MAY 13, 2013
THE POETRY CONTEST CONTINUES TO BE one of the few opportunities for early-career poets to publish their first books. This avenue doesn’t come without serious challenges to young writers, like the suspicion that such contests are money-making schemes, or, even more egregious, fixed. Plus, there’s the issue of the cost of contest fees, which can become an unwelcome expense to young writers. There have also been some disappointing developments, like when the contest judge deems no manuscript worthy of publication, most notably, W.S. Merwin judging the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1997, and Clarence Major judging the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2007. And then there is the question of the lack of diversity — aesthetic, ethnic, and otherwise — that may discourage some poets from submitting their manuscripts for consideration.
Nonetheless, the poetry contest keeps flourishing, especially with those contests that seek to remedy the lack of diversity issue. Two of the three prize-winning first books featured here are the result of contests that are relatively new. All three prize series are designed to identify what Carolina Wren Press states most specifically in its mission statement: “[Q]uality writing, especially by writers historically neglected by mainstream publishing.” And so Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines, and L. Lamar Wilson’s Sacrilegion take their first steps onto the literary landscape, anointed as award-winning titles and as antidotes to the underrepresentation of minority poets.
The Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, steered by Letras Latinas, an initiative of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, states in its mission statement that it “supports the work of emerging Latino/a poets.” This biannual award now in its fifth cycle asks a notable Latino poet to select an emerging Latino poet, who is not to privilege any particular style, subject matter, or aesthetic. Recognizing diversity within its ethnic literary landscape, the mission statement further asserts: “While not losing sight of the traditions and conditions that gave rise to that literary expression, the Prize has as its goal to nurture the various paths that Latino poetry is taking in the 21st Century.”
One of those paths, tread by Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, is the reconfiguring of the mother image, and by extension, the female body. “Birth Day,” the closing poem, offers the following lines, which help summarize the hard-edged sentiment of her book: “our mother-bodies protect themselves: / minerals and poems and love: stone.” Though the poem speaks specifically to the case of a woman who was “pregnant” for 59 years with a “child-tumor,” it becomes an apt conclusion to a series of startling portraits about the plights of womanhood, particularly mothering. To challenge the maternal archetype, Guerrero introduces the reader to Valerie Lopez, the young mother who stashed away the bodies of her toddlers until their decomposition led to their discovery (“Babies Under the House”), and Otty Sanchez, who killed and cannibalized her three-week-old baby (“Stones”). Though society and the media make aberrations of these women, Guerrero resists the urge to push back; instead, she removes these stories from their hair-raising headlines and presents them as episodes in an ancient narrative that continues to cycle through history — the tale of La Llorona.
In Mexican lore, La Llorona’s origins are traced back to the arrival of Hernán Cortés, whose relationship with Malinalli, or La Malinche, resulted in the birth of the first mestizos. Over the centuries, La Malinche’s role as a cohort and interpreter for the Spanish Conquistadors has led to her depiction either as a traitor to the Aztecs or as a woman driven by intelligence and a will to survive. Guerrero is more intrigued by La Malinche’s transformation into La Llorona when, in some legends, she murders her children rather than giving them up to her lover. As a figure who instills fear to errant children, La Llorona looms heavily in the dark corners of A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, as a reminder of the female’s creative and destructive powers. When the young girls in “Esperanza Tells Her Friends the Story of La Llorona” can’t reconcile the many versions of the tale, they simply conclude: “Maybe she cloned herself and there’re lots of Lloronas. Maybe someone you know, Patty. Maybe your mother.” The unsettling proposition echoes loudly two pages later when the poem “Stray Cat” describes the nurturing acts of a feline with her litter of two. After grooming them, another instinct kicks in: “She ate one. / Then, she ate the other.”
Though there are instances in which the mother figure is complying with her nurturer/protector role, these moments are still tinged with imagery that is very Plath-like in its grave shifts. In the poem “Turnips,” the speaker recounts her surprise at how fast the vegetables sprout: “They grew quick. Overnight. I swear their limey-green arms welcomed us home from school the very next day. Then mama cut them, souped them. And we ate.” And in the poem “When I Made Eggs This Morning,” the speaker/mother feeds her children, triggering the memory of a murder-suicide committed by a man who crowed “like a mad man”: “We ate. / I thought of you, / Roosterman: / the squawking birdmother / you shot by frying pan.” Safety is precarious.
