Bojan Louis shares poems that embody deep listening and engagement with particular realities. He introduces Alan Dugan’s grasp of each moment’s truth (“Love Song: I and Thou”); Layli Long Soldier’s poetry of image, witness, and ways of being (“WHEREAS her birth signaled…”); and Angel Nafis’s critical song that speaks to community (“Ghazal to Open Cages”). Louis closes with a recently published ghazal (“Ghazal VI”) of his own.
Listen to a 2019 reading by Bojan Louis on Voca.
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.52] You're listening to Poetry Centered, the podcast that highlights recorded poetry readings from Voca, the audiovisual archive at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Each episode is hosted by a contemporary poet who curates and introduces selections from the archive. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, here to welcome you to the show.
[00:00:24.51] Our host today is Bojan Louis, a poet, essayist, fiction writer, and Professor of Creative Writing and American Indian Studies here at the University of Arizona. A member of the Navajo Nation, Bojan is the author of the poetry collection Currents and the nonfiction chapbook Troubleshooting Silence in Arizona. In this episode, Bojan reflects on the ways that poems can listen, can bear witness, and can map possible futures. He looks at this through the work of Alan Dugan, Layli Long Soldier, and Angel Nafis. Bojan, thank you so much for sharing your time with us today.
[00:01:04.25] My name is Bojan Louis, and I'm recording from Tucson, Arizona.
[00:01:10.76] The first poem I'd like to talk about is "Love Song I and Thou" by Alan Dugan, from his first collection of poems, published in 1961. The reading was recorded on December 8, 1966. My first encounter with Dugan's work occurred during my undergraduate studies, at a graduate poetry seminar that I was allowed to enroll in thanks to poet James Simmerman. I'd read modernists heavily and had a little footing with contemporary poetry.
[00:01:40.06] Dugan's work isn't concerned with adornment or transcendency. It confronts reality head-on, seeking out a moment's truth. Before focusing on my apprenticeship for becoming an electrician, I had designs on being a framer, so the language and metaphors of work sparked my interest. The first line of the poem struck me instantly and still does. "Nothing is plumb, level, or square." What follows is an unfolding of image, of a house being poorly framed with rage as the driving force. In the recording, Dugan mentions that he didn't start writing love poems until after he was married. A man can be heard saying, "Oh boy," in the audience, which feels dated and erroneous to me.
[00:02:25.84] What I admire and what resonates with me now is that the work of marriage and choosing a life partner is work all its own. It's a beautifully hard struggle of understanding, pain, heartbreaks, patience, and continual troubleshooting. The straightforward working-class voice and timbre of this poem showed me that one could write about work, love, life without adornment, and be blasphemously humorous.
[00:02:53.02] So here is Alan Dugan reading "Love Song I and Thou."
[00:03:03.12] --shall conclude by reciting some love poems. I never think of myself as a love poet, because when I was writing as a young man, all my love poems turned out to be absolute slush, so I threw them all away. And by the time I started to write them, I was long married. So most of these are about marriage. This one is called "Love Song I and Thou."
[00:03:41.38] "Nothing is plumb, level, or square. The studs are bowed, the joists are shaky by nature, no piece fits any other piece without a gap or pinch, and bent nails dance all over the surfacing like maggots. By Christ I am no carpenter. I built the roof for myself, the walls for myself, the floors for myself, and got hung up in it myself.
[00:04:13.73] I danced with a purple thumb at this house warming, drunk with my prime whiskey, rage. Oh I spat rage's nails into the frame-up of my work. It held. It settled plumb, level, solid, square and true for that great moment. Then it screamed and went on through, skewing as wrong the other way. God damned it. This is hell, but I planned it. I sawed it, I nailed it, and I will live in it until it kills me. I can nail my left palm to the left-hand crosspiece but I can't do everything myself. I need a hand to nail the right, a help, a love, a you, a wife."
[00:05:20.41] My second selection is Layli Long Soldier's poem "WHEREAS her birth signaled," recorded November 2, 2017. I chose this poem after listening to Long Soldier address a question posed to her by an interviewer about the process of writing about her daughter and the poet's concern about seeming too obsessed or lacking in material. Though Long Soldier may not worry about those things, I think.
[00:05:49.54] In my own writing, I tend to write about the present and past simultaneously, with a vague notion about or of future. And having recently become a new parent, I wonder how and when and if I'll write about my daughter. She's appeared, so to speak, in two pieces I've written this past year and nothing else. Everything else taking or maintaining their own trajectories and narratives, their own poetics. Perhaps the writing about my daughter will come later.
