Writing about Black Death in the Time of Black Lives Matter

Wendy Thompson Taiwo

The following is a guest post by Wendy Thompson Taiwo, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

I began writing extensively about the conditions of black life and death in America after the murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016. The killing that took place on that hot July night—a police officer drawing his weapon, a black man shot dead—was routine and yet different. I was living with my young daughter in St. Paul when I heard the news. All of us, black and living in a state that was both in the Great White North and just another South, would wonder what we had been doing in that exact moment he was executed in that car, and if next time, his fate could be our own. 

In Kwame Holmes’ essay, “Necrocapitalism, Or, THE VALUE OF BLACK DEATH,” Holmes writes that Philando “was killed in transit, on Larpenture [sic] Avenue…in the Chevrolet that would become his tomb.” Killed in transit. Chevrolet that would become his tomb. These words would haunt me deeply as a black woman who grew up in California in the 1980s and 90s and watched the grainy footage of the beating of Rodney King and the fiery Los Angeles uprising that followed on TV. Holmes’ words would also resonate with me as a horror film fanatic who could never get over that trope where the black character always dies first. As hyper aware as black folks are and have had to be in this country, it was always so difficult to watch black figures on screen be recklessly hacked to death in the first twenty minutes of a film.

How many generations had lived through attacks by nightriders, race riots, and lynch mobs? How many of us learned the contours of the dark, the smell of the swamp, how to stay one step away from death? There is not one sound, one shadow that our kinfolk would not know to avoid, not one suspicious person our grandmothers could not suss out.

Like a roomful of white screenwriters who decide to kill off the one black character first, white people have been writing black people in the New World to death using law, story, structure, and practice. But it is against this reality that many of us write about black life—before and after death—instead of erasure, nonexistence. In writing about black death right now amid a viral and racial pandemic, I am engaging in the black tradition of conjuring language to write ourselves—our love, our losses, our shame, our preexisting conditions, our innocence, our rage—into existence. And by following in the footsteps of my literary kinfolk who wrote to excise the figurative and actual monsters that haunted and hunted us, I too use words to kill what seemingly can’t be killed, in stories where we are the heroes and survivors, where we don’t just make it out alive but live through the sequel too. 

_______________________________________

Wendy Thompson Taiwo is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at San José State University. Her writing has appeared in Typehouse, Mn Artists, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, Nokoko, and numerous anthologies. https://twitter.com/wendy_taiwo

Waken to Your Poem

The following is a guest post by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

As soon as I wake up, especially if I don’t set an alarm and just let myself rise when my sleep cycle naturally breaks, seeds of poems are waiting to be planted in my journal. I always choose a journal by its tactile quality. Velvet with lace, satin with ribbon, sometimes leatherette (don’t want to kill animals for my poems). I have far too many of these journals bowing my shelves, but I believe that my truest poems have come from what I’ve scrawled in them

Sometimes I write things I’ve glimpsed in dreams—coneflowers or hibiscus or a house with green shutters and tiny moons carved into the corners. Sometimes I can smell my mother’s Evening in Paris eau de toilette or the smoke from my father’s Lucky Strike. I have even awakened to the feel in my palm of Queenie’s oily, seal-like fur, a pet who has been dead for sixty years. I’ve tasted chocolate brownies, especially when I am on a diet.

One morning, I awoke to my husband’s voice, his breath, the genesis of my poem in Issue 20 of Typehouse, “Murmur,” which has a double meaning—his heart murmur and his murmuring. When I got over the shock that he wasn’t actually in our room, I wrote down what I heard him say, what I felt. And as the day progressed, I added reflections about the experience to the poem. 


“Murmur” means more to me over the last month. My husband had emergency open-heart surgery that left him so debilitated that he is in a nursing home. It is so hard for me to wake alone in our bedroom, but what helps me is to listen for him, and write.

