Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Monday, July 30, 2012

On Vacation

Poem in a Box is taking two weeks off. Look for great poems again on August 14! Thanks so much for your support.

If you are a poet who would like to have your poem in the box, email me or write a me a comment and we can chat.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Poem 25 Bao Phi

This week's poem is by Minneapolis poet Bao Phi.  I can't quite believe I've known Bao since he was a Macalester student back in the 90s. He was a promising young poet back then; he's a powerhouse poet now.  Enjoy.

No Question  by Bao Phi

to the white girl who saw a bunch of us little Southeast Asian kids watch her brother play a video game in the Asian grocery and said "these gooks are surrounding us." 

Did we douse you in chemicals that twisted your future generations
to flesh pretzels
strip mine your resources
then fusion fuck your family dinner

Did we light garlands of fire
onto your sacred mountains,
push your people to tiny fingers of dry land
explore what was already found
then name your beautiful landmarks
after ourselves

Did we push your people into jobs
where toxic fumes turned your lungs to scorched wings
your nails breaking on our skin
to paint ours pretty

Did we spin your history to smoke
Hook you on snorting the ashes

Did we convince the entire world your men
have cocks small as minnows
scar barbed wire borders using plastic surgery
break your legs to
make you taller

Did we gentrify your love life

Did we convince your people
that we taught them the word love
and what it means to be free

Did we redefine torture
for our own benefit

Did we measure ourselves in fathoms
then force you to swim in us
until you drown?

these gooks are surrounding us
if only
that were true.

In this week’s sharp and stunning poem by Bao Phi, lots of things are happening.  But I want to begin with the title, something I probably haven’t spent enough time on in earlier posts about other poems.  The title to Phi’s poem is “No Question” which is interesting right from the start.  After the poem’s ‘dedication’, the first line begins, “Did we….” clearly a question.  This structure, beginning each new stanza with the question starting “Did we” is repeated nine times.  Immediately, then, the reader sees the contradiction between what the title claims and the poem’s structure. So, if the poem is in fact a series of questions, what does the title mean and what is it doing? 

I would answer that by asking who questions and who doesn’t. The speakers in the poem—it’s written in first person plural—are clearly trying to raise questions for the girl in the grocery store who has made the racist remark that starts the poem.  They certainly have questions for her. It is she who is so unaware that she is without question: her own ‘knowing’ is such that she doesn’t have to let a question cross her mind.  (Somehow I am suddenly reminded of Michele Bachmann, but I’ll just let that thought pass on by….) Because she has made a racist remark and is without question, the speakers’ response to her is furious, rightfully so. Why is it that the ones who continually have to question are the ones who live face to face with bigotry and racism? Why are the perpetrators so unaware of the lives of the people they name and hate? As we ponder the hard questions the poem raises, we see the irony of that title in full force.

Each of the questions the speakers ask is rhetorical.  The speakers know the answers even if the girl they are addressed to doesn’t. And each query forces the reader (if not the girl herself) to contend with the long history of colonialism, war, and racism Asian Americans, in this case Vietnamese Americans, have endured.  By beginning with “Did we douse you in chemicals that twisted your future generations/to flesh pretzels” the speakers immediately make the setting clear: this country is Vietnam, and the chemical is Agent Orange. The next few lines further the violation. Not only were the Vietnamese burned by chemicals, the country’s resources were “strip mine[d]”  and even the most intimate part of a culture—it’s food—has been colonized in the service of high end restaurants who often serve their food to rich, white Americans.

Each of the following stanzas takes on similar issue, posing as questions the facts of Vietnamese American experience that are largely invisible in our culture: nail salons’ toxic working environment, cosmetic surgery to change faces to look more Caucasian, the eroticizing of the Asian woman and concurrent emasculation of the Asian man. By asking repeatedly “did we” do this to you, the reader more and more confronts the only possible answer: no, America did it to you. Even writing this I squirm a bit. I should probably write, “No, we did this to you.” That is after all the structural shape the answer should take. And therein lies Phi’s genius. The reader empathizes with the poem’s speaker; the reader knows the girl in the store is the bad guy. "I’m with you!" the reader wants to say to the speakers.

And yet. For this reader, at any rate, a pause. Hasn't my whiteness granted me the privilege of ignorance? the choice to avoid the difficult questions raised by the speakers in the poem? I don’t want to be the “we” in the answer to the questions. I want “them” to be responsible. But Phi understands that until the reality of racism is seared into us, causing us real discomfort, we won’t understand. And until everyone feels its burn, racism will exist. The calling of names, the stereotyping, is easy when we don’t ask questions. Luckily, Phi is there, pushing us forward with beautiful, difficult poems. No one gets off the hook here. No question.

Bao has a great website where you can read more of his stuff, find out about his book, and generally enjoy his all-around wonderfulness.

and here's a link to his book:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Poem 24 Kathryn Kysar

Love Poem by Kathryn Kysar

The thought hits me in the middle of the day:
                        I am your glacier over the woods, so pale.           
            I am your third arm, the bird
that flutters against your window
            in the morning, the immeasurable cold
                                    drawn up without a distant moon.
            Somehow with stars,
we drowse like white gardinias,
            a field with daisies and violets
                                    between throat and belly.
            I put my mouth against your heart.