[00:06:25.02] Long Soldier's poem is woven quite beautifully in pieces of imagery, witness, documentary, theory, linguistics, and Indigenous ways of being. Two moments that shake me are, "Would I teach her to be pieces," and, "I watch her be in multiple musics," as the poet considers her daughter's heritage of two Indigenous dialects, Lakota and Diné Bizaad, alongside colonial English.
[00:06:58.41] These concerns of motherhood and the ushering in of a future that has and will survive through adaptation and incorporation, mosaics a child can be of their parents intrigued me while also providing a map of the possibility to harness an experience that we acquisition of an Indigenous dialect, an Indigenous future. The lyrical and prosaic form that the poem takes allows Long Soldier to layer moments of personal reflection with those of Jacques Derrida and his own mother after she suffers a stroke. Long Soldier shows us and enacts a future in the teaching of language in motion, rather than in, as she writes, statistics, in this dying.
[00:07:50.61] Here's Layli Long Soldier reading "WHEREAS her birth signaled."
Layli Long Soldier:
[00:08:01.34] I had someone, an interviewer, probe me a little bit about why I write so much about my daughter. And I felt really embarrassed, because I already knew I write about her quite a bit, she appears in quite a few of my pieces. So I was embarrassed, because I didn't want to seem completely obsessed with her or maybe lacking material to work with. But I will say that, also, in this work particularly, she, in a way, represents or symbolizes the next generation, our young people, and the responsibility that we have to them. So this is another piece that she appears in.
[00:09:03.16] "WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota. Therein the question, what did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces. Until a friend comforted, Don't worry, you and your daughter will learn together. Today she stood sunlight on her shoulders lean and straight to share a song in Diné, her father's language. To sing she motions simultaneously with her hands I watch her be in multiple musics. At a ceremony
[00:10:09.43] "to honor the Diné Nation's first poet laureate, a speaker explains that each People has been given their own language to reach with. I understand reaching as active, a motion. He offers a prayer and introduction in heritage language. I listen as I reach my eyes into my hands, my hands onto my lap, my lap as the quiet page I hold my daughter in. I rock her back, forward, to the rise of other conversations
[00:10:55.18] "about mother tongues versus foster-languages, belonging. I connect the dots I rock in time with references to a philosopher--" this is actually Derrida, but I didn't write that-- "a master language-thinker who thought of his mother too. Mother-to-child and child-to-mother relationships.
[00:11:29.59] But as this philosopher's mother suffered the ill-effects of a stroke he wrote, quote, I asked her if she was in pain (yes) then where? she replies to my questions. I have a pain in my mother, as though she were speaking for me, both in my direction and in my place. His mother, who spoke in his place for his pain and as herself for her own, did this as one-and-the-same. Yet he would propose understanding the word mother by what mother is not. The differánce. Forward, back. I lift my feet
[00:12:34.99] "my toes touch ground as I'm reminded of the linguistic impossibility of identity, as if any of us can be identical ever. To whom, to what? Perhaps to Not. I hold my daughter in comfort saying iyo-tanchilah mi-chuwintku True I'm never sure how to write our language on the page correctly, the written takes many forms"
[00:13:14.84] I don't know if any of you know Lakhótiyapi. There's a million ways to write any given word, seems like. They're still hammering out certain things. In any case.
[00:13:31.27] "yet I know she understands through our motion. Rocking, in this country of so many languages where national surveys assert that Native languages are dying. Child-speakers and elder-teachers dwindle, this is public information. But her father and I don't teach in statistics, in this dying I mean. Whereas speaking itself is defiance-- the closest I can come to differánce. Whereas I confess
[00:14:23.02] "these are numbered hours spent responding to a national apology which concerns us, my family. These hours alone to think, without. My hope my daughter understands wholeness for what it is, not for what it's not, all of it the pieces."
[00:15:02.67] The final poem I'd like to include is "Ghazal to Open Cages" by Angel Nafis, recorded September 26, 2019. I was in the audience for this particular reading and was moved and enlightened by Nafis's work and presence. This poem was written and commissioned by the Art for Justice series and its work addressing mass incarceration. Nafis explains wonderfully the responsibility and challenge that a poet has in writing and bearing witness while also considering one's role in speaking and listening, to whom and to what and why. Nafis also says that the unpredictable nature of writing poems is not a singular process. It involves others-- those hearing the poem, poets and writers who've come before, and our ancestors and relatives.
