Wendy Xu curates poems that underscore the necessity of attention for the writing of poems, reminding us that to write is to think, to look, and to be present. She introduces James Tate on bending reality through attention to everything (“Rescue”), Mei-mei Berssenbrugge on the connection between the spiritual and the somatic (“Hello, the Roses”), and Joyelle McSweeney on being unafraid of excess (“Percussion Grenade”). Xu closes with her poem “Why Write,” which engages with the past as a living, risky force.
You can find the full recordings of Tate, Berssenbrugge, and McSweeney reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
James Tate (1968)
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (2010)
Joyelle McSweeney (2012)
[00:00:02.40] JULIE SWARSTAD JOHNSON: Happy new year and thank you for joining us for this fifth season of Poetry Centered, which comes to you from the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
[00:00:11.13] This podcast brings you archival recordings from Voca our online audiovisual archive that's home to more than 1,000 recordings of poets reading their work.
[00:00:20.85] In each episode of Poetry Centered, we bring you three recordings from Voca selected and introduced by contemporary poet who closes out the episode by reading a poem of their own.
[00:00:31.17] I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, here to welcome you and introduce our host. To kick off this new season, we have an episode hosted by Wendy Xu a poet editor and professor. Her most recent book of poetry is titled The Past, it came out last September. She's the poetry editor for the arts magazine, Hyperallergic.
[00:00:53.06] In this episode, Wendy brings together poems that definitely illustrate the importance of attention to writing poetry, reminding us that to write is to look and to think about our looking. She shares recordings by James Tate, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and Joyelle McSweeney. Wendy thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:01:16.10] WENDY XU: This is Wendy Xu recording from Brooklyn, New York. Rescue by James Tate was recorded on November 1968 at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
[00:01:30.82] When I was a young poet in college I attended a reading by James Tate and it very literally and very quickly put me on a path to becoming a poet myself.
[00:01:41.98] Many years later I would have liked to study with Jim at UMass Amherst and to spend time with them. But I will simply never forget that first time that I heard his voice reading his own poems and how moved I was by his humor, his relentless imagination, and what I think of as the twists and turns of his sincerity weaving in and out of his irony and often of course his wit.
[00:02:11.68] I loved the candor and the confidence and the wink in his voice which I really think you can hear in this short poem titled Rescue. As well as the sudden and very surprising turns of imagery that readers could always count on and all of Jim's work throughout his life.
[00:02:29.26] Jim's poems and Jim himself taught me that everything can and should be interesting to a poet. That paying attention and applying your imagination to the world around you is essential and is an act that bends reality and also expresses care.
[00:02:48.73] You'll hear Jim say it himself in the poem that quote unquote "everything is relevant I call it loving" And in and among Jim's very large body of poems that he would write in his lifetime, Rescue always comes to my mind as a strong contender for the one poem that may be most candidly expresses his poetic ethos the sheer relevancy of absolutely everything which I just love so much. So here is James Tate reading the poem Rescue.
[00:03:28.19] JAMES TATE: OK I think I'm in with a short poem here. So poem called Rescue. For the first time the only thing you are likely to break is everything because it is a dangerous venture.
[00:03:51.36] Danger invites rescue, I call it loving. We've got a good thing going, I call it rescue. Nicest thing ever to come between steel cobwebs, we hope so.
[00:04:06.30] A few others should get around to it, I can't understand it. There is plenty of room, clean windows, we start our best engines, our Arun. Everything is relevant, I call it loving.
[00:04:32.18] WENDY XU: The poem Hello the Roses by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge was recorded on March 13 2010 originally as part of the Tucson Festival of Books.
[00:04:45.48] For me it's impossible to choose and I'm thinking here why would you want to one of the long poems by this poet that best captures her poetics of intense attention or what I think of as a accelerating attention to how the spiritual experience of looking is also a somatic one necessarily.
[00:05:09.86] And she's the poet I maybe most love to watch think in real time on the page, but the recording of her poetry allows an even more in my opinion, incantatory experience.
[00:05:23.28] There's really no replacement for being able to hear her voice I really love not having the text in front of me when listening to it and I hope that listeners will consider just closing your eyes for a moment as you enjoy the poem that you're about to hear.