_______________________________________

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Her essays have appeared in New York Times (Lives), Newsweek, and more. The Iowa Review, Permafrost, MacGuffin, and others have published her poems and short stories. Currently, she teaches writing at UCLA Extension. @rjshapiro  https://rochellejshapiro.com/

Learning to Delight in Form

Jessi Fuller Author Photo

The following is a guest post by Jessi Fuller Fields, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

Religiously homeschooled until college, I grew up a famished reader. Though I had a constant stream of books in hand, the content was often more instructive than literary. I consumed nearly every title on the shelves at home from courtship manuals and Creationism guides to decades-old encyclopedias and Atlas Shrugged. Whenever we went on our semi-regular trip to the public, I chose a Holocaust memoir or A Tale of Two Cities. I avoided short books and graphic novels, the YA section and magazines. In my head, I’d constructed a strict idea of which books merited my attention. Memoirs were always allowed, as were historical novels. Anything remotely contemporary was off the table, unless it was by a Christian author. These were not rules explicitly expressed by my parents, but I thought them best to avoid conflict.

As an English major in college, I began to read more broadly. For the first time, I had friends and faculty to recommend books. I began developing more defined preferences in what I read, no longer choosing something for its instructional merit, but for sound, imagery, and story. It was words, I decided, that made a text. Then Dr. Trakas, my contemporary literature professor, assigned Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Listening to the audiobook, I fell in love with the story, the interwoven narratives, and the precocity of the child narrator. I came to class with pages of notes, prepared to discuss heavy boots and the aftermath of global disasters. Instead, all my classmates could talk about was how the text appeared on the page, something that had never before seemed important to me (see figure 1)

Page from extremely loud and incredibly lose

A classmate lent me their physical copy of the book and I peered inside. What I saw flummoxed me. There were pictures. There was handwriting. There were empty pages and pages with text piled onto itself. Words were not all that made the book. It was a visual experience as well. The more I read, the more I noticed this visual aspect drawing me in. I had never considered literature a visual art. Though I had always presumed writers worried away at words and artists manipulated images, that no longer seemed true. There was meaning to be found in how a text appeared on the page and I found myself needing to pursue that artistry deeper. Five years after finishing undergrad, I completed an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetry, where I learned to delight in poet-artists like Rachel Zucker, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Claudia Rankine. From these women, I began to see poetry as an approach to writing which encompasses more than word choice. Their attention to the entire composition of their work shows us that all writers must consider their own work as a sensorial experience that focuses not only on the sound of words, but on the visual appearance as well. 

Figure 1.
From Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,
by Jonathan Safran Foer. 

_______________________________________

Jessi Fuller Fields is a queer writer and poet from the US South currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.  She completed an MFA at Queens University of Charlotte in June 2020.  Her work explores silence, traumas, and the things best left unsaid. Twitter: @jfullerfields Instagram: @jessi.fullerfields

How to Carve Out Writing Time as a Parent in a Pandemic

The following is a guest post by Laura Desiano, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

In December 2019, my second child was born, a daughter who spent nine days in the NICU while her lungs caught up with the rest of her chunky 9 lbs 4 ounces. Thinking back at what, at the time, was the most stressful in my life, I now know how fortunate we really were. I knew my daughter would come home with no lasting health issues. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic, an American reckoning over racial injustice, corrupt government at every level, there is no end in sight.

When the lockdown began, I was suddenly staring down the long barrel of life stuck inside with two small children. What’s worse, I was barely out of the fourth trimester, those early postpartum months when a mother is still very sleep-deprived and riding waves of emotions. How would I find the time and energy to keep up with what little writing I was already doing? The sad truth is, I stopped writing completely.

In fact, this essay is one of the first things I’ve written in months. And it was two weeks late. I’m not trying to be clever either. It’s hard to write as a parent, and it’s an almost impossible task while caring for two children around the clock. At first I tried to jot down a few lines here and there in random notebooks and the backs of envelopes, whatever was handy. But soon even that ended as the needs of my family outweighed my creative time. Daily life overflowed with cooking, entertaining my children, and never-ending piles of dirty laundry and dishes. 

