne Rice and Octavia Butler books. Maybe he was a vampire or an immortal body snatcher with the intensity with which he had once read James Baldwin and Edmund White. He checked out stacks of videotapes, The Lost Boys, Cat People, The Company of Wolves from the public library looking for something, anything that might speak to his condition.
[00:13:55.11] The closest thing he found was Orlando, but Paul wasn't some count/ess who could just instruct the servants in this castle to be cool. He had to think logistically. He'd sensed his own nascent malleability for years since childhood.
[00:14:10.74] At first, he'd assumed all gays were like him and had quietly decided not to mention they could choose, but it pieced together over time without revealing too much that he was even to the gays a freak. He was alone in this world. He regarded other gays now with mild condescension.
[00:14:28.92] He had gone through the door in the last adventure in Narnia, and they were like poor Susan with her nylons stuck on the train. Although what was wrong with nylons and lipstick and invitations Paul had not quite worked out.
[00:14:41.67] For instance, Jane was a Susan, but she was also his friend. And she'd been starting to suspect something. Paul could tell.
[00:14:48.75] He decided to confide in her. Maybe it would feel good. Maybe he could relive those high wire blasts of relief he'd felt in his previous big gay milestones."
[00:14:59.22] And here you'll note that this is my first novel. And I have included a very long footnote that when I go to read I always have to have an awkward disclaimer and then segue awkwardly back into the text. So that's what's happening now.
[00:15:15.72] OK, these are the previous big gay milestones. "First admission of self at 9 after hearing Richie Spagnoletti call the music teacher, Mr. Plummer, a queer. First admission to another human being, freshman year of high school phone call to the Albany crisis hotline while his parents were at dinner and Aria was asleep.
[00:15:37.26] First admission to an actual friend, Heather Fetterson senior year of high school. First gay t-shirt, a white shirt with the words 'act up', which he wore under his uniform button down the last month of high school. Or maybe the Keith Haring radiating baby shirt Heather Fetterson brought him back from her weekend in the city, one of the two.
[00:15:57.30] First gay book, a boy's own story snuck right in the Troy Public Library at age 12. First gay friend, Justin Rosenblum, though, Paul denied the friendship at the time to anyone who asked. First gay hand job received abortive from Justin Rosenblum junior year of high school in Justin Rosenblum's bedroom with "Free Nelson Mandela" on the record player.
[00:16:21.27] First gay hand job given prematurely concluded to Justin Rosenblum junior year of high school also in Justin Rosenblum's bedroom with "Free Nelson Mandela" on the record player. First partial blowjob received from Justin Rosenblum two weeks before Paul's graduation in the Rosenblum family pool house.
[00:16:41.37] First blowjob given to Johnny Palazzolo summer after high school after three years of Johnny gay beating Paul in the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac where Paul lived. First ear piercing, left ear silver who first weekend of college 1989. First gay kiss, Justin Rosenblum homecoming weekend visit to Paul at SUNY Binghamton, discovery of HQ 76 first year of college Bartle Library Binghamton.
[00:17:12.12] First group of gay friends, at Binghamton, the motley gang of sincere pimply, waxy skinned boys and girls who gathered giddily in each other's dorm rooms for John Waters or Joan Crawford film fest's. First gay pride parade, New York, 1991. First official boyfriend, Tony Pinto, New York, July to August 1991.
[00:17:34.71] First anal sex given to Tony Pinto, New York, August 1991. First anal sex received from Tony Pinto, Iowa City December 1991."
[00:17:46.95] So now we're back. So awkward, right, every time, but what do you do? I guess you just don't write footnotes. But you need them.
[00:17:56.64] "Maybe if Jane knew, Paul thought, she could help him take better pictures for his zine. Back at Paul's house, Jane smoked a clove cigarette coolly tapping her ash into one of Christopher's floral print teacups as she watched Paul take off his shirt and unbutton his jeans’ first two buttons.
[00:18:15.24] 'I've seen you naked, Paul, and it doesn't do anything for me.' She sat back on the futon narrowing her eyes like a stockbroker at a titty bar and blew a series of spicy smoke rings.
[00:18:26.49] 'Just wait,' he said concentrating. He thumbed his jeans and briefs down to mid-thigh exposing his pussy to the cold air. His ass clenched a little. 'Dude, said Jane. 'You're tucking. Nice tucking.'
[00:18:38.76] 'No,' Paul said. He pulled his labia apart to expose the shiny red skin, his clit, that extra slit and hole whose name he did not know. Jane for once had nothing to say.
[00:18:51.55] He extended a finger to Jane's nose. 'Does that smell like penis to you?' Jane sniffed his finger frowning. Paul let his concentration lapse, let his clit expand back into cock, his hole close up and detain. His labia dropped heavily into nut sack.