[00:05:41.40] The poet narrates both kinds of feeling simultaneously, how the body feels sensation and then of course, how the heart feels emotion. And that twisted effect for me is so hypnotic, and joyful, and present. It really tunes my ear to the potential textures and sensations in my own immediate environment.
[00:06:05.98] So I also encourage listeners wherever you are to tune in also to what you might learn about the space that you're in at this moment, even if it's different from what you hear in the poem. The effect for me after listening to a poem by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge lasts for a really long time after the poem has ended. So here is Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge reading Hello the Roses.
[00:06:39.43] MEI-MEI BERSSENBRUGGE: I can't just cut the poem at half so this one's called Hello the Roses. My soul ray radially rolls out to the edges of my body according to the same laws by which stars shine communicating with my body by emanation.
[00:07:01.77] It is a source of sentience for the visible and invisible, etheric and including unexpressed feelings of others beyond what is physically possible.
[00:07:14.82] When you see her you feel the impact of what visual can mean. An invisible part comes through of deep pink or a color I see clairvoyant Lee. This felt sense of seeing the rose extends because light in the DNA of my cells receives light frequencies of the flower as a hologram.
[00:07:40.88] An entire rose petals and moving air emotion of perfume records as a sphere. So when I recall the emotion I touch dimensionality. From a small bird emerges a tight wound bundle of baby skin coral petals held in a perfect half glow as if by cupped hands.
[00:08:06.15] Then petals are innumerable, loose, double, sumptuous, unified. I look through parted fingers to soften my gaze and slow light shining off the object is filtered.
[00:08:22.10] Then with feeling I look at swift color there. It's swiftness yet seems still as new and light because my seeing travels at the same speed. I make a reciprocal balance between light falling onto the back of my eye to optic nerve, to pineal gland, a radiant stepping down of light into matter and awareness of my future self opening out from this sight.
[00:08:56.29] The moment extends into time passing as sense impression of a rose, including new joys were imagined roses-- roses I haven't yet seen or seen in books record as my experience.
[00:09:11.44] Then experience is revelation because plants and people have in their selves particles of light that can become coherent. That radiate out physically and also with the creativity of metaphor as in a beam of light holographic that is by intuition.
[00:09:34.48] In which I Inhale the perfume of the bourbon rose then try to separate what is scent sense and what you call memory. What is emotion where in a dialogue like touching, is it so vibratory and so absorbance of my attention and longing with impressions like fingerprints all over.
[00:09:57.22] I'm saying, physical perception is the data of my embodiment. Whereas for the rose, scarlet itself is matter. The rose communicates instantly with the woman by sight collapsing its boundaries, and the woman widens her boundaries.
[00:10:23.94] Her rate of perception slows down because of its complexity. There is a feeling of touching and being touched the shadings of color she can sense from touch.
[00:10:39.58] There's an affinity between awareness and blossom. The rose symbolizes the light of this self affinity. I come to visit drooping white cabbage roses at dusk.
[00:10:56.29] That corner of the garden glows with a quality of light I might see when light shines through mist or in early morning reflects off water. I stand quietly and allow this quality to permeate the air around me. Here with the White rose color is Claire sentient. This color in the process of being expressed. Like seeing Venus in the day. Thank you.
[00:11:44.58] WENDY XU: Percussion Grenade by Joyelle McSweeney was recorded on October 11th 2012 at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I first heard Joyelle McSweeney read in 2014. And read will always be the wrong verb I think, because it's inadequate often to describe the really exhilarating mix of poetry, theater, politics, history, philosophy, performance, art, that make up a reading by this poet.
[00:12:19.32] Her poems on the page are saturated and bursting I think of them as textured restless relentless. But when given voice as we're about to hear I find them even more hypnotic, certainly more musical, acrobatic, probably more devastating in this particular poem.
[00:12:42.39] As in the segments that you'll hear where McSweeney is employing the form of the list to an absolutely unbearable and I mean, that in a good way cumulative effect in Percussion Grenade.
[00:12:57.03] This is a poem that for me is polluted by sound, by music, by filth and culture, by beauty, rage, irony. And it's a poem that trust its readers enough to really carry forth at the breakneck speed that it wants. McSweeney's work for me has on more than one occasion shown me that a poem I may be working on myself is too controlled or too timid.
