Poetry Centered

Oliver Baez Bendorf: Showing Up in Our Own Lives

November 18, 2020 University of Arizona Poetry Center Season 2 Episode 2
Poetry Centered
Oliver Baez Bendorf: Showing Up in Our Own Lives
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Oliver Baez Bendorf shares recordings of poets that encourage him to “show up in [his] own life” through both their poetry and the way they themselves move through the world as thinkers, activists, and people. He celebrates Trish Salah’s intelligence and generosity of mind (“Tiresias as Cuir (on the run)”), CAConrad’s expressiveness of voice and connection to the body (“I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead”), and Ching-In Chen’s call to reconsider histories (“dear story of a risk, 1878.”). Baez Bendorf closes by reading a poem written this summer, titled “Michigan,” inspired by the life and work of transgender activist Sylvia Rivera. 

Listen to the full recordings of Salah, CAConrad, and Chen reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Trish Salah (2017)
CAConrad (2014)
Ching-In Chen with the Thinking Its Presence Board (2017)


Julie Swarstad Johnson:     0:02   
You're listening to Poetry Centered, where we invite a guest poet to dive into Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's online archive of recorded poetry readings. Our guest poet selects and shares three recordings from the archive and wraps up the episode with a poem of their own.

Today we're joined by Oliver Baez Bendorf, a poet and the author of two books, including his most recent, The Advantages of Being Evergreen. Oliver is also an assistant professor of poetry at Kalamazoo College.

In this episode, he shares poems by Trish Sala, CAConrad, and Ching-In Chen. All poets for whom Oliver shares his admiration, both for their poetry, and the way they move through the world as thinkers and people.

Oliver Baez Bendorf:     0:55
Hello, this is Oliver Baez Bendorf and I'm recording from Kalamazoo, Michigan, on the land of The Counsel of the Three Fires, the Ojibwe, the Odawa, and the Potawatomi. This is Trish Sala, reading Tiresias as Cuir on the Run, on October 19th, 2017.

Trish is so smart. Back in 2015, I had the great blessing of being involved in an epistolary exchange with her. We wrote back and forth to one another for an interview conversation that ran on the conversant which no longer seems to exist.

But I'm revisiting our conversation now in my email inbox, and so moved by her generosity of exchange around trans poetics, myths, including Tiresias, language, body, genre. She asked really good questions. And it's that same generosity and rigor of ideas that I also appreciate and admire in Trish's poetry.

My favorite part of this recording comes approximately one third of the way into the poem, when you can hear Trish bridging the sound between the word queer and the word cure, pronouncing the slippage out loud. So here is Trish Salah reading Tiresias as Cuir on the Run.


Trish Salah:     2:20
So this book, Lyric Sexology, it's composed of, I suppose, folios, based on archives of representations of sex. Sex, whatever sex is. It's beyond, it's in between, its limits, it's delimiting. Its race, its construction of gender, its class dimensions, its pathologies, its eugenic logics. Its biography of deviance.

Its autobiographies of people who would rather not be deviant. Polemics by feminists who had good cause, still do. Queers theorizing, trans people noticing themselves disappearing in various ways within the theorizing, the polemics.

And of course, we enact our own exclusions, here, there, and everywhere. So this poem is from the anthropologica section. And I suppose it's about monolingualism and slavery. Tiresias as Queer on the Run.

Dog. The time you take home. The time you take away from home. The insistence. The instance worried out with your thick tongue. Stink. Because of what you found on the ground and put in your gut. Harry as in Bessette or beast. To beast on their terms, their territory. Gut knotted, hold entwined to an internal clock, drape over the occasion, sleep on the mat at the leader's foot.

Queer poetics or not, monolingual, but your poets are. Queer, queer, cure, cure misery, not confined to the nation state, but spread by road trip hash, tragic opera. Idle viles can be convincingly propped to suit the man you want.

To be issued forward. Quote, the food that always remains, end quote. Esteemed. Queer Malia, you want to tableaux. An apology for discovery, accident scales, already weighted. Reviews in stone, long buried time. Mainstreaming, long buried time.

Route as peroute, ocean as peroute, sleep as peroute. On the couch, at the urinal, a woman, a race with the use value. For the revolution, for the dead, for women like me. We hope documents, when the ocean is rooted, one criticizes less guilty.

Parting documentaries as love letters, cursive, sense or if. Queer poetics root for, if not abstinence, then the mainstreaming of prophecy, and the dispute of Tiresias. Part ocean, part dog, nine parts of the nation state. A white kills for pleasure and gold and land and slaves.

Tiresias was a white and not a white, a queer speech trafficking, like vector surveillance. Vile night, unending. The simplest equations are subtraction. A dog never loses its savor. Arab slavers, fawn smear from the mouth, eye sockets. Tell me about your history, the one to come.