[00:19:07.53] Jane stared still completely silent. 'You can't tell anybody,' he said. He patted his package through his briefs and pulled his jeans backup. 'Of course not,' said Jane. 'If anyone finds out about this, you'll be a total guinea pig.'
[00:19:21.15] Paul could practically see the gears turning in her head. She was getting excited about some thought she was having. 'Yeah,' he said emphatically, and that would suck.
[00:19:31.71] Paul walked out of his bedroom and rummaged in the refrigerator. He preferred to hang out at Jane's house where there was food. He located a single can of squirt, which he bought for the name. He held it up to Jane, and she shook her head.
[00:19:45.90] 'But I actually do want to go to Michigan in August,' he said. 'Don't you want to go with me now? We'll have so much fun.'
[00:19:52.08] Jane picked up her backpack heavy with library books she was taking home to keep unopened next to her bed for the next eight months. Yes, she's a graduate student.
[00:20:02.37] 'I'll think about it,' she said. I don't want to get my ass kicked by a gang of Indigo Girls-worshipping, softball-playing woperdaughters with mullets and fanny packs. They're extremely particular about their woman only space.
[00:20:15.27] 'We won't get in trouble,' said Paul. 'They'll never know.' Jane looked over the top of her sunglasses. 'Maybe,' she said."
[00:20:22.49] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:20:30.45] The third recording I'd like to share is C.D. Wright reading "Our Dust" recorded on Thursday, September 14, 2000. I've turned to C.D. Wright numerous times before over the years, particularly her book Deep Step Comes Shining, which I try to read or listen to once a year.
[00:20:47.70] I come back to Wright because she also grapples with the South with its legacies of multifarious oppressions and the heaviness of history and of the present it has created. But also I listen to Wright because she understands and delights in humor and storytelling, funny people whose wit has been sharpened by a harsh world.
[00:21:09.93] Not everything is sadness and gray days. And as she says at another point on the same day in the same recording in 2000 in Tucson at a colloquium dedicated to her work, nowhere does a poet find a monochromatic world. Wright addresses this poem "Our Dust" to a future ancestor who has returned. We can surmise to her work to try to understand who she might have been.
[00:21:37.47] I found Wright speaking to me in the sense, me a poet who never met her but who's trying to figure out who she might have been. In this poem, she speaks to this descendant who's returning to her. She talks about herself, but herself is just a window onto a dynamic landscape and place and time.
[00:21:56.90] Wright refuses to explain herself, though, she does provide a certain impartial account-- a certain partial account. She turns toward and turns away from this future ancestor. It reminds me a lot of something I heard the poet Natalie Diaz talk about in a Zoom session organized through the Center of Imagination and the Borderlands in the first year of the pandemic that we think so much of our ancestors, and we can become stuck on seeing ourselves as descendants. But Diaz encouraged what if we reposition ourselves as the ancestor and think about what we're leaving to the future. Everything is ephemeral it seems except the continual urge to leave behind something durable.
[00:22:41.50] I was so happy to find this poem by C.D. Wright from the 90s thinking of herself as an ancestor just as Natalie Diaz advised us to do in 2020, further proof that there is no linear time, only endless repetitions. Though listen here for Wright's humility, her attention to her own error and incapacity, her admission that her life doesn't bear repeating. And yet repeat it does in this poem and as we listen to it in her failings and in her longings. So here is C.D. Wright reading "Our Dust."
[00:23:20.47] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:23:27.53] We're almost out of time here. Maybe you could take us out by reading this and getting out. You think that's a good idea?
[00:23:33.11] [INAUDIBLE VOICE]
[00:23:39.18] "Our Dust." "I am your ancestor. You know next to nothing about me. There's no reason for you to imagine the rooms that I occupied or my heavy hair, not the faint vinegar smell of me or the rubbered damp of Forrest and I coupling on the landing en route to our detached day.
[00:24:01.40] You didn't know my weariness, error, incapacity. I was the poet of shadow work in towns with 1/4 inch phone books, of failed roadside zoos, the poet of yard eggs and sharpening shops, jobs at the weapons plant and the Maybelline factory on the penitentiary road. A poet of spiderwort and jacks-in-the-pulpit, hollyhocks against the tool shed and the unsmiling dark blonde, the one with a trowel in her handbag. I dug up protected and private things. That sort I was.
[00:24:34.49] My graves went undecorated and my churches abandoned. This wasn't planned but practice. I was the poet of short-tailed cats and yellow line paint, of satellite dishes and Peterbilt trucks, red men chewing tobacco, triple hit cream soda, also of dirt dobbers, nightcrawlers, Martin houses, honey, and whetstones from the Novaculite Uplift, what remained of the uplift.