[00:13:29.08] And this is not because I find her work uncontrolled, but because its logic or McSweeney's logic is entirely organic, more limber more confident and never afraid of its own excess as it often describes a culture of excess or pollution that it exists inside.
[00:13:53.49] I really think that Joyelle McSweeney is the finest performer of original poetry working today. And I continue to learn from her power and her poetry. So here is Joyelle McSweeney reading Percussion Grenade.
[00:14:15.43] JOYELLE MCSWEENEY: I'll read something a little more normal for me. And it's called "Percussion Grenade" and it's the title poem. I've actually haven't read it in a few years. So if it's rusty, it might actually be a mercy to you.
[00:14:31.72] I think it speaks for itself. It has some noises that come into it when I get the spirit. And it begins like this. "Percussion Grenade" One. Is it OK to live inside this percussion grenade? Given the high sign to the frogmen sucking mud the all clear to the women rolling their hair into 40s processions.
[00:14:57.64] In my Gondola of clouds, in my percussion grenade, I loaf and invite myself to lock and load dine under the table, stir the alpha soup with my epiphaneedle, the thick hours of my rifle butt. I cause a eutrophied current to glut and push close. What a worry worm. I blot it, smile out and sigh. I atrophy in my percussion grenade. And I defy any pastesayer or ruddy sop to decry the sanction of my equipage.
[00:15:38.05] Two. In this scene, I'm tricked out like a Valkyrie banshee, my shins patched with splints, my mouth stretched to fit a pure gold baptismal font. My hair like armor. My hair like rags. Armored vehicle breast shield, shriek. My rhinoceri in eros. The inevitability of fate. The way my hips shake. The way my death rattles.
[00:15:55.90] How do you tell if there's a goddess of destruction and death in your refrigerator, in your bed, in your cathode tube, in your IV, in your snack box, in Yorick socks, in your parking sheen? How do you tell if it, tell if it, tell if all, slowly now, if at all, tell if it, slowly it, tell if all carefully or-- [GASPS] all in one breath. Three. OP streak! OP shriek! Opine, opine of mine, crescendo macaw.
[00:16:19.30] I'm a magpie with a car alarm and an airplane, a patented genome, a reinforced cockpit door, and a pop-tab brain, vivisected aquifer, shunted and split 10 ways between here and the San Fernando Valley and the Rift Valley and the Kusk Valley and the Rhine, Tuscaloosa, and South Bend, and St Mark's Venice and St Mark's. OP Oglala, OP Orkney Islanders. Bush twins, OP Cree, OP entropy, OP enmity, OP evisceration, OP omenology OP genocide.
[00:16:44.23] How your guts spill up tells me how you die, how you die, how you diet in the post-death time zone up on Mars, on the Stygian plain. Skinny now. What scattering of fingerpits. What? Scattering of finger bones. What dice tossed into the sky became your clutch of daughters lost to history, with last week's literacy? It had a dying fall.
[00:17:03.64] OP C-3PO, tell me if you know if everything that lives is holy, how I know more about celebrity divorce cults than what's happening in Baghdad, Washington, Compton, Philly, Montgomery, Tashkent, Quito, San Salvador, St. Denis, Darfur, Kabul, Kabul? OP indeterminacy, OP indistinction, OP incrimination, OP indignity, blame, enmity, hatred, bile, melancholy, criminal lack of empathy, death shrink, cursive, static, line, quick, eviscerating grave, clean clothes.
[00:17:29.92] The uterine black hole issues a bull in B flat. The color of the seasick universe is green. OP wick wick. OP window sash. OP conflagration. OP universe. OP lunchbox. OP sandwich paper, bus fare, machete music. The blood unfolds like paper from the hewn lawn of the skull, shaking the map out, reams of material. And the blood-washed clothes are good for something. But the eight-months gestation and the 16 years horniness, and the 90 years senescence, and the 70 years mellowness, and the 35 years brilliance, and the 12 years sweetness, are good for nothing.
[00:18:11.09] Four. OK. OK. OK, OK, okey doke. Yes, yep, all right. Sure thing. Sure thing. That's cool. That's dope. That's affirmative. 10-4.