[00:16:00.42] I was drawn to this poem because of the project and also because it is a Ghazal, a form that I've been exploring and writing an extended sequence of. Listening to Nafis's description of the Ghazal has helped me better understand the process of the form, and also is another voice to include when I attempt and fail to explain this form to my own students. Ghazals are songs meant to bring together an audience, community. The refrain asks us to, as Nafis says, consider a word and implode it, to see and listen to it from multiple angles and points of view, and, perhaps, to exhaust and examine all possibilities. A favorite moment of mine is, "Under a God-shucked sky, your freedom is a fragrance, even below. How?" Nafis's imagery and refrain create a building tension, and the Ghazal's last line and refrain hits so hard. It is a poem that is listening, that hears us listening as well.
[00:17:12.34] So here is Angel Nafis reading "Ghazal to Open Cages."
[00:17:21.21] So the first one I'm going to read is a Ghazal, "guh-zall," as I say, and it's a deeply ancient Turkish and Persian tradition. Structured form. Just on some nerd shit: It's in couplets, usually about five, but I truly said fuck that, I'm going to do whatever I want. So same word at the end of each couplet, rhyming word before that same word. And I think the notion is, first of all, it's rap. Truly, it's just bars. It's just Persian bars. That's just what that is. But it's also a way to consider a word, which is the repeated word, and implode it, think about what it means. Think about what it means when it looks like this, think about what it means when it looks like that, think about what it means when it looks like that, this, this, and turn it over a bunch of times.
[00:18:23.76] And as I was doing research and interviews with this project, talking to folks who've been incarcerated, who have family members, fathers, sons, brothers, lovers who've been incarcerated, the word that kept coming up was, "how?" How are we-- I mean, they're literally kidnapping us. It's kidnap. And I was like, how? I mean, you're in the Twilight Zone. You know it's true, but the more you dig, the more you're like, I understand less.
[00:18:56.46] And I started with this poet, Nazim Hikmet, who's a Turkish poet-- who was a Turkish poet-- who was imprisoned, actually, for his radical beliefs in his poetry. So.
[00:19:08.70] "Ghazal to Open Cages." This begins with a quote by him. "We'll still live with the outside, with its people and animals and struggle and wind." Nazim Hikmet.
[00:19:29.91] "If my trifling mouth might call you brother, might travel creaky bitten black of it, the telephone line of a poem will show how. Relentless teacher, ghost I chose, no parent, no province, no palm can erase you. What fire's afraid of its own glow? How? Beneath blue, beneath wing, under a God-shucked sky, your freedom is a fragrance even below how. Oh, I must close my eyes to say this, brother, but the breast, the heat, and long rein of a woman will find you no how.
[00:20:23.94] Blessed brain, harvest of the captive, makes a way out of none. When I say a universe thrums in here, do not go, "How?" If filth rises above the floorboards, if steel knows you like the pit knows the plum, then be the song, be the crow, be the how. How could I love you right but fasten no roses to your name, your spirit, your heart, afraid reed that knows how? Nazim, show us a room dying can't enter, past grave and flesh. They imprisoned a poet. They stopped a rivers flow. How?"
[00:21:29.93] This poem is titled Ghazal IV it was published in the December issue of the Massachusetts review
[00:21:39.39] Mouth full of raven's bones, eyes black beaks, on our exhausted bellies we umbilicus to Earth. .54 millimeter bullets light up our backs, exit our bellies. Pre-K, Saint Michael's Arizona, nuns, black scapular and white cowl shunt milk-blood prayers down constricted throats, gurgling cramped bellies. Cienega amarilla, Saint Poverty, Saint Piety, rich with church flesh, give moral accouterment and seed death daisy garlands with starving bellies. Ts’ithootso, pillows, drool stained, stuffed in cubbies. The body moldy bread. An aspirant summons his penis. Signum crucis across our bellies. My memory built against a hill, descending dark corridors. Dios no existe. Poetry of broken sons swallowed by a scoundrel, the ruins of our bellies. Shímá dóó shizhé’é, I am well. The mirror between us dismembers nostalgia. Dull green meadows, yellow, blossoms, blaring silent-stalkers on their bellies.
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:23:24.03] Thank you again, Bojan, for hosting us today and putting these poems into conversation with one another. Listeners, thank you for sharing your time with us as well. Come back in two weeks for an episode hosted by Rosa Alcalá. We always welcome your reviews of the show and we hope you'll share us with a friend. Thanks again for sharing your time with us.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:23:45.66] 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
Diana Marie Delgado:
Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audio visual archive, online at voca.arizona.edu.