Oliver Baez Bendorf:     5:59
This is CAConrad, reading I hope I'm loud When I'm dead, on March 13th, 2014. CAConrad has been, and continues to be deeply important to me. Their somatic poetry rituals and their poems have taught me about being alive, about being a poet in the world, about ethics and practice, and other ways of being a poet besides productivity.

Having read their work on the page long before I heard and saw them read for the first time, I was blown away by the expressiveness of CAConrad's voice. The impact of the tone and how the tone resonates between text and body. In this recording, you can hear the audience chuckling at a few points throughout the poem, and I find myself interested in those moments.

To me, that laughter seems, not necessarily in response to something funny or comical, maybe to relieve tension, because it seems to respond to lines that are quite astute and rather serious. My favorite line in this poem is, you said too much poetry. I said too much war.

So here you is CAConrad reading, I Hope I'm Loud When I'm Dead.


CAConrad:     7:22
This is the poem. And I have free broadsides of this poem tonight, too, if you want. It's called, I hope I'm loud When I'm Dead.

I have a mannequin for a paperweight. It is difficult to type with such a large paperweight. I reach around lovers late into night, typing. From behind, it is impossible to tell which is Virgil. Poetry can be of use. The field of flying bullets the hand reaches through, loving the aftertaste, finding a good deeper third taste.

Many are haunted by human cruelty through the centuries. I am haunted by our actions since breakfast. You said, too much poetry. I said, too much war. The biggest mistake for love is straining. There was a doormark mistake. We entered. You said, too much fooling around. I said, fuck off and die.


Oliver Baez Bendorf:     8:37
This is Ching-In Chen reading Dear Story of a Risk 1878, on October 20th, 2017, at Thinking its Presence. Ching-In and I overlapped in Wisconsin for several years while we were both in graduate school. Me in Madison and them in Milwaukee.

Throughout the years, we have had many joyous and queer overlaps and connections from being on panels or readings together, to most recently, being part of the same 100s writing group. In this recording, Ching-In gives some context before reading the poem.

When they mentioned the troubled history in Massachusetts where they grew up, you might think for a brief second that this poem is going to be about the Salem witch trials, which were held in Massachusetts in 1878, the year the title mentions.

But it's not about the Salem witch trials. On the recording, Ching-In mentions that there was a riot in Milwaukee in the late 1800s, around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. What they don't say specifically, is that those events were anti Chinese riots.

And the ones in Milwaukee were part of a wave of anti Chinese violence enacted around the country at that time. It's interesting and weird to learn that this widespread anti Chinese discrimination and violence overlapped in time with the Salem witch trials. But to be honest, my schooling in the history of the United States was rather abysmal, and I have a lot of making up to do for that fact.

Ching-In's work often caused me in the history, or histories, but sparing no expense of sound, syntax, and surprise. So here is Ching-In Chen, reading Dear Story of a Risk 1878.


Ching-In Chen:     10:26
My name is Ching-In Chen. And I'm really grateful to be here. Thank you Prageeta, for gathering us all in solidarity with each other. And something that, in a conversation, brought up today at the troubling lineages in genre queer panel, was about the question of desire.

And the desire to have connection with each other and to have this-- I don't want to call it family. But some kind of familial, familiar connection, that some of us don't often have with each other or find, especially if we're in unfriendly institutions.

I came to the last Thinking its Presence, and it was a game changer to have folks who were further down the path, be willing to be really vulnerable. I'm looking at some of you who I remember sitting here. And that's the stuff people aren't really often willing to share with you.

Except maybe if you get pulled aside and it's a whispered conversation. But it's not something that people are willing to be public about. And that's really important to changing the communities that we're all part of and having things be more equitable. So thank you all. Thank you, Prageeta.

And I'm going to share two, or maybe three pieces. I'm also really obsessive with the archive. I grew up in Massachusetts, which has a troubled lineage. And I have a troubled history with history. So a lot of this work is about that. Dear Story of a Risk 1878.

I found them in box. Wright's Directory of Milwaukee, their printed names dusty on page. Shane Ring, 276 third. Wing wow, 86 Mason. Clean as sheet, near in their rose. Shelved, a thin woman's back, attempting to see. Covered, paths cut off.

As if war on skin, how many left behind this book, in paper this Sergeant. This gun maker, she says, I do not want a window in the fucking sky.

So that poem is about going through archives in Milwaukee looking for Chinese-American names. There was a riot in Milwaukee in the late 1800s around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I'm going to read this poem called--


Oliver Baez Bendorf:    13:41
So this is a poem of mine called Michigan. I wrote it this summer. At the time I was co facilitating with Jen Hofer a Teach In on trends and Non-binary Latinidad. And finding a lot of strength from learning more about the life and activism of Sylvia Rivera in particular.