The domestic space, particularly the kitchen, as a location (or site) of potential danger manifests itself through nightmares (“a steak knife fiddled against the sinew of my gut”), through the depiction of kitchen items as omens (like the little Mexican pot with a “wide, red mouth that doesn’t shut completely”), or through dark humor, such as in the poem “The Alchemy of Mothering,” which spins an arresting and unrelenting allegory:
The pot boils gunmetal blue.
I hang my babies like shanks of meat,
smallest to largest. My butcher-
white apron smeared with child
mucus. A swab of sugar under the tongue
keeps their small bodies from coiling
like earthworms. The toes go first.
All of these poems seem to gesture back to an earlier poem in the book, in which Plath is invoked via an epigraph. Titled “A Meal for the Tribe,” the poem asserts the mother as the only provider of nourishment, a role that is comforting but also threatening since she can just as easily withhold that nourishment: “There is no eating without feeding, my mother / always said. The hunger is numbing.”
Interspersed in the collection is a nine-section series titled “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic,” that envisions La Malinche reclaiming her voice and agency in the legacy of the mestizo people, or, more accurately, of a matrilineal consciousness: “Fight is the birthright of my daughters, too.” A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying is populated by these daughters, women who defy and trouble long-held assumptions about, and expectations of, motherhood and maternal behavior: here, mothers take lovers, make war, cause damage — “make carnage of [their] own mouth[s].” And they also write daring poems that break with polite and romanticized representations of femininity, situating the woman as the source of her own volition, a daunting force to be reckoned with.
Kundiman, an Asian-American poetry organization founded a decade ago, established in 2009 a poetry prize committed to “publishing exceptional work by Asian American poets.” Unlike many of the aforementioned book awards, there is no sole judge. Rather the award is “judged by consensus of the members of Kundiman’s Artistic Staff and the Alice James Books Editorial Board.” This year, the committee released the winner of its 2011 poetry contest: Matther Olzmann’s Mezzanines.
Mezzanines takes its title from the name, in architecture, given to the intermediate level between two main levels of a building. Not considered an actual floor, it is not counted among the building’s overall floors. As a metaphor for being multiracial, inhabiting the space between two cultures, languages, and homelands, the word only comes up once, in the poem “The Melting Pot in Housewares Has a Slight Crack”: “I’m one-half something […] One part mestizo. One part mezzanine.” But so is his brother, whose features are dramatically different. The household, then, becomes likened to a department store, in which visitors insist on identifying components as demarcated categories, challenging the family unit’s melting pot:
Here. In the theater of household
appliances, people see my brother and I and ask
which one is not like the others? Which floor
is Electronics? Which floor is Hardware?
Olzmann doesn’t make mixed-race identity politics the center of this collection, though he does engage the subject in at least two other pieces. In “Spock as a Metaphor for the Construction of Race in My Childhood,” the speaker reveals that his father is German, his mother Filipino, yet he felt “like all the other kids” until his best friend declared that he was not, which made the speaker feel suddenly “half-alien.” And in the poem “Years Later, I Introduce My Brother to Person X, and Am Asked If I was Adopted,” Olzmann returns to the topic of contrasting features in children of the same multiracial couple, what the speaker refers to as “the mysteries of DNA, a country / whose citizens are always confused.” The speaker further asserts:
I too am a country whose citizens
contradict each other.
I’m a hybrid of competing designs.
I’ve got questions that blur
like metal on an autobahn
and others that drift
like pieces of an archipelago.
These three notable moments serve to situate Olzmann within one of the many conversations that shape Asian-American letters — the struggle of identity formation for a person of mixed ancestry. But the topic is by now familiar territory, which is why Olamann is astute in not explicitly referencing it in other poems. And the few times he does write about it, he does so with the inventive treatment discussed above.