[00:25:01.23] I had registered dogs for sale, rocks, dung, and straw. I was a poet of hummingbird hives along with redheaded stepbrothers, the poet of good walking shoes and necessity in vernacular parks and push mowers.
[00:25:15.18] The rumor that I was once seen sleeping in a refrigerator box is false. He was a brother who hated me. Nor was I the one lunching at the governor's mansion.
[00:25:25.48] I didn't work off a grid or prime the surface if I could get off without it. I made simple music out of sticks and string on the side B of me, experimental guitar, night repairs, and suppers such as this. You could count on me to make a bad situation worse like putting liquid makeup over a passion mark.
[00:25:44.07] I never raised your rent or anyone else's, by God, never said I loved you. The future gave me chills. I use the medium to say arise, arise, and come together. Free your children. Come on everybody. Let's start with Baltimore.
[00:25:58.98] Believe me. I am not being modest when I admit my life doesn't bear repeating. I agreed to be the poet of one life, one death alone. I have seen myself in a black car. I have seen the retreat of the black car.
[00:26:12.83] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:26:20.71] OK, so those are my three poems that I selected from the Voca archive, and there were so many other poets that I wanted to include in the podcast. And like I said, I spent a lot of time there. And I fell in love with so many, Samuel Ace, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge Adrienne Rich, Khadijah Queen, Nikki Giovanni, Geoffrey Brock, Douglas Kearney, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gloria Anzaldua.
[00:26:48.57] There's so much richness there, and I just wanted to say some of these other names of poets who accompanied me as I thought about what to put into this podcast. But three is the constraint set out by the podcast, and I had to work within that constraint. That is three plus my own poem that I'm going to read for you called "Return Unsettlement."
[00:27:15.21] And this poem much like the poems we've listened to or you've listened to already today thinks about return, about something that's gone but also alive. It's a poem set here on the Gulf Coast, on the coastal plains leading out to the water. And it thinks about whether something is ever quite gone or never quite arriving.
[00:27:41.85] In the poem, I chart the names of artists who inhabited these lands before me. I want to believe there's a field we work within, a field inhabited by all the others who wanted to create space for the things we may not know, to make space for energy and poetry and anticipation, for humor and listening. I want to go back to that place and then go back again and again.
[00:28:07.29] So here's my poem, "Return Unsettlement." "For middle background, the camera or the eye pans across depth of banana leaves, Spanish Moss, begonia, snows down. Thing is worldings so long been wrong, redo, turn around, come back, insist. A move, Pauline Oliveros listens as ever this body throws down whole from the wails in fetal position wrap.
[00:28:48.15] What is a thing always returning to things self? A friend, afar knows it isn't OK, but how is she not to awaken, not to wrench harder nor rouse from needed sleep? Decades to relearn epigenetically how to reroute in place to remain, reorder, reorient, remake, re-expressing intensive force, brittle leavings of tomato, jalapeno, dog days, canicula, sunburns.
[00:29:27.11] The disconnection feeling is deep said the potted plants to the limp dick, ecstatic, not lesser than. An artist friend came to our house late, clumped the pots into an altar. Prayer for the cutout leaders to fall. Paper slump on the mantle into oyster mounds. Arrowheads unseeded seed nothing, never consented, rise murky and unencumbered.
[00:29:56.92] For once, the manager to be more troubled than the waitress. The clay says, I know how to unsettle the settlement. Settle from the word sit meaning also reconcile, repair to reckon with sitting still.
[00:30:17.02] Languages of intimacies intimate signified voiced or signs, a clump, a knot of chorizo. A spring whispers an earful inside intimidation. Timid flows like a crystal creak through sand murmurs.
[00:30:36.14] 'Time is a shifting liquid,' said Lorenzo Thomas, a shame nobody understands, shy. Summer and the living is Gulf Coast, okra, Malabar, bananas, papayas, winter on repeat, ushers in gray and brown, split subtropical drapery. In Bay City, a horizon, a line of cut paint, the same knife Forrest Bess used to open a portal in his body, our bent future.
[00:31:10.95] 'Ritual,' Cecelia Vicuna says, a manner to stop or pause, a reminder. Water spurts gush. An altar wrapped and perished leafery, a shack toppled to the marshes, a screen array of perfectly arranged grounds, a time as ever for well-aimed undercuts."
[00:31:36.87] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:31:45.32] JD, thank you so much for these selections and for your deep engagement with Voca. Listeners, thank you for joining us. We invite you to explore Voca and hope you'll find your own new favorites in the archive.
[00:31:57.89] Two weeks from today, we hope you'll join us for an episode hosted by Evie Shockley. Thanks again for sharing this time with us.
[00:32:05.63] 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 and Pascua Yaqui people.
[00:32:31.50] Poetry Centered is the work of Sara Gzemski-- that's me-- and Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at V-O-C-A.arizona.edu.