Poetry has the power to bridge divisions
Laura M Kaminski (Halima Ayuba) grew up in Nigeria, went to school in New Orleans, and currently lives in rural Missouri. She serves on the editorial teams of two online journals: Praxis Magazine Online (Nigeria) and Right Hand Pointing (USA). She is the author of several poetry collections and chapbooks, including Anchorhold (2018), 19 Ghazal Street (2016), Dance Here (2015), Considering Luminescence (2015), And Yes, I Dance (2014), Answering the Cuttlefish (2014), and others. Her latest book, The Heretic’s Hymnal: 99 New and Collected Poems, is forthcoming from Balkan Press.
“Everything ends with amen,” ends one of your poems. How was this poem born? Can you speak on how you arrive at such climaxes of thought?
Gnarled Oak! This lovely online journal was curated by James Brush from the end of 2014 through the middle of 2018, fifteen issues. It was at Gnarled Oak that I first encountered the work of poet JK Anowe (who has since become a close personal friend, and one of my co-editors at Praxis Magazine Online). It was at Gnarled Oak where Saddiq Dzukoki’s ‘Sanyi’ first appeared—the first Hausa poem by another poet that I translated into English. So much of my own poetry begins in Hausa or a mixture of Hausa and English, and then I translate it over to English before I show anyone. Saddiq (who is also a dear personal friend, and whose command of English language is rather better than my own) dared me to try this something new, and from there the poem traveled and appeared at National Translation Month, the first time National Translation Month had featured poetry originally written in Hausa.
Gnarled Oak was the well-spring of many such blessings in my life. For the fifteenth issue, when the call for submissions came, I sent the poem ‘Everything Ends with Amen’ to James Brush, for James Brush in honour of the existence and closing issue of the journal. I wasn’t really even expecting it would be selected for the issue. It was, more than anything, an offering of gratitude and respect to the editor of a journal which meant a lot to me, a gesture of understanding that no matter how beautiful a thing is, sometimes it is time for it to end. In the case of Gnarled Oak, it was time for its curator to move on to other adventures and explorations.
The poem was intended as a blessing at the end of what had been, for me, a blessing. And James Brush most graciously not only accepted it in the spirit it was offered, but actually used it as the closing poem for issue fifteen, the final poem to appear in Gnarled Oak. So indeed, “everything ends with Amen”.
This leads me to poetry collaborations: you have worked with so many poets and still do. What are your high points so far? Anxieties? How does it challenge you? It is an interesting turn, isn’t it? Especially beyond one’s individual expectation.
I’m going to answer you with the first two stanzas of a collaborative poem, ‘Reserving Judgment’ (written with Saddiq M Dzukogi, and published at Gnarled Oak on 25 May 2016). The whole poem can be read in issue 8 of Gnarled Oak, but the two relevant stanzas are here:
you do not even enter
an empty courtroom
with a voice
you take it off
and let it wait for you
by the doorstep
like a footwear
you do not even enter
an empty page
with an opinion
about what makes
you take it off
and let it wait for you
at the side of the desk
like a dictionary
And you know, this isn’t an easy way. It is not easy to be open, to be this kind of vulnerable, in poetry, in anything. To be willing to do without having a sense of confidence or control about the result. To, in collaborative poetry particularly, to surrender a sense of where something “should” be going and just follow along. This is poetry-music-making, a jam-session, improvisation. And, like with music, the combination of two instruments, two poets, opens a whole realm of unexpected possibilities.
Anxiety in collaborative poems? Sure, some of that. I worry I might break something beautiful that’s going on, offer a line that’s off-key to the harmonies, try to force the poem in a direction it doesn’t want to go. Anxiety that the person who agreed to collaborate with me on something might not like what I’ve offered. Anxiety that I’m not really good at this poetry thing at all, that I can’t really write, and that when they’ve worked with me closely, this poet I admire will have to revise a good opinion they had of me.