Trying to hold myself accountable to that legacy about how I show up in my own life at various intersections. This poem will be coming out this fall in a journal called Interdisciplinary Studies and Literature and the Environment, special issue on the pandemic.

And it begins on an excerpt from a speech Rivera gave in 1973 at the Christopher Street Liberation Day rally in New York City. It became known as her, y'all better quiet down speech. Four years before that, a group of largely trans people of color and drag queens and sex workers had fought back against police harassment in what we know as Stonewall.

Yet white middle class gay men and lesbians took gains for themselves and marginalized trans people within the movement. Rivera gave this speech that day after fighting her way to the stage amid booing from the crowd and other attendees, passing out pamphlets and antagonizing the presence of trans people at the rally.

I'm moved by her willingness to take risks for what she believed in and to speak truth to power. So here is my poem, Michigan. And this clip is from her speech that day.

You all tell me, go and hide my tail between my legs. I will no longer put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I've been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation. And you all treat me this way.

What the fuck's wrong with you all? Think about that.

Michigan. Daisy flea bane arrives early after winter onslaught of lake effect. Snow melt becomes water that feeds wildflowers from the underside. Becomes flood, comes family, a cellular structure for secrets. The year is 2020. Everyone is sick and healing.

Not everyone. Everyone is sick or healing. Lives are precious or expendable. Expelled, expressed, released, side sloughed off to replicate in someone else's precious or expendable lungs. Germination, occupation, months between vagus nerve and a memory of sociality.

You might as well be in Michigan. I rolled into a pleasant peninsula seeking safe haven. And yes, sometimes an invisible cloak fits over my house. Caped children walk right by carrying plastic pumpkins. I push grass ordinance to edges, a local construction of crime.

Legal height lowered. Rehearsing arguments with neighbors. I mow a tiny strip around the meadow, the pollinator garden tickles the curb with liberated wildflowers. Flea bane daisies, such a startling puff of yellow, pink clover right over, and dock.

Dead limbs rotting, but controlled into compost. We will grow things here. We are in this together. I'll post a sign explaining, and pray no one calls on the rooster who rushes to elevation to greet the day or warn of it, all day the same bugle, meaning something only in his kingdom, which I happen to live in.

I surround myself in brown deck stains, and elk and moose of the Michigan flag. State whistle, toad song. Don't you know, son, cooks the shame away. Who else needs to survive? I am trying to answer one question. I measure miles from the arbitrary border, drive-thru pharma for extra vials of testosterone, controlled substance.

Our ex sees a criminal queer, scrutinizes ID, then dispenses a paper bag folded, closed, and stapled, which I toss empty passenger seat. Sanitize my hands, keep driving, fueled by fossils. North in Michigan.

What is a mortgage? Is it a house of cards, a debt meant never to be repaid? Token of achievement, in settlements, shadow? Am I the last loser in Michigan still banking on silence and pleasantries to protect me?

Strangers, slash neighbors, power walk past my ragged lawn. Their yards are dull and starve hummingbirds, monarchs, cardinals and bees. How is that more beautiful? They called cops on children in the road. If I stay in line, if I keep my head down, if I work harder, et cetera, copping myself.

I have held my tail between my legs and saying, grateful. I have been spit on for whose hand I held, harassed for the pants I wore, catcalled for existing. I have been slandered by the God hates fags family. I have studied their church compound on Google Street View and seen the Pride Center painted in rainbow across the street.

I can no longer be placated by the colorful advancement of rights. Depressed to push or pull down. No wonder. An old ordinance still on the books bans fortune telling, another way I am a criminal here. Between that and the forbidden meadow, and some other elements, and the privileges I am often permitted.

I forgot to assemble. Paid on time every month. Did homophobia as work by playing smear the queer. Sylvia didn't die for me to hide my tail between my legs. Untethering from my respectable nest, holding the X in my hand like a rosary and like a brick. I'm done being good.


Julie Swarstad Johnson:     21:00
Oliver, thank you so much for sharing your time with us. And as always, thanks to you out there for listening. We hope you'll join us again in two weeks for another new episode. 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 supported by the work of--

Diana Marie Delgado:
Diana Marie Delgado.

Tyler Meier:
Tyler Meier.

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
And I'm your producer, Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu. 

Trish Salah's "Tiresias as Cuir (on the run)"
CAConrad's "I Hope I'm Loud When I'm Dead"
Ching-In Chen's "dear story of a risk, 1878."
Oliver Baez Bendorf reads "Michigan"