[00:18:25.68] How many words for acquiescence in the English language? I consent. I agree. I'm down. I'm with you, 100%. That's peachy. Just fine. Hot dog. Yeah. Uh-huh. That'll do. It works for me. I can live with that. It's a deal. Sure. OK. Sounds good. OK. Okey doke. Uh-huh. Oh, gee. Oh, geez. Cream cheese. Oh man. Oh, moron. Oh, cloud. Oh, creep of shit. Oh, fuck. Oh, damn. Oh, oh, oh.
[00:18:52.89] OK! Give it to me! It's a deal. I'll deal with it. OK. I'll take it. It's OK. I can take it. It's cool. It's the shit. It's a sock. It's a waste. It's the grave. It's the bomb. It's gravy. It's awesome. It's great. It's OK. It's OK. I can take it. It's OK. It is? I tell you, yes, it is. It's OK. It is? And I tell you, it is. It's OK. Well, are you sure? I tell you, it's yes, it's-- well, are you sure? Are you sure now?
[00:19:26.88] I tell you it is. I give you my word. It is. It's OK. I promise. It's-- well, OK. It is. Yes. Are-- well, are you sure now? Yes! Are you sure now? Yes, I'm, yes, I'm OK. I tell you. I promise you, yes, it's OK. OK? OK. OK? OK. OK.
[00:19:50.22] [MUSIC PLAYING SOFTLY]
[00:19:56.21] WENDY XU:
[00:19:57.22] I'll finish today by reading one of my own poems, entitled, "Why Write," from a new collection of poetry just put out by Wesleyan University Press. And the name of that book is The Past. I humbly offer this poem in conversation, maybe, with the work that you've heard today, for how it, too, ultimately insists-- or it tries to insist-- on some essential quality of paying attention that animates poetry.
[00:20:32.83] That to ask, why write, is also to ask, in my mind, why think? Why look? Why spend time in the poem? Are there stakes at all, and if so, what could they be? All of the poets that I've have the pleasure of introducing today teach me about stakes. And I learned from their answers to the question of why write.
[00:20:57.58] In my own poem, as you'll hear, the speaker is writing not to produce a inert representation or reproduction of the past, but instead to spend time with something that feels a little riskier, a little more worth doing, I hope. So, thank you so much for listening. This is the poem, "Why Write?" "Why Write?" Uncle visits me in the film, where the artist encounters a dead man in the park, unconvincingly half-hidden in the bushes.
[00:21:41.57] And the chance to photograph death is so electric and brief that the artist runs away, forgetting the camera and the dark hum of the trees at night, runs to find a buyer for the photograph he has already forgotten to take. Uncle belongs to the airlessness of memory, soft and black and quiet, while I hold to the white of the page, its paling folds a skiff charging the future, cargoless and tired. Were it any other color?
[00:22:25.20] Uncle doesn't take sides, now that he is dead. Or he is forever on the side of the dead, who collect their prize every time I am writing to reach the winning side. Uncle expels doubt from the sentence, threatening to double back on itself, its anger at carrying forth in a mute direction, its grief over where it began. Uncle begins again, while I pluck a memory at random, tender as it is.
[00:23:04.41] Clear onion stew, from which Uncle ladles up a single unlidded goat's eye, laughs, and begins to see us with it. The squealing of children for more. The living oblige. I am not writing to photograph the past. I am writing to sit inside the pauses of Uncle's sentences, the commas of the dead, the stormless harbor where Uncle rests his head.
[00:23:41.23] [MUSIC PLAYING SOFTLY]
[00:23:47.10] JULIE SWARSTAD JOHNSON:
[00:23:49.55] Wendy, thank you so much for that thoughtful look at writing. I hope folks will find it inspiring for new work in this new year. Listeners, we're so thankful that you're here with us again. You can look forward to five more episodes coming up this spring, including a new episode, two weeks from today, hosted by Anthony Cody. If you're new to Poetry Centered, check out our back catalog of episodes. Thank you again for sharing this time with us, and we look forward to being with you again soon.
[00:24:19.74] DIANA MARIE DELGADO:
[00:24:21.11] 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.
[00:24:43.77] Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado-- that's me-- and Julie Swarstad Johnson, with support from--
[00:24:51.08] SARAH GZEMSKI:
[00:24:51.35] Sarah Gzemski.
[00:24:52.37] DIANA MARIE DELGADO:
[00:24:52.70] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive, online at voca.arizona.edu.