I‘ve been honoured and grateful that poets like Saddiq and Wale Owoade have taken the time and risk to actually explore the we-don’t-know-where-we’re-going space in poetry with me. I’ve learned a lot through that experience, perhaps as much about myself as about poetry. I say again: it isn’t easy, in poetry, in anything to reserve judgment, to set aside one’s own opinions about how a thing “should be” and open up space for the unexpected. And to set aside my own opinions, I have to identify them as that: just mine, just opinions and discover again (and again and again) that most of my opinions are firmly rooted in either reluctance (fear) or arrogance (over-confidence). Insisting too much on either “I don’t know what I am doing” or “I know what I am doing”; neither of these phrases leaves much room for the essential openness necessary in poetry, or anything else worthwhile. Like all the rest of my life.
With all this, one would wonder and ask the poet, why do you write poems? What fulfillment do you attain from poetry? I remember Sylvia Plath speaking about writing poems: “Oh, satisfaction! I don’t think I could live without it. It’s like water or bread, or something absolutely essential to me. I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I’m writing one. Having written one, then you fall away very rapidly from having been a poet to becoming a sort of poet in rest, which isn’t the same thing at all. But I think the actual experience of writing a poem is a magnificent one.” And I remember Uche Nduka saying that, “My need to write poems borders on the compulsive. Writing poems is essential to my existence but it does not work for me to try and fit into some old mold of what poetry is.”
Bloody good question, that why. Why do human beings use words at all? When I was in a university biology class, a professor once said that birds sing because it is the most efficient way of communicating what they need to communicate to survive: they sing to let birds of other species know they are in a territory and intending to stay there, they sing to let rival members of their own species know the same, and they sing to let others—their offspring and those they are courting—know where to find them. In that sense, all the birdsong is variation on HERE I AM.
I don’t suppose we’re all that different, are we? When I am feeling a cloud of unwelcome, intolerance in an environment, or have seen / am seeing an injustice done, I write to express I am in this territory and intend to stay here, intend to stand my ground. HERE I AM.
When I am reading works of other poets, particularly those newer to poetry, if something touches me I and time permits, I often try to write a response to a poem they have written, to make it into a conversation, encourage them to find more words, write more lines. HERE I AM.
And many of my poems, as you know, are faith-based—contemplation, courting G-d with love-songs, natural world explorations, gifts for friends of any faith and none. I write poems because they are the most efficient way of communicating what I need to communicate to survive. HERE I AM.
Because most of my poems are these kinds of expressions, these HERE I AM declarations, the next impulse after writing a poem is to post it where others can see it. I’m grateful there are journals and editors out there who are willing to consider poems that have been previously seen and read, because most of my HERE I AM shows up in rough form as a social media status long before it gets polished and submitted to a journal or contest or anthology.
It’s interesting you mention your response to a poem, to make it into a conversation. That poet-to-poet exchange, a psychical connection. Anne Sexton said, “poets are always writing each other love letters.” And I take this to heart in its purest meaning. In one of her poems, she said “what / I remember best is that / the door to your room was / the door to mine.” It’s a profound insight and effect. Anne received fan letters from psychiatric hospitals, from patients who found love and hope from her poetry, and she responded to them. She wrote back. Struggling with her mental health was enough understanding of the intricacy of the matter at hand, of empathy, of reaching people whether they be in good or bad health.
I’m also curious about your impulse to share and publish. Some artists never publish their works until they are long dead. There are others who grapple with the idea of publishing in specific mediums, say online or in an anthology. I should quote Nancy Morejón who, in an interview, said: “I must clarify an idea: a poem does exist even if it is unpublished. The purpose of any piece of writing is its existence before a reader’s eyes. It’s one thing to write and another to publish. A writer exists when he fills the blank page. A writer fulfills her task when she can be read by readers. The important thing is to write, first of all. We know the instructive experience of Kafka, who ordered his writings burned. Only thanks to his friend Max Brod have been able to know a body of work that is emblematic of the 20th century, work that exemplifies the relations between an author, his or her writing, and the society to which it belongs. I did not have silences. I never stopped writing. I stopped publishing. Especially in the 1970s, my poems didn’t interest the bigger journals and newspapers. No publisher brought out a book of my poetry. The reasons why such a thing happened still remain a mystery. At any rate, what’s important is that I wrote—I wrote and I have never stopped doing so. For me, writing a poem means enormous enjoyment that reaches culmination when the poem appears in print.” What are your thoughts on this?