I’m not the only parent-writer who is experiencing this either. After polling a Facebook group of female-identified writers with children, a majority of them have written little to nothing since the pandemic began. Some could not balance homeschooling with work. Some writers said they needed silence and space. Some just had no energy, and therefore little inspiration to even draft a poem, essay or story.

Not all hope is lost, though. Parents are nothing if not creative problem solvers. Some writers converted small space like large closets or second bathrooms into a room of their own. Others have tried a new genre, which lowers the stakes and allows for a more forgiving mindset. I have had much more success writing short romance stories versus poetry. Lowering the bar is also common: even if you just write one line a day on your phone’s notes app, you could have a poem in a week. My partner plans to rent an Airbnb near our very small apartment where I can be alone to rest and write once he goes back on paternity leave. With all the money we were saving in airfare this year, it is worth the investment. 

If the world needs anything right, it’s words. Writers are our truth tellers, our story weavers, our poetry creators. And if we truly value diverse voices, we must hear from parents. Our’s is an essential voice if we are to avoid similar tragedies in the future. We need writers to bear witness and help us heal, and without parents telling their stories, the literature stands to lose too damn much.

_______________________________________


Laura Desiano’s poems have been widely anthologized and published in journals such Tiny Spoon, Drunk Monkeys, Voicemail Poems, Pedestal, among others. Her chapbook Braiding the Storm was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012 (as Laura E Davis). A 2019 Best of the Net Nominee, Desiano is a freelance writer in San Francisco, where she lives with her partner, son, and two withering houseplants.

Revisit: Writing…

Douglas Cole Headshot

This week we are revisiting this guest post by Douglas Cole, whose short story “Villagers” appeared in Issue 12 of Typehouse. originally published on May 31, 2019 here.

_______________________________________

As a Typehouse contributor, I am proud to announce that Touchpoint Books is publishing my novel, The White Field, a fast-paced journey of a man, Tom, just out of prison and trying desperately to rebuild his life. I want to thank the editors at Typehouse for their support. Their publication is a significant part of this novel’s journey.

________________________________________

I just love the whole process of it. Beginning in emptiness. Wanting nothing. Recording brief flashes in the head, mixing that with some thing in my vicinity, flowing back and forth, slowing down, catching the wave of a memory or something completely imagined or dreamed that arrives like a movie projected into the mind.

Then I let it go. It is what it is. A moment. A snapshot of a moment. The Kaliope fluttering inwit carnival of thought.

And then slow down, go back and read it and in reading it see it again and ask myself, do I want to pursue this? Is there something here I want to work on? Do I have enough pieces? And if so, crawl back inside with new eyes and so add my upper thinking structures, reader-need, what might be called craft (say in fiction, think of plot, dialogue, description, that sort of thing filling out, but mostly stay organic and intuitive).

Some poems are a journey, and a record of a journey, like a scar, and can’t be altered. They may or may not be for others. They may be just for me.

And then, tinkering, as with a mechanical puzzle of word and language structures (especially with poetry, but certainly prose too) and sometimes pushing it as far as it can go to see what it opens, like a dart thrown into the black mystery of the void beyond seeing and hearing and remembering—and trying to connect back to the trance that brought it in the first place, honoring that and then ruthlessly changing it, cutting, reworking and adding to get to what I know, simply know, is right.

And not giving up. Unless I’m supposed to give up and start again.I suppose it resembles a kind of rebirth loaded with karmic weight and weight of self that I have to get around. But that’s all less than, just application—because the whole enterprise is bigger than that. Writing is hooking into the great creative dynamo. It’s freedom and transformation, practice for dying and what comes after. Maybe.

All I know is that it has been my golden thread, and without it, the world would have snuffed me out long ago.