The title’s trope, the mezzanine, also applies to the rest of the work in the book, a distinctive feature of Olzmann’s poetry — the leaps in scale and scope. The clearest example of these leaps appear in “Notes Regarding Happiness,” in which the speaker apologizes for inadvertently posting multiple messages on a Facebook page. But the sentiment in that apology quickly radiates outward, reaching across the globe and into outer space:
[…] I’m bad at computers
the way continents are bad at crossing oceans
to touch the other continents, or the way planets
are bad at breaking their orbits and setting off
on their own.
The speaker’s breathless and exhaustive examination of a simple technical error allows him to cover plenty of ground in the poem, from sharks to funerals to hate speech, and to make one more riff and leap with things that fail (computers, engines, God) before he logs off. But the “mezzanine” in question is the level that sits between the terrestrial and the celestial, between the experience of the ordinary and the possibility of transcendence — an impulse fueled by the speaker’s imagination.
A cursory look at the titles gives an early indication of this direction: “NASA Video Transmission Picked Up By Baby Monitor,” “Hello Earth,” “While Scratching My Wife’s Back, I Calculate the Distance Between Sky and Earth,” “The Size of the Earth and That Which It Contains.” Olzmann connects the “small” earthly tangibles to the grand elements as a way to articulate perspective, insight, and sometimes epiphany. In the poem “93,000,000 Miles from the Sun,” for example, the speaker discusses the chances of survival after a heart attack each minute CPR is not administered: “Light passes from the center of the solar system / to your garden and if your heart isn’t beating in that time, / you’ve got less than a twenty percent chance of feeling the sun / against your face again.” Though this is a poem about the serious subject of mortality, the inclusion of the solar system, a force that’s just as awesome and as mysterious as death, announces that there’s always a bigger picture — a larger room — in which to consider meaning and significance.
In another example, the poem “Gas Station on Second Street, Detroit” details the encounter between the speaker and a religious zealot who startles him at the pump. As the speaker inches away from the man’s frightening doomsday rantings, he considers the following:
And a hundred feet above, a horned owl flies south.
To the owl, your circling looks like beginning
of a fight, or two small figures about to dance
the way people have always danced
when the world grows dark and they think they understand.
There’s something inherently spiritual about Olzmann’s “mezzanines” and in his effort to create a space that thrives as a bridge between the earthly and heavenly. It’s a place of reflection and contemplation, a temporary reprieve from the world’s chaos and a reach for a vision of paradise.
The list on the Carolina Wren Poetry Series demonstrates a clear commitment to this mission, selecting works by poets from diverse communities including women, ethnic minority, and LGBT authors. L. Lamar Wilson’s Sacrilegion is shaped by a black gay identity. Its literary ancestors are the courageous and ground-breaking writings of such poets as Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, Craig Harris, Marlon Riggs, Donald Woods, and others who gave visibility to the black male body and language to same-sex desire during a critical period in American history when such a commitment was a particularly political act. That the effort continues in 2013 speaks to the importance of this lineage in keeping open a viable avenue for expression. Though times change, there’s still an artistic impulse to give meaning to the black gay experience.
Wilson’s contribution begins with poems that cover a part of the journey when every gay man becomes aware of his difference and its dangers: school bullying because he plays games for girls in “Woe Unto Sons,” the unsettling recognition of the self in the body of another gay relative in “Family Reunion, 1993,” the innocent homoerotic fantasies that become not-so-inconsequential in the era of AIDS in “It Could Happen to Anyone: A Letter to the Boy.” But it’s with the poem “Resurrection Sunday” that Wilson’s voice and skill reaches an extraordinary pitch.
“Resurrection Sunday” weaves two visual encounters that shape the speaker’s understanding of himself as a black gay body: one is a homoerotic film in which a white director is instructing a black male to perform auto-fellatio; the other is a photograph in the book The Anatomy of a Lynching, in which victim Claude Neal (accused of raping and killing a white woman in 1934) is shown hanging from a noose, his murder made more vulgar because first he’s castrated as part of the public spectacle. In both images, “A man holds his penis in his mouth.” The poem navigates between the two obscenities — one a sexual exploitation, the other a desecration, both acts of racism. In that journey back and forth, the speaker must locate himself as an object of desire, informed by his Otherness, and claim the subjectivity of his black male identity, which is eroticized and feared by the white gaze. In other words, he must mature into a sexual being aware of the the temptation and threat of his masculinity:
[…] I am not that boy
anymore. I am not afraid to say
I am a man, searching for a man
whose flesh will rise, only for me,
without force, without fear. Come,
lie with me & be redeemed. See
my yoke, this flesh, broken
for you? Find here
a different kind of holy, a sacrilegion,
a sacrament for our santifunked
souls. Dark & darker. Still.