That you should mention Kafka, I don’t know about coincidences so much, but this. In Prague at the Kinsky Palace, Kafka’s father once had a shop on the ground floor of that building, and that became the Franz Kafka Bookshop. When mum had the opportunity to visit Prague, she went there and brought me back a treasure: slim volume of Kafka’s words with the stamp from the bookstore that occupies the same space where his father had a shop. His “Before the Law” is one of my all-time favourite stories. I read it from the copy gifted me by mum, and it was at that point that I decided to commit to making definite decisions about each poem when I’ve finished writing it. If it feels resonant, if it says, in some way, HERE I AM, says something that feels worth saying in a way I feel okay about saying it, then I share it somewhere, pretty much immediately after reaching that assessment. Usually on Facebook. Sometimes on my blog. Occasionally in an email or letter. But I share it, because that’s really the whole point of the bird-song, no?
And if it isn’t bird-song, if it isn’t saying HERE I AM, it is just muttering, mubbling, misery, then I burn it. Or more accurately, my husband, who is not someone who reads poetry as a rule, uses it to start fires in the woodstove. Once while I was packing up a by-post contest submission, he told me if I was looking for awards, he would award me this one: “your poetry burns better than anyone else’s”. It made me laugh, particularly because when I was first practicing, and still hiding my poems, I didn’t have a clear sense of what I was wanting to say or trying to do, and so difficult, in the early stage, when I didn’t know where I was, to be able to say HERE I AM, or recognise it when I’d said it. And without criteria on which to judge my own draft poems, I put generous amount of paper into the kindling box. And one day, he who doesn’t so much read poems, handed me one he had glanced at, then read, and said: “you might want to keep this.” I did keep it, even though I obviously didn’t recognise it as HERE I AM at that time. It wound up in my first published collection, and is now being included in a new-and-collected set of ninety-nine poems that is scheduled for release sometime this year. So yes, Kafka indeed.
You edit for two literary journals. How has the editorial process impacted on your personal work or project?
I have been enjoying stepping away from the focus my own writing for a while to work on the editorial side, work to bring other people’s writing to publication instead, spend some time giving back to the literary community that has given so much to me.
It is work, heart-wrenching, difficult, time-consuming, and rewarding. No matter what side of the desk you are on, no matter whose words you are working with, your own or those of others, poetry is work. And it is also joy.
I do still write when I feel I have something to say, and usually, when I can’t find another way to say it. Poetry, no matter what language it is written in, is sort of a language of its own, a language that offers ways to express things that I cannot seem to “put into words” otherwise. One time poetry saved me in this way, and it seems silly, maybe, but I had read a book of short stories I truly loved, Crossing the Lines by Tony Press, and wanted to post a brief review of it on Amazon. I couldn’t find the words to tell how the book touched me, not in prose I couldn’t. I finally just wrote a poem in the review box on Amazon and submitted that as my “review” of the book. Amazon checks reviews against some sort of criteria before it actually posts them at the site, and I was sure they would reject mine on format. But they let it post, and it’s still out there, and it captures more fully how I felt about the book than I ever could have in any other way.
And that same poem, although written in another context entirely, is also probably the best way I could ever describe what it’s like to edit for two literary journals, and why I do. Here.
I like how you put it: “…a confluence of parables”. In one of Uche Nduka’s poems, he said: “how can i say in words / things i didn’t / understand through words?” Where do we find the word, the language?