_______________________________________

Douglas Cole writes, teaches and lives in Seattle, Washington. He has published six poetry collections, as well as a novella. His work has been anthologized in Best New Writing (Hopewell Publications), Bully Anthology (Kentucky Stories Press) and Coming Off The Line (Main Street Rag Publishing). His home is https://douglastcole.com/, and his new novel can be found at Amazon https://www.amazon.com/White-Field-Douglas-Cole/dp/1952816076/ and https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-white-field-douglas-cole/1137349249

Poem as Suitcase—What to Pack, What to Leave Behind

Rebecca Irene'

The following is a guest post by Rebecca Irene, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

After writing initial drafts in longhand, I’m ready to start typing a poem out on my computer. I begin in optimism—sit down at my desk, stare at some inspiring quotes on my corkboard. Encouraging and antagonistic alike (A word after a word after a word is power-Atwood/ The first draft of everything is shit-Hemingway), these mantras remind me to just begin, but dear reader, is there any despair deeper than a winking cursor and the looming void of a new file? Actually, yes, ok, plenty, but the stark white rectangle gets me every time. Numerous authors have shared about the terrors encountered along the way to a decent first draft. Not many promise that it gets any easier. For those of us who must write, we find ways to navigate the revision labyrinth. Since I frequently moved growing up, and still love to travel, sometimes it helps me to think of each poem as essential luggage for a particular journey.

Luggage: Form. Where does the poem want to go? Just as you wouldn’t pack a purse for a ten-day trip to the Arctic, you probably shouldn’t try to force a natural haiku into a crown of sonnets. Choose an appropriate bag (form) for possibility & intention of the specific poem. Denise Levertov reminds— form is never more than a revelation of content. The initial form may eventually change during the revision process, but at least you have gotten started! When choosing syntax/enjambment, ask what kind of movement the lines might take for their particular voyage. I often think of villanelles and sestinas as steamer trunks, apologias tend to be old leather suitcases, sonnets—vintage hat boxes. My free verse regularly gets stuffed into backpacks, and canvas duffels tend to carry odes about my obsessions: cicadas, cattails, and moths.

Clothing: Tone. What kind of tone (apparel) is appropriate for the poem? Just as you wouldn’t advise a friend to wear a bathing suit to their child’s preschool meet and greet, you probably shouldn’t include clipped accusations when writing a love poem. For example, if my poem is a sonnet, I play with musicality (silk scarves) and varied rhymes (hats of assorted color & shape). Have fun thinking of each line as a favorite pair of blue jeans or velvet dress, linen tunic or wool shirt. Sometimes, I even imagine every stanza as an outfit. Do the lines (pieces of clothing) all work together? (There should be some surprise here. I once knew a woman who wore the same outfit for six months, and I have written drafts that remind me of her.) Once the poem’s tone is exciting & authentic, experiment with mood and texture.

It’s true—I can get carried away with this process. (I’ll spare you a diatribe about Accessories: Punctuation until another time.) However, I like to believe that every poem that eventually resonates with a reader remains with them on their life’s journey. You know, like a piece of luggage carefully checked and shelved, permanently stored in the astonishing baggage-claim of the mind. Who knows what circumstance or conversation will be a catalyst to retrieve the contents, only that they will be needed for the voyage ahead.

_______________________________________

Rebecca Irene’s poems are published or forthcoming in RHINO, Carve Magazine, Juked, Atlanta Review, Pidgeonholes, and elsewhere. She was recently named the 2020 Monson Arts: MWPA Poetry Fellow, and has received residencies from Norton Island, SAFTA, and Hewnoaks. Poetry Editor for The Maine Review, Rebecca holds an MFA from VCFA, and lives in Portland, Maine, where she supports her word-addiction by waitressing. Find her tweeting @cicadacomplex.

Revisit: How Poetry Can Matter to a First-Year Composition Student

Olga Dugan

This week we are revisiting this guest post by Olga Dugan, PhD, whose poetry appeared in Issue 12 of Typehouse, originally published on May 24, 2019 here.

_______________________________________

To be truly educated is to resist the easy certainties of deeply ingrained and unexamined ideologies of soundbites and clichés in favor of an ongoing pursuit of knowledge, of truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.