As a stunning turning point, “Resurrection Sunday” sets a tone that endures through the end of the book, even as Wilson shifts directions occasionally into the portraits and praises of the lives of women such as Henrietta Lacks, Lucille Clifton, and the important women in his life: his mother, grandmother MaMary, and MaMary’s sister, Tudda. The mother becomes particularly essential to the speaker’s identity formation. Refreshingly, the story of the relationship highlights acceptance and support, which makes the mother’s cancer all the more tragic: “You didn’t turn me away when I said His name is Johnnie / & I love him, & you never said Brown boys can’t be sissies, baby, / though I wish you had, since now a lump the size of the head / of a tack may take away the only one who hasn’t recoiled / at what comes naturally to me.”
Wilson claims an important political/social responsibility and does it well: to write about the black gay male experience conscious of his time. He notes gay marriage (“where I’m from, / I couldn’t marry who I want anyway”), gays in the military in the poem “Dear Uncle Sam” (“He’s not your type. / He kisses men with eyes / open, talks with them / shaded and averted to acquiescent asses.”), and the slowly changing social attitudes reflected in the family, as in the poem “Dreamboys,” in which the speaker observes his brother, “the man who was the boy who made Faggot! / a reason not to flinch,” sit through his son’s campy imitation of the catty scenes in the movie Dreamgirls: “he offers me / the only penance he can: a sheepish grin.” There’s also an interesting response in “Ars Poetica: Nov. 7, 2008,” to President Obama’s commentary on his identity, “mutts like me”:
I am the what-are-you.
I am the brown, the red, the white, the sometimes blue.
I got some Indian in my blood.
I got some cracker, too.
Where I’m from, a cracker is a badge
men wear like nigga in some ’hoods.
I am neither & both simultaneously.
While Wilson comes back to underscore the significance of his multi-layered ancestry in the book’s coda (“beware the mutts / you find there. We can pack a mean bite.”), it’s actually the poem “Ratiocination” that brings the book’s sensibilities to a satisfying close. As a love poem, it echoes the empowering act of declaring such intimacy and affection — brother loving brother — expressed in such classic texts as In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology:
You are soil, like me. Roiled
& sullen, like me. Together,
we cannot bear fruit. O lover,
in this full moon light, teach me how
to hide inside the embrace
of three-quarter you,
you, full of me.
All three first books resonate with the phrasing in Letras Latinas’s mission statement: “While not losing sight of the traditions and conditions that gave rise to that literary expression, the Prize has as its goal to nurture the various paths that Latino [and Asian American and African American and LGBT] poetry is taking in the 21st Century.” Each book stands on its individual strengths and merits, but each is also sustained by connections to the other titles in the series, a lineage that gives readers context, perspective, and orientation.
Carolina Wren Press’s stress of the word “quality,” Letras Latinas’s affirmation that it will “nurture the various paths” of Latino poetry, and Kundiman’s selection by committee, are efforts to secure the best work from specific communities, that is, to make sure that the smaller competition pool and precisely-defined guidelines attract manuscripts of literary merit. The future success of these processes, however, will become evident in the critical reception of their award-winning books. The reputation of the poetry series is shaped by its selections, either by a single break-out volume or by its history of titles. The series discussed here are quite young compared to some of the most prestigious publication awards (the Yale Series, the Cave Canem Prize, and the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, to name a few), but if the spring 2013 publication list is any indication of their progress, all three series are moving in the right direction.
Rigoberto González is the author of 13 books and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He’s on the executive board of the National Book Critics Circle and is currently associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. He lives in New York City.