I wanted to go back and read all of Uche Nduka’s essays at the Poetry Foundation site to find the quote I want to give you…an answer in his words, to a question in his words. (Actually, I found the quote again in the second of the essays I read, but still, in the presence of so much wonder and wisdom and sheer beauty, one has to just immerse, so reading all of them again anyway.)
Here is the quote I wanted for you, from his essay “Turn It Loose”: “The poem being written attracts what it needs.” But there’s also this, in “Arc & Handle”: “The poem is not the route to anything. It is the route. Endless. So a poem has to be written whether by word or by silence.” And as long as you are there, reading these two essays, do go read “So Even While“…because Uche Nduka knows how to point at something invisible, point at it from different angles, point again and again with diligence as we learn to stop looking at the pointing finger and turn our attention to catch a glimpse beyond the veil.
Uche Nduka, my love. When I first read these essays in 2016, I went madder than usual. Not only is his book new book Living in Public open right beside me now, I have fifteen tabs of Uche Nduka’s poetry running on my computer as we speak. I love him so much, and read him religiously. He writes with such freedom and flight and range of seeing. He is an all-time. What books are you currently reading?
Right now I’m re-reading three favorites: The Siren World by Juan J. Morales, Traveling without Compass or Map by Michael L. Newell, and John L. Stanizzi’s Dance Against the Wall. And thinking about an aphorism from Yahia Lababidi’s Where Epics Fail: “Whether or not we’re aware of it, our biography is perpetually being written—by the books on our shelves.”
Also, waiting (impatiently enough as to be embarrassing), for the two books recently released by Konya Shamsrumi: Umar Abubakar Sidi’s The Poet of Dust and Richard Ali’s The Anguish and Vigilance of Things. I actually had the honour of previewing The Poet of Dust in digital form, and look forward to having a copy to hold in hand and actually turn pages of it slowly, savouring. And The Anguish and Vigilance of Things? Rashin haƙuri. “Days pass by like shoelaces / Dragging along, gathering sand / And mud”—from his ‘Suite of Blue’ poem, which I sincerely hope is included in the collection. (If not, Richard Ali, I tell you I will handwrite it in myself.)
What books do you return to over and over again? Even without your realising it?
Books I return to over and over again? Dike Chukwumerije’s On My Way to Azure Shores. Temple Cone’s The Waters Beyond the Ark and That Singing. Reasons (not) to Dance by José Angel Araguz. Crossing the Lines by Tony Acarasiddhi Press. To the Hilt by Dick Francis, a novel that was the last book my father gave me before he passed. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms, and also The Whispering Trees. Richard Ali’s The City of Memories. Tess Uriza Holthe’s When the Elephants Dance. Others Will Enter the Gates, an anthology of essays by immigrant poets edited by Abayomi Animashaun. And others, many others. Often when I read something new, it gives me a different perspective on something I’ve read before, and I want to go back, bring the perspective from the recent reading to the book I’ve previously read. Like wanting to introduce your old friends and ones you’ve met more recently to each other.
I’m always intrigued by how poets turn water into wine. What does water mean to you? In your poem ‘An-Nur: Flight,’ you said: “they are beginning to hear / the call of water”. People hear the call of God, people hear the call of poetry, of engineering, here, people hear the call of water. What does water signify in your poetry and life?
Best poems to examine and explain and answer that are probably these three, published together at Verse-Virtual in April 2016. In ‘night iris’ water is what enables buds to open into blossom, birth. In ‘Our son returns’ it is the call of the river, the water that brings resurrection, renewal. And in ‘the celebration of enough’, it is the haven we can create in this world, this place, this moment. Maybe we create the haven in a poem, maybe in a conversation, maybe in a letter we write, a shirt we mend, a meal we cook, a dish we wash, a book we pass on to someone who will treasure it. Maybe it is just being willing to meet the eyes of a stranger and smile. Maybe it is being willing to listen. This right here, this conversation between us, this is that kind of haven, a place where you can sit and hear the water flowing in the space between.