–Natasha Trethewey1

Shot and left to die on a lonely city street in the twilight hours of a Sunday morning. No witnesses. No leads. An instant cold case. “She didn’t know,” some students whispered as I absorbed their version of events. But I wiped away tears to teach because I believed that the value of my student’s life more than her death made painstakingly clear how poetry could matter to my first-year composition students. A week prior to her untimely demise, Jess M., a newly-minted thirty-year old, described an experience that clarified for me what Natasha Trethewey’s work continues to do for students learning to write. In mixing the generic traditions of poetry and history, Trethewey creates poems of cultural consciousness that prompt student writers to explore the historical roots of their own voices and where their voices can take them in their writing. Presenting the public nature of very private ideas, unexamined notions, and lived-experiences, conveying how we are more similar than different, her poems challenge beginning writers to think about themselves as historical beings, and to write from sources of knowledge that include their individual and collective memories. For Jess M. in particular, the study of historical representation in Trethewey’s poetry led to writing in which she recognized her own voice as reader and storyteller of a fuller version of American history that Trethewey aptly insists we all share.

During an office visit, Jess M.’s questions about an upcoming paper gradually intensified to thoughts on what it means to do this thing called ‘living’ and do it well. Our composition class was discussing this topical question raised in Trethewey’s second book of poetry, Bellocq’s Ophelia, the main character of which undergoes a journey of psychological exile that resonated all too well with my student. She admitted to dreading the essay assignment because the book required her to write out of a personal history from which she felt exiled. Jess offered no reasons for her sense of loss about where she came from, where she belonged. Acknowledgement alone, however, betrayed her understanding and fear of the interdependence of cultural identity and historical memory pervading Trethewey’s poems; the same that exhorts readers to participate in what the poet presents as an ongoing exchange and honest, inclusive remembrance of the past. And given her recognition of this call to active reading and the writing it induces, no wonder the continued heft of my student’s last words to me.

While regretting that she lacked the character’s courage, Jess M. praised Trethewey’s Ophelia for this very act, seeing as hopeful and plausible Ophelia’s final moment of aggregation in which she looks back, sees where she’s been, where she is, then walks away from Storyville and prostitution. My student equated this act with walking away from the marginal places where social, political, cultural, and historical forces greater than ourselves can thrust us, and into a new life, albeit, a life unplanned and uncharted. She ended with a promise to write, ‘not a great paper, but at least one in search of truth.’ Trethewey’s poetry had invited my student to consider what in its historical representation could teach her to remember and examine about her own “presence” and cultural work in the world. Seven years later, her presence is remembered, and the work Jess M. did during that office visit continues to inspire student writers in their own efforts to live and do it well.

1Natasha Trethewey, “Commencement Address by Natasha Trethewey, 19th Poet Laureate of the United States: June 07, 2014,” Knox College (web), https://www.knox.edu/news/news-archive/knox-college-commencement-2014/commencement-speaker-natasha-trethewey.

_______________________________________

Olga Dugan is a Philadelphia-based Cave Canem poet. Nominated for a 2018 Best of the Net and 2019 Pushcart Prize, her poems appear in several journals including Typehouse Literary Magazine, Virga Poetry, The Sunlight Press, E-Verse Radio, The Peacock Journal, Origins, Kweli, The Southern Quarterly, Tipton Poetry Journal, Pirene’s Fountain, and Scribble. Olga’s articles on the work of U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey (2012-2014) appear in The North Star, the Journal of African American History and in Emory University’s “Meet the Fellows.”

Creating and Placing A Photo Essay

Jim Ross Thumbnail

The following is a guest post by Jim Ross, whose visual art appeared in issue 19 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

I came late to writing nonfiction and doing photography with intent to publish. I quickly realized, I wanted to tell stories combining my words and photos. I’ve had more success submitting nonfiction pieces with embedded photos—a handful or a bunch—than with calling them photo essays. Shooting photos, selecting and organizing, researching, writing text, and publishing has typically taken years.

Seeing a homeless (current preferred term: houseless) man with dog on a bridge in Paris, I snapped his picture. In the next few years, I took many more in America and throughout Europe, especially France. I talked with dogs and humans. A friend in Paris explained that having a dog protected the homeless from arrest because police don’t want the obligation of housing the dog in a “dog hotel.” She also said many vets provide free services to dogs of the houseless. I talked with a researcher from IFAW about her project focused on homeless youth who had dogs. I talked with the program the director of the American Pets of the Homeless about efforts to provide food and vet services. I reviewed research on the houseless human/dog relationship.