This love poem by Kate Kysar beautifully takes on the difficult task of capturing the essence of erotic love.  In it the speaker tries on a series of metaphors to describe the relation between her and her lover, whom she is addressing in the poem.

The first line lets us know the speaker is thinking of her relation to the beloved after or before their lovemaking; “The thought hits me in the middle of the day:” the poem begins, and we realize that even from this vantage point the speaker is trying to find language that can match the intensity and tenderness they have shared.  Her first attempt is “I am your glacier…so pale.” Here she succeeds finding a metaphor that gets at the color of their skin, but glaciers are cold. They move slowly.  So she tries again: “I am your third arm/the bird that flutters against your window…” Here she reaches for a metaphor that speaks to their interconnection.  She is so close to him that she is almost part of him, but lovers inhabit separate bodies, so that doesn't quite work, either. She thinks of a bird, alive and active outside thew window. The bird poses a problem, too, though, because it is outside the window, seeking a point of access. 

The speaker tries again:  “Somehow with stars” she begins, and we can see that she is giving up on the effort to find a metaphor that accurately captures the nature of the love she is trying to describe.  The lovers have ended up with stars “somehow” and this sense of doubt in language (can it successfully capture the lovers?) continues as the speaker shifts from metaphor to simile.  “We drowse like white gardinias” the speaker goes on, abandoning the metaphor (they are not flowers; they are like flowers).

Finally, after the most erotic line in the poem, when the bodies become covered in flowers or perhaps become the field on which the lovers lie, the speaker gives up.  She commands her lover to “Listen” and then, instead of speaking, she presses her mouth to his body.  In this gesture she concedes. The passion cannot be captured in words; it is only articulated through the body. 

I think that move—from the command “listen” to the end of speaking and the beginning of lovemaking—is breathtaking.  In the poem's struggle toward articulation, the experience it describes is only captured when language is allowed to fail.  Pretty damned cool.

If you'd like more information about Kate Kysar, go to 

To buy Pretend the World, in which this poem appears:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Poem 23 Carl Sandburg

Chris Ferrin, a wonderful former student of mine, is our guest curator this week while I am away at a conference.  Chris is currently a student at University of Minnestota, Morris, majoring (appropriately enough) in English, after which he hopes to go to grad school and eventually teach English. As this piece indicates, he'll be a wonderful teacher someday. He's a fabulous writer already. I'm so grateful for his hard work this week.  Enjoy!

"Grass" by Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work--
          I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
          What place is this?
          Where are we now?
          I am the grass.
          Let me work. 

I’ve decided to write about the short poem “Grass” by Carl Sandburg. This poem is neither a particularly inspired choice, nor an example of poetry that I try to look for (read: not written by a dead white guy). However, I simply love this poem for what it does in the context of the poetry that was being written at the same time. Academics place Carl Sandburg amongst the “modernist” poets, who are not only famous for being dead, white, and sad, but also for writing about such uncharted subjects as dying, being white, and being sad. Although there is a lot to support this argument, I think it misses a complexity about Sandburg’s work that is not only intellectually stimulating but emotionally stirring, and my entry is going to mainly be about what makes this poem so unusual in comparison to the work of Sandburg’s contemporaries.
            At first glance, the poem appears to be asking the same questions about the value of human existence that poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were asking. It personifies grass, which takes a rather unsympathetic approach to those who have died in some of the bloodiest battles and massacres in European and American history by disregarding them and saying, “Shovel them under and let me work— / I am the grass; I cover all.” This seems particularly in line with the modernists, who were shocked and horrified at the sheer number of the dead after World War I and were beginning to question whether or not human experience really mattered. With only this context, it is pretty easy to interpret Sandburg’s work to be as equally pessimistic as his fellow poets.
            However, such an approach also misses a few things; in particular, it fails to recognize the significance of the individual words within the poem. This is especially important, considering that this poem has a very small economy of language to work with. Of particular importance, though, is the verb “work.” The grass in this poem is not only growing, but “working.” In this case, “work” is a particularly strong and active verb, particularly in opposition to the typical word choice of “grow.” It also holds a potential connotative meaning to the working class, which Sandburg has shown sympathy towards in such poems as “Chicago” and “Child of the Romans.” Here, he is in almost direct opposition to his contemporaries. One of the frequent criticisms of modernist poets, especially Ezra Pound, was their special brand of elitism. By using this simple verb alone, Sandburg seems to be expressing empathy towards what is “working” rather than what is dying and decaying. This simple word choice alone allows for greater meaning and optimism than one would immediately expect from a typical modernist poet.
However, the most important thing to consider in getting value out of this poem is to understand the shift in perspective it asks for. Even the simple move of personifying grass and using it as the speaker of the poem asks the reader to look at the battles mentioned in the poem in a different light. Many critics interpret the speaker’s attitude towards these battles as a trivialization of human experience. It is hard to argue against such an interpretation, but it limits its focus on the battles mentioned. The poem ends with passengers aboard a train asking their conductor, “What place is this? / Where are we now?” Even though bodies are being piled as the result of massacres, grass is still growing, human existence continues, and, as they say, life moves on. It is a powerful testament to the human ability to forget pain and flourish even after the worst times. The poem might trivialize some extent of experience, but it places a value in growth that makes it hard to consider the poem outright pessimistic.
             But really, the thing I like the most out of this poem is that how I’m managing to extrapolate such an optimistic interpretation on a poem that could simply just be an outright pessimistic condemnation of the human existence by a sad, dead, white guy. If there is any real value in poetry, I think, it is that it is almost always open for interpretation. It can serve a whole variety of purposes for the reader. I love this poem dearly because simply trying to find the complications in its supposed bleak outlook has pulled me through some recent events where things seemed pretty darn bleak. Most importantly, though, I love the poem for its shift in perspective. I know fully well that I need to look at things in a more positive light than I think they are being presented from time to time, and I highly doubt that I am the only person to have that thought.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Poem 21 Joyce Sutphen

This week's poem is by Minnesota Poet Laureate, Joyce Sutphen.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled she agreed to a week in the box!

Two Reasons to Keep This Poem

Don't throw this poem away.
Keep this poem in your
pocket and read it when
(as is always your luck) you
find yourself in the slowest line
at the supermarket.  Pull out this
poem, unfold it carefully, and
begin to read, your lips moving
ever so slightly.  Soon everyone
in all ten check-out lines will
turn their lonely eyes on you
(knowing Joe DiMaggio is gone);
a kind of hush will fall all over
that fluorescent world as
they begin to shout:  "The poem,
the poem!  Read us the poem!"

Don't throw this poem away;
slip it into an empty notebook
and read to it every night and
listen to what it says in the morning.
Soon there will be more poems
than the notebook can hold:
some will fall in love and
get married; some will move
far away.  After many years
the poems will have a family
reunion.  They will sit down
and remember the way words
came together, how much they
liked the way things sounded,
and how they were surprised
as anyone by what they said.

I think this may be the perfect poem for a poetry box, don't you? I mean, first of all it begins, "Don't throw this poem away" and my neighbors, walking down the street with the poem in their hands, will have to think twice now.  It's also a poem about what poetry can (or cannot) do for us, and where poems (might) come from.  And it's funny. And it has maybe the best stanza break I've seen in a long time right there in the middle.

As I noted above, the poem begins with a command: "don't throw this poem away."  The speaker is telling someone very clearly what she should not do.  In many poems, the "you" being addressed is not really a reader but some other character, a "you" specific-person as opposed to "you" whoever-you-may-be, reader.  I think in this case, though, the speaker really is addressing the reader.  If that's the case, the line about "your luck" in choosing grocery store line is all the funnier because it's everyone's luck, then, to choose the slowest line. From that moment on, the stanza gets more and more ridiculous.  Simon and Garfunkle come in, with Mrs. Robinson and Joe DiMaggio.  The other shoppers pine for the poem, shouting "The poem/the poem! Read us the poem!" which, as any poet will tell you, never happens.  Not in the Supervalu. Not anywhere.  So now, having revved up the expectations so high, what can possibly happen next?

A stanza break.  The speaker taking a breath.  The speaker indicating, ok, so, not really. If that was one reason to keep the poem, what might a second be? She begins again: "Don't throw this poem away;" this time ending with a semi-colon instead of a period, as if she knows she has some explaining to do after that last stanza.  Now she's taking a different approach. She continues, "slip it into a notebook/and read to it every night and/listen to what it says in the morning." The first surprise is that the reader should not read the poem but "read to it," which is not what we  usually do with poems. But then, too, we are told to "listen to what it says in the morning." The speaker is directing us to treat poems as if they are alive, like children we read to at night before tucking them into bed. This suggestion carries through in the rest of the poem.  The poems, we are told, will multiply, "some will fall in love and/get married; some will move/ far away," just as our children do when they grow. But they come back home, eventually, and then:

They will sit down
and remember the way words
came together, how much they
liked the way things sounded,
and how they were surprised
as anyone by what they said.

What I love so much here is the suggestion that poems have lives of their own and they don't necessarily have a full sense of what those "lives" mean.  I am not sure I am being clear.  But it's an important point, so let me try.

Every week I work through a poem, looking closely at what I think it means and, more importantly, how.  But that suggests more control and intention on the part of the poet than might actually be occurring, I think. Something happens in the creation of art, in the joy of liking "the way things sound," and sometimes the best part of writing (or painting or dancing) is being "surprised as anyone" by what the art, in the end, says.  Our creations come to life, as in this poem, and they can be unruly or funny, useful or not.  You never know. But they are ours, and, if you keep them in your pocket, they can be yours, too.

Thank you, Joyce Sutphen, for such a perfect poem for this Poem in A Box project.

For more about Sutphen:

and here's a wonderful interview: