The people who change our lives significantly aren’t always the ones we at first think will change us. Sure, the teacher who holds the room’s attention while giving a lecture influences us to be passionate, but what about the person who is a bit more quiet, who treats us with respect and cares about what happens to our lives, and does it not because they have to, but because this is the philosophy of their heart? Because this is the kindness by which they live, and don’t expect anything in return but kindness and passion.
This is the kind of person Jim Clark was, and he changed my life. I wasn’t a top student as an undergraduate but I had a passion for writing and for literature, and Jim recognized that. As director of the MFA Writing Program at UNC-Greensboro, he brought me into a group of people who would broaden and challenge my ideas about writing. I still keep in touch with many of my fellow alums decades after leaving the program. This is because Jim taught us how to be a community: how to support one another, cheer each other on, and be ourselves (no matter how long that took). He taught us not to take ourselves too seriously. And because he encouraged passion for our own writing and the work of others, many of us went on to become teachers and editors. He connected us with other people outside the program to help us build our literary lives. We were given the tools to build a life with our love for words long after graduation.
Jim, who was also the editor of The Greensboro Review, taught us, whether we worked on the journal or not, that the life of an editor isn’t one of ego. Editors should be proud of what they’ve built and who they’ve published, but in every issue it’s the poems, stories, or essays of writers that editors support, not themselves. This is Jim’s legacy: that writers be given a home that admires and supports their work.
I dedicate the November 2017 poetry column at Connotation Press to James L. Clark.
We begin our November column with our featured poet for this month: Shayla Lawson. In my interview with Lawson, I was so intrigued that I could have kept talking to her for weeks. Her next collection will be released in 2018, and we discussed poems from this new book as well as ways in which she uses collaboration in her work. One of the aspects I love most about Lawson’s poetry is her use of source texts to talk about the self. Her poems are intricately woven, and our conversation was a glimpse into the mind of this brilliant poet.
Our Associate Editors offer some gorgeous work to the poetry column this month. Ösel Jessica Plante brings us a fascinating interview with Octavio Quintanilla. About his work, she writes:
Quintanilla’s poetry walks around in a desert by itself and finds the strangest things. His narrators pull objects from their mouths, “Cotton, for instance, or a woman’s endless braid of hair.” There are no absolutes in his work so we get used to standing in a kind of imagistic and linguistic quicksand. “Black when I try to blur // my skin with what's left / Of you,” Octavio Quintanilla says, and I can’t help but think that he is talking to himself, or about the ways in which we, as humans, lose things, big things. In that loss, Quintanilla aims to get close, find a safe harbor, to find some surety. The voices in these poems are on a quest and, as readers, we must go along for the trek. Like wind, Quintanilla’s words and images, seem to come from a great distance but are always a step ahead, outsmarting us. For all these reasons we keep reading, and because in following his poems we find the “fire in the middle of the wilderness.”
Ösel also brings us two poems from James Dunlap:
When I read James Dunlap’s work for the first time I felt like I was transgressing, that I’d ignored the fences and the wind and kept walking deeper into private property. When he says, “it feels like someone else’s arm holding the rifle” that’s exactly how it feels to read his work. We are relieved that his narrators are not us, because their stories make us want to close our eyes, to turn away. But then we encounter language like, “the moon is bright and the night strung together / with strings of bullfrog song,” so we keep reading, keep watching. These luminous moments adorn a skeleton of trauma. Perhaps it is the pressure of trauma, the intensity, that causes moments of light and lightness. Dunlap writes that death: “ flashes small and sudden / like a shard of fire caught in a dog’s eye,” and we find ourselves not only staring into a dog’s face but smelling its breath; we want to stay and see what happens next. While a lot of contemporary poetry seems to aim at linguistic acrobatics, Dunlap’s is a voice I find honest and real. It points its finger at “the dark figure creeping / through the crackling grasses,” which is you, Dear Reader, you.
Now in his second year at Connotation Press as an Associate Editor, Davon Loeb continues to amaze us with the work he brings to the column. This month is no exception— his interview with Laura Bernstein is wonderful. About her work Davon writes:
Laura Bernstein’s poems courageously tackle the joys and woes of parenting. And not just from the perspective as a parent herself, but also as a daughter experiencing the changing relations between her parents. In her poems, “Parenting” and “Spain,” she explores the ways in which the roles of child and parent reverse with time. In “Parenting,” she writes, “After I was born, my father swaddled/ himself in blue muslin, dropped/ his 6’4” frame into my arms.” In this moment, her writing is figurative, discursive, and elegant. Furthermore, Laura’s poems are effortlessly emblazoned with bravado and confidence that belong in the pages of literary magazines.
Davon also brings us work by two additional poets:
Carolyn Yan’s poems are as picturesque as they are lyrical. She writes with the bristles of a paintbrush, captivating memories in each line as if a brush stroke. Furthermore, she also has the ear of musician—writing, “She unhinges/ the night/ sends blue lanterns to the wind/ so that I can hear flute songs.” And it is impossible not to feel her poems reverberate well after reading.
Romeo Oriogun’s poems are bold narratives of love, hate, home, and loss. These poems are fevered with unadulterated truth and vulnerability, as if standing nude in the cold. He writes, “Songs burst from the breast of birds/ and he turns from this beautiful body,/ turns into the dark because he knows/ what happens to boys whose bodies/ taste of wet earth.” Furthermore, readers will taste the brines of sweat and struggle that charge these poems with such brilliant vitality.
We have two poems from Kirk Schlueter this month. I haven’t stopped thinking about the breathtaking imagery in these poems since the first read: the body in front of a “soap crusted mirror”; the body standing near a collapsed rail bridge where in place of a body is “ a slow, sagging ruin” and “brittle metal.” Schlueter creates a stark world with these poems, but it’s a world we know because what’s reflected here are the things about ourselves we may not want to see. But there’s hope: “to speak is to change,” no matter how we fail, bruise, or bleed.
We close our November poetry column with a poem from Nicholas Reiner. While watching a computer animation of a helicopter crash, the speaker asks questions of a person who cannot answer, and watches an event occur from its beginning: “The machine glides like / it’s entering the sky for the first time, / through a portal / from another era.” We watch with the speaker as if the animation were “a videogame, / the way the tail rotor / snaps off // the way the chopper tilts / left and wobbles.” Reiner stuns us with imagery as the narrative unfolds, pulling us into facts as we realize their force.
Thank you for visiting our column. I’m grateful to my fellow editors, Davon and Ösel, for making this an exciting place to share poetry every issue, and to Ken Robidoux, for giving us the opportunity to share this beautiful work with you.