Meantime, I kept taking photos and began writing. I tied in my own experience hiking in the Midi-Pyrenees and having a German shepherd tag along for eleven hours, during which she saved me from a charging cow and I later saved her life too. The text showed how having a dog created a bridge between the houseless and housed passersby, who first begin petting the dog, then talk with the homeless person, and come to see them as caring humans. The dog also keeps the houseless human on the straight and narrow. Balancing photos by gender and country, I made only glancing references to particular images, except for one black male carrying a sign, “Homeless broke nomadic folk.” He said, “I’m done with the United States. I think I’ll try Russia next.” I asked, “Have you been to Canada yet?” He asked, “Do they have farms?”

Over 12 months, I ended up negotiating with three different print journals. I gave them all a 2,500 word text with 15 photos. They all embraced the text without changes. The first two were willing to publish only four or five black-and-white photos. Kestrel finally agreed to publish nine full-color images as “Street Dogs and Their Human Companions.”

Recently, I decided to do a photo essay about walking The Way of Saint James in France. I selected 47 photos, outlined the text in ten sections—such as getting lost, lodging, food, water, companionship. I narrowed the photos down to 23. Then, I wrote a 4,500 word text and, with help from friends, arrived at the final 12. New World Writing accepted it overnight and published it three hours later as, “Escaping into Pilgrimage.”

When I’m out, my camera is always with me. I often begin taking lots of photos of similar subjects. Eventually I realize, I’m working on another photo essay.

_______________________________________

Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after leaving public health research. He’s since published nonfiction, poetry, and photography in over 140 journals and anthologies in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Publications include Columbia Journal, Ilanot Review, Lunch Ticket, The Atlantic, The Manchester Review, and Typehouse. Recent photo essays include Barren, Kestrel, Litro, New World Writing, So It Goes, and Wordpeace. A nonfiction piece led to a role in a high-profile documentary limited series to be broadcast over U.S. and international networks. Jim and his wife—parents of two health professionals and grandparents of five preschoolers—split their time between city and mountains.  

  

Using Mentor Texts to Generate Prompts

The following is a guest post by Suzanne Farrell Smith, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

I often get BPS (Blank Page Syndrome), for which I’ve sought prompt treatment: sentence starters, random objects, storytelling cards, dream journaling, and more. Sometimes they work and crack me open. Sometimes they don’t, and after a paragraph I abandon the idea.

Recently, I’ve started teaching Read Like a Writer workshops, one in memoir and the other in personal essay. I want my students to be genre insiders and understand what characterizes creative nonfiction, where memoir and personal essay fit in, and the signs of a successful piece. We read one or two exemplar essays each week, organized by theme, and discuss them in depth.

At first, I collected prompts that matched the weekly theme: Where do you like to go in nature? Describe a significant experience you’ve had in nature. When I tried them myself, I kept abandoning them. The prompts, quite simply, bored me. 

At some point, it hit me—the prompts should grow from the reading. The text should be a mentor text for more than just reading and discussion. The essayist should say to my students, through me, See what I did here? This technique, this transition, this turn of phrase? Now you try.

For our week on nature and science, we read, among others, Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels.” The essay begins, “A weasel is wild.” Dillard follows with evidence to show the weasel’s wildness (e.g., “He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose.”). She reveals how the weasel is “obedient to instinct.” She positions the weasel, right there in the suburbs, as a wild and enviable thing. 