In ‘night iris,’ you talk about walking, you bring the creeks in, you interact with daybreak. And in many other poems of yours, the natural world is unfailingly animated. Walking, gardening, etc.: is this exclusively a process for your poetry or the other way around? Or the accidental.
I didn’t really start a regular practice of poetry until I became mostly home-bound, the result of degenerative disk disease and multiple strokes with associated brain damage and neurological difficulties. I lost all the feeling on the left side of my body, and in my right leg also. When I wasn’t able to drive or even really travel in a vehicle very well, my world suddenly became, seemed to become, much “smaller”: the limits of the house, the porch, the yard and garden. A little triangle of world, bounded on one side by dirt road and the other two sides by creeks that meet at the corner.
After the first stroke, when I was relearning what felt like everything, I felt I’d been knocked back to early childhood: how to use utensils to eat without breaking a tooth, how to walk without falling, how to brush my teeth, how to put on my shoes, how to chew my food without choking and drink without spilling. And for a while, there was the sense that I “should be able to do” and “used to be able to do” and all that, that entitlement, really, that sense that life had stolen capacity from me, that sense of being wronged, injured.
And then one day I fell in the yard under the apple tree, when I was by myself, and it took me a while to pull it together and try to get back up. And while I was down there, I was looking at all the blades of grass, not just one kind of grass but many kinds of low-growing plants, and I realised that even though I’d lived in Missouri for some years already at that time, I didn’t KNOW anything about the land itself, really. I didn’t know; I only knew the names of a few of the trees, I could hear bird song but not know what kind of bird was singing, I didn’t know about the lives of the birds, the plants, the animals. SO much I didn’t know. I realised I could spend a lifetime, or at least, whatever amount of mine is left, studying these things, getting to know them, how they grow, how they live and die and interact with one another, how they respond to daylight and to water, what creatures come to drink from the creek or graze or hunt in the field at night…
And I remembered that, when I was small-small, I had had that same sense of wonder, that longing to get to know everything around me more intimately. And here I was, fallen in grasses I didn’t know the names of, watching small insects I didn’t know the names of, listening to birds I didn’t know the names of. And then I felt I was being given a chance. A chance to return to childhood: when we are small-small and not permitted to wander beyond the sight of the house, when we don’t walk steady or eat neatly, when we sometimes need help to dress ourselves, when we are still learning everything, and when we still have wonder at everything. When the space around the house was filled with wonder, wonder, wonder; it wasn’t too small, it was a vast universe of unknown.
My first poetry chapbook was called Returning to Awe. Not everyone is given the opportunity to begin as a child again, the humility of not being able to do things adults can do, the joy of wonder and imagination. Not wasting it this time. And poems like ‘night iris’ are part personal chronicle, part trying to wrap up small pieces of the wonder I’ve been given into poems to offer like gifts to friends, to share it.
This is a really emotional exchange, I must confess. I’m listening to Sade Adu’s ‘In another time’ as I speak. This is not an easy one. The fragility of our body, the breakage of time into trauma and resuscitation. It’s tremendously wonderful how you navigated through recovery and applied yourself to poetry. And fascinating how, though home-bound, you widen the page into places you have been, places you would love to go to. How would you characterise the influence of places you have been to or have lived in on you these days?
I think the relationship with places, we walk through a place in the world, and then that place walks through us forever after. The places we have been stay with us and become a part of us. For me, this is a kind of continuity. In some ways, you can never leave a place, because it never leaves you. The places I have lived, many of the ones I’ve visited, are present in my poetry, in my relationship with language(s), in my choice of how I spend my time, and in my kitchen. When I miss living in Arizona and the friends I made there, the experiences, the things I learned, I can go absorb myself for a couple of days and make tamales. And I do; it reconnects me with the generosity of the people I met there, the experiences, the working with other women all day in the kitchen making glorious amounts of food together, sharing. And when my husband’s family comes to visit, making Polish food with my nieces and nephew, passing on one of their grandmother’s recipes to them, celebrating continuity. And sometimes, sometimes, I will even spend the money on a mango at the store. They are rarely available here, and expensive, and they don’t taste the same as the ones grown in the dirt of Karim Lamido, but is still mango.