From Dillard’s essay, I created a layered prompt:

  1. List wild things you can observe closely. An animal that frequents your yard? A bug you regularly find in your home? A virus sneaking down your throat? Your imagination? Anxiety? An untamed garden or lawn? Poison ivy? Weeds? A child?
  2. Choose one and, as Dillard does, list what makes it wild. Think of Dillard’s verbs: drag, bite, split, crunch, stalk, kill, eat.
  3. Now consider Dillard’s attention to instinct. In what ways does your wild thing follow instinct rather than rationale?
  4. How does this wild thing bump against the made world? Say, an overgrown lawn submitted to the mower or vaccine-induced antibodies on the attack.
  5. Dillard shares insights about what we can learn from a wild animal like a weasel, how we might clear our minds and act out of need alone. You may not find such insights yet. But you can start to mine for them. For example, what about this wild thing makes you envious? Do you wish to coil around an oak until you, unfettered ivy, have smothered the tree to reach the sky?


General prompts are easy to find. Mentor-text prompts require more effort: select a piece; read close; choose resonant ideas; layer them as cues. Having done this for fifteen essays so far, I can say that the work is worth it. 

Last week, alongside Annie Dillard, one student investigated a deer tick, another pondered her child’s thick hair, and I examined the horsefly that bit my son, drew blood and tears, and transformed me, for a moment, into a wild thing.

_______________________________________

Suzanne Farrell Smith lives in Connecticut with her husband and three sons. She has authored two books, The Memory Sessions and The Writing Shop. She is widely published, has been named Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart for “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” published in Brevity and soon to be republished in The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press). Suzanne teaches creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshopsuzannefarrellsmith.com

  

Trying On Another Voice: Translation as Writing Practice

Susanna Lang

The following is a guest post by Susanna Lang, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

I first translated French poetry into English as a very young woman working with an older poet. He suggested that we co-translate a poem by René Depestre, a Haitian writer, to give me access to a deeply political language. While I had grown up in a political family, there was a high wall between my writing and my activism. I don’t remember how I started to translate Yves Bonnefoy, one of the greatest French poets of the twentieth century and much closer to surrealism, mythology and visual arts than to politics. My mentor had hoped I would follow in his footsteps as a poet of witness and eventually I did begin to write poems that engaged the world. Meanwhile, translating and then publishing Pierre écrite/Words in Stone was an important experience for me during my college years. I had not yet found a voice of my own, and Yves’ meditative, lyrical evocation of the mysteries of the world did help to shape the poet I was then, as my mentor feared. 

I returned to translation when I shifted from full-time to part-time teaching, and was surprised to find my days very solitary. I needed the stimulus of other voices. I discovered Nohad Salameh in an anthology of French women poets, and was later able to meet her in person and visit French bookstores well-stocked with contemporary poetry. At the Librairie Massena in Nice, the bookseller immediately began pulling books off the shelf, talking about each as if it were a friend. There I found Brouillons amoureux by Souad Labbize, which I have translated as Drafts of Love.

The two poets could not be more different, though both grew up in countries where the culture is both Arabic and French, and both now live and publish in France. Nohad was born in Lebanon and worked as a journalist during the civil war. Her poems are lyrical and allusive, her literary roots in surrealism; I’m sure her poems reminded me of my apprenticeship with Yves Bonnefoy. Souad Labbize, much younger, was born in Algeria. Her poems are dense, brief, focused on feminism and other liberation movements, so more like my poems of witness. Both poets enrich my work, though now that I am comfortable in my own poetic voice, you won’t hear their poems in mine as you could have heard Yves in my earlier writing. It’s more like a way to keep myself flexible as my walking practice keeps my body flexible. When I read the translations aloud to hear whether the metaphor and the music are as strong in English as in French, I exercise muscles that I haven’t yet used in my own poems, and think about questions that I haven’t yet considered. This ongoing apprenticeship gets me through the long days when I don’t have an idea of my own to work with. On those fortunate days when the poems come more easily, translation sends me back into my own writing with new tools to use.

_______________________________________

Susanna Lang’s third collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her chapbook, Self-Portraits is forthcoming from Blue Lyra Press in October 2020. A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as Prairie Schooner, december, New Poetry in Translation, The Literary Review, American Life in Poetry and The Slowdown. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, and she is now working with Nohad Salameh and Souad Labbize to translate their poems. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com and @SusannaLang16