Your poems have been made into films. I particularly enjoyed ‘Lilies of the Field’. It was tender, moving and haunting all at the same time. Marie Craven did a good job with both adaptions. Were you involved with the pre- or post-production? What did it feel like seeing your poem transformed into motion picture? And what’s your impression of cross-genre collaboration?
Cross-genre collaboration is a beautiful thing, all collaboration is a beautiful thing, but particularly cross-genre collaboration, as it really requires releasing any preconceptions about what someone else might see in your poem, and then having an opportunity to see it through someone else’s eyes, someone else’s heart. In poetry-film collaborations, all I’ve done is to make the poems available, and be delighted, filled with wonder like a child, at the result. I take that back, I seem to remember changing a line-break once on something Marie was working on that was presenting the poem as text on screen and the lines weren’t an ideal length to fit. But other than that, I’m not involved at all beyond making the poem available and being fascinated, stunned, overwhelmed, joyful at the result.
Into films: what five films would you recommend?
I can’t even begin to recommend only five films. I can tell you the filmmakers whose work I follow most closely: Marie Craven, Jutta Pryor, Eduardo Yague, Nissmah Roshdy, Marc Neys, Paul Broderick, Cindy St. Onge. But if I’m to offer a recommendation, I would say look at Dave Bonta’s movingpoems.com it’s a fantastic online journal dedicated to showcasing poetry videos. And if you’ve never watched Nissmah Roshdy’s The Dice Player, do. And if when browsing through films of my poems, you haven’t seen Eduardo Yague’s Consideraciones Sobre La Luz, or Jutta Pryor’s Ghosts…do. One of the magical things about video poetry to me is that it can go in so many unexpected directions, be approached by different filmmakers in so many different ways. Paul Broderick’s film of Dale Wisely’s poem Balance is another one that surprised and delighted me.
Let’s digress into food: I’m a big fan of raw onion and tomatoes. And this goes way back to childhood. I also liked the fact that most people around me didn’t like the smell of raw onion and garlic, so I got into eating them more for the fun of chasing people away (laughs). Away from childhood, onion is now a private business. What are your favourite vegetables and fruits? I don’t do olives at all (laughs).
Pretty much the only fruit or vegetable I don’t do at all is pomegranate, probably because I read the myth of Persephone while I was still in primary school, uh-uh, no way. But otherwise? Just about everything, including olives. Favourites? I think first of things I haven’t had in years and years because they just aren’t available here: guava, cocoyam particularly. But zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkin, peppers, all of these are favourites, and all of these we grow at home. We’ve been blessed with most abundant gardens these past few years, and I have pumpkin and peppers stored in the freezers, along with blackberries and a small amount of zucchini. The zucchini is from harvest two years past; that year was zucchini and tomatoes, and the tomatoes are all long since gone. But this year is for tomatoes and zucchini again, and we expect to be planting within the next three weeks.
Oh, cocoyam was a favourite for dad. We used to make fun of him. But me, tomatoes all the way. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Laura. I must thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts and insight. I sincerely appreciate this gesture. Do you have any questions for me? And one last question: what do you envision for the poetry world? The world as a whole. Any words of encouragement to creatives.
Poetry has the power to bridge divisions, to forge bonds between people, from different cultures, experiences, continents, faith-traditions. And when we recognise this, as individuals, as poets, as creative people expressing and experiencing and sharing insights through any medium, then perhaps these words from Neil Douglas-Klotz come into play: “Seeing, feeling power, and taking responsibility are not separate.” When we recognise we are all one family, then the next step, the step that follows after the recognition, the step beyond? I will speak for myself alone, but it seems to me that then I have a response-ability to do what I can to real-ise it.
Thank you for this conversation, David. It has pushed me to explore and try to find words for things about my practice and myself that I hadn’t yet put in words. And as always, any engagement with you is a treasure and delight